Although he's never met George Blanda, Lui Passaglia speaks of the NFL legend casually, almost as if he were a friend Passaglia bumped into the other day on a Pringles run. "George is the best," says Passaglia. "One of a kind."
It's as if they chat from time to time, talking about the plight of aging kickers, wondering how the current punk pretty boys would've fared in the tough of days. Passaglia thinks of Blanda, and he thinks of kinship. He thinks of himself. "We have a lot in common," Passaglia says. "But George was a quarterback for a long time. That's incredible. Me? I'm just a kicker."
He's 46 years old, in his 25th consecutive season with the BC Lions of the Canadian Football League, averaging 38.4 yards per punt, kicking field goals with stunning accuracy (27 of 29 in 13 games this season) and breaking records that were never supposed to be broken. Passaglia is the alltime professional football leader in games (403), field goals (862), points (3,928) and punting yards (132, 747). Oddly, however, on the brink of forming an eternal bond with Blanda, Passaglia has turned away. Were he to participate in the 2001 season for BC—an opportunity that Lions general manager Adam Rita says he has been offered—Passaglia would tie his idol's record for consecutive seasons played, the ultimate iron-man mark. Instead, he has announced his retirement.
"George's record called me for a long time," says Passaglia, who will finish the season with the Lions, "but Father Time is calling, too, and his call's a little louder."
Reality hit Passaglia last year when, while standing on the BC sidelines, his back ached. Not from a tough hit. Not from an awkward punt. "You know you're getting old when you're in pain just from standing too long," he says. "You're a football player—that's not supposed to happen. I could probably play one more season, but I'd be stretching it. I respect this game too much to mock it like that."
Unlike Blanda, who played with four teams from 1949 to '75, Passaglia has played all of his games for the Lions. In fact, he still wears the same shoulder pads—held together by tape and string and unidentifiable goo—that he was issued in 1977. "The league should retire his number," says Rita. "Can anyone imagine the CFL without Lui Passaglia?"
Born in 1954 (the year of the Lions' debut season), he is the son of Loris and Natalina Passaglia, Italian immigrants who lived in a small house on Triumph Street, six blocks from Empire Stadium, the original home of the Lions. As a boy, Lui would lean out his bedroom window and hear the roar of the crowd. When he was eight, his father took him to his first Lions game. "My dad knew nothing about football," recalls Lui. "He wouldn't buy a ticket for me, because he was trying to save a buck. He told the usher, 'Hey, you're not gonna charge me for my son. He'll just sit on my lap.' " Passaglia has forgotten the players, the opposition and the score of that game, but he does recall the noise. "Loud," he says. "Full of energy and excitement. I loved it."
Five years later, against the wishes of his nervous mother, Lui signed up for the eighth-grade football team. He had quick feet and a strong arm, which two years later would earn him the starting quarterback job at Notre Dame High. Before one eighth-grade game, a coach had asked for a volunteer to kick off and punt. "I raised my hand, went out and kicked," Passaglia says. "I never kicked a field goal until college."
That was at Vancouver's Simon Fraser University, where Passaglia was one of the school's top receivers. In 1976, BC drafted him in the first round as a receiver/quarterback who might kick on the side. In his first regular-season pro game, a 32-6 loss to Saskatchewan at Empire Stadium, he caught a 10-yard touchdown pass from quarterback John Sciarra. "As soon as I caught it, I thought, What more do I have to do to show that I'm a receiver, not a kicker?" Passaglia says. "Clearly, I was ready to catch a ton of passes." It was the last catch of his career.
Passaglia has never had a kicking coach. He is, says BC coach Steve Buratto, "a guy you just leave alone. Lui is the ultimate kicker. He knows it all."