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Big kick out of a strange game

Former ski jumper Jan Stenerud of the Kansas City Chiefs has become the best field-goal kicker in a sport he hardly understands

The higher education of Jan Stenerud, a ski jumper from Fetsund, Norway, began one fall afternoon in 1965 when Jim Sweeney, then the head coach at Montana State, held up a bloated object and said, "Son, this is a football." After a pause, Sweeney went on. "Now that tall fellow over there is called a quarterback and those big fat fellows are tackles, and that chalk line you are standing on is called the 50-yard line and, say, why don't you set the ball down and try and kick it way down there through those two skinny poles, which are called goalposts?" Down went the ball. Thunk! Up went the ball, up and away, through the two skinny poles called goalposts, out of sight. "What do you call that?" said Jan Stenerud. "Ah, never mind, son," said Sweeney. "No sense complicating this game. You just trot into that building over there and have the man fit you to a suit. He'll show you how to put it on."

"It was kind of silly, really," remembers Stenerud, now the Kansas City Chiefs' field goal specialist. "One day I was in school on a ski scholarship, the next I was on the football team. And I didn't know anything about football. Nothing. I had gone to a couple of games, but my girl [now Loni Stenerud] had to explain what was happening." He began to laugh. "In fact, it's still embarrassing. She's still explaining the game to me."

The discovery that the star ski jumper (three-time Big Sky champion) was a super football kicker was made, naturally enough, by Montana State's basketball coach, Roger Craft. Well, why not? And it came while Stenerud was running on the school track.

"The track surrounds the football practice field," said Stenerud. "I was out with some of the other skiers, getting my legs in shape for the season. Football practice hadn't yet started that afternoon and some of the players, most of them fellows I knew, were fooling around kicking field goals. After awhile they asked me to try. I did."

The first kick, with Stenerud using his toe as he had seen the others do, was a flop. And painful—he was wearing tennis shoes. Jokingly, he tried another—soccer-style—off his instep. As a high-school youngster in Norway, before accepting the ski-jumping scholarship to Montana State, he had been listed as one of the country's most promising young soccer players. "I've been kicking a ball since I was old enough to walk."

The second kick: Thunk! Forty yards and bull's-eye. And the third and the fourth. He dropped back to midfield: same thing. His last kick flew 60 yards, cleared the crossbar by five feet. "Well I'll be a——" said Craft, who had been watching from the bleachers. Ten minutes later he was telling Sweeney.

That was 60 field goals ago. Eighteen of them were for Montana State, the most spectacular of which was a 59-yarder, an NCAA small college record later broken by Bill Shear of Cortland State. But Stenerud set another college record which should stand forever: a 113-yard field goal try. "I was standing three feet deep in my own end zone," he said, his mouth curving into a small boy's grin. "The wind had been blowing hard all day and our punter was having trouble getting the ball back to the line of scrimmage. The coach thought I'd do better with my style of kicking. I'm sure no one in the stands actually thought I'd make it. But I did get the ball out to mid-field. I remember it so well. I felt ridiculous."

The other 42 field goals—21 as a rookie last season—have been for the Chiefs, who surprised their rivals by drafting Stenerud as a future early in 1966. He had been listed as a senior the year before, but purposely fell seven credits short of graduation in order to take another crack at this crazy game called football. His status then was the same as any five-year redshirt.

The story is that when Stenerud heard he had been drafted, he started looking on the map for Vietnam. Not so, he says. "But I didn't know what a future was. I went to the coach and he explained it to me."

When the Chiefs were playing the Miami Dolphins at the end of the 1966 season, they invited Stenerud to Miami for a tryout. "Do you want to loosen your leg?" said Hank Stram, the Chiefs' burly little coach. Stenerud shrugged, boomed two through from the 40-yard line. "O.K.," he said, "I'm loose. What do you want me to do?" Fred Arbanas, the Kansas City tight end, had been watching. Now he hustled up to Stram. "If we don't sign this kid right now," said Arbanas, "we'll be making the biggest mistake of our lives." Stram sighed; there was a hitch. Atlanta had drafted Stenerud at the end of the season, and he had promised to talk with the Falcons before making a decision.

"But really," says Stenerud, "I had my mind made up five minutes after I talked to Stram. He really impressed me. He didn't just talk to me about signing, he talked about kicking. And he knew what he was talking about. Most coaches don't, or at least I don't think they do. I decided right then that he was the coach I wanted to play for, that he was a man who could help me."

As a halfback at Purdue, Stram kicked a 22-yard field goal to beat Pitt 10-7 in 1946.

"You can forget that," says Stram. "I didn't have one thing to do with developing Stenerud as a kicker. It's all his own natural ability."

"Phooey," says Stenerud, in Norwegian. "He brought me in a month early before my first season. Every day he had me out there kicking 50 balls—and he was doing all the holding. You think that didn't help?"

"Sure it helped," said Stram, grinning. "But it was me it helped, not Jan. I didn't know the first thing about a soccer-style kicker. Now how in the hell was I going to help him if he ever got in a slump if I didn't know what he was doing? That's why I got out there every day; I was the guy doing the learning. If you think he needed help, let me show you some charts."

Stram dug around inside the two huge files in his office, grumbled for a moment when the charts eluded his search, finally came up with the prize. They went something like this: "4 out of 5, 25-yard line, right hash mark; 5-5, 25, middle; 5-5, 25, left; 4-5, 40, right; 5-5, 40, middle; 5-5, 40, left; 4-5, 50, left; 4-5, 50, middle; 3-5, 50, right."

"How's that?" said Stram, jabbing a finger at the charts. "Here's another one: 92 out of 103. And look at this: 136 out of 153. How much help can you give a guy like that?"

"Plenty," Stenerud said later. "Did you notice that the charts showed I was missing mostly from the right hash mark? Well, I didn't know that until Stram pointed it out. He had me work from there, and now it's just like kicking from the middle or the left. He's always thinking. Like just before our first game against Houston this year. On our way there he had us stop off at Indiana State University. They have AstroTurf there and we worked out on it. I found that with regular spikes I couldn't kick a thing—they kept catching in the turf. When we got to Houston I got a special pair of shoes. It made a difference."

The difference was four field goals, with Kansas City winning 26-21. Since, Stenerud has kicked four against New York, two against Denver, two against Miami, four against Buffalo, two against Cincinnati, one against Oakland and two against San Diego. The Chiefs lead their division with a 7-1 record and he leads the American League scoring race with 83 points. With 21 field goals he is only seven shy of both the AFL and NFL records, with six games yet to play.

During a game, Stenerud gives in to assorted superstitions. "It's really silly," he says. "The things I do. I'm even ashamed to tell my wife about it. Like snapping my helmet before a third-down play ends. But if I don't hear the click of the snap before the play ends, I get a horrible feeling that I may miss. Last year I made a point of touching the cleats of my kicking shoe a certain number of times before a kick. But I got rid of that one this year. I'd be better off to get rid of all those small and foolish things."

Coach Stram wouldn't want Stenerud to drop a single silly superstition. "Jan adds an exciting new dimension to our offense," says Stram. "Anytime we get to midfield we're a threat to score three points. He's already made two from 52 yards this season. I'm sure someday he'll make one from 60 yards—heck—65 yards away. There isn't a doubt in my mind that he's the greatest long-distance field-goal kicker who ever played the game."