Where have you gone, Pete Gogolak? It seems that the innovation you brought to the attention of the country in 1964—kicking a football soccer-style right there on national television—has carried everything before it. Today, 26 of 28 NFL kickers (and about 70% of their collegiate counterparts) use some sort of instep-forward, sidesaddle technique. In the past year, in fact, there's even been a soccer-inspired change in the very equipment used in kicking.
A Pelè Autograph Model spherical pigskin? Well, not quite. What there is instead is a soccer-style kicking tee, devised by one of the technique's foremost practitioners. (The kicking tee first came into college football rules in 1946 and pro football's two years later.) "I guess nobody else ever took time out to think about the problem," says the new tee's inventor, Jan Stenerud. Stenerud, of course, is the veteran place kicker who now plays for Green Bay. The problem, as he sees it, is that the traditional plastic ball-holder, designed in a straight-forward era of square-toed, All-America kickers, is as conducive to sideways kicking as Chevy spare parts are to a Peugeot. "On the old-style tee," says Stenerud, "the two little pegs that hold up the ball are parallel. When you kick soccer-style, your foot is at an angle, with the toe ahead of the heel. A lot of times your foot hits the peg first, before hitting the ball." Which sends the tee flying downfield but doesn't do much for kickoff distance. "And in practice, after hitting that tee about 50 times, your foot really begins to hurt," adds Stenerud.
It was a dull ache he put up with for about 15 years of kicking. "I had the idea for the new tee almost from the beginning of my career," says Stenerud; it wasn't until 1980 (when the Kansas City Chiefs gave him "some time off" by releasing him), however, that he brought his dream tee into existence. With the help of an architect friend, he designed the prototype "Sidewinder," a functional but graceful-looking object that incorporates a pair of curving elliptical ball supports instead of the traditional pegs. "For right-footed kickers, I moved the right ball support an inch and a half forward and made it a little smaller than the other support," he says; the object, naturally, was to give the instep a clear shot at the pigskin.
The first experimental mockup, of plaster of Paris, was made by a local Kansas City dentist. It didn't work because the ball didn't come out of the supports properly. The second try was carved from wood, and the third, fashioned of aluminum, was sent to the NFL winter meetings in Hawaii. There, the league rules committee approved the Sidewinder for regular season play. Shortly thereafter, Action Products began manufacturing Stenerud's contraption, and two sporting goods companies, Rawlings and Cramer, bought the rights to distribute it. By the fall left-and right-footed versions (now manufactured of a rubber-like plastic) were selling briskly in stores for about $9 apiece.
College and high school rulemakers as well as the pros have approved the Sidewinder. In college and high school play, as all rule-book fanatics know, tees are allowed during field-goal and extra-point tries as well as kickoffs; in the NFL, they're permitted for kickoffs only.
The Sidewinder is used quite a bit—by the likes of Fred Steinfort, Tony Franklin, Uwe von Schamann and Mick Luck-hurst—if Stenerud's kicker's-eye view of Monday Night Football broadcasts is accurate. That's his only chance to see a variety of kickers because he works on Sundays. "I hardly ever see the tee flying anymore," he says proudly.
For kickers less proficient than Steinfort et al., each Sidewinder comes with a 16-page instructional booklet, written by Stenerud and copiously illustrated.