Matt Blair, one of the greatest linebackers in Vikings history, died Thursday of what’s believed to be complications from chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), the neurodegenerative disease linked to football and considered to be the signature menace in the NFL’s concussion claims in recent years.
He was 70 and had been in hospice care for an extended period of time.
“He’d been suffering for a while, so I guess maybe it’s a blessing in disguise,” said former teammate Scott Studwell, the only person in Vikings history with more tackles than the 1,452 Blair had from 1974-85. “But it’s still too young. It’s a sad day.”
In February 2015, a still-chiseled 64-year-old Blair broke down in tears during a Star Tribune interview. A local neurologist had just given Blair and his wife, Mary Beth, the bad news that his early signs of dementia were likely the results of CTE — which can’t be diagnosed until after death — and were about to accelerate. Blair is believed to have had Alzheimer’s disease at the end.
The look in Blair’s eyes that day in 2015 was chilling.
“Well,” he said, “it’s coming. It’s going deeper for me.”
Like too many football wives, Mary Beth knew her assignment that day was to become the strong one.
“I realize I can’t get emotional because two of us emotional together would be a mess,” she said. “I could see Matt’s eyes welling up with tears. I’m thinking, ‘Breathe, breathe’ because inside I want to cry, too.”
In the fall of 2015, Blair’s former teammate, roommate, fellow linebacker and lifelong friend Fred McNeill died from ALS, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, another neurodegenerative disease linked to CTE. He was 63.
Forty-one years earlier, the Vikings drafted McNeill out of UCLA in the first round and Blair out of Iowa State in the second round. They both played for the Vikings for 12 seasons. Blair became a six-time Pro Bowler and Associated Press first-team All-Pro in 1980.
“Matt was always so big and strong,” said former teammate and Vikings legendary ironman Jim Marshall. “It’s a shame he had to lose everything that he had. That’s the curse of playing football. You look at how many guys we’ve lost this way.”
The man McNeill replaced at the Vikings’ right-side linebacker was Wally Hilgenberg. He died from ALS in 2008. He was 66. Safety Orlando Thomas, who played from 1995-2001, also died of ALS in 2014. He was 42. And Hall of Fame center Mick Tingelhoff has been battling serious cognitive health problems since before his enshrinement in Canton in 2015.
Blair was born Sept. 20, 1950 in Hilo, Hawaii. Among his loves were football and photography, the latter of which he turned into a second career as a noted photographer in the Twin Cities.
He was All-America in 1973 and became an Iowa State Hall of Famer in 1999. In 2012, the Vikings placed him in their Ring of Honor.
Including playoffs and two Super Bowls, Blair played 173 games (139 starts). Only Studwell and Roy Winston played more games at linebacker in Vikings history.
“Matt embodied the best of what it means to be a Viking,” said Vikings owner and president Mark Wilf, via the team’s website. “He is a Ring of Honor player whose legacy will live on forever with the franchise and in the community he loved.”
Blair finished his career with 16 interceptions and 20 fumble recoveries, but it was his uncanny ability to block punts, PATs and field goals that many people remember most about his career.
He had 20 of them. Yes, 20, said Greg Coleman, former Vikings punter and the longtime friend of Blair’s.
“He was 6-5, which was unusual at the time, and he was what Bud [Grant] would call a leaper,” Coleman said. “Bud would have the big hogs up front to root the offensive line back. And then Matt was one of the most dominant kick-blocking linebackers ever.”
It was Coleman who got the word Thursday from Mary Beth that Blair had died. He relayed the information via text to more than 20 or so former teammates and friends.
“As a person, he was a hell of a man,” Coleman said. “He probably had as big a heart as anybody on that team. Always laughing that big, gregarious laugh of his.
“But he also took his responsibility as a leader and a captain seriously. He always led by example, but he also wasn’t afraid to tell a guy, ‘Hey, that’s not how we do it around here. This is how we do things.’ He was a great man who was not hard to follow.”