Q&A With Cyclone Legend Matt Blair
AMES, Iowa – Former Iowa State football player Matt Blair is one of the most recognizable athletes in Cyclone history. That’s because he’s been a gigantic success in every phase of his career.
At Iowa State, the linebacker was the MVP of the 1971 Sun Bowl and earned All-America honors (1973) as one of the most ferocious tacklers in school history. He parlayed his collegiate accomplishments into a fantastic 12-year career in the NFL (1974-85), becoming one of the most revered players in Minnesota Viking history by playing in six Pro Bowls.
Blair’s stats with the Vikings are staggering. He’s second all-time in Viking history in tackles (1,452) while starting 130 times in 160 career games played. He also has the most sacks (23) and interceptions (16) by a linebacker in franchise history.
His incredible Viking career was validated when he became the 20th member of the prestigious Viking Ring of Honor in 2012. He was also inducted into the ISU Letterwinners Hall of Fame in 1999.
Cyclones.com had the chance to talk to Blair recently on a wide array topics. Read below and learn about how Blair got to Iowa State, the myth behind the greatest bone-jarring tackle in Cyclone history, the art of blocking kicks and his post-athletic career in photography.
How Did You End Up At Iowa State?
MB: My road to Iowa State started when my family moved to Ohio for my last years in high school. I needed a scholarship if I was going to get an education. I spent my senior year in Dayton, Ohio and the University of Cincinnati came down and said, ‘Man, you have potential to play for us, but you’re academics are not very good and you need to go through a junior college to get your grades up.’ So, I ended up at Northeast Oklahoma Junior College. My family didn’t have much money and I just wanted to go to school and get the education. So I went down to NEO and tried out for football. I made the team, but I didn’t start, so I kind of pushed myself to see if I could get on the traveling squad. I did that in my first year. In 1969, NEO won the Junior College Championship. After that I needed another half scholarship, so I went out for the basketball team and I made the team. I started getting better and doing better in school. Since we had just won the JUCO championship, a lot of us were starting to get noticed by a lot of schools. Alabama came over and so did Florida. Between my freshman year and the time I came back for my sophomore year, I grew three inches and gained 40 pounds. When that happened, all the schools knew about it and many started coming from all over to give me an offer during my sophomore year. I even had offers to play basketball as well. So I narrowed it down to Iowa State and Florida State. ISU brought their coaches down and I really appreciated that. So I just had to decide between Iowa State and Florida State. I chose Iowa State, because the one thing that Johnny Majors told me was I would be on the fourth team and that I would have to work my way up to the first team. And that was something I always appreciated, and that’s why I chose Iowa State.
In Blair’s senior season at Iowa State in 1973, one of the most talked about plays in Cyclone history occurred. Iowa State traveled to Fayetteville, Ark., to play the Arkansas Razorbacks on Sept. 29. The Razorbacks had a star running back named Dickey Morton, who was a two-time All-SWC selection and was the all-time leading rusher (3,317) in SWC history when he graduated in 1973. On the last play of the first quarter and Arkansas up 10-0, Blair leveled Morton for a six-yard loss on a sweep right play. He knocked him out of the game. Cyclone radio broadcaster and icon Pete Taylor said, “Blair hit him with such force the crowd let out a collective groan and you could hear the pads pop from the press box.” The fierce hit has been a part of Cyclone lore for 40 years. So what really happened?
Tell Us About The Famous Hit On Arkansas’ Dickey Morton?
MB: Our coaches always told us, ‘you got to go get these guys.’ You don’t want to hurt anybody, but you have to make the tackles and timing is everything. You have to understand what you have to do when the time comes. So, when we were in Arkansas, they had a star running back and they ran an end-around sweep for him. They tossed the ball to him and by the time he got it, I was outside and I was coming in at probably at 110 percent. I just nailed him as soon as he caught the ball and it knocked him out of the game. It’s something that a lot of people have brought up to me through the years.
Did You Ever Believe You Would Play 12 Years In The NFL And Make Six Pro Bowls?
MB: Most college football players have the mindset, ‘hey, I want to go to the NFL.’ I just wanted to work hard. I didn’t anticipate being in the NFL, but I was told that I had a chance to go. I was lucky to get the chance and move up to the next level, and again you have to set your goal for what you want to do each day that you live. The one thing that I was very conscious about was when a coach told me that I had to do 10 sprints and do weights and do other things, I would write those things down. And each day that I live to this day, I write things down when people tell me what I need to do and I mark them off when I complete the task. If I mark them off that means I did what I was supposed to be doing. And that has been a very inspirational part of my life, just writing things down. So that has been a positive way for me, and all those years, I’ve always written things down for what I need to do and what I need to get done. That really helped me when I got to the NFL.
What Was It Like To Play In Two Super Bowls?
MB: I was blessed to play with some great players in Minnesota. Guys like Fran Tarkenton, Bill Brown, Chuck Foreman, Gary Larsen, Carl Eller and Alan Page, I mean these guys knew what they were doing. When I got there in 1974, we were really good and I just jumped in and tried to do the best that I could. When you’re playing in a big game—something that the whole world is watching like the Super Bowl- it’s such a great feeling. We lost to Pittsburgh in my rookie year in the Super Bowl, but I was able to block a kick to get the only score for us in the game. And then in our next Super Bowl, we played the Oakland Raiders, and believe it or not, my roommate, Fred McNeil, blocked a punt also, but we didn’t score on it. I was in my third year when we lost to Oakland and I said to myself, ‘if we go again, we will win,’ but we never got there again. Sometimes I feel since you don’t know how big of a game it is you don’t know how to prepare for it. I thought once we got to the Super Bowl we lost a little of our focus in getting ready to play the game. I just felt like we never had enough time to get together as a team to work on what we needed to do as a team, with the special teams and offense and defense and everything.
If you were lucky enough to watch Blair in the NFL you saw he possessed a unique skill. He had the incredible knack of blocking kicks. At 6-5, Blair was tall for a linebacker, but he was also extremely quick and could jump. In his rookie season, Blair blocked a Pittsburgh Steeler punt in Super Bowl IX which led to the only score of the game for the Vikings. In all, Blair blocked a total of 20 kicks in his career, which ranks third all-time in NFL history.
What Made You So Successful At Blocking Kicks?
MB: I think my background in basketball helped me, without a doubt. When I first went out for the basketball team at NEO, I didn’t know how to slam dunk. The guys on the team showed me how to do it and if you tell me to work on something, I will work at it. By the time I was done playing for them I was slam dunking- with one hand, two hands, off the board- everything. That was kind of how I started teaching myself how to jump. This helped me with blocking kicks. When you’re trying to block a kick, you have to time your jump, jump at the right time and at the right angle. I really tried to focus on that when I was a rookie and I started getting better at it. I wish the preseason games counted in the records in the NFL. I definitely would have been the guy that had blocked the most kicks in the NFL. I had a preseason game where I blocked three kicks and another pre-season game where I blocked two, but you can’t count those. It was just something I really loved doing.
In 2012, Blair was paid the ultimate tribute by the only team he played for when the Minnesota Vikings added him to its elite Ring of Honor. Only 21 Vikings are in the exclusive club and he is the only Cyclone to be honored by an NFL franchise as one of its all-time greats.
How Special Was It For You To Make The Minnesota Vikings Ring Of Honor?
MB: It was so special. When I first started, I just wanted to get a scholarship so I could get my education. That was my goal. But the scholarship for football opened the door for me. Then my goal was to make the Viking team. Playing at Iowa State really helped me because I played a lot of positions. I learned how to cover different positions and that was something I had an edge on most linebackers. After I made the Vikings, I realized that I had extra gift of being able to put in extra work. Being selected for the Minnesota Vikings Ring of Honor, it’s just outstanding for me. I didn’t expect all this stuff and I tried to be very humble and accepting of all the good things that have happened to me throughout the years.
You Are Very Active In Social Media And Continue To Show Your Support Of Iowa State. Are You Happy With Your Decision To Attend Iowa State?
MB: When I first came to Iowa State it was like when I first went to Oklahoma, all the people there took me in and helped me out. It was the same thing when I came to Iowa State. You meet people that become part of your family and part of your life. And what they do to help you become who you are is really special. So, that is something that is great about Iowa State. If I didn’t go to Iowa State and went to Florida State, I probably wouldn’t be where I am at now. I’m glad I chose Iowa State. I remember the first week I got there, it was in our third quarter and everyone had gone home, and I’m there that whole week. I got out of school early to come up and I stayed in the dormitory at Wilson on 7th floor. And it was snowing, it was raining and lightning, and I said ‘oh boy what did I get myself into this time!’
After Retiring From The Vikings You Have Become A Successful Photographer. How Did You Get Started In That Career?
MB: People always ask me that (laughs). My Dad was in the Air Force and I lived everywhere growing up. I was born in Hawaii- lived in Alaska, Spain, Idaho, Texas, Pennsylvania, Kentucky - I mean everywhere. I looked at different things when I was traveling. I always thought it was cool to capture images when you walk through life, especially when you see something and you may never see it again. So when I made the Vikings, I bought a camera. I took a trip over to Europe and I took photos. When I came back I showed them to my friends and they thought they were pretty cool. And when I get that expression from people that says, ‘that’s good,’ then my mind starts to think. Taking pictures and stopping time is something I’ve always enjoyed doing. And that’s when I started doing that, and when I go places I just bring the camera and take photos. Where I really got into taking photos was when I started taking pictures of my teammates throughout my career. And I’ve got photos people have never seen. It’s just one of those things. I should put a book out of pictures of my past teammates in it. I got one picture of in St. Paul, where we use to practice, inside the locker room where we are having our defensive meeting and Jim Marshall is laying up on top of the lockers. And Alan Page and Carl Eller were sitting inside of these lockers. It was kind of a cool picture. And I have pictures of Chuck Foreman and Fran Tarkenton. I got pictures of about everybody on those Viking teams. I then started taking a lot nature photos. I’ve been everywhere taking pictures. I enjoy it and just love it.
Click here to visit Matt Blair's website.