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Kicking Back 

Pro Football Hall of Fame place kicker, Jan Stenerud, on his incredible career rise and life after football -- Colorado Springs-style

click to enlarge SCOTT LARRICK

On January 11, 1970, the Kansas City Chiefs pulled off one of the David vs. Goliath moments of Super Bowl history -- a 23-7 win over the prohibitively favored Minnesota Vikings.

The Chiefs surged to an early 9-0 lead thanks to three field goals by a Norwegian-born former ski jumper named Jan Stenerud.

Football's first superstar kicker, Stenerud booted 373 field goals, garnered six Pro Bowl selections and won election to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. In 1994, he was voted onto the all-time NFL team as "the best kicker ever."

These days he lives in low-key quietude in the neighborhood of Coronado High School, across the street from Kissing Camels Golf Course.

Stenerud is a library of football lore with dozens of anecdotes about breaking into the American Football League when it was still the throw-like-a-girl stepsister of the National Football League.

Amazingly, he never so much as touched a football until his junior year at Montana State University.

He grew up in Fetsund, Norway, where his sports were soccer and ski jumping. His link to Montana, a place he knew nothing of, and to American football, a sport he'd never heard of, came after a sixth-place finish in the 1962 Norwegian ski junior nationals.

Out of the blue, he was offered a scholarship by a Montana State ski coach out to stack his roster with youthful Norwegian talent.

"I'd never given college in America a thought," he said, "but it sounded pretty good. I thought I'd try it for a year. If nothing else, I'd have a fun experience."

Stenerud excelled on the slopes for MSU, winning All-American honors in 1964. His introduction to football came by sheer happenstance the fall of his junior year.

"I was running stadium steps as part of my pre-season training regimen," he said, and a couple guys I knew were down on the field kicking field goals. When I finished my workout, I went down to horse around with them."

You can guess what happened.

Horsing around, Stenerud attempted a kick or two using the American straight-ahead technique, and then the European side-winder technique with the side of the foot.

He began launching rockets with dead-on accuracy. Word reached the football coach, who came on the run and urged Stenerud to come out for spring practice, promising a football scholarship if he made the team.

At the time, Stenerud didn't know a first down from a punt. He'd go on the next fall to break every NCAA kicking record and reap national press for nailing a 59-yard field goal against the University of Montana -- at the time the longest ever, college or pro.

"That was nice," recalls Stenerud, "but what I remember most about that season are my kickoffs landing in the seats behind the goal posts. I loved that."

So did the pro scouts, who began showing up in droves and telling Stenerud he could make "a nice living" in pro ball. It was as though a rich uncle had died and left him a bundle.

He had to make a tough decision, though, when the NCAA granted him an additional year of football eligibility.

In those days, the AFL and NFL held separate drafts. NFL rules prohibited selection of players with eligibility remaining, but the AFL didn't share that scruple.

When Kansas City picked him in the third round of the 1966 AFL draft, Stenerud had to decide whether to graduate on time and play in the inferior AFL or return to MSU for another year of "seasoning" to boost his chances in the NFL draft.

Opting for the latter, he set a new NCAA record by kicking 82 points, an 8.2 average per game. He was named first-team All-American, making him a two-sport All-American at MSU.

When Atlanta drafted him the following spring, he found himself between a cushion and a soft place. An expansion team, the Falcons figured to lose a lot, but in a superior league. The Chiefs, meanwhile, were an established power in the less prestigious AFL.

"Every coach I talked to said the leagues were closer in talent than everyone thought," said Stenerud. "I liked the Kansas City organization and thought Hank Stram [the KC coach at the time] was a colorful and dynamic guy, so I went with the Chiefs."

Stenerud's and the Chiefs' star rose in tandem. His rookie salary of $30,000 was augmented by an $88,000 signing bonus. Two seasons later he kicked three first-half field goals in Kansas City's famous Super Bowl upset.

Stenerud claims the switch from ski jumping to football was less a stretch than the transition from college to pro ball.

"A big part of kicking," he explained, "is mental, and the mindset of kicking a field goal isn't all that different from the mindset of standing atop the ski jump. Both are a matter of controlling your nerves and focusing on mechanics."

The pro game, though, was a steeper curve. "I was a nave 22-year old getting thrown into game situations that made me the center of attention for 60-70,000 people with a ton of money riding on the outcome," he said. "It's hard to keep your cool under that kind of pressure."

His first pro attempt at a field goal was a 54-yarder in the 1967 season opener against the Houston Oilers. "It cleared with room to spare," he says, satisfaction audible in his voice.

What kinds of things are going on inside a kicker's head when he gets the call?

"You can see what's coming on the sidelines," he said. "You try to block out your nerves, the crowd and everything that's riding on your kick and focus entirely on mechanics, timing and rhythm."

Asked to recall an intense moment, Stenerud related a 1984 game against Tampa.

"We were losing," he said, "and it was down to the final drive of the game with seven seconds left. We'd lost yardage on first and second down, and we were 54 yards away.

"The coaches were debating whether to risk another play and get a few yards closer. I went up to the coach -- the only time in my life I ever did this -- and said, 'Don't run another play. I can make it from there.' "

And that's exactly what he did -- to win the game.

Stenerud remains a fan, "but not an avid fan."

"I watch Monday night football," he said, "and maybe I'll catch the last quarter of a game on Sunday I'm interested in. I never watch back-to-back games. I read the sports pages though, and know who's doing what."

These days Stenerud is Director of Business Development for the Sports Architecture Group of HNTB Corp. -- the firm designing the Bronco's new stadium.

As often as time and weather allow, though, you'll find him hiking the golf course, whacking Top-Flites and luxuriating in the climate and view.

"It's why I live in Colorado Springs," he said. p

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