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George Blanda
July 19, 1971
The world's oldest quarterback was the dramatic hero of the 1970 pro season and the idol of the aging. In this first of a three-part series he tells of his competitive youth, his rise to oblivion (i.e., quarterbacking the Chicago Bears) and his premature retirement 13 years ago—a mistake he will never willingly repeat
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July 19, 1971

I Keep Getting My Kicks

The world's oldest quarterback was the dramatic hero of the 1970 pro season and the idol of the aging. In this first of a three-part series he tells of his competitive youth, his rise to oblivion (i.e., quarterbacking the Chicago Bears) and his premature retirement 13 years ago—a mistake he will never willingly repeat

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Personally, I think it's a shame, all the star football players who retired in the prime of life. Lou Groza, washed up at 43. Ben Agajanian, prematurely retired at 45. Y. A. Tittle, gone when he was 38 and Bob Waterfield at 33. Norm Van Brocklin hung them up at 35 as did Otto Graham, the finest quarterback I've ever seen. Why, that's a tragedy. Does anybody really think Otto Graham couldn't have played six or eight more seasons? Of course he could. Even now, at 49, Otto handles himself better than most of the young bucks right out of college. But like all the others, he fell victim to one of pro football's many unreasoning prejudices: that you're no longer capable of playing when you reach 30 or 35. Baloney!

Last season I was 43 years old, and I went through the most exciting year any football player ever enjoyed, and I don't mean only as a field-goal kicker tiptoeing out there to try for three and then running for the sidelines. I mean as a complete football player, doing the whole job week after week.

After last year people came up to me and said, "George, how do you do it? What's your secret?" Word got out that I had a special diet, that I didn't drink or smoke. One "insider" said that I was taking hormones, and that was why I was able to play so many games at my ripe old age. Well, there is no secret. My special diet consists of the same things I've been eating ever since I grew up: steak and potatoes and green vegetables. I smoke and I drink. The worst five years of my 21 as a pro were the five when I didn't smoke at all. Now I've gone back to cigarettes, a pack or two a day, although I don't inhale them. As for alcohol, I enjoy bourbon—it's part of my University of Kentucky background—but I don't guzzle it down like water. I sip it, and I limit myself to two or three drinks. You may see old George Blanda acting stupid, but you won't see him acting drunk!

There's never any simple explanation for anything in sports, least of all for my good times last year at 43. It's all part of a package. I'm a product of a million different forces, starting in the crib in Youngwood in the coal country of western Pennsylvania. One of the main forces on me were my six brothers, all of them terrific athletes. My brother Tom was a quarterback for Army; he still holds a West Point record. My brother Paul was a linebacker and kicker at Pitt, and he would have starred for the New York Giants, too, except that he tore up his knee. And around Youngwood there are people who'll tell you that some of my other brothers, the ones who didn't go to college, were even better than the rest of us. To this day, I'm known as the fourth-best kicker in the Blanda family and the third best quarterback.

Competition is what drives me, and I think those six brothers of mine kept the pressure on all through childhood and helped to make me as competitive as I am today. How competitive is that? Well, I hate to lose. I can't stand to lose. One night before a league game last year my roommate Mike Eischeid and I were playing cribbage and he got $2 ahead, and I made him play game after game so I could get even. "Listen, George," he said, "I'll just let you win. We've got to get some sleep."

I got mad as heck. "If you let me win I'll know you're doing it, and I'll keep you here till eight in the morning," I said. "Now deal the cards." At 3 a.m. I pulled even, and I said, "O.K., Mike, that's it. We're square. Come on, we've got to get some sleep."

As a training ground for competitiveness, you couldn't beat Youngwood. We had people subdivided into more nationalities, classes, religions and types than any sociologist ever imagined, and every group competed with every other group. Why, there are people in Young-wood right this minute who look down on me because I'm of Slovak descent, and I guess if I was perfectly honest I'd have to admit that there are certain groups that still bug me. That's the way I was brought up.

Yes, we knew about competition, and we knew about work. All my dad ever did was work, work, work. He'd come home grimy and black and exhausted from 10 hours half a mile down in the earth, mining coal, and he would always tell us, in that broken English of his, "Nobody else in family sets foot in those mines, you hear me. Nobody else. Only me." And he made it stick. From my oldest brother Pete, now the Western manager of the Kewanee Oil Company, to my youngest brother Tom, a mathematics instructor at West Point, not one of us has ever seen the inside of a coal mine. My father was a hard man, a good drinker, a ruthless disciplinarian, but I will always respect him for keeping us out of the mines.

That doesn't mean we didn't work. Oh, how we worked! Almost every one of us starred on the various Youngwood high school teams—track, football, basketball—but the chores always had to come first. Times were tough; there were even some months when we were on relief, and I'll never forget the awful taste of that grapefruit juice and mutton and soup that they used to give us. We picked trash. We set up bowling pins for 3� a line. We trapped muskrat and sold the pelts. We'd pick coal from the railroad yards. Anything to make a few pennies. Anything to save money. My dad did odd jobs. Can you imagine? Ten hours a day down in the pits, and then he comes home and does odd jobs for the neighbors. No wonder he enjoyed his "Bohemian martini"—a beer, a shot of whiskey and a mushroom—over the weekend. He would cut the neighbors' grass, paint their houses, mend broken furniture. He used to trim our hair. He cobbled our shoes. My mom made all our rugs and most of our clothes. We all wore hand-me-downs. I didn't have anything new till I was 13 years old, and I never owned a suit till I went to college. All seven of us boys slept together in a dormitory in the attic of our old frame house. A toastmaster said about me a few years ago, "Blanda never slept alone till he got married," and he's absolutely right. It was good training for pro football, let me tell you.

So it was a miserable life, right? Wrong! If we were miserable, we never knew it. We thought we were happy. A kid in Youngwood with a rock to kick or a tire to roll or a pair of tin cans on his shoes so he could clatter around town and annoy the other nationalities—why, he was a lucky kid. We swam bare, we arm wrestled, we kicked the can, we raced and played cards and pitched pennies and shot pool and threw rocks and played hockey with sawed-off tree branches. We competed till we were ready to fall down, and we didn't get into trouble because we were too exhausted. Besides, in the Depression years in Youngwood, Pa. there was nothing to steal.

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