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Original Issue


Are soccer-style field-goal kickers really better? To find out, Sports Illustrated carried a pair of U.S. pros almost to Newcastle to test two of the best in all Britain

Pete Gogolak started the argument. Ever since the former Hungarian soccer player ran sideways at an American professional football and kicked it between the goalposts three years ago in Buffalo, there has been debate over which is better—the ritualistic, squared-up, one-step field-goal method that has dominated the game since the end of the dropkick era or the diagonal approach of kickers who have been trained in soccer.

Soccer-style enthusiasts claim their method is more accurate, especially from shorter distances. There is enough merit in their claim to have persuaded two more pro clubs to employ soccer-style kickers last season, and nearly every team in both leagues has had a soccer kicker in for a tryout.

The classicists insist their method is just as accurate, gets the ball away faster and is more powerful. It might seem the argument could be settled by comparing the statistics of the three soccer-style kickers—Pete Gogolak, now of New York, brother Charlie Gogolak of Washington and Garo Yepremian of Detroit with the results obtained by conventional kickers. But that is not the case, as the kickers themselves, a touchy group, are quick to declare.

Many factors have a bearing on a kicker's success, among them the condition of the field, the quality of his protection against the rush he is facing, the weather and the distance he is attempting. Sam Baker of the Philadelphia Eagles tried a 58-yard field goal against San Francisco in the rain last season. "It was like kicking a wet duck." Baker says. The miss from 58 yards shows up in Baker's statistics merely as a number, as does the kick he made from 51 yards.

Strangely enough, hardly any coach in either pro league is really satisfied with his field-goal kicker. Last season Danny Villanueva of Dallas kicked 56 extra points without a miss, kicked 17 of 31 field goals and finished second in the NFL in scoring with 107 points. To show what they thought of Villanueva's performance, the Cowboys have launched what they call a Kicking Karavan to cover 29 cities, offering open trials for any waiter, enchilada cook or truck driver who considers himself a pro kicker.

Coaches believe no field-goal kicker should miss from inside the 30-yard line, regardless of his style. The good kickers rarely do miss from that range. The fad that they ever do is as much the fault of the coaches as of the kickers, according to Baker.

"Most coaches are ignorant." Baker says. "They don't understand what is involved in kicking. The truth is the center makes the holder and the holder makes the kicker. Kicking is a matter of timing. The more a coach lets his center, his holder and his kicker work together in practice, the better the kicking will be. A kicker can stand out there by himself in practice and kick the ball off a tee all day long and it doesn't help him.

"At Philadelphia we have a great center in Jim Ringo. He gets the ball back fast and right to the spot every time. We have a great holder in Joe Scarpati. He catches the ball out in front of him, where I can see it, and he gets it down fast onto the spot without spinning the laces in a way that would distract my vision. Our coach [Joe Kuharich] let us have all the practice time together that we wanted. That's why we had a good kicking year."

With all those factors to mull over, it would be impossible to judge soccer-style kickers' results against those of conventional kickers. The only way to make any sort of judgment would be to match a good soccer kicker against a good conventional kicker under precisely the same conditions—on the same held, on the same day, with the same center and holder.

That is what SPORTS ILLUSTRATED did recently at St. Helens, north of Liverpool, England, putting two conventional U.S. kickers against one of the best English soccer kickers and throwing in a top Rugby kicker to cover the field.

The contestants:

Sam Baker, 6'1", 230 pounds, 35 years old, of the Philadelphia Eagles. A 12-year pro veteran who started his career as a fullback. Baker played for Cleveland, Washington and Dallas before being traded to Philadelphia, where he also punts. He is an extrovert and an independent thinker who does not hesitate to speak out, a trait that not all coaches find desirable. Working with Ringo and Scarpati, Baker got off his kicks in an average of 1.3 seconds last season and kicked one in a fantastic 1.1 seconds. A time of 1.5 or 1.6 is good enough. Last year Baker had the best percentage of any kicker in the league. He made 18 of 25, including 14 without a miss from inside the 40. From the 40 to the 49 he kicked three of seven. He kicked one of four from beyond the 50, was the only kicker in the NFL to score from that distance. The league average on field goals was .557, with .73 accuracy inside the 30. Bruce Gossett of the Rams set a record by kicking 28 field goals, but he missed 21 and finished with .571.

Mike Mercer, 6', 220 pounds, 31 years old, of the Buffalo Bills. Mercer started last season with Oakland but wound up kicking for Kansas City, which won the AFL championship and played in the Super Bowl, where Mercer kicked a 31-yard field goal. Over the last three years Mercer has kicked 45 of 68 field goals. Until last season he was also a punter. In one four-year stretch he kicked 147 consecutive extra points. Last season Mercer kicked 21 of 30 field goals, including three from 47 yards, and one from 50. Of his misses, two were from 48 yards and one from 50. He had a streak of seven in a row and 12 of 15. Son of Ken Mercer, who played pro football for New York and Philadelphia in the 1920s, Mercer says that "the secret for the kicker is relaxation. You must meet the ball square. It's like golf, in that when you try to kick too hard you tend to hook the ball. You can always tell when you've hit a good kick. It makes a sharp sound like ping! A bad one goes bloomp!"

Len Killeen, 5'11", 182 pounds, 28 years old, of the Rugby League Club of St. Helens. Rugby League is the tougher, professional version of Rugby Union, which is sort of a cross between soccer and American football. Killeen, a South African who was imported to England four years ago to play Rugby, is a wing three-quarter who must stay on the field for the entire 80 minutes of the no-substitution Rugby League game and must do much of his team's ballcarrying. The dark-haired, left-footed Killeen is his team's best kicker. He punts on the run and considers a good punt as "50 to 70 yards, although there are days I can't get 'em out of the 40s." As a field-goal kicker, Killeen uses the classic North American style, but he can kick soccer style when he needs to place the ball at a certain point to gain an advantage under Rugby rules. For a field goal he has no center or holder. Killeen heels out a small divot in the ground, stands the ball on end and kicks it. In the Rugby League Cup Final at Wembley Stadium in London last May, he kicked a 70-yard field goal from an angle five yards in from the sideline, despite the hooting of fans who thought that it was impossible. He was voted Man of the Match.

Bobby Charlton, 5'9", 161 pounds, 29 years old, of the Manchester United Football (soccer) Club. Charlton, who is as well known in England as Mickey Mantle or Johnny Unitas in the U.S., played on England's World Cup championship team last summer. He is one of the best soccer kickers in the world. Charlton learned to play soccer by kicking a bundle of rags around the back alleys of the mining town where he was raised. The object in soccer is to kick the ball under the crossbar rather than over it, which makes the U.S.-style kick unnatural to Charlton. Like all right-footed soccer-style kickers, Charlton must plant his left foot hard to get a power base, and that handicaps him on a muddy field. Also in common with soccer-style kickers, Charlton kicks the U.S. ball with a hook. A superb athlete, he can kick almost as well with his left foot as with his right. "The soccer style should be more accurate with any kind of ball, at least from shorter distances," says Charlton, "because if the kicker misses the center of the ball he still gets more foot on it with his follow-through. But from far out, a ball kicked soccer-style floats instead of shooting forward, and therefore it drops earlier."

The balls that were used in the contest were six American Football League regulation footballs. Baker, however, brought three NFL balls of his own and kicked them exclusively. Mercer thinks the NFL ball is fatter and easier to kick, but in a pre-Super Bowl controversy Cleveland Quarterback Frank Ryan, blindfolded, could not tell the balls apart. Killeen and Charlton had kicked American footballs once before, during a practice session two months prior to their meeting with Baker and Mercer. Using a center and a holder from a U.S. Air Force team, they each tried 15 kicks from the 20-, 30- and 40-yard lines. Charlton missed once, from the 40. Killeen did not miss until they moved back to the 50. "The American football," Killeen said, "is a better ball to kick than the Rugby ball up to 40 yards, but it is harder at 50." Charlton agreed. "The big problem with our [soccer] ball is getting it off the ground," Charlton said. "The American ball is almost off the ground already when it's stood up."

The Rugby League ball is very similar to the American ball in weight, length and girth, but less pointed. Dr. Mike Judd, a British aerodynamics expert, studied both balls for SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. He found no significant difference in performance. "Theoretically, the rougher surface texture of the American ball could result in lower drag and greater distance," Judd said. "But the Rugby ball is slightly softer at the correct pressure than the American ball, allowing the toe or instep to sink in further at impact. The result is the Rugby ball rises more easily."

The four kickers met on a gray, rainy day at the 35,000-seat Rugby League stadium in St. Helens. The dressing room was small and cold, and there was a pit in the floor, crusted with old bars of soap, for communal bathing. Baker and Mercer looked around as if they had blundered into the room where the yard tools were kept, but Killeen and Charlton were already hanging their clothes on nails along the wall. The kickers shook hands and then examined each other obliquely. Mercer and Baker had never heard of Charlton and Killeen, and vice versa. Somebody asked Killeen if he had any idea what was happening in a football game when Baker or Mercer tried to kick a field goal.

"Yes," he said. "There's four chaps blocking."

It was explained that there were nine chaps blocking and, possibly, 11 rushing.

"Picture that," said Killeen.

"But I've only been knocked down once after a field goal in the last three years," Mercer said.

"Well, you just got to blot those chaps out of your mind, then," said Killeen.

Charlton put on shorts and a pair of soft soccer shoes. Killeen wore shorts, a sweat shirt and his high-topped Rugby shoes, which looked as if they might have been left to him in Jim Thorpe's will. The leather was cracked and wrinkled. "These is bad boots," Killeen said. "Usually I can wear a pair for two years. These has cracked in less than a season."

"You really kick in those things?" said Baker.

"Not much way out of it," Killeen said.

Charlton and Killeen were fascinated by Baker's kicking shoe, which had a wide metal blade extending from the toe, rather like a lawn edger facing horizontally. Mercer's shoe had a hard square toe on the right foot, but it was Baker's that grabbed attention.

"Look at that great bloody boot," Charlton said softly. "What does he think this is, golf?"

They went out to warm up on a muddy, poorly tended field that felt something like rice pudding underfoot. Killeen ran a couple of laps, kicking a football along in front of him, yelling at Charlton, and then he picked up the football and booted a perfect 40-yard dropkick between the posts. Several of Killeen's teammates and former Rugby players came out to watch. One fellow who was sweeping the stands leaned on his broom for a moment and shouted to Killeen, "Keep your head down now!" Killeen laughed. "Easy for you to say," he said. To the absolute amazement of Baker and Mercer, the fellow with the broom was identified as the St. Helens manager (coach). It is part of his job to keep the place clean. Besides playing some 40 to 50 regular-season games per year, nearly every Rugby League player must have a full-time outside job. Killeen is a car salesman. His total income is about $10,000 a year, of which one-third is his Rugby salary. Charlton, one of the highest-paid team-sports athletes in England, earns about $25,000, and half of that comes from endorsements.

The field was marked for the contest. Bobby Brewer, quarterback of the U.S. Air Force team at Wethersfield, knelt to hold for practice kicks while Les Thrash, assistant coach of the same team, snapped the ball. Mercer had not kicked since the Super Bowl some six weeks earlier, and Baker had not kicked since the Runnerup Bowl a week before that. Both had done so much walking in London that Baker had worn holes in his socks. "My leg feels like spaghetti," Mercer said. After some practice kicks it was decided to abandon the center snap and to use the holder with a kicking tee he had brought because of the mud, although tees are not legal in professional football. The kicking was to be done with reasonable speed but was not timed at a rigid 1.5 seconds.

From the 30, Mercer missed two of his first four kicks and then quit using the tee. Baker hit four of five. Charlton, slipping in the mud and hooking badly, missed his first three kicks. Killeen, wide with his first kick, was singed by his rooters behind the goalposts. He responded by kicking four in a row. His rooters would catch the balls by trapping them with their feet, a soccer trick. The British are constantly astounded by the Americans' ability to catch a ball with the hands. Throwing the balls back, the rooters would grasp them at the point and hurl them like grenades until an American bystander showed a couple of them how to throw a wobbly spiral, which pleased them.

After his shaky start, Mercer hit his fifth try from the 30 and proceeded to kick 11 in a row, not missing one again until the first kick from the 45. Baker had a string of 10 of 11, missing one from the 35 and his last two from the 40. Killeen kicked seven in a row from the 30 to the 35, missed two, then kicked four of five from the 40. But Killeen was starting to flinch. "Len can't kick that hard ball with his soft-toed shoes. It hurts him," said Charlton, who hit eight of nine from the 35 to the 45. Some of Charlton's misses went under the crossbar. "I wish they'd all go under the bar. I don't want him to start ballooning his kicks in a real game," said a British observer.

Charlton, still hooking, made one from the 45 and none from the 50. Killeen had three near misses from the 45, kicked two, then missed all five from the 50, although four were so close that they looked good before they dropped under the bar. "Len ought to get one of those big kicking boots, go to America and make a fortune," Charlton said.

The middle of the field at the 50-yard line at St. Helens was a sink. The idea of kicking out of a hole in the ground had not perturbed Charlton or Killeen. But Baker and Mercer decided to move back another yard and a half to a spot where the ground, though muddy, was at least level. From nearly 52 yards out, Baker kicked two of five. Of the misses, one hit the upright and another hit the crossbar. From the same place, Mercer also kicked two of five, but of his three misses two hit the crossbar and one hit the post. It is reasonable to assume that, had they kicked from the 50, Baker and Mercer might have made all five. But, of course, Killeen and Charlton might have done much better had they not kicked out of a hole.

"Ever try one from this far out in a game?" asked Baker.

"Hardly," Charlton said. "We've got goalkeepers, you know. They knock it down."

Neither Charlton nor Killeen was much impressed with the thought of Baker or Mercer as athletes. To a soccer player or a Rugby player, someone who merely kicks contributes little. The concept of a kicking specialist is, to them, ridiculous. "Anybody can do that," Charlton said. "You have to be a little bit big, have a little ball sense and it's easy, particularly with those big boots. There's no real skill involved. But I suppose if I had all those fellows rushing at me I wouldn't like it."

Mercer and Baker were both impressed with Killeen, who has quick action and a very strong leg. Baker promised to send Killeen a pair of kicking shoes with the plate on the proper foot. "My only reservation about him is if he can kick with a rush on," said Mercer. "If he can do that, there's no reason why he couldn't make it as a pro in the U.S." Killeen, whose season ends in May, wants to come to the U.S. for a trial. "I don't see why you should get all worked up about rushers if you've got chaps to block," he said. "I'd like a go at it."

Mercer, with 17 of 25 despite two misses from the 30, was an easy winner. Baker kicked 14 of 25. Killeen finished one behind Baker. Charlton's failure from the 45 and farther out left him fourth with 10 of 25. The fact that the Americans were not in top shape was balanced by the strange ball Killeen and Charlton were kicking. Killeen suffered most, since he was kicking in the conventional style with a soft shoe.

The three who kicked in the conventional style outscored the soccer kicker by an appreciable margin. Up to the 40-yard line Charlton held his own. Beyond that point his style no longer gave him an equal chance, and he admitted it. "This is my limit," he said after a few kicks from the 45. The conclusion would seem to be that the classicists win the argument. A conventional kicker has the advantage with an American football from the greater distances. From shorter range a soccer kicker is very accurate, but so is a good conventional kicker. Perhaps, rather than chasing around the world for soccer-style kickers, pro football coaches should follow Sam Baker's advice and devote more practice time to the centers, holders and kickers they already have.