When Robbie Gould takes the field for the Chicago Bears in today's Superbowl, the 24 year old place kicker will bring a proud heritage of ex-soccer players who have found fame and fortune in the NFL. Gould was a soccer standout for Mills High School in Pennsylvania and his original intent was to join the MLS before he joined Joe Paterno and the PSU football program.
The now universal 'soccer style' of place kicking, approaching the football at an angled run and then kicking with the instep, was first employed by Peter and Charlie Gogolak, brothers who emigrated from Hungary during the Revolution in 1956. Both brothers were excellent soccer players who played in the elite school soccer teams. This must have been quite an achievement because Hungary in those days were the dominant power in world soccer having players like Ferenc Puskas, Sandor Koscis, and Lazlo Kubala. Peter joined Cornell and Charlie went to Princeton where he broke all NCAA kicking records and still holds the Ivy League record for the longest field goal of 54 yards. He was drafted first by the Washington Redskins in 1966, the first ever place kicker to be accorded that honour.
Pete Gogolak was taken by the Buffalo Bills in 1964, then part of the newly formed AFL and became the first soccer style kicker in gridiron history. In 1965, he became the first AFL player to cross over to the NFL joining the NY Giants. By doing so Golgolak set in motion the eventual AFL-NFL merger. He retired from the NY Giants after 9 seasons where he set records for the most points scored (646) and holds every franchise kicking record including most field goals made (126), PATs scored in a game (8), and consecutive PATs (133). Pete and Charlie Gogolak also had the distinction of facing each other in the highest scoring game in NFL history when the Redskins beat the Giants, 72-41in 1966.
Pete Gogolak describes the day that he attempted the soccer style at a mass kicking tryout at Ogdensburg High School which had a football but no soccer team. No one had quite seen anything quite like it. Back then, kickers stood directly behind the holder and kicked straight on a show that had a squared toe. Gogolak, however, stood at a 45-degree angle, confusing his holder and everyone else watching him.
“Everyone looked at me and said, ‘Jeez, what’s going on here,’” Gogolak said. “I’ll never forget the expression on my holder’s face. He said, ‘Hey, Gogolak, in this country you line up straight. If you line up that way, you’ll either hit it into the stands or hit me in the butt."
The success that Pete Gogolak with his sidewinder style was remarkable considering that in the previous season, the four place kickers using the conventional style had missed 21 out of 25 attempts. In fourteen games, they had managed to kick four field goals. Their regular kicker Bob Timberlake, missed 14 out of 15 attempts. In Gogolak's first season, he converted 16 out of 28 attempts and finished with 77 points.
Pete and Charlie Gogolak revolutionary way of kicking the ball and success on the field spurred other soccer players from Europe to try their luck in the NFL. It paved the way for Jan Stenerud, the legendary Norwegian place kicker for the Kansas City Chiefs and the first kicker to be inducted to the Hall of Fame. Toni Fritsch, who played for Rapid Wien and the Austrian national team before coming to play for Tom Landry's Dallas Cowboys. Fritsch was famously called "Wembley-Toni" when he scored two goals as Austria defeated England 3-2 in London's Wembley Stadium on October 20, 1965. He was recently in the news when his NFL record of kicking a field goal in 13 consecutive playoff games was beaten by Adam Vinatieri on January 12, 2007. Then there was Garo Yepremian, a Cypriot and a professional soccer player who moved to the USA in the hopes of getting a college scholarship playing football. He was denied because of his professional career playing soccer in Cyprus and England. Neverthless, he persisted and was signed by the the Detroit Lions before moving to the Miami Dolphins as their place kicker. In a strange twist of fate Stenerud and Yepremian, both soccer style kickers went head to head when the Chiefs met the Dolphins in a divisional playoff game in 1971 that turned out to be the longest game in NFL history before Yepremian kicked the winning field goal in double overtime. Before that Stenerud had missed two attempts and had a third one blocked. The game lasted 82 minutes and 40 seconds as the Dolphins won 27-24.
Yepremian also became notorious for one of the most celebrated bloopers in NFL history when the Dolphins met the Washington Redskins in Super Bowl VII (1973). Yepremian's immortal words "I keek a touchdown" has become part of NFL folklore.
The torch is now carried forward through with Morten Andersen, the Atlanta Falcons place kicker and the present leader in NFL scoring with 2445 points selected to eight Pro Bowls who at the age of 46, showsno sign of slowing down. Andersen was good enough to almost make the Danish soccer U-17 national team. His exploits have remarkably found little press in his native Denmark. On 16 December, 2006 Andersen overtook his namesake Gary Anderson, the Tennessee Titans place kicker as the all time NFL scoring leader. Anderson who retired in 2004 was the previous record holder with 2434 points. Gary Anderson, born in South Africa, also played high school soccer and entertained hopes that he would make it to professional soccer in Europe following in the footsteps of his father. He moved to the USA with his family to protest SA's policy of apartheid. In 1998, Anderson became the first place kicker with a perfect season when he made all his field goal attempts (35) and scored all PATs (59) in a regular season.
The now taken for granted soccer kicking style that revolutionized the NFL and made the exploits of Adam Vinatieri and Mike Vanderjagt commonplace, earning the respect of fans, players, and coaches do not quite cover the fact that not long ago, place kickers from Europe were the target for derision from football purists. Alex Karras, Detroit Lions tackle, ABC commentator, and one of Porky's sophomore icon when asked how to cut down on field goals, famously replied: "Tighten immigration laws."