Blanda Ate My Homework
Dear Miss Christopher:
you know, I have never turned in an assignment late. So it is with great regret
that I report to you that I do not have my homework completed, at this time.
While I know that you never, ever accept late papers, the reason I have not
completed my essay is not due to laziness or some other lame excuse that you
have undoubtedly heard before, like “I was sleeping outside in the backyard and
a gust of wind blew my paper into a tree where a bluejay ate it.”
Perhaps I should say that I do have an essay but it is not in the form you
expected. The reason for this is simple: It’s due to George Blanda, the backup
quarterback for the Oakland Raiders.
I was quite prepared to
discuss, as you requested, how Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea
speaks to our society’s attitudes about aging and death. Sunday was the day I
had set aside to write my paper on Hemingway. I was flipping through the book,
taking additional notes, with my TV quietly on in the background. I assure you
it was not distracting me. And then, around one o’clock, I could not help but
notice that the Oakland Raiders were playing the San Diego Chargers. And then,
to my great surprise and relief, I found that the central character in
Hemingway’s novel and the second string quarterback of the Oakland Raiders have
quite a lot in common.
Miss Christopher, I am
assuming that you are not a fan of the National Football League. If you are,
great. But if not, let me suggest why an appreciation of the NFL can give new
insights into Hemingway’s work.
You see, George Blanda is
not only a quarterback, he is a field goal kicker. That’s pretty rare. And he
was released by the Raiders in the pre-season because he is 42 years old, which,
according to the standards of the NFL, is one step away from being in a
wheelchair in a retirement village, like my Uncle Dave in Cocoa Beach, Florida.
And yet, he—Blanda, not Uncle Dave—was brought back, despite this being his 21st
year in the league, and he has stepped in to replace the regular quarterback,
Daryle Lamonica, who was injured.
In essence, while I
watched the opening of the first quarter, I had the stunning realization that
George Blanda is totally analogous to Santiago, the old fisherman, in
Hemingway’s work. Santiago has gone 84 days without catching a fish. Blanda has
gone over two decades without winning a championship.
Normally, I would say any
student trying to dissuade you from giving him or her an F for non-delivery of a
standard essay by melding a discussion of a great work of fiction with a
three-hour telecast of a football game is not deserving of your respect. But
what happened yesterday in the Oakland Coliseum capped off an extraordinary
string of circumstances, one that might be unrivalled in the history of sports,
if not human endeavor. And human endeavor certainly includes the act of fishing.
You see, Miss
Christopher, five weeks ago, Blanda came in for Lamonica and threw three
touchdowns to beat the Pittsburgh Steelers, 31-14. Not very significant, I would
agree. The next week, he kicked a 48-yard field goal with a mere three seconds
left to garner a 17-17 tie with the Raiders’ AFC West rivals, the Kansas City
Chiefs. This might not inspire awe on your part, I realize, but it was very
crucial if Oakland is to win its division over the Chiefs. Okay, so the third
week, Blanda comes in with a paltry one minute and thirty-four seconds left to
throw a touchdown pass and tie the Cleveland Browns. And now, Miss Christopher,
the truly eerie moment in this seemingly random series of events occurs, because
again, with three seconds on the clock, Blanda kicks another game winning field
goal. Raider 23, Browns 20.
Now, if we stopped there,
even someone like you, Miss Christopher, and I do not write this in any way
patronizingly, might say, “Okay, George has had a run of good luck, especially
for the oldest guy in the NFL. But this kind of thing must go the way of all
But it doesn’t. It
should have ended right there. Lamonica got healthy and as first string QB, he
started the next game against the Denver Broncos. And yet, strangely enough, he
was relatively ineffective. It was almost like Lamonica, like the Raiders, like
all the fans in the Bay Area could no longer accept him as their leader. It did
not feel like a defection. It was more like Blanda, in his swan song to the game
he loved for so long, was saying to those who needed to believe in him, “If I am
going to leave you, I want you to bask in the most resplendent memories
possible.” It was George Blanda not just trying to play with every remaining
fiber of his strained, bruised and sagging middle aged body but trying to say
thank you to the organization that gave him one last, fleeting chance at a
so help me God, Miss Christopher, my breath left my body when, with a miniscule
2:28 left in the fourth quarter (that’s the final quarter, in case you were not
familiar with the rules), Blanda connected with Fred Biletnikoff for a touchdown
pass to defeat the Broncos, 24-19. Everyone was stunned, especially considering
that Biletnikoff is really kind of small, does not have blazing speed, the
strength of a tight end, the leaping ability of a Lance Alworth and is himself a
very unlikely candidate for a wide receiver. A lot of people claim Biletnikoff,
though widely respected, uses too much Stickum in order to catch passes.
So, I hope you now
understand, even if you cannot fully accept, that yesterday I had to see if
Blanda played again. And you know what, Miss Christopher? He did. Lamonica, the
young generation, the equivalent of Santiago’s boy assistant Manolin, took the
snap from center, and set the ball down, laces out, as Blanda, elderly but
experienced, with hands sore from the fishing line of life ripping across his
skin, kicked the ball with seven seconds left from the 16-yard line.
The crowd fell silent,
but only for a moment. A great seismic roar shook the Oakland Coliseum as if it
was on the San Andreas Fault during April of 1906, as the ball sailed through
the uprights. The announcer, Bill King, shouted to be heard above the din, “This
man may have tied the entire Bay Area into a knot from which it may never
extricate itself again.” It was one of great calls in sports history,
commemorating Blanda’s fifth straight miracle in a row. Raiders 20, Chargers 17.
I was so overcome with
emotion, Miss Christopher, that I started thinking, if this is Blanda’s final
season, perhaps he can find some solace in this amazing 1970 season. Maybe he
will find some way to soothe the bitterness of being called an “NFL Reject” when
he joined the Houston Oilers.
In The Old Man and
the Sea, Santiago catches the biggest fish he has ever seen. Blanda has the
most amazing string of last minute heroics in football history. Tragically,
Santiago has the sharks eat away the magnificent marlin he has caught, until
there is nothing but the skeleton. Blanda has been thought of as a has-been,
washed-up, the Ancient Mariner of the League.
And yet, Santiago shall
fish again, although he has come home to his Cuban village with nothing to show
for his efforts. And Blanda will kick and pass again surely, even if he is a
mere sub for Lamonica, who has been utterly inconsistent this year when he
Santiago and Blanda
have both tasted the sweet, sustaining fruit of victory. And in the twilight of
their lives, they simply want to hold tight to whatever tattered wisp of dignity
they can muster.
The old man, Santiago, in
the end, dreams his usual dream, of lions at play on the beaches of Africa.
Blanda, near the end, dreams of starting in a Super Bowl near the beaches of
Ernest Hemingway said,
“Bullfighters live their lives all the way up.”
So do decrepit but brave,
fishermen and aging quarterback-place kickers.
I am not clear from
the above why you were unable to write a more cogent essay. I am very
disappointed. However, I will accept this as your assignment. I will give you a
D— with the following proviso: You make more time for future assignments. And,
at least in this class, you will never, ever make any kind of allusion to sports