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Gold Jacket Spotlight: 'Hey, Kicker...' Jan Stenerud

Gold Jacket Spotlight: 'Hey, Kicker...' Jan Stenerud

10/10/2021
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As the Montana State Bobcats practiced for their final home football game in 1964, Jan Stenerud was going through his own fall routine: conditioning his legs for the upcoming ski season by running the stadium’s steps.

A junior ski jump champion in his native Norway, Jan was recruited to Bozeman and already had earned all-conference and All-American honors as a member of the university’s ski team. He was enjoying life in America immensely, fascinated by all things unfamiliar, including a peculiar sport played with “an oval ball” (as he put it).

On this day, Jan heard 10 words that changed not only the trajectory of his life but also the record books in college football and in two professional football leagues in the decades that followed.

The sentences, yelled by Montana State football coach Jim Sweeney – “Hey, skier, get down here! I hear you can kick.” – are recalled today as Jan steps into the Gold Jacket Spotlight.

A member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 1991, Jan was the first “pure placekicker” – someone who didn’t also play another position – to be enshrined. He was elected in his first year of eligibility after a pro career in which he converted 373 out of 558 field goals (67%) and 580 out of 601 extra points (97%) for a total of 1,699 points scored.

His career totals for field goals and points scored still rank in the NFL’s Top 20, and he did not miss a game due to injury – 263 regular-season contests with the Chiefs, Packers and Vikings from 1967 to 1985.

Jan’s path to pro football falls into the “only in America” category of strange-but-true stories.

On one of the other days Jan was running steps, a kicker on the football team practicing on his own encouraged Jan to join him. Wearing tennis shoes, Jan’s first attempts – straight-on, as was the style of the era – were lousy, and painful, so Jan changed his approach to match his soccer-playing background.

The impromptu sessions continued, and one day the Bobcats’ basketball coach took notice. He told Sweeney, ‘You’ve got to take a look at this Norwegian skier out there. He’s kicking distances I haven’t seen before,” Jan recalled in an interview.

“I guess he liked what he saw,” Jan said of his audition for Sweeney on the eve of the season finale. “He put his hand on my shoulder and said, ‘Young man, what are you doing tomorrow?’”

Jan wasn’t eligible to play, but he did dress, stand on the sidelines and absorb the aura of college football in front of several thousand passionate fans.

He was hooked. He went out for spring practice in 1965 and made the team the following fall.

In his first collegiate season, Jan connected on seven field goals – more than the Bobcats had converted in the previous three seasons combined. Against archrival Montana, he boomed a 59-yarder, shattering the NCAA record, in a 24-7 win. The kick sailed 5 yards farther than the previous collegiate mark and 3 yards beyond the existing NFL record.

“That’s how the scouts from around the league heard about me,” Jan said. The Kansas City Chiefs selected him with a “red shirt draft” pick.

Jan stayed in college and was a key member of a Bobcats team that won the 1966 Big Sky Conference title. He kicked 11 field goals and 49 extra points (in 50 attempts) to set an NCAA record with 82 points. He was a consensus All-America selection.

In the AFL, Jan made his first kick – a 54-yard field goal in the 1967 season opener against Houston. He led the league with 21 field goals, a new Chiefs record, and scored 108 points, trailing only future Hall of Famer George Blanda’s 116 points.

The 18 successive seasons, a Super Bowl ring and the Hall of Fame-worthy resumé all trace their history to one fateful day in the mountains.

Jan recalls what went through his mind when Sweeney invited him to join the 1964 team on the Montana State sidelines: “This is America. If the opportunity knocks, who knows what could happen?”

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