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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.

"You O.K.?"

"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."

Time has bestowed on Blechen its inevitable rewards. Now he is
not only slow but also old. In compensation, Blechen possesses
considerable savvy and immeasurable enthusiasm. Though Allen
wasn't wowed by Blechen's physical gifts, he did proclaim
Blechen the smartest player he ever coached. Blechen
demonstrated his intelligence throughout his working life (which
he spent as an administrator with several high-tech firms) by
saying nothing to his employers about his extracurricular
interest. "Why let them know I was crazy?" he says.

A semipro team typically plays eight to 10 games a season, but
Blechen often plays as many as 20. He might play flag football
on Sunday morning and a tackle game that afternoon. He has been
known to finish a season in one semipro league, then promptly
hop to another team in another league.

Except for two knee surgeries and some lower-back pain, Blechen
remains remarkably unscathed after 44 years in the trenches. In
fact his body seems to operate outside the normal physiological
constraints. A year ago family members took a tape measure to
him and found that he had grown almost an inch. "The next time I
had my driver's license renewed," Blechen says, grinning, "I had
my height changed from 6'4" to 6'5".

He has outlasted players. He has outlasted teams. Perhaps
fearing that he might outlast the game itself, in 1990 the
American Football Association ignored league policy and made
Blechen its first active Hall of Famer.

Blechen says that he is not concerned about winning honors. He
just wants to play. And at no time does he move faster than when
his playing time is threatened. At the end of last season a
shortage of players forced the Cardinals to go belly-up, and in
mid-October Blechen found himself without a team. In less than
two weeks he had signed on with the Falcons.

His new coach, Nolan (Hawk) Warren, was happy to have him
onboard. "I liked him immediately because of his attitude," says
Warren, who is 60. "Plus, now I have an older man I can talk to."

Blechen wasn't worried when the Cardinals folded. "If I hadn't
been able to finish out last season, it would have been O.K.,"
he says. "I knew I was going to come back to play this year."

Ken McAlpine, a freelancer from Ventura, Calif., is a frequent
contributor to SI.

COLOR PHOTO: JAN SONNENMAIR Blechen, who is always looking for a chance to get in his licks, could play 20 games this season. [Bob Blechen]