Atlanta Falcon kicker Morten Andersen is a man of uncommon
accomplishment and unmatched dignity. In a profession in which
even slight success is greeted with chest-thumping I'm No. 1
braggadocio, Andersen is quietly writing his name into the NFL
record book. "I don't spend a lot of time reflecting on my
career," he says. "That's not quality time for me."
Yet if anyone can justify a little self-aggrandizement, it's
Andersen. For most of the past 14 years he has been the NFL's
premier kicker. Only four players in league history have kicked
more field goals, only seven have scored more points, and no one
has made more field goals from 50 yards and beyond. More
impressive than all of that, though, are his 23 game-winning
kicks. "Lots of kickers have had as strong a leg as he does,"
says former Saint teammate Jim Dombrowski, "but he seems to
thrive on the pressure of big kicks."
"Pressure?" says Andersen. "The pressure associated with
important kicks is a perceived notion, something created by the
fans and media. As long as I'm relaxed and at peace, then
pressure is nonexistent."
"Morten has a different button from most kickers," says Falcon
coach June Jones. "More often than not, when the game is on the
line, most kickers are pacing, really nervous. Morten is the
first kicker I've had who wants to kick with the game on the
line. What Joe Montana is to quarterbacks, Morten is to kickers."
Despite his lofty status and such unstinting praise, Andersen
neither pounds his chest nor boasts of his accomplishments.
Rather, he tends to view himself with refreshing perspective.
Yes, he wants to kick as well as anyone ever has, but no, the
rare miss isn't cataclysmic. "There's a saying that I like," he
says. "'There are one billion Chinese people who couldn't care
less about what I do.' My little egocentric endeavors are
insignificant. They certainly don't change world events." Or in
the more direct words of his mother, Hanne, "It's not really all
that important what he does. He kicks a football."
If his parents are unimpressed by their son's source of income,
they have only themselves to blame. After Morten completed the
equivalent of high school in his native Denmark, his father,
Erik, a psychologist, and Hanne, an educator, suggested he
further his education by spending a year in the United States.
In August 1977 Andersen arrived in Indianapolis, where he spent
a year as a senior at Ben Davis High.
On his second day in the States, Andersen attended a football
practice and discovered that his soccer talents served him well
as a kicker. Although he had seen a football for the first time
only the day before, Andersen converted some field goals in the
50-yard range and was invited to join his high school team. That
season he hit five of seven field goal attempts and was offered
athletic scholarships by Michigan State and Purdue. The lure of
a free education outweighed the homesickness of a 17-year-old,
and Andersen enrolled at Michigan State. In his senior year he
kicked a 63-yard field goal, was named first-team All-America
and earned his degree with a double major in communications and
German. In the spring of 1982 he was chosen in the fourth round
of the draft by the Saints.
Despite his dedication to his craft, Andersen is not consumed by
it. When asked what his profession would be had he not
discovered football, Andersen immediately replies, "A
translator." And no wonder. Andersen is fluent in four
languages. Nor is he consumed by his occasional failures on the
football field. Andersen has an uncanny ability to delete each
kick from memory almost instantly, which is crucial to dealing
with misses. In the aftermath of the Falcons' victory over the
Rams two weeks ago, Andersen was asked what happened when he
misfired on a 40-yard field goal at the end of the first half.
He smiled and said, "The ball leaves your foot, and the kick
leaves your mind."
Try as he might to live life for his next kick, Andersen
acknowledges the magnitude of at least one of the 325 field
goals he has made in his career: In Week 3 this season he kicked
a 21-yarder to beat the Saints in overtime. "That was a sweet
kick," Andersen says. "It really gave me a sense of closure. It
helped me exorcise a lot of demons."
For much of the first 13 years of his NFL career, Andersen was
New Orleans's most recognizable Saint, one of the organization's
few consistently bright spots and the player who validated the
eternally disappointed fans' hopes. Year after year Andersen
answered the faithful. He finished the 1994 season as the
Saints' alltime leader, with 1,318 points, 302 field goals and
22 field goals of 50 yards or more. In 1989 he was named to the
NFL's Team of the Decade.
"The Saints were the only game in town, and Morten was the man,"
says quarterback Bobby Hebert, a teammate on both the Saints and
the Falcons. Andersen was so much the man that in 1983 more than
16,000 copies of an Andersen poster were sold and in 1985 his
recording of a song with then Saint punter Brian Hansen, Take It
to the Top, sold 5,000 copies. But Andersen's status as a New
Orleans cult hero paled next to his role as a member of the
community. The New Orleans Sports Foundation named him its
Outstanding Sports Citizen of the Year for 1990, in part for his
work for Children's Hospital. Although he no longer lives in the
city, Andersen hopes to resurrect his Kicks for Kids program,
which has raised more than $400,000 for the hospital.
In sum, when the Saints announced just hours before the start of
training camp last summer that they had waived Andersen,
everyone--teammates, Saint fans, executives around the league
and, most of all, Andersen--was stunned. Although two years
remained on his contract, Andersen was not deemed worth the
$985,000 he was due to receive in 1995, and the Saints released
him with the intention of re-signing him for less money. "In my
years with the Saints," he says, "I never asked to renegotiate
my contract. But I understood the position they were in [with
respect to the salary cap]."
"My reaction? Shocked is a good word," says Jones. "I was
listening to the radio as I was driving to work when I heard
[Andersen had been released]. When I got to the office I talked
with [assistant head coach/special teams] Frank Gansz, and we
decided we should try to get him. About an hour after that, we
got a call from Morten's agent, Greg Campbell. He said, 'We want
to get something done soon.' 'How soon?' we asked. 'Within the
hour.'" Andersen and the Falcons agreed on a three-year, $2.4
million contract later that day. "I was put in a position where
I had to react," Andersen says. "The Saints made me unwhole, and
the Falcons were willing to make me whole again."
Andersen believes in creative visualization. Every day at
practice he walks himself through kicking scenarios, and each
one ends the same: with a successful field goal. He does not
waste energy on negative thoughts. Although he doesn't hide his
bitterness about the way his release was handled, the Saints
remain a negative to which he won't give much thought. In
leaving a team for which he had played for 13 years, Andersen
employed the same bloodless logic that he uses to bury the
disappointment of a missed field goal. "I'm in a
high-performance business, and it's tough to deal with
distasteful things," he says of errant attempts. "But to do my
job I have to be able to focus on the task at hand."
In Atlanta, Andersen appears to have two charges, one simple,
the other unspoken. The first is to help the Falcons win, which
he has done. Atlanta is one game behind San Francisco in the NFC
West; Andersen has three game-winning kicks, is eighth in the
league in scoring, with 92 points, and has converted 23 of 29
field goal attempts. In Sunday's 40-37 overtime loss to the
Cardinals, he tied Jim Breech's record 186-game scoring streak.
His second task is to embarrass the Saints at every turn. Not
only did he kick three other field goals in the Week 3 win over
New Orleans, but he also is 3 of 4 from 50 yards and beyond. The
latter statistic lays bare the idiocy of one Saint justification
for Andersen's release--that he had lost his range. "Contrary to
what they said, I am far from being through," he says.
Andersen, 35, hopes to continue kicking into his 40's, a la
George Blanda. If he does, he most likely will become the
standard by which all kickers are measured. Not surprisingly,
Andersen is neither affected by that thought nor concerned that
he will lose any motivation. "Goals are like apples in a tree,"
he says. "Some are a little higher than others, so you just have
to jump higher."
COLOR PHOTO: GREG FOSTER [Morten Andersen]
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO Andersen says he got a sense of closure in closing out the Saints. [Morten Andersen]