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You want to know what went through my mind when I heard that NFL legend George Blanda had passed away on Monday? It wasn't the 41-yard field goal he kicked at age 48 in the AFC Championship Game in January 1976. And it wasn't the 2,002 career points he racked up during his 26 years in the league. Truth be told, my first thought had nothing to do with football.
I flashed back to the time he caught me breaking into his car.
I was a 15-year-old caddie at Butterfield Country Club, where Blanda played golf. It was a hot summer afternoon, and I'd already come in off the course. My friends and I were sitting outside the caddyshack waiting to get paid and sent home for the day. A few of us decided to kill some time by shooting baskets at an old hoop in the southwest corner of the club's parking lot. Most of the time, the members knew enough to park their cars far away from our makeshift court.
On this particular day, however, an off-white sedan (a Chrysler Cordoba, if I remember correctly) was parked about 10 feet to the right of our imaginary free throw lane. The car narrowed our court's dimensions, but my friends and I decided to play some three-on-three just the same.
One of my buddies wore glasses when he caddied, but he'd been in enough of these hoop games to know that his specs would likely get broken if he wore them while we played. Rather than run back to the shack to stash his glasses, he walked over to that sedan. The driver had left his front window partially rolled down to keep the car cool, and my friend decided to hook his glasses over that open window.
About 15 minutes into our game, I somehow managed to knock those glasses off of the window and into the car. They landed on the front seat, touching down on what I assume was probably "soft Corinthian leather." The car, of course, was locked.
My buddy panicked, but I told him to relax. I tracked down a coat hanger and began trying to pop the lock on the front door. While trying to get the door open, I couldn't help but notice what was lodged in the car's 8-track player. It was "Go West" by the Village People. I'd recently attended Disco Demolition Night at Comiskey Park, so this little discovery didn't sit well with me.
In any event, while I was fooling with the hanger, I had no idea that the car's owner was walking through the parking lot. And, yes, the owner turned out to be George Blanda. When Blanda saw me poking around his window, he began yelling from across the lot.
Remember - this guy had only been out of the NFL a few years and his right arm probably weighed more than I did. I got nervous in a hurry.
I tried to explain to him what I was doing, but he didn't want to hear it. He brought me over to the caddie master and told him that he'd found me with a hanger trying to get into his car.
I paid the price. For the next three or four days, the only golf bags I was assigned to carry were ones belonging to parsimonious priests or penny-pinching widows.
A few years later, when I was one of the more senior caddies, we did manage to have some fun with Blanda. He'd always been a good golfer - close to scratch - but he was well-known for having a hot temper on the course. He threw golf clubs like they were footballs.
After one particularly ugly round, one of the older caddies came up with a plan to get Blanda to break his club-throwing habit. Caddies generally wear baseball hats or visors on the golf course. This plan involved a slight twist on that traditional headgear. The older caddies agreed that for the next several weeks, Blanda's caddie - no matter which of us it was - would wear a yellow construction hard-hat throughout the round. The members, including Blanda, eventually figured out what was going on. I think the hard-hat routine actually improved his disposition on the golf course.
I'll let the folks on sports talk radio dissect his amazing football career. All I'll say - as someone who once tried to break into his car - is that he was a nice guy (with at least one bad 8-track tape), he generally kept the ball in the fairway, and he tipped his caddies pretty well. Rest in peace, Mr. Blanda.
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