Superman Wore Number 35
Wednesday - April 29, 2009
Felix “Doc” Blanchard may not have been the last Heisman Trophy winner to forgo the yet-to-mature NFL for a calling in another career field - that would be fellow Army cadet Pete Dawkins in 1958 - but Mr. Inside was the bridge between two very different eras for both the college and the National Football League.
Football in the 1920s, ‘30s and ‘40s, that of the amateur variety, matched baseball and boxing as a mainstay of popular entertainment. Along with Ruth, Gehrig, Dempsey and Louis, the Galloping Ghost, the Four Horseman and Old No. 98 were subjects of clever prose for talented writers who saw their jobs as more than chroniclers of history, but as conduits of legend.
The NFL, which began operations in 1920, was an afterthought for most players and even more fans, and would remain so for another three decades. It was into this void that Felix “Doc” Blanchard entered the national consciousness as the most dominant player on the country’s greatest team. In the process he also helped redefine a position that would anchor the game for the next 40 years while signaling the end of one era and the beginning of another.
Blanchard, who died of pneumonia April 19 at the age of 84, was more than the bruising compliment to his Heisman Trophy-winning backfield mate, Glenn Davis. In opposition to his famed moniker, Blanchard was a punishing inside runner who possessed the speed and agility to turn the corner for big gains. Broad of shoulder and thick thighed, the 6-foot, 2-inch 210-pounder was a mismatch for nearly every defender he came across. And even an official or two. During the Cadets’59-0 win over Notre Dame in 1944, Blanchard, while playing defense, ran through the head linesman rewarding the inadvertent tackling dummy with a separated elbow and a wrenched knee.
Of his former charge, Army coach Earl “Red” Blaik said, “Imagine a big bruising fullback who runs 100 yards in 10 seconds flat, who kicks off into the end zone, who punts 50 yards, who can also sweep the flank as well as rip the middle, who catches laterals or forward passes with sure-fingered skill, and who makes his own interference. That’s Mr. Blanchard.”
Blaik wasn’t the only one enthralled with the fullback. During the famed drubbing of Notre Dame mentioned earlier, Irish coach Ed McKeever said, “I’ve just seen Superman in the flesh. He wears number 35 and goes by the name of Blanchard.”
In addition to winning the Heisman in 1945, Blanchard became the first football player to win the James E. Sullivan Award. The announcement of his prize by the Downtown Athletic Club came via telegram. It came with postage due.
In addition to his game-changing style of play, Blanchard also set a precedent as the first Heisman winner to command a huge rookie salary. In 1946 the Pittsburgh Steelers offered six figures for the Cadet’s services. Unlike most of the bonus babies who were to benefit from such financial arrangements, however, Blanchard was not able to cash in on his college success. He asked to delay his military commitment so he could play a season in Pittsburgh, but the War Department denied the request. This was before the military determined a servicemember’s athletic success could be used as a recruiting tool.
Blanchard graduated, a once common achievement, in 1947 and moved on to a long military career in the Air Force, serving as a fighter pilot in both the Korean and Vietnam wars. In 1959 he was honored for his skill piloting a burning aircraft to the ground instead of parachuting out and risk the plane crashing into a village.
That same year Blanchard was elected into the College Football Hall of Fame. In 1991 he donated his Heisman, Sullivan and Maxwell awards to his high school, Saint Stanislaus College prep school, in Bay St. Louis, Mississippi. The awards were in a box in his garage.
A year ago, ESPN debated the greatest college football players in history. The man who led his team to a 27-0 record in his career, while also competing with the Academy’s track and field team and winning titles in the shot put, came in at No. 13. Not bad for someone deemed too heavy and lacking the necessary eye sight to enter the Navy’s V-12 program in 1943.
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