Maybe the best place to start is with the letter. This story of a Pro Football Hall of Famer hosting two strangers from across the Atlantic Ocean in his home, to attend a Chiefs game, wouldn’t be happening without the letter.
Kent Gulbrandsen sent it from his small Norwegian town to Jan Stenerud. Kent lives in Fetsund, an old logging town of fewer than 7,000 people. That’s the same place Stenerud grew up, back before he went to the United States on a college skiing scholarship and eventually became the NFL’s greatest kicker on so many of the Chiefs’ best teams.
Kent didn’t have any expectations with the email. It’s just that his son, Jorgen, was about to have his confirmation in the Lutheran church, a very important moment for a young man in Norway. Jorgen, 14, had recently taken up what they always make sure to call American football, and Kent figured what the heck.
Kent had gone to school with Stenerud’s niece. He just thought, or hoped, what with the hometown connection and all, that Stenerud might send a note of congratulations for the boy. That’s all he was looking for. But then Stenerud agreed and asked what Kent was getting his son for a confirmation gift. Kent said he was planning to take Jorgen to America to watch a football game in person.
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He couldn’t believe what he heard next.
“At that point,” Stenerud says, “I told him, ‘Why don’t you guys come to Kansas City? I’ll pick you up at the airport; you’ll be guests at my home. I’ll show you around.’”
“Shocked,” Kent says. “Of course I can come to Kansas City to see him. I said, ‘Well, OK. But are you sure?’”
“I can’t wait to show them,” Stenerud says. “The only people from my hometown who’ve seen a game at Arrowhead Stadium are my parents. That was 40 years ago.”
This is how Jan Stenerud, the only pure kicker ever elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, came to host a family from Norway at his home in Mission Hills. Together, they’ll see Kansas City this weekend and watch the Chiefs play the Patriots on Monday night at Arrowhead Stadium. They’ll be sitting in the owner’s box, in the same spot Stenerud’s parents watched that game 40 years ago.
Maybe the best place to start is with the visit. This story of a Pro Football Hall of Famer hosting two strangers in his home to watch the Chiefs might not be happening without the visit.
Last year, Stenerud went back to Fetsund for a ceremony in his honor. This was the indirect result of a Hall of Fame program called “Hometown Heroes,” where they make a plaque that is usually put in the gym of a former star’s high school. There are pictures and smiles. It’s a nice production. It is also sponsored by an insurance company that does not have a presence in Norway, so Stenerud’s ceremony was held at Montana State University.
When he went to Montana to be honored, Stenerud was surprised to learn that the school had named the street that goes around the football stadium “Stenerud Circle.” It was a fine weekend. Stenerud saw old friends, talked about old memories. A lot of fun. But it wasn’t home for him, not in the way that Fetsund is home.
The folks at the Hall of Fame also sent a copy of the plaque to the mayor of Fetsund, which started a process that eventually brought Stenerud back to Norway for another ceremony.
It’s a funny thing, being an NFL star from Norway. People there don’t really get it. Football is a bigger deal there now than when Stenerud played, but it’s still more of a niche interest after hockey and skiing and soccer and handball, among other sports. Stenerud isn’t joking about his parents likely being the only ones from his hometown to see a game at Arrowhead, and he remembers that when they came back — the Chiefs beat Denver in front of 70,000 people and Stenerud kicked four field goals — nobody quite believed it.
Stenerud’s father was talking up the experience, but the folks back in Norway thought it was fatherly embellishment. They asked Stenerud’s mother to verify the story. She was a shy woman.
“It’s time to go home,” she said.
Over the years, word circulated back what a big deal football was in America, and what a big deal Stenerud was, too. So they had this ceremony at a school in Fetsund, and Stenerud talked about football and his life in the States and what it took to play the game he grew to love. It was a nice time.
There is a picture that ran in the local paper the next day of Stenerud in the gym bleachers at his school. He is smiling, full of pride, looking at one boy who was particularly enthralled with hearing stories about football.
That boy was Jorgen.
Really, maybe the best place to start is with Jorgen. This story of a Pro Football Hall of Famer hosting two strangers in his home would not be happening without the boy.
Jorgen is an active kid. Smart. Stubborn, his father says, but in a good way. He’s always had what his father calls “healthy interests,” but he’s never found one thing he’s truly loved. He’s done soccer, swimming, martial arts, Boy Scouts, even acting. The list goes on. But nothing ever stuck, nothing ever grabbed him.
Not until he saw a Super Bowl commercial on television.
Mom, American football looks so cool!
“I think there’s a club team in (the next town over).”
What, you never told me?
So Jorgen got on the Internet, looked up the team, called the coach and ever since has been trying to learn as much as he can about this foreign sport. They practice and work hard, just like a high school team would here. Jorgen plays running back, mostly.
And he’s hooked. He watches college games on Saturdays and pro games on Sundays. He loved watching De’Anthony Thomas at Oregon and was excited when the Chiefs drafted him. Now he can watch Thomas, Eric Berry and Jamaal Charles in the same game.
He loves that football requires a dedication of both the mind and body.
“The feeling,” he says. “I love the feeling of playing American football, how you can use all of your power.”
Jorgen is a pretty good player, too. He scored seven touchdowns in one game, and helped win a national club final as a defensive end with a strip-sack in the last two minutes. His team practices twice and meets once every week, but Jorgen has higher goals, so he works out on his own every day.
That’s part of what makes this trip so special for Jorgen. It’s more than going to America with his father, and more than watching his favorite sport in person for the first time. He will meet a man who has done exactly what he hopes to do — go from a small, rural town in Norway to the NFL.
“This man is a hero to me,” Jorgen says.
A hero he’ll live with and be shown around by, for one glorious weekend that neither side is likely to forget.
“I can’t wait to show them,” Stenerud says. “I don’t think they have any idea.”