From www.nfl.com March '98
He Got a Kick Out of the NFL
Jan Stenerud Helped Change the Way One Part of the Game Is PlayedBy James Buckley, Jr.
Jan Stenerud flew off a ski jump in Norway and landed in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.A kicker with three NFL teams from 1966-1985, Stenerud was at the head of a group of foreign-born athletes who revolutionized kicking in the 1960s and 1970s. They used skills learned in one sport--soccer -- to become successful in another -- football. Along the way, they turned heads, offended purists, and broke every record in the books.
Hungary's Pete Gogolak actually was the first soccer-style kicker in pro football; he joined the AFL's Buffalo Bills in 1964. While Gogolak had some success, going on to play for 11 seasons with the Bills and Giants, it was a young Norwegian ski jumper who really put soccer-style kicking on the map.
Stenerud earned a skijumping scholarship for the Montana State University (they had such things back then). One afternoon in 1966, during his junior year, he was working out with the ski team, running the stadium steps, when the football team came out for a warmup. Curious about the game he had seen only from the stands, he tried a few extra-point kicks before practice started.
"I had seen kickers in games before and they used their toe," he remembers. "So that's how I tried it at first. But after a few kicks, I thought, 'Why not try it like we take a corner kick or goal kick in soccer?'" Although ski jumping was his main sport, Stenerud had been a soccer player in his native Norway since he was a boy.
"I guess I hit them pretty good kicking that way," he says. "I didn't even know what a long kick was. The players encouraged me to try out. They said there was a guy named Pete Gogolak in the AFL who kicked like me. That was the first time I had ever heard of Pete. I didn't even know who Jim Brown or Johnny Unitas was, let alone Pete."
Coached in the mental side of the game by Montana State football coach Jim Sweeney, but on his own when it came to learning kicking technique, Stenerud used the leg strength and mental concentration powers of a ski jumper to succeed in his new sport.
"My ski-jumping background was very important to my kicking success," he says. "Along with the strength gained by walking up and down the ski hill all day, I had to have concentration. Ski-jumping is nothing but concentration and timing. You have to focus totally on the ramp, regardless of the wind or the weather or anything."
That ability to block out the environment came in handy in learning to deal with onrushing defenders and screaming crowds. A collegiate-record 59-yard field goal in his senior year drew the attention of scouts, including Bobby Beathard of the Chiefs, who signed Stenerud after Kansas City drafted the Norwegian athlete. (Beathard went on to make more NFL international history by signing Australian punter Darren Bennett to the Chargers.)
While soccer-style kickers would begin to endure the taunts of tradition-clad NFL players, coaches, and fans (Alex Karras's famous response when asked how to cut down on field goals: "Tighten immigration laws"), Stenerud reports that he never faced ridicule.
"I must say that I was accepted marvelously in Kansas City," he says. "We had a veteran team who thought I could help them. I didn't experience any of the problems other kickers faced."
Soon Stenerud was the problem other teams faced. He helped the Chiefs reach Super Bowl II and win Super Bowl IV. Stenerud scored more than 100 points in each of his first five seasons in the league, including a career-high 30 field goals in 1970. His long-distance kickoffs were legendary. Kansas City groundskeeper George Toma used to mark with a big, white X the spots that Stenerud's kickoffs hit on the wall behind the end zone. If it worked for the Chiefs, other NFL coaches began to believe, why can't it work for us?
Soon soccer-style kickers were coming to the NFL from Austria, Germany, Poland, Germany, and England, as well as Latin American countries such as Mexico and Paraguay.
"Once I had some success," Stenerud says. "teams went looking for kickers like myself and Pete [Gogolak]. They went on kicking caravans to Europe. I was a decent soccer player, but I knew that there had to be other players out there who could kick farther than me. After my first year, [Chiefs coach] Hank Stram went to Europe and came back with three kickers to challenge me in camp." Two of those kickers, England's Bobby Howfield and Germany's Horst Muhlmann, went on to successful NFL careers. But they couldn't take Stenerud's job.
"All these guys came over and tried it with our team and with others," Stenerud says proudly. "But there was still no one who could kick it farther than me."
That remained true for much of Stenerud's 19-year NFL career, which included stints with the Packers and Vikings, as well as the Chiefs. When he retired in 1985, he was the NFL's all-time leader in field goals with 373 (a total since surpassed by Nick Lowery), and was number-two all-time in scoring with 1,699 points. In 1991, he became the first pure kicker to be elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The legacy of Stenerud, Gogolak, and others like them can be seen today in successful foreign-born kickers such as Atlanta's Morten Anderson (Denmark), San Francisco's Gary Anderson (South Africa), and Minnesota's Eddie Murray (Canada). The impact of soccer-style kicking is complete; no NFL or NCAA Division I kickers use any other style.
"I think it's safe to say that we changed the game," Stenerud says of himself and his fellow "sidewinders." "Now that all the NFL kickers use this style, and with the growth of soccer in this country, teams don't have to look to other countries to find kickers."
Today, Stenerud, while working as the director of marketing for Kansas City sports stadium and arena builder HTNB Company, looks to other countries for future NFL fans. He has done Super Bowl broadcasts for Norwegian television for several years, and is excited about the possibilities for the game in Europe and around the world.
"I remember at first thinking that football players were just a bunch of overweight guys," he says. "But once I learned more about it, I discovered their speed, their quickness, their athleticism and toughness. I think if fans in other countries understand that, and understand the elements of strategy, they will see that American football is a hell of lot more exciting than soccer. From the pregame pageantry and tailgating to the halftime shows to the excitement of the crowds, really there is no more exciting sport in the world than football."
Coming from Stenerud, a world traveler who has made a permanent mark on the NFL, that's quite an endorsement.