Blair leaves mark on his Terps family Appreciation

November 30, 1995|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,SUN STAFF

Joe F. Blair would not have liked an appreciation article.

He spent most of his life pushing others into the spotlight as a sports publicist at the University of Maryland (1950 to 1962, 1983 to 1995) and in a similar capacity with the Washington Redskins (1962 to 1983).

In fact, he so disliked attention that his name appeared in lower case on news releases: joe f. blair.

Blair, 72, died Nov. 15 in a Pittsburgh hospital of complications from a stroke. A memorial service at the chapel on the Maryland campus will be held today at 2 p.m. in his honor.

It is fitting. Blair was as much an institution at Maryland as Jack Scarbath, Dick Shiner, Jim Tatum, Randy White, Boomer Esiason, Len Elmore or John Lucas.

Blair was paid to promote athletes, but the professionalism that he demonstrated had a warmth and kindness that will leave an impact on so many lives.

"It was never a job to Joe," said Maryland lacrosse coach Dick Edell. "You and I have a wife and kids, but these teams were his life."

Blair had a distinctive style. The bow ties. The phrase "doohickey" when a player's name slipped his mind, even though he never, ever forgot his football or lacrosse players. He usually had a Pall Mall cigarette in one hand and a cup of 7-Eleven coffee in the other.

There could not be a Maryland football season without Blair wearing those Bermuda shorts and draping a towel over his shoulder to catch some sweat during the annual August team picture day.

And, oh, the smile and the wink. It was boyish. It was part of the Blair charm.

Some men have buildings named after them, but Blair had 18 kids named in honor of him by friends.

His relationship with the media was just as special.

Each Maryland beat writer became a part of Blair's family. The Washington Times' John Hawkins once was 15 minutes late for a Penn State-Maryland game at Memorial Stadium. Blair was pacing nervously when Hawkins finally appeared, saying he had car trouble.

"I've been worried about you," said Blair. "Next time you're late, find a phone booth to call me. Or better yet, buy a new car."

That was vintage Blair. Always concerned.

"I remember when my father had a stroke two years ago, Joe called either me or my mother every week," said Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Neil O'Donnell, who graduated from Maryland in 1989. "That's just the way he was. Joe was loyal to anyone he came into constant contact with. He had an instant bond because of his warm spirit."

It's little wonder Blair received hundreds of cards while he was hospitalized. He seemed to know everybody from Dean Smith to Mike Krzyzewski, and loved to tell stories about his days working for Vince Lombardi, George Allen and Jack Pardee.

"On my last visit to Maryland, I sat and talked with Joe for hours. He always took out the old clips and photos and talked about the old days," said Larry Webster, a 1990 graduate of Maryland and now a defensive tackle with the Cleveland Browns. "You couldn't go back without talking to Joe. He was very much a part of the program."

Blair was the players' protector. He once was caught trying to hide wide receiver Dan Prunzik from reporters after a late-night fight. Blair also had the power of persuasion, once getting senior quarterback John Kaleo to break his vow of silence seven days before the season opener.

"The kid had never played a full game at Maryland," said Blair then. "I said, 'Look, son, if you play a bad game, these reporters are going to destroy you. You better go out and make as many friends as you can, in case you don't become a star.' "

Blair was as humble as he was quiet. He cried from embarrassment in 1991 when the third floor of the new press box at Byrd Stadium was named the Blair-Zane Media Work Area in honor of him and Jack Zane, another longtime Terps publicist.

"Don't you write about this in the paper," Blair said. "If you're going to get the space, give it to some deserving kid."

Blair loved Maryland, and was devastated by the fallout years after the death of basketball player Len Bias in June 1986. He looked forward to seeing Maryland establish itself in football again.

"I think Mark Duffner is going to turn it around, and I just hope I'm alive when we have our first winning season under him," Blair said three years ago.

Nearly four weeks ago, with Blair hospitalized in Louisville, Maryland beat N.C. State, 30-13, to clinch its first winning season since 1990, and the first under Duffner. The Terps dedicated the game to Blair.

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