An interview with legend Jan Stenerud
Nordmenn of American football
The Norwegian American
When I lived in Oslo in 1969-70, away from my American sports, I learned the kicker for the Kansas City Chiefs was a Norwegian, Jan Stenerud. I told my Norwegian classmates, but in the non-Internet age and Norway with only one TV station, they did not know American football. Stenerud would help underdog Kansas City win Super Bowl IV over the Minnesota Vikings, 23-7, on Jan. 11, 1970, exactly 49 years ago the date of this issue. Because our family was on a week-long trip to the Jotunheimens, my father and I did not know the result for a week.
Returning home, I followed Stenerud. He would play 19 years for Kansas City (1967-79), Green Bay (1980-83), and Minnesota (1984-85). While he says credit for the revolution of soccer style kicking in football goes to Hungarian Pete Gogolak, who started doing it professionally for the Buffalo Bills in 1964 (and later, his brother Charlie), “I contributed to the evolution because I was the first one to kick in the Super Bowl and display it on a national stage,” said Stenerud in a phone interview from his home in Mission Hills, Kan.
Stenerud was the first to kick consistently from distance, was named to two American Football League (AFL) all-star teams and four National Football League (NFL) Pro Bowls. In 1981 with the Packers, he became the first kicker to convert over 90 percent of his field goal attempts when he converted 91.7 percent. For his career, he converted an amazing 96.5 percent of his extra-point attempts. Stenerud was the first dedicated kicker to be elected to the NFL Hall of Fame in 1991, was named to the NFL 75th-anniversary and Super Bowl 25th-anniversary teams, and the Chiefs and Packers Halls of Fame. KC retired his number 3. His success sent teams around the globe looking for soccer players to be their kickers. Americans began kicking that way. Danish native Morten Andersen was inducted to the Hall in 2017.
“My first year there were four soccer-style kickers, my last year, there were all but one,” said Stenerud.
What a journey. Stenerud was born Nov. 26, 1942, in Fetsund, Norway. The town was so small there were only 17 students in his class the first seven years of school. Only a few went on to the high school in Lillestrøm. Sports dominated. In the summer, it was soccer in the backyard with his brother. He played on his first team when he was 8 and showed promise. In winter, it was speed skating, cross-country skiing, and especially ski jumping. His uncle had been an alternate on the 1928 Norwegian Olympic team and his father was a good ski jumper.
“We started with small hills,” recalled Stenerud. “I can remember my father demonstrating the Telemark landing, with one foot in front of the other one. I can remember jumping off a small stool in my kitchen when I was 7, 8 years old to practice that. At night, we had ski jumps that lit up. My first ski jump meet I was 8 years old. I finished second. I still remember the name of the guy that beat me. In Oslo, there was a place with three hills. One was for age class 11-12, middle jump, class age group 13-14, bigger hill age 15-16. All three hills were next to each other. They all jumped at the same time, 1,000 kids, 300 in each class, side by side.”
In 1962, Stenerud finished in the top 10 in the Junior National Championships. “One day, I received a letter out of the blue from the ski coach at Montana State, Bob Beck,” related Stenerud. “Tor Fagerås had come a few years before from Norway on a ski scholarship. I recognized his name. His job was to find someone to take his place. There were about half dozen people who disappeared every year and they had gotten scholarships to the University of Denver, University of Colorado, Utah, Montana State, University of Washington. There were about 25 schools that had ski teams in the U.S. in the 1960s.”
His knowledge of America came from his uncle, aunt, and reading.
“An uncle and aunt had emigrated from Norway in 1921 I think,” he said. “They ended up in Buffalo, N.Y. They would come back to Norway every fifth year. I can remember hearing stories about big cars, skyscrapers. I always had a fascination with the United States. I also read about America quite a bit. It was the most intriguing and most powerful nation in the world by then.”
What did he know about American sports? “Nothing at all!”
Off to Bozeman he went and gained All-American honors in skiing. To keep in shape for ski season he would run the football stadium steps. He was doing that in the fall of his junior year, 1964, when the football team’s kicker came over to practice his kicks. Stenerud joined him. “I hadn’t kicked a soccer ball in three years,” related Stenerud. “I kicked with the square toe like he did. I had regular tennis shoes on. After about half a dozen attempts, I asked him, ‘can you kick with the side of your foot like you would a corner kick or penalty kick in soccer?’ He said, ‘Yes, there’s a kicker for the Buffalo Bills, Pete Gogolak, that kicks that way.”
Over the next few days they kicked together and Stenerud used the side of his foot.
“Unbeknownst to me, the basketball coach had seen me kick from his office window,” said Stenerud. “He told the football coach, Jim Sweeney, ‘there’s a Norwegian skier kicking the ball distances I’ve never seen before. Take a look at him.’
“Before the last football game in 1964, I was running the stadium steps. The football team was working out. I hear Sweeney yell, ‘Skier, get your butt down here. I hear you can kick.’ It was the first time I kicked in front of the team and I was a little bit nervous. One of my kickoffs went to the goal posts from the 40-yard line. Guys started laughing at me, this skinny skier trying the first attempts. I did it again. They started clapping. Sweeney put his arm around my shoulders and said, ‘Young man, what are you doing tomorrow?’”
Obviously, he wasn’t eligible to play the next day but had a strong spring practice in 1965. They changed his ski scholarship to football. He attempted only 13 field goals in the 1965 season, but converted a 59-yarder, breaking Charlie Gogolak’s college record by five yards, the pro mark by three. At that time, the goal posts were placed at the goal line.
At the time, the considered inferior AFL was at war with the established NFL over players. The AFL held a redshirt or future draft of players who still had college eligibility remaining. The Chiefs drafted Stenerud in the third round.
“Sweeney called me into his office,” Stenerud recalled. “The telegram was sent from Jack Steadman, the GM of the Kansas City Chiefs. The telegram said ‘Jan Stenerud, c/o Montana State Athletic Department. Congratulations you have been drafted in the third round of the AFL redshirt draft.’ That was it. When they changed my scholarship from skiing to football, I said, ‘You mean you get a scholarship for kicking a football?’ They said, ‘Yes.’ My question to my teammates was, ‘You mean you can actually make a living and get paid kicking a football?’ They said, ‘Yes.’ This was all news to me.”
Sweeney convinced Stenerud to use another year of eligibility in fall 1966 for a chance to be drafted by the NFL. After being named Sporting News All-American, selected by NFL and AFL personnel directors, the NFL expansion Atlanta Falcons selected him first in a draft of the future players that had been selected by the AFL teams. “I had a choice. Do I go to an upstart league or do I go to a new weaker team in the NFL?” said Stenerud. “Because of (Coach) Hank Stram, (General Manager) Bobby Beathard, (Owner) Lamar Hunt, I chose to go to the AFL. I signed my first contract a month before Super Bowl I.”
In his rookie year, Stenerud led the AFL in field goals; the following two years, he was named to the AFL All-Star team. His field goal average the first three seasons was 70 percent, while the AFL and NFL average was 53 percent. That third year was the Super Bowl season during which he had a streak of 16 consecutive three-pointers. The Chiefs were 11-3 and finished second to Oakland (12-1-1) in the West. The first-round game was at the East’s first-place team, the New York Jets, who became the first AFL team to win the Super Bowl when they upset the Baltimore Colts the previous year. The Chiefs won 13-6. Then, they traveled to Oakland and beat the Raiders—who beat Houston 56-7 in the first round—17-7 to punch their ticket to Super Bowl IV in New Orleans. The Minnesota Vikings (12-2), with a stalwart defense of their own, was the NFL representative and 14-point favorites.
Stenerud put the Chiefs up 3-0 in the first quarter with a Super Bowl record 48-yard field goal on a muddy field, a mark which stood for 24 years. He added a 26-yarder, 32-yarder and extra point in the second quarter and KC led 16-0 at halftime. His kickoffs went out of the end zone. “Nobody in the NFL had consistently kicked the ball out of the end zone,” said Stenerud.
“The Vikings said they were worried about the kicker because if the Chiefs reached the 50-yard line, they had a chance to score.”
The Chiefs won the last Super Bowl before the leagues merged. Seventeen individuals from the two teams were eventually elected to the Hall of Fame.
“We were told there was no one on the street in Kansas City during the game,” Stenerud said. “I remember feeling so happy and happier for the veterans on the team. Some of them had been rejects from the NFL. Some had chosen to take a chance on the AFL. I can just imagine the satisfaction of them beating the other league and winning the championship.”
Six days later, Aftenposten ran a short article with the headline the amount of money Stenerud earned for winning the game. There was a line that he was the only true Viking on the field.
Stenerud made his final Pro Bowl at age 42 in 1984 for the Vikings. He connected with the Scandinavian community in Minneapolis.
“Minnesota was really fun,” he said. “I remember there was a big sign behind the goal posts in the Metrodome: ‘Jan, han kan gjøre det.’ (Jan, he can do it). I never met the people that wrote the sign. It was fun to be up there and meet a lot of the people of Scandinavian and Norwegian descent. In May, I went to speak at a 17th of May celebration. It was really neat. There were 700 people. There were Norwegian flags. It reminded me of my parents and grandparents, growing up in Norway. I became an American citizen in 1976, but I’m proud of my Norwegian background.
“I also visited the Vikings training center. I met some of the coaches, the kickers. There were a couple of people still in the organization that were there when I played there.”
The crowning achievement was the Hall of Fame induction. The class is selected the night before the Super Bowl. “I remember the night before the vote I rode up in the elevator with Jack Buck, a long-time announcer from St. Louis,” said Stenerud. “He told me, ‘Young man, you’ve got my vote tomorrow.’ I thought, ‘Wow, at least I got one.’ I was elected first year I was eligible. That was a surprise to me, but obviously I was thrilled to death.”
He has grown to love football but doesn’t know whether soccer-style kicking is any more efficient. In the old days, the quarterback was the holder and the center snapped the ball. Now, punters are the holder and there is a designated snapper and a special kicking ball. The new kickers don’t realize this history. In his time, there was little kicking practice time, so he did the drills in practice and pregame warmups with his teammates. Now, there are special teams coaches and warmup nets.
“If everyone on the practice field the last 40 years is kicking with the side of the foot, that’s what everybody will do,” he said. “If some guy came nowadays with a strong leg and square toe and had a knack for hitting the ball hard, there’s no reason why he couldn’t kick as well as with the side of the foot in my opinion. Kickers have gotten so good. When I started kicking 50-yard field goals, that was a big deal. Now, it’s a big deal if you miss a 50-yard field goal. The balloons they kick now go eight-nine yards farther with the same force. I think it’s the greatest team game ever invented. The excitement, ups and downs, emotions, drama. The game is fantastic to watch.”
The awareness of Stenerud in Norway is greater due to TV shows and articles about him. A publication in 1999 listed the top 100 Norwegian athletes in the 20th century. He was 19th. The street where he grew up is named after him. For about seven years in the 1990s he was the expert commentator on the Super Bowl telecast to Sweden and Norway. He’s done football clinics in Lillestrøm.
Kansas City and the Chiefs is the home where the heart is. From 1968 to 1976, he had a radio show. After retiring, he worked 22 years as business manager for an architectural firm that built and renovated stadiums and arenas. He’s been an avid golfer since 1969. He designed a kicking tee and instructional manual that sold through WalMart for 13 years.
The interview ended as he was going to the Chiefs game that night for the KC Hall of Fame induction ceremony. “Tonight, there’s four or five of us Hall of Famers; we’re sitting in the owner’s box. They also give me good tickets in the club section and parking passes for games. We don’t have to pay for food or drinks. It’s all taken care of by the Chiefs. They treat us well. For Sunday games, we usually go for breakfast in the club. I see some of my former teammates.”
He had his own story of anxiously awaiting the result of a Super Bowl. One bonus when he signed his first contract was two first-class airline tickets from Bozeman to Oslo. The Chiefs were playing the Packers in Super Bowl I, then known as the World Championship of Pro Football.
“I was curious about how my new team did,” he said, “I get back to New York. Nobody had even heard about it. I couldn’t wait to see the paper. I see the score: Packers 35, Chiefs 10. I think, ‘Wow, maybe I should’ve gone to the other league.’ It got better. I made the right choice.”
This article originally appeared in the January 11, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.