On October 6, I had the privilege of sitting down for an extensive personal interview with former Minnesota Vikings linebacker Matt Blair. We met at the Lifetouch studio in Bloomington, MN—ironically enough, the studio sits just a few blocks from Winter Park, the current Vikings training facility. Blair greeted me with the same friendly handshake and smile I encountered at the Uptown art festival, and he came ready to answer my questions.
Due to his father being in the U.S. Air Force, Blair calls Hawaii his birthplace but has lived all over the world. Living in Ohio as a junior in high school, Blair joined the football team. At that point, his main goal became obtaining a college scholarship—whether that be through football, basketball, baseball or track.
Unfortunately, although he enjoyed travelling, the military lifestyle made it difficult for Blair to establish a name for himself in school athletic programs. “I came into the high school as a no-name,” he said, “but I did make a name—I made All City.”
All City wasn’t enough. Despite Blair’s obvious physical talent, his grades kept him from the radar of big-time schools. Upon the recommendation of a University of Cincinnati representative, Blair tried out for the football team at NEO in Oklahoma; his first test for tryouts came in running the mile.
“Back then, they put us in a pickup truck, took us out a mile—10 people at a time—and dropped us off.” Blair remembers his tactic: trying to keep up with the fastest runner in his respective heat. Although he actually came in second, his method worked—he ran a 5.05 mile. There were 176 students battling for 33 scholarships, and Blair’s performance earned him a half-year scholarship.
To fulfill the other half of his scholarship, Blair joined the NEO basketball team and ended up finishing seventh in the nation. His real break, though, came over the summer following his freshman year—he grew three inches and put on 45 pounds. “When I came back,” Blair said, laughing, “I started. That’s how it all began.”
Blair accepted a full-ride scholarship from Iowa State, where he found himself entering his senior year as an All American projected to be the first linebacker picked in the NFL Draft. However, a knee injury sidelined the young athlete, and Blair opted to redshirt, returning as a fifth-year senior.
Despite the injury, the Minnesota Vikings took a chance and drafted Blair No. 51 overall in the 1974 NFL Draft. Before long, Blair earned back his status and created a name for himself with the Purple People Eaters. He spent all 12 years of his NFL career with Minnesota, playing in Super Bowl IX, Super Bowl XI and six consecutive Pro Bowls (1977-1982).
Blair quickly established himself as a defensive threat, primarily known for blocking kicks. It’s a skill he likened to going for a slam dunk. “You take a running start, you leap, and you make it happen.”
Blair played through just about anything to keep teams from scoring, and a crooked finger on his left hand serves as a current reminder of the glory days. The tip of the finger juts out awkwardly—a bone that was broken (and never healed correctly) against the Denver Broncos.
The way Blair tells it, he stuck his finger into the ear hole of the helmet: “I was making a tackle on him, and his helmet hit the ground, twisting . The guy went one way, I went the other, and [my finger] broke right in half.” The worst part? Blair didn’t even realize the injury until he returned to the huddle and teammates pointed out that his finger was pointing to the left!
Although some players might have been sidelined while the injury healed, he never missed a game—even though his position required a lot of painful action.
“When you play strong side linebacker, you have to hit the tight end every time he comes off the line,” Blair explained. “Just chuck him every time.” Blair played through a few games, and he specifically recalls facing the St. Louis Rams. His face fades into memory and he shakes his head, laughing. “[My finger] hurt so bad! I’m saying, ‘no way,’ but I blocked a field goal anyway. It was worth it, though—we were able to win the game. You remember those.”
The explosive linebacker helped his squad to two Super Bowls during his time with the Vikings. Fans watching Super Bowl IX might remember Blair’s debut. The rookie blocked a Pittsburgh Steelers punt, and teammate Terry Brown recovered the ball in the end zone—those six points were the only points Minnesota put on the board that day.
The fact that Blair blocked a punt during the biggest game of the season might seem impressive enough, but there exists a fascinating fact very few people are aware of. In addition to his own blocked punt, both of Blair’s roommates blocked punts in Super Bowls. “I lived with two guys, and we’ve all blocked punts in a Super Bowl—that’s unique,” Blair said. “It would never happen by anybody ever again.” Interestingly, the three blocks occurred in consecutive seasons. Blair’s junior college roommate Reggie Harrison was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers and blocked a punt in Super Bowl X, and his Minnesota teammate and roommate Fred McNeill blocked Ray Guy’s punt in Super Bowl XI.
So what came first, the chicken or the egg? Who passed on the skill to whom? Blair doesn’t have a doubt in his mind—“Come to think of it,” he said, smiling, “I think I taught them how to do it. I was blocking first […] I talked to them secretly.”
Blair spoke of a friendly competition shared between himself and McNeill. The two were drafted in the same season (McNeill in the first round, Blair in the second) and each fought to find respective linebacker positions on the team. “We battled out, both made the team and became roommates for 12 years,” Blair explained. “To this day, we still keep in touch.”
Beyond McNeill, numerous other athletes—names that have etched themselves into Vikings history—shared the roster with Blair. Mentioned with respect during the interview were Wally Hilgenburg, Paul Krause, Jeff Wright and Bobby Bryant—all starting on defense.
Blair didn’t leave out the offense, either: “On the other side of the line, you’ve got Chuck Foreman, you’ve got John Gilliam, [Fran] Tarkenton, [Mick] Tingelhoff; you’ve got [Ed] White, you’ve got [Ron] Yary, you’ve got Stu Voight.”
When one talks to Blair, two things glare obvious: 1) how grateful he is for his time with the Vikings and 2) the respect he held—and still does—for those athletes that went before him. These include Carl Eller, Gary Larson, Jim Marshall and Alan Page and are referred to by Blair as the “front four.” In his words:
“Those guys you just admire because what they accomplished before I got there. To be a part of the Purple People Eaters—that was very cool. You look up to those guys.”
It’s no secret that the NFL today stands drastically different than it did in “the good ol’ days.”
The equipment has changed, the rules have changed and the players have changed. Blair admitted he feels that a degree of excitement has been removed from the raw game of football. “Of course, you don’t want to hit somebody and cause him to die on the field,” he acknowledged. “But sometimes, it’s like you’re getting to the point where you can call the game ‘touch football.’ […] We did it—we horse collared them; we took them down any way we could.” I could see the excitement in Blair’s eyes as he recalled the intensity of football in the '70s and '80s.
Rule changes also affect the record books. Blair currently holds Minnesota’s record for blocked kicks with 20.5—that record will never be broken.
He explained that former NFL coach Don Schula served as President of the rules committee and changed the rule that allowed defensemen to block so many field goals. “They call it the ‘Matt Blair’ rule,” he joked. Schula stood on the sidelines and watched his team get knocked out of the playoffs twice due to blocked field goals, and he got his chance for redemption while on the committee.
Although the rules continue changing (and not necessarily to his liking), Blair still enjoys the game. Prior to my interview with Blair, I dialogued with fellow journalists and football fans, trolling for a common question that others wanted asked. At the top of the list? Blair’s take on the current Vikings team and season.
It’s no secret that the biggest controversy right now—among fans, commentators and analysts alike—revolves around Minnesota’s quarterback situation. McNabb or Ponder? Veteran or Rookie? Blair acknowledged that the problem with McNabb is the 13 years he’s already been in the league. A lot of his success grew from his athleticism, but now if the pass isn’t there, he’s not able to run the ball quite as quickly.
So is Ponder a more viable option? According to Blair, it’s possible. Putting in a fresh rookie will generate more excitement, and everyone knows the desire is there—he wants to play. “You have to bring that attitude that Fran Tarkenton had—he couldn’t always throw the ball very well, but he could run around until he found a receiver five or 10 yards away.” He calmly reminded that during the second half of the season, things do change. Records even out. It’s going to be “break or take” down the road for some of the teams winning now. “I think the Vikings will re-emerge, but they have to believe within themselves.”
The former linebacker pointed out that players don’t seem to love the game as much as they used to. He recalled games in which, when someone made a play, his teammates recognized it immediately—whatever the score. A slap on the helmet, on the head, a moment of excitement: “You made that play, man!” Is it possible that, in today’s game, money is a higher focus than team morale? “You can make all the money you want to make,” Blair said, “but show us that you love the game. Adrian [Peterson] does show it. You see it in him.”
Blair didn’t let the fans off the hook, either. He stressed the virtue of patience and having your team’s back—whether they’re winning or losing. There is a lot of time left in the season, and don’t most of us agree that the 2011-2012 season is a rebuilding year? “You trust each other. You do your play, I’ll do mine. I’ve got your back, you’ve got mine […] the players have to make the difference—and they will.”
“Winning at the end is more important than winning at the beginning,” Blair said. “It gives them momentum as the playoffs come around, and they may possibly have a chance to make the playoffs. That’s the road they want to be on.”
Everything will come together. “You get those young guys in there, and it will come. Get that experience, and then we’ll go from there.”
To learn more about Blair's post-football career and photography business, stay posted for Part 2 of the interview!
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