Advertisement
 

Testing His Last Legs : Ventura Semipro Team Has 60-Year-Old Player Who Just Can't Quit Football

November 21, 1995|STEVE HENSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The opposing team hadn't shown up, and the nation's oldest football player sounded very much like a schoolboy told recess was canceled. Bob Blechen, 60, was all suited up with no one to hit.

"Can't we scrimmage?" he pleaded with his coach. "How about three sets of 12 plays? Or some seven on seven?"

Teammates half Blechen's age nixed the idea.

"It's not in the contract, and anyway I'm not gonna risk a career-ending injury," one whined.

Career? Blechen could tell them about a career, although its luster long ago gave way to longevity. He has played in six decades.

The late October forfeit deprived Blechen of a mind-boggling milestone. By all accounts, the Ventura County Cardinal lineman would have become the first sexagenarian to play organized tackle football since legendary Yale man William (Pudge) Heffelfinger in the 1930s.

An NFL Films crew was poised to capture the moment for a special scheduled to air next year. Only a smattering of fans dotted the stands at the Construction Battalion Corp. field in Port Hueneme, but most of them would have missed the point anyway.

Blechen, who had celebrated his 60th birthday only 10 days earlier, hadn't missed a game all season--he hadn't missed a game since 1967, in fact--but now he must wait until next year, which will be his 36th in the semipro and minor league ranks.

"It's disappointing, but I was going to come back anyway," he said.

What's one more off-season in a career that began in 1949 when Blechen donned a leather helmet without a facemask for Covina High?

There were four years of playing at Whittier College under George Allen, a training camp with the Detroit Lions, a year in the Canadian Football League, then an endless string of minor league and semipro seasons.

Retirement isn't even discussed. If the Ventura County Cardinals can count on anyone returning, it is the 6-foot-4, 290-pound Blechen.

Once again, he will add a touch of class to the collection of dreamers and drifters, leading the team in prayer before and after games. He will be asked to play both offense and defense on occasion, letting his coach know he needs a breather by rubbing his bald pate.

And he will give his wife of 25 years, Joan, a hug and a peck on the lips when she rushes to the field at game's end, just as if they were a couple of high school sweethearts.

Time, it seems, has stood still for Blechen, a retired executive from Agoura Hills who does consulting work, serves as an assistant coach for the local high school team, stays in touch with five children and nine grandchildren, and positively lives to buckle up his chin strip and fire out of a three-point stance.

"I didn't like football, but Bob got me involved by having me film the kids' Pop Warner games," Joan said. "I connect with his love for the game. It is so important to him."

Blechen's resilience is remarkable. He has been sidelined only once, by knee surgery in 1967.

"Mostly what I do is think young," he said. "I think of myself as being one of the younger guys on the team, although I know that isn't factual."

His teammates remind him of his age, good-naturedly calling him "Pops" and "Methuselah."

They are not merely humoring an old man, however. Blechen remains a solid offensive lineman, perhaps the team's best. He was a tackle this season, although he has played primarily center over the years.

"Bob is an extremely smart player with great technique," said Bo Brooks, the Cardinal coach. "He knows angles, and he makes tiny adjustments during games to gain an advantage. He blocks with his brain."

Blechen began adjusting when he was 10 and came down with a mild case of polio. The disease made him slow afoot but did not deter him from thinking fast.

As a Whittier freshman, Blechen asked Allen if he could leave a spring practice early to study. Allen, figuring Blechen was in danger of becoming ineligible, reluctantly gave permission.

To Allen's surprise, Blechen achieved the highest grade-point average in the freshman class. He had only wanted to leave the practice to ensure himself an A in chemistry lab.

"Blechen used to run like he had a piano on his back, but he was the smartest player I ever coached," Allen said in a 1987 Times interview.

Allen died in 1990 at 72, but how the architect of the Washington Redskins' "Over the Hill Gang" would love Blechen now.

A 1956 Whittier graduate, Blechen was drafted in the 21st round by the Detroit Lions, who had made Heisman Trophy winner Howard (Hopalong) Cassady of Ohio State their first pick.

Blechen was cut after the Lions' exhibition season and cut again the next year by the Toronto Argonauts. Blechen moved to Los Angeles in 1960 and caught on with the Eagle Rock Athletic Club.

Since then, he has bounced from team to team, finding his place on a line of scrimmage nearly every fall weekend. Blechen is always free to play, and he always plays free.

"I might have gotten meal money or travel money a few times but never enough to matter," he said. "The opportunity to play is worth far more than anything anybody ever offered me."

Pudge Heffelfinger must have felt the same way when, in his 60s, he would scrimmage with the Yale team and play in charity games.

Blechen, however, has something on Heffelfinger, who while revered in New England football circles, is not a hall of famer. Blechen is a member of the American Football Assn. Hall of Fame, which honors semipro and minor leaguers.

The AFA inducted Blechen in 1990, thereby giving the organization legitimacy in his eyes.

"If I'm not in it," he said, "it's bogus."

Advertisement
Los Angeles Times Articles
|
|
|