Once, during a football game between the Ventura County (Calif.) Cardinals and the Burbank Bandits, Bob Blechen was pursuing a ballcarrier when he was laid out by a vicious hit. "A perfect blindside," Blechen says appreciatively. "He just cleaned me off my feet."
In rough-and-tumble semipro football, such a hit is cause for celebration, but in this instance players from both teams quickly gathered around Blechen and looked down in concern.
"Fine, thanks," said Blechen, looking up and lying.
"I felt horrible," says the 285-pound Blechen, "but you can't have people treating you differently because of your age."
Blechen was 59 at the time. On Oct. 12 he turned 61, which makes him the oldest tackle football player in the U.S.
Blechen, who lives in Agoura Hills, Calif., is not a cameo player or a kicker. He starts at offensive tackle these days for the Los Angeles Falcons. He has 10 grandchildren and has been playing football nearly nonstop for five decades. "People often think I'm the coach," he says.
Bo Brooks, 14 years Blechen's junior and his coach when Blechen played with the Cardinals, remembers when he first met the older man. "I played across the line from this defensive tackle who was big, strong and tough," says Brooks. "When he took his helmet off after the game, I was in shock. He was a gray-haired old man. That was in 1978."
Such a man must be supremely gifted. Well, Blechen was drafted as an offensive lineman by the Detroit Lions in 1956 but didn't make the final cut, a decision that surprised him. "I was too small and too slow," Blechen says. "I thought I'd be cut a lot sooner." Indeed, George Allen, Blechen's coach at Whittier College from 1953 to '55, once said Blechen ran "like he had a piano on his back." A mild childhood bout with polio had taken away Blechen's speed.
To compete in the semiprofessional American Football Association against players not even half his age, Blechen must adhere to a rigorous fitness regimen, mustn't he? "Ummm, no," he says. Exercise regularly? "Not really." Any training at all? "I do get into the weight room several times a year."