Jan Stenerud's Montana State story is the stuff of urban legend.
It has been told and retold so many times in so many different ways, Stenerud jokes, that even he isn't always certain what's true and what isn't.
"I have met so many people who said they had something to do with it … I'm almost to the point where I wonder if I can remember exactly what happened," Stenerud said.
The operative word there is "almost." The truth is, more than four decades later, Stenerud can vividly recall the circumstances of his MSU conversion from Nordic ski jumper to future Pro Football Hall of Fame kicker.
He can, he says, because it changed his life.
Stenerud, now 64, was in town last week to visit family and friends. He golfed a lot, but he took some time to recount his kicking career. He had not thought about it in a long time, he said, adding that he didn't think he'd ever told the entire story to anyone.
A native of Fetsund, Norway, Stenerud was recruited to MSU as a Nordic skier. His specialty was ski jumping, back when that was an NCAA event. MSU's ski jumpers used to practice and compete above Deer Park at Bridger Bowl. The Bobcats won a pair of conference ski titles during Stenerud's career, and he finished fourth at the NCAA meet in 1965, earning All-American status.
But Stenerud's exploits on the slopes have since been overshadowed by his achievements on the football field.
The members of the ski team routinely ran the stairs at the football stadium as part of their offseason conditioning. One fall afternoon in '64, Stenerud stopped to watch Dale Jackson, an MSU football player from Great Falls, practicing extra points. Stenerud asked if he could try. Wearing tennis shoes and having no clue how to line up, he began to kick the ball between the uprights. He'd hit a few, move back, then kick more.
He didn't think it was a big deal, he says, because soccer was his summer sport. For his first attempts, he kicked straight on. Even with tennis shoes, the ball flew farther than what he'd seen anyone on the team do. He asked if he could kick with the side of his foot, as a soccer player would do on a corner kick or a penalty kick. He was told he could, because Pete Gogolak of the Buffalo Bills was doing it. He had no idea about technique or the number of steps he needed to take; he simply kicked the ball.
MSU basketball coach Roger Craft watched the impromptu kicking exhibition from a distance, then held the ball on some of Stenerud's attempts. After Stenerud went back to running the stairs, Craft headed off to the fieldhouse to find MSU football coach Jim Sweeney.
"Keep in mind that football was a strange game to me," Stenerud said. "Soccer was non-stop; in football, you'd play for 3-4 seconds and then stand around for 30. I didn't know anything about the rules. It was not that fascinating to me.
"But word got back to Sweeney: 'You've got to look at this Norwegian ski jumper. He can really kick a football.' About two weeks later, I am running the steps again, and the football team is working out in the stadium. I hear this booming voice: 'Hey, skier, get down here! I hear you can kick.'"
Still uncertain exactly what he was doing, Stenerud teed up the ball at the 40-yard line as he would for a kickoff. On his third kickoff, he boomed the ball between the uprights and into the end zone seats. Sweeney didn't need any convincing after that.
Though he was ineligible to play, Stenerud suited up for the final home game of the 1964 season. He'd ski jumped in front of 40,000 spectators in Norway, but Sweeney wanted him to get used to the atmosphere of a football game. A bigger concern for Stenerud was figuring out how to put on his protective gear and uniform.
During practice the following spring, it was pretty much left to Stenerud to refine his technique. Initially, he stood a yard away from his holder, so his first step was backward. He eventually worked out an approach that is still used today by most college and professionally kickers.
He could boom his kickoffs, and most of them landed in the seats. Then, in a 24-7 win against Montana that season, he stunned the Bozeman crowd by hitting a 59-yard field-goal attempt. It still stands as the longest field goal in school history.
"About 4-5 days later, there was a headline in the newspaper: 'Bobcat kicker sets NCAA record,'" he recalled. "It took that long to find out that it was the longest kick in the history of football, pro or college. It shows you how different things were back then."
Professional drafts were a whole lot different then, too, because the established National Football League and the upstart American Football League battled to sign the best college players.
At the end of the '65 season, Stenerud received a telegram from the AFL's Kansas City Chiefs with news that he was one of 30 players selected in a special redshirt draft. At the same time, he learned that, even though he'd exhausted his ski eligibility, he was entitled to play football one more season. Rather than join the Chiefs, he decided to stay at MSU and kick in 1966. He had two reasons. First, he enjoyed being with his teammates. Second, he hoped that if he had another successful season, he might be drafted by an NFL team.
His '66 season was even better than the previous year. With Dennis Erickson at quarterback and Don Hass running the ball, the Bobcats scored points in bunches, and Stenerud kicked a school-record 82 points. MSU finished 8-2 during the regular season to earn a bid to the Camellia Bowl in Sacramento, Calif., where they lost 28-7 to San Diego State. The Aztecs' head coach was Don Coryell. Two of his assistants were Joe Gibbs and John Madden.
Stenerud was named to an all-division All-America team selected by pro scouts for The Sporting News. As he'd hoped, the NFL noticed. The league held a special draft to choose among the players who, like Stenerud, had stayed in school rather than go to the AFL. He was the first player selected, by the second-year Atlanta Falcons.
By staying the extra season at MSU, Stenerud says he gained a different perspective on his professional future. In '65, the Bobcats had finished 3-7; a year later, they had a winning record. Winning, he decided, was a whole lot more fun, so he chose to play for the successful Chiefs, who were headed to Super Bowl I to play the Green Bay Packers. Three seasons later, he would kick three field goals to account for the first nine points of Super Bowl IV, including a then-record 48-yarder, as the Chiefs beat the Minnesota Vikings, 23-10.
Because of his college success, many observers expected that Stenerud would be the first pro to kick a 60-yarder. Ironically, in 19 seasons, he attempted just one kick of 60 or more yards - a 66-yard try at Denver - and it was blocked. Still, when he retired, he'd kicked team-record field goals for the Chiefs (55), the Packers (53) and the Vikings (54). Each record has since been eclipsed. He finished with 373 career field goals, played in six Pro Bowl games during three decades, and in 1991 he became the first true kicker to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Interestingly, Stenerud says, his field-goal percentage improved as he got older. His career field-goal percentage with the Chiefs in the old AFL was 71 percent (at a time when the league average was 49 percent). He made 82 percent of his field-goal tries in four seasons with the Packers and nearly 90 percent when he played for the Vikings.
Why the difference? Because by the 1980s, teams had begun to emphasize special teams play and playing surfaces at stadiums were more smooth. Also, there were not as many ridiculous attempts because the rules of placement after a miss had changed.
"There was a whole evolution," he explained. "I went through the whole thing, and I'm living proof that kickers got better. Teams started hiring special teams coaches, and we'd practice 30-40 kicks three days a week. In the '60s, I'd maybe get six kicks with a center and a holder on Friday afternoon."
Stenerud lives in Colorado Springs and works as director of business development for HNTB Architecture, Inc., which specializes in building and remodeling sports facilities. He says he cannot imagine what his life would be like today if Craft had not passed along what he'd seen and if Sweeney had not asked him to come out for the team.
"Sweeney gave me the opportunity," Stenerud said. "Just because I could come off the ski slope and kick, maybe some other guy would have said. 'We're not going to have this sideshow.' I could kick, and I was able to pay him back (by kicking so well), but he didn't have to take the chance. Sweeney changed my life."