Vahe Gregorian

Vahe Gregorian: Fifty years after arriving in KC, Jan Stenerud’s extraordinary story should eclipse one bad day

From Norway to KC, Chiefs kicker Jan Stenerud looks back 50 years

In 1967, Norwegian kicker Jan Stenerud was drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs and began a journey that earned him a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
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In 1967, Norwegian kicker Jan Stenerud was drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs and began a journey that earned him a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Fifty years ago this month, an exotic curiosity named Jan Stenerud signed a lease at the El Camino Real apartments on The Plaza.

Soon, the Norwegian who came here by way of a skiing scholarship at Montana State prepared for his first Chiefs camp by kicking with coach Hank Stram as his personal holder at the team’s facility in Swope Park.

If that scene sounds absurd by today’s standards — imagine Andy Reid doing the same for Cairo Santos — this was about more than Stram’s endless innovations and eccentricities.

“Sure it helped. But it was me it helped, not Jan,” Stram told Sports Illustrated in 1968 as he rummaged through files for charts of those kicks. “I didn’t know the first thing about a soccer-style kicker.”

Few did at a time Pete Gogolak and Garo Yepremian were the only so-called sidewinders in the professional game.

But that was about to change profoundly because of Stenerud, who revolutionized a major part of the game.

In making field goals and kickoffs forces they never had been, with consistent excellence for nearly 20 years, Stenerud became the first — and for decades, only — pure kicker in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

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Former Chiefs Jan Stenerud (left) and Bobby Bell are both members of the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Keith Myers

He was such a transformative presence as to become a factor in rules changes and led a wave that ultimately rendered obsolete the traditional straight-on kickers, a fact underscored by the 1.2 million patented tees and instructional books sold in his name.

More tangibly, at a time goalposts still were at the goal line, he suddenly made any excursion into the opponent’s side of the field a threat to score.

He did just that with three field goals in the first half of Super Bowl IV that in themselves would have been enough to beat the Vikings. After the 23-7 victory, Minnesota defensive end Carl Eller pronounced Stenerud the true most valuable player of the game.

While Stenerud remains anguished — and unreasonably stigmatized in some circles — by a miserable day in 1971, it’s time to help him let that go by commemorating his improbable story a half-century after it began here.

Stenerud, the middle of Johan and Klara Stenerud’s three children, was skiing since before he can remember: from the jumps his father built outside their house in Fetsund (population approximately 7,000) to the improvised ones he’d contrive like other local kids or at any of a half-dozen venues that lit the town at night.

He’d become all the more enchanted with the sport after attending the nearby Oslo Olympics in 1952. By the time he was 20, he was among the best jumpers in the nation and performing in front of 80,000 people at Norway’s most imposing skiing site, Holmenkollbakken.

This and his excellent academics explain how Stenerud came to be offered a skiing scholarship to Montana State — and why his parents insisted he accept it, particularly because they could not afford higher education in Norway at the time.

A free education in what his father considered “the greatest country on Earth” couldn’t be passed up.

Then came the real twists:

One day, Stenerud was running stadium steps as part of his ski training and paused to kick a ball around with Bobcats kicker Dale Jackson.

Stenerud loved soccer as a child, and played it well, but he was baffled by football and its odd pace. But here he was, kicking with Jackson more and more, when one day basketball coach Roger Craft saw how far the ball was going and alerted football coach Jim Sweeney.

Soon, Stenerud was running steps during a football practice when he heard Sweeney’s gruff voice: “Skier, get your butt down here. Heard you can kick!”

As Stenerud recalls it now, after badly topping his first attempt, he boomed several some 70 yards.

Then Sweeney put his arm around Stenerud and offered him a place on the team, a moment frozen in Stenerud’s mind.

“ ‘This is the land of opportunity,’ ” Stenerud remembered thinking. “ ‘If you are ready for it and some kind of occasion presents itself, who knows what can happen?’ ”

Weeks after his collegiate debut in 1965, Stenerud kicked a then-NCAA record 59-yard field goal — also 3 yards longer than the then-NFL record.

For that matter, Stenerud set a collegiate record that never will be broken: Technically, anyway, he attempted a 113-yard field goal.

Back then, a field goal that fell short was merely considered a live ball.

So on a blustery day with the punter struggling, Sweeney sent out the field goal unit to get the ball downfield from out of its own end zone.

As Stenerud lined up, he remembered actually eyeing up the goal posts at the other end of the field before asking himself “what the hell am I doing?” and driving the ball to around the opposing 30.

His range stoked interest around the nation, and the Chiefs notified Stenerud by telegram that they had selected him in the 1965 AFL “Redshirt Draft” — future dibs — since he had a year of eligibility left.

A year later, the Chiefs won a bidding war of sorts with the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons when they signed Stenerud to a five-year, $250,000 contract that featured a no-cut provision.

With no agent to represent him, Stenerud scoffs now at how the no-cut might have worked out if he hadn’t produced.

But from virtually the time he made his first attempt with the Chiefs (from 54 yards away) to stints with the Packers and Vikings before the end of his career in 1985, Stenerud was the best kicker in the game.

While his field-goal percentage of 66.8 (373 of 558) might seem pedestrian today, he was a revelation in the context of the times.

Field conditions generally weren’t as accommodating, and the ball wasn’t as aerodynamic.

Few games were played in domes, and there was scant specialized coaching or equipment taken for granted today.

Moreover, the crucial practice repetitions among snapper, holder and kicker were afterthoughts. The Chiefs might run through a few, for instance, on a Friday afternoon.

When the professional average was 50 percent, Stenerud hit better than 70 percent in his first four years with the Chiefs, and his deep kickoffs were part of a movement to push them back to the 35 (and later the 30).

“As a 24-year-old, I would love to line up against anybody in the league (now) and kick the football,” Stenerud said, smiling as he recovers from a broken kneecap from a recent fall. “Is that dumb talk when you’re 74 or 75?”

Chiefs kicker Jan Stenerud made three field goals in a 23-7 win over the Vikings in Super Bowl IV on Jan. 11, 1970. The Associated Press

During the 1969 season, Stenerud made a then-record 16 field goals in a row and 27 of 35 overall as the Chiefs went 11-3 and beat the Jets and Raiders to get to the Super Bowl.

In a game better known for Stram being miked and “65 Toss Power Trap” and Len Dawson being chosen MVP and dominant defense, Eller would later say Stenerud “psyched” us out.

“He makes you feel you can’t give up a thing because he is so dangerous from anywhere inside the 50,” Eller told Pro Football Weekly, adding, “I think (Stenerud) was most valuable player in the game.”

The Chiefs returned to the playoffs in 1971 to play the Dolphins in the Christmas classic double-overtime loss that remains so poignantly alive to Stenerud that he can’t help but bring it up himself.

Yes, he is aware who the Chiefs are playing on Christmas Eve in the 2017 season.

“Couldn’t they have picked another team?” he joked.

There were many factors in the 27-24 defeat in the last game at Municipal Stadium: The Chiefs committed four turnovers to the Dolphins’ two, and the defense couldn’t keep Miami out of the end zone in the final minutes after taking a 24-17 lead.

But the most glaring and, thus, lingering elements were three field goals that Stenerud didn’t make, something that over the years he has alternately attempted to joke about, expressed incredible pain over or declined comment on.

Now, he will simply call the day “a horrible experience,” one that he suffers more from because he believes it’s often referred to with little balance about his broader career.

Meanwhile, even his troubles that day are routinely oversimplified in the shorthand of scapegoating.

One of the field goals was blocked, for instance. And that first-half miss from 29 yards out?

It was supposed to be a fake, with the ball snapped directly to Stenerud.

Over the years, Stram and Dawson (the holder) and Bobby Bell (the snapper) have told a handful of interviewers about the miscommunication: Stenerud was so intent on selling the fake that Bell worried he didn’t know it was on.

So he snapped it to a surprised Dawson, and the out-of-rhythm Stenerud tried to adjust but missed.

In a perfect world, Stenerud would have scored a touchdown behind the two guards who had pulled.

To this day, Stenerud rather nobly declines to comment on that play.

Then, alas, there’s the 32-yarder he missed with 35 seconds left.

“Why I could miss that kick, I don’t understand it … If I can make a goddamn 31-yard field goal, we win the game,” he said, “So I hold myself completely accountable for that. Always have, always will.”

It wasn’t easy to overcome a game he still says “kills me” adding, “I didn’t want to play any more.”

But Stram reassured and convinced him that he had much left to give.

He also looked within and told himself that everyone gets knocked down, but some people don’t get back up, and that he would have been ashamed of himself if he had been so weak as to surrender before a career that was just beginning and would continue to flourish.

Now, he knows his legacy is so much more.

Especially here in Kansas City, where he became a U.S. Citizen in 1976 with his two children walking alongside carrying little American flags, and has long been a gracious part of the community.

After living in Colorado working in business development for HNTB Architecture, he and his wife, Patty, returned a few years ago, and it’s been a remarkable life even if he dwells more than anyone ought to on one dark moment.

Considering he still blames himself, he can’t blame you if you think of him for that missed kick.

Still, maybe it’s not a lot to ask to remember the rest of his story, too — one that stretched the imagination, changed the game and helped the Chiefs to their only Super Bowl win.

Vahe Gregorian: 816-234-4868, @vgregorian