Joe Blahak, Star on Two National Championship Teams, Dies
“It brings me to tears to think that Joe’s gone. We had something special. Joe was probably the fastest guy on our team, so he could keep up if anyone surpassed me. I could always count on Joe for one major block and even two blocks if we had a long run. He was a great, great, great player and a great guy, too.” Johnny Rodgers, 1972 Heisman Trophy winner
Randy York N-Sider
Official Blog of the Huskers
A leading character in one of the most famous plays in Nebraska football history died Monday from an apparent heart attack. After recovering from a stroke about five years ago, Joe Blahak (Blah-ha), 65, died in Lincoln. His memorial service was Thursday morning at Sacred Heart Catholic Church at 31st and “S” Streets.
A junior cornerback for Bob Devaney’s top-ranked Nebraska team in the 1971 Game of the Century against second-ranked Oklahoma, Blahak made the signature block that allowed Johnny Rodgers to “tear” the Sooners “loose from their shoes” on a fabled 72-yard touchdown run in Norman, Okla.
In a heavily promoted nationally televised showdown, that play was the difference in Nebraska’s 35-31 win and remains prominent in television vaults and media archives because 1) it chronicled history; 2) it created some controversy; and 3) it became the first Big Red brick in Johnny “The Jet’s” path to winning a Heisman Trophy one year later.
Even though Blahak wasn’t a pregame headliner on Nebraska's 1970 star-studded stage, the Columbus, Neb., native became a first-team All-Big Eight cornerback as a junior one year later when Nebraska won the second of its back-to-back national championships in 1971. The Huskers thrashed Alabama, 38-6, in the Orange Bowl and Blahak ended the Crimson Tide’s best chance for a touchdown, intercepting a pass in the end zone.
Blahak finished his Husker career as a senior second-team UPI All-American in 1972, the same senior season that Rodgers won the Heisman Trophy before Nebraska went on to win its third consecutive Orange Bowl, 40-6, over Notre Dame.
Before featuring how important that capstone game was for Blahak’s collegiate career, we acknowledge the controversy his all-out special team effort had on that punt return, plus the way his legendary determination fits into more modern folklore.
Blahak Was Accused of Clipping Oklahoma’s Jon Harrison During the Punt Return
On that memorable Thanksgiving Day in 1971, Blahak was accused of clipping Oklahoma’s Jon Harrison during the punt return.
Decades later, Nebraska football historian Mike Babcock tried to get Blahak’s take on what he really felt, deep down in his heart, and Babcock said Blahak’s answer never changed, with or without truth serum.
“Did the ref throw a flag?” Blahak asked. “Then it wasn’t a clip.”
Check the photo at the top of this column. Blahak was a traffic factor early in Rodgers’ legendary punt return and he kept hustling downfield to remove another major obstacle in Rodgers’ magical gallop to the end zone, painting the portrait of two driven juniors who failed to three-peat national championships, but absolutely smothered Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl their senior season.
Why was that final act such an important curtain call for Joe Blahak?
Because Notre Dame joined a number of Big Eight schools that recruited Blahak, who attended Columbus Scotus, a Catholic high school. “Notre Dame thought they had an advantage,” Blahak told Husker historian David Max, “but there was no doubt where I was going.”
Blahak Told Ara Parseghian He Was Offering a Scholarship to the Wrong Person
The late Cletus Fischer, who coached at Columbus St. Bonaventure before it became Columbus Scotus, coached Blahak’s older brother, so Fischer was “like family” when Nebraska’s lead in-state recruiter went head-to-head with Notre Dame.
When Notre Dame Coach Ara Parseghian called and offered Blahak a scholarship, “I told him that he was offering the scholarship to the wrong person,” Blahak said.
That unexpected statement created a long silence on the other end of the phone before Notre Dame’s coach asked the logical question: "What do you mean?" he asked Blahak.
"Well, my girlfriend is going to Nebraska," Blahak said.
Somehow, that important data got lost in the shuffle and Blahak found it ironic to play against the Fighting Irish in his third straight trip to the Orange Bowl.
Parseghian brought up that senior year of high school recruiting when Blahak finished his collegiate career in red against Notre Dame. The Irish head coach finally confessed that he’d never thought how important a recruiting bond could be with high school sweethearts.
Condolences to the Blahak Family, Including His Wife, Two Sons and One Daughter
Condolences to Diane, the high school sweetheart who became Joe’s wife and the mother of their three children – Chad, who walked on to play football at Nebraska, and his brother, Ryan, and their sister, JaNae.
“Joe was fun. He was funny. He was affable and he was gregarious,” said Red Beran, a Husker teammate who communicates regularly with Husker football letterwinners. “Joe’s nickname was Airhead, and that wasn’t a putdown. He liked living up to it,” Beran said. “You never knew what he was going to say next. He was a great athlete, a great teammate and very serious every time he took the field, even though he did add a lot of levity to almost every situation. He liked being goofy in a good sort of way.”
To this day, Blahak remains tied for Nebraska’s all-time lead in interceptions for a single game with three against Kansas State in 1970. Three other Huskers have achieved the same feat – Dana Stephenson against Colorado in 1969, Ric Lindquist against Kansas State in 1979 and Matt O’Hanlon against Oklahoma in 2009.
One of 10 Huskers selected in the 1973 NFL Draft, the Houston Oilers picked Blahak in the 8th round. He went on to play two years in 1974 and ’75 for the Minnesota Vikings and split the ’76 season between Tampa Bay and New England before returning to the Vikings for the 1977 season. Playing in 44 professional games over five seasons, Blahak qualified for the NFL pension benefit.
Fellow Husker Tingelhoff Was the First Person to Greet Blahak at Minnesota
His greatest highlight as a pro? “The first person to greet me was Mick Tingelhoff, a former Nebraska guy,” Blahak said of Tingelhoff, who last year was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Blahak also met Fran Tarkenton and became part of the Purple People Eaters culture. “It was really neat,” he said. “It was quite an experience.”
Blahak’s biggest claim to fame, however, traces its roots back to that pugnacious junior speedster who enabled a remarkable punt return in the Game of the Century.
John Hyland, a starting defensive end who played with Blahak, remembers seeing Barry Switzer, who served as an Oklahoma assistant coach for the Game of the Century.
“Switzer had been invited to speak at a lumber dealers’ convention I was attending,” Hyland recalled Monday. “Someone must have clued him in that I was a member of the NU team and had played in the Game of the Century. I walked up to say hello to Barry, and he said to me ‘It was a clip’ before I even had a chance to speak. Of course, he was talking about Joe's block on JR's famous punt return of 72 yards for a score.”
Hyland resurrected that story for one simple reason on a day an admired teammate passed. “Even in Oklahoma, Joe will remain famous,” Hyland said. “Rest In Peace, Brother Joe, as we pray for Diane and all of your family.”
Editor's note: Visitation in memory of Joseph Phillip Blahak will be from 4 to 7 p.m. Wednesday at Roper & Sons, 4300 'O' St., followed by a Rosary at 7 p.m.
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Voices from Husker Nation
I can't help but think of the first time I met Joe Blahak. It was at the long jump pit at the 1969 state high school track meet in Kearney. Joe was watching me jump as I scratched a 21-9 jump by half an inch. It was my turn to watch Joe and he went 23 feet even though he took off a half foot behind the board. What an athlete!! Many of my teammates are absolutely certain we would not be wearing national championship rings if it had not been for Joe. He was not only a great teammate on the field, but also kept the entire team, including coaches, laughing and wondering what he'd do next. You will be missed, my friend. Dave Goeller
Both shocked and saddened at the news of the passing of an old friend and teammate, Joe Blahak. One of those exceptional athletes, Joe also had a larger than life personality but never did his success and accomplishments as one of the heroes in the Game of the Century vs. Oklahoma, the owner of two National Championships rings as a Husker, or participation in a Super Bowl as a Minnesota Viking change who or what he was. Always quick with a smile and a hug for an old friend, I saw Joe for the first time in many years last summer at the golf course after we had moved back to Nebraska. He was genuinely happy to see me. One of the few people who always called me Charlie, Joe greeted me before I even saw him.
We had a good conversation, but he clearly wasn't the same as health issues had plagued him over the years and robbed him of much of his vitality. I first met Joe when we both lived in Columbus in the early 60s. He was a dominant athlete even then. We became teammates as freshmen at Nebraska where he excelled and I eventually took another path more compatible with my own potential. Yet we remained friends who could pick up where we left off conversationally decades ago like it was yesterday. Nebraska truly lost one of its great athletes with Joe's passing, and also one of its greatest ambassadors and human beings. Rest In Peace my friend. I feel blessed to have known you. Chuck Sinclair, Lincoln, Nebraska
Heartfelt condolences go out to the family. Too much sad news lately. Even thinking about all the laughter and smiles all these friends brought doesn't take away the ache of not hearing their voices, or seeing their faces again. I look at this list of email recipients and know I probably don't belong, but because of dad's job, I was lucky enough to meet Huskers from a very young age. I want to tell you all thank you. I'm not planning on anything happening to me but I want you to know that everyone of you that I know holds a special place in my heart and prayers. May God bless and keep you all. Jeff Schneider, Lincoln, Nebraska
My thoughts and prayers go out to Diane and the whole family. Joe really helped me at Nebraska. He felt like my big brother. I will miss him greatly. Randy Borg, Lincoln, Nebraska
Sad news. Remember that Joe was involved all the way down the field in Johnny Rodgers' famous punt return in the 1971 Game of the Century vs Oklahoma. He made the final block against Jon Harrison to clear the way for Rodgers to score. Jeff Kinney, Colorado
I’m in Boston this week and Sunday night, for some reason, I did not sleep well. I found out why the next morning. Joe and I were like brothers. We were born two days apart in the same town and at same hospital in Columbus, Nebraska. We had so many great moments together. As the years went on, he talked more and more about family and the love for his children and grandchildren. I know Joe’s up there kind of snickering at my sadness. We will meet again, my brother. Bill Kosch
Joe was a high school opponent in football, basketball and track and field and a Husker football teammate. There are so many stories to tell about Joe and all of them are funny and make you smile and laugh. The world needs more Joe Blahak's. I pray that the Holy Spirit gives comfort to Diane and the kids. I was blessed to have known Joe! Gary Schmidt, Santa Rosa, California
During my freshman year of spring ball, I was carrying the ball off tackle when Joe filled that hole. Joe was a very physical football player and a hard tackler. We collided and I was stunned, maybe even unconscious for a few seconds. When reality sat in, I found myself sitting on the ground, legs setting out. I looked straight ahead and there was Joe, sitting on the ground. His legs were out and he was looking straight ahead at me. We had hit each other so hard that we knocked each other out in the exact same fashion. As we got up, we both mumbled something about a good hit to each other. I tried to avoid a Joe Blahak tackle from there on out. Tony Davis
Joe was a great person and treated me like an equal. I was a manager from Norfolk and Joe from Columbus. We laughed and joked about everything...very sad day Monday. Pat Stinson, Billings, Montana
I played against Joe, went to school at Omaha Cathedral and was always amazed at the athlete he was in football, basketball and track. I've always told my boys about the block that sprung Johnny Rogers. May he rest in peace. Bob Murray, Broomfield, Colorado
Joe was authentic. He was a good guy who loved his family and shared his kind, caring ways with a small touch of his competitiveness. His smile was contagious and his humor enlightening. I was blessed to know Joe from our college days to days at Lincoln High watching him and Diane support their children. My thoughts and prayers are with you Diane, Chad, Ryan and JaNae. Joe’s spirit of life will always be with us. Rest in Peace Joe! Sam Sharpe, Lincoln, Nebraska
When Joe was a junior at Scotus Central Catholic we had one of the best 880 relay teams in the state. In the state regionals, Bill Kosch and Joe were running the third and fourth legs. They dropped the exchange and Joe came back, picked up the baton and ran one of the fastest 220s ever to win going away. Sadly, they were disqualified for going out of the exchange zone. At NU, I remember being in a meeting watching film. I think Joe was a sophomore at the time. He comes up on a sweep and drills the runner and Monte Kiffin, our defensive coordinator, says “That little corner hasn’t missed a tackle since he’s been here!” May he rest in peace. Steve Wieser
Very sad to hear this. Joe was a guy who always made a strong push to reach out to a lot of the "younger" guys like I was. He was just a great person. Rob Zatechka
So sorry to hear this. Joe was a great player. He was fun to be around and always laughing or saying something funny. Dennis “Loomis” Thorell