A LOT OF KICKS COMING
Good kickers like the Chiefs' Jan Stenerud [below] and those on the followingpages are priceless. Last year a record 421 field goals-were kicked and nearlya fourth of the regular-season games-were won on kicks—and the Super Bowl.
Physically aswell as financially, professional football has evolved from the bottom up.Think about it. There was a time, back in the Eocene of the game, when it wasindeed football. Running, punting, placekicking and even that most difficult ofdisciplines, dropkicking, were the hallmarks of the great teams. Then(apologies to Desmond Morris), the Armored Ape began his climb. Theevolutionary rise went from Grange's knees to Battles' hips to Baugh's arm toBerry's hands to Starr's head to Namath's hair. Along the way, the lowly footwas largely forgotten—except on those grim Sundays when three points, or evenone, was the difference between defeat and victory.
Among profootball heroes, only Lou Groza attained true stardom on the strength of hisfoot alone (although he was a stalwart offensive tackle), and he and his GoldenToe went into retirement in 1968. But in the past few years a whole platoon of"pure kickers" has arrived. Foremost among them is Jim Turner (seecover) of the New York Jets. And the best time to see Turner kick purely is ata kicking practice, where the more expensive, less pedestrian parts of thefootball animal are not so obtrusive.
Here we are atHofstra stadium on verdant Long Island, under a scalding sun with the THI upnear the agony level. The Jets jog around on their new carpet of AstroTurf,great mountains of flesh and bug bites, their combative grunts and war criesrising on the moist air like voices from a sewer. The mind flashes ahead intime: if there were some way to ration this heat, that fat, those suntans foruse in the shivering, shad-belly days of January....
September 21, 1969
Most of the Jetslook dreadful—bulbous, slow, stupid, coming off the snap with glazed, poleaxedexpressions as if they'd never before heard a "Hut!" The receiversscamper around with desperately waving hands, yards behind the ball. Thequarterbacks watch their passes turn awry and sock their fists into their openpalms. The linemen pound into Mona, the blocking bag, mouths curled in littlemoues of pain and self-pity. Moanin' Mona. Wailin' Weeb. The dumpy little coachappears to grow shorter (if that's possible) as the practice progresses, as ifsome relentless pile driver labeled Doubt were sinking him into the artificialgrass.
But it's akicking day—one of only two a week—and the field-goal unit is working. Fearnot, Weeb, the Tank is here, and his treads are turning just fine. Jim Turnerlines up his weapons system. John Schmitt, the massive center, spraddles on the35-yard line and engulfs the ball. It disappears, except for a tiny cone ofbrown leather visible aft of his pinkies. Then—wink!—Schmitt flexes his wristsand the ball blurs backward, a crude, almost robotlike gesture that deposits itprecisely six yards, two feet and 10 inches to the rear. Babe Parilli,contorted on the grass like an advanced Yoga student, palms the ball with hisright hand—laces up—and drops it to the exact spot beside his left thigh andunder his left index finger that it reaches 99 times in 100 snaps. No wonderthey call him Goldfinger.
Turner, blockyand Indian-eyed behind his plastic bars, his armored shoulders sagging inconcentration, takes a heavy step forward. His right leg describes a short,brutal, unaesthetic arc. There is a thump reminiscent of a nightstick on arioter's noggin, and, startlingly, the ball is aloft—the first touch of beautyin the whole ugly day—spinning back on itself with the busy geometrical actionof a satellite in orbit as it arches toward the goalpost. Three points."Way to kick 'em, Tank," chirps Parilli, and the kicking unit chugsback five yards. Weeb Ewbank smiles through his granny glasses. Gazing down athis elfin countenance, one gains the distinct impression that, yes, Frodolives.
The Jets, likemany AFL teams, take their time getting into condition, but Jim Turner and histoe always seem to be in shape. The seeming, however, is deceptive. Casualobservers of the football scene assume that kickers are some kind of metatarsalmagicians, blessed with a so called Educated Toe which can guide a footballlong distances through snow, hail and tricky crosswinds to a three-pointlanding beyond the goalpost. As a kid in Milwaukee listening to Packer games onthe radio, I used to hear WTMJ Announcer Bob Heiss drop his voice in awe whenhe mentioned Don Hutson's Educated Toe. What did it look like? I wondered. Ienvisioned it as rather bald and egg-shaped, with perhaps a pince-nez and amortarboard mounted on the nail. Talking with Turner in the Hofstra locker roomafter that summer workout, I sneaked a look at his right big toe. It didn'tlook very smart to me. "You looking at my Educated Toe?" asked theTank. He wiggled it and gave it a sneer. "I'll tell you where the educationin kicking comes from. Right there." He pointed to Parilli—specifically, toParilli's big, lean and rather soft hands. "The holder is 70% of theplacekicking game. Sure, you need a good center, and Johnny Schmitt is one ofthe best. And you need a damned good offensive line, which we have. But theholder is the guy. He's got to get it down there in the right spot every time,laces forward. And all the while he's got to be exuding this sense ofconfidence back at the kicker. The whole thing has got to be smooth andconfident. Then, if you groove the swing of your foot anywhere like right, yourtoe will be as educated as it needs to be."
With thatgracious bow toward his teammates—and Jim Turner is one of the most graciousteammates—the Tank seemed to be putting himself down. In point of fact, he isfar more important to the kicking equation than he lets on. For one thing, hekeeps his legs in excellent condition year-round. During the off season hejogs, sprints and pumps out a regular Tour de France on his cycle exerciser. Heplays basketball regularly with "the guys," pounding the big muscles ofhis legs into toughness, stretching the tendons in rebounds and jump shots. Andfor Turner, at 6'2" and something just under 220 pounds, to jump andrebound is no mean feat. In the first of his six Jet seasons, Turner worked outwith weights. "But they tore my legs up," he recalls. "Now I've gotme this trunk, which is just about the height of a bed. Now and then I spend afew minutes stepping up and down on it. It's a simple little exercise, but itcombines stretching and compression in just the right proportions."
Compression—notjust of the muscular variety—is another factor in kicking which Turner hasmastered. For most football players, the game is a continuum of action andinteraction. For the kicker, it is a few brief but supercharged moments duringwhich everything rests on his big toe (or, in the case of a soccerstyle kicker,the instep of his foot). Since 1964, when he broke in as the Jets' top kicker,Turner has attempted 174 field goals—which ranks him third in that category inthe AFL behind Gino Cappelletti (284) and George Blanda (252). Yet when youfigure that, from snap to kick, each of those attempts took less than 1½seconds, Turner's crucial playing time amounts to a shade over four minutes infive seasons. (If you add extra points, that time would be about eightminutes.) The great danger in this compression, as Turner sees it, is stagefright of the kicking foot. Like a Shakespearean bit player whose role it is tomove onstage, announce a calamity and then retire to the wings, the field-goalkicker is prone to blow his cool, his lines and his three points in the mostembarrassing way.
To preclude suchfiascos, Turner and most other "pure" kickers must keep themselvespsyched up throughout the game. "I'm in the game all the time," Turnermaintains. "At least, my head is in there. I watch every play, offensive ordefensive, to see where they're chewing up the field. Joe [Namath] is very goodabout that. He asks me every time he comes in where the bad spots for kickingare on the field. You have to be a surveyor to know where all the holesare." And a meteorologist to keep track of the winds. Turner has become aspecialist at that arcane art as well, charting each gust, each swirl, eachthermal. "I've got a real advantage at Shea," he says of the Jets' homepark. "The winds are tricky there—offshore stuff from Long Island Soundfighting it out with the inland winds, a regular Aeolian battleground. But wedo all of our practice there during the season under what Weeb calls 'battleconditions.' We even practice at what would be Sunday game time, just so thatall the conditions—wind, light, temperature—will be the same as the realthing." Thus Turner has a sound, basic feeling for the vagaries of hisenemy, the wind, when the game rolls around. To chart specific wind changes, hekeeps a weather eye on all fluttering objects during the game. "TheAmerican flag and the end-zone flags are good gauges," he allows, "anduntil this AstroTurf came in you could always rip up a handful of grass andtoss it in the air." Is there any truth to the rumor that Turner and otherkickers sometimes plant special agents with pennants at critical spots in thestands to use as wind gauges and/or "gunsights"? Turner leans back,studies the ceiling and says: "Ahhhh, well, no, there's not a word of truthin that. Besides, it's illegal, right?"
How, then, does akicker "aim"? Turner can talk for hours about such factors as windage,trajectory, initial velocity, angle, etc. with all the jargon and enthusiasm ofa rifle nut, but what it boils down to is this: "You line up your foot andyour holder along a line that comes just inside the windward upright, you hitit a good shot to get it over the upraised hands of the incoming linemen, andthen it either goes through or it doesn't." Turner is not known as anout-standing long-ball kicker. His longest field goal (50 yards) came in hisrookie year against Houston, but he was third in the league behind Jan Stenerudand Dennis Partee at 40 to 49 yards. Frankly, he doesn't care that much aboutdistance. His toughest three points was a nine-yarder at an acute angle againstthe Colts in the Super Bowl. "You've got to get the ball up," he says."Altitude is the thing. Bubba Smith is 6'7", and when he gets a yard'sworth of penetration on the rush, you've got to get that ball up there. It'slike kicking over a 10-foot wall, only this wall is mean and strong and coveredwith hands." Turner likens his kick to a chip shot in golf. "When itgets up high like that, you've got to play the winds. I try to bank 'em intothe wind and let it roll the ball over the goalpost. What people don't realize,a following wind is the most difficult. It can drift a ball all over theplace."
The ball itselfis also a factor. Turner, like most AFL kickers, prefers the NFLfootball—"The Duke." As he explains it: "The Duke is a little bitfatter, or rounder, than our ball, which is built more for the passing game.There's more meat on their ball to get your toe into." What's more, a ballgets "meatier" with use, probably because with the abuse it gets, itswaistline tends to sag a bit. "Sometimes a kicker will try to sneak in lastweek's ball," says one AFL kicker, "particularly on rainy days."Last season, in fact, just such a ball came flying onto the field from theOakland Raiders' sideline during a field-goal try, but the officials detectedit. The Raiders innocently explained that they were only trying to save thecost of a new ball, which very possibly would disappear into the stands. Butthe officials weren't buying it. Would Turner ever try such an underhandedtactic? "Gosh, no," he says.
Last season, atleast, Turner needed nothing underhanded to help him along. Kicking at a smoky73.9%, he set a season record of 34 field goals which, when combined with 43extra points, gave him a total of 145 points—an alltime pro record for a purekicker. During the exhibition season Turner made 76% of his field-goalattempts, kicking 13 of 17.
"It was theJets' year in '68," Turner maintains, "and it will be again this year.Our offensive line is as good or better than ever. They protect Joe like amother hen, and they take care of me pretty well, too. A lot of peoplecriticize us for going after the field goal when we bog down inside the 35. Butwe can afford to do that because we have the luxury of a good defense. Joeknows it'll turn the ball back to him pretty quick and give us another shot forthe seven. Of course, that makes me look a lot better, getting all thoseattempts, but one good season for a kicker doesn't mean he's the greatest byany means. But I think my approach is much sounder now. Babe taught me that,along with a lot of other things. He's a real confidence builder. The first dayin camp last year, with Babe holding for the first time, I didn't miss a kick.He came up to me afterward and said: 'You know, you're going to kick more fieldgoals than anyone ever.' And he was right."
Turner himself isno slouch at confidence building. His burly presence on the bench seems totransmit that same sense of certainty in scoring that Groza's did for so manyyears in Cleveland. No one will ever be able to compute just how much of ateam's success or "momentum" or call it what you will derives from thevibrations of a confident man on the right side. A good kicker is one of thosemystical vibrators. Just knowing that a Groza or a Bruce Gossett, a Stenerud ora Turner is on the sidelines can guy up an offense to drive that extra fouryards into field-goal range—and sometimes the four yards turn into 40, and atouchdown. As a reverse case in point, last year's Green Bay Packers—plagued bythe lack of a sound kicker until midseason when AFL veteran Mike Mercer showedup—lost much of their momentum, not to mention games. Thus Jim Turner's valueto the Jets far transcends his statistical worth (which of course isconsiderable) as a mere kicker, however pure.
It helps, too,that Turner is quite a guy—wry, warm, witty, low-key and loose. Ambling aroundthe Hofstra campus with Turner, one gets a sense of what he means to the Jets.Hofstra used to be a drag on the eyeballs: beat-up Quonset huts, cracked cementwith crab-grass bursting through as if the earth were trying to grow a greenAfro. Now the campus stands tall with weird, high-rise dorms, all glass andconcrete, grown like the Jets themselves from seedy disrepute to a thing ofpower, if not glamour. As we slouch along, talking, a figure comes peltingtoward us from the cafeteria—a lean, blond kid who seems to be faking outghosts as he runs back to Tower C, where the Jets live while in camp. The kidflashes Turner a cool, sideways wave of the hand as he passes. Turner flasheshim back. "That kid will be good," he says. "Mike Battle out ofUSC. Punt-return kind of kid, very quick and tough. We all like him."
In the dininghall, where Turner packs away two plates of cold cuts, a mound of coleslaw nolarger than an indoor soft-ball and a small pitcher of Kool-Aid, we talk abouthis nonfootball interests. Turner hails from Crockett, Calif., a small townsituated on the tortuous headwaters of San Francisco Bay, near the big and uglyU.S. Navy shipyard at Mare Island. "Crockett isn't one of your preciouslittle pastel California Dreamin' kind of towns," says Tank. "It's thereal world, with about 4,000 real people in it. It's a hell of a little town,and everything there is great. You can let your little girl walk across town togo to kindergarten. When you can do that, you know you're in a pretty goodAmerican town." A 1959 graduate of John Swett High School (enrollment 550),Turner didn't like Crockett all that much as a kid. "Too small andconstricting," he says. Now, of course, he's something of a celebrity. Hisfamily home is just a block from the John Swett football field, and he reportswith a wistful smile, "They put up the goalposts for me when I'm in town,so that I can practice kicking. They even gave me a key to the locker room andunlimited use of the whirlpool bath."
At Swett, Turnerexcelled not only in football, where he captained and quarterbacked the Indiansto an undefeated season in his senior year, but in swimming as well. "Itwasn't swimming like you have today," he says, "with that age-groupstuff that encourages little girls to swim faster than I ever did as a strongyoung man. I swam the freestyle sprints and the individual medley, turned the100 free in about 55 flat. Back then, swimming was part of something biggercalled water sports, which included skin diving and water polo and water skiingand surfing. I mean, if you loved the water, you did everything in it."Then as now, Turner liked to dive for abalone, working the chilly currents thatswirl around the rocks of Point Arena and Point Reyes, north of the GoldenGate. He rarely plied his tire iron any deeper than 30 feet, but in thosewaters, for a free diver, that is deep and dark enough. Proximity to the wateralso turned Turner on to striper fishing. "There's a little bass club inCrockett," he says, "and this summer we were taking a lot offish—10-and 12-pounders, small but a lot of fun. I wish somebody wouldintroduce bluefish to the West Coast. I've plugged for blues out near MontaukPoint in New York and gotten into schools that just wouldn't quit." Jim'swife, Mary Kay, is also an ardent angler and killed a 10½-pound steelheadduring a recent visit to Depoe Bay, Ore., where Turner owns two big oceansidelots. Mary Kay, who comes from El Sobrante, a town near Crockett, tied themarital blood knot with Turner four years ago. They have a 2-year-old daughternamed Lisa Anne, and an infant daughter Christine. Turner also owns property atMt. Shasta in Northern California, where he plans to do a lot of skiing afterhe retires—maybe five years from now. "I won't go 15 years likeTittle," he says. "You just can't afford to move a family around thatmuch."
There is thismyth about football players that anyone who messes around with a pigskindoesn't deserve a sheepskin. At Utah State, where Turner played quarterback onthe same team with such other future pros as Merlin Olsen, Bill Munson andLionel Aldridge, he earned a degree in history and political science, and hestill reads deeply in both fields. Walking back to Turner's room after lunch,we talked about the Civil War, and our discussion of Carl Sandburg's Lincolnand Bruce Catton's books led, logically or illogically, to troubles in thecurrent American domestic scene. "I didn't vote last year," saidTurner. "Protest, I guess, but there weren't any candidates. Wallace andweaklings, and I don't like either choice. When you look around, as a footballplayer, it makes you glad that you're in the game. Here it's all prettyclear—win or lose, heroes or villains." He ran his hand over his shingle ofjet-black hair. "If I don't get a haircut soon I'll have to get a doglicense. I guess that tells you what I feel about longhairs."
What about thatmost famous of longhairs, Joe Willie Whatsisname? "He's all right,"Turner said. "When he had the trouble with Rozelle, I sent him a telegramfrom Crockett, telling him I was 100% behind him. He pulls this team togetherand he holds it there. This team is together, there's a sense of communityhere, and a lot of it derives from Joe."
And a lot of it,too, derives from the foot as well as the head. It's hard to walk around amongthe Jets without someone coming up and telling you what a great kicker Turneris. "Forgotten man," they say. "About time you did something onkickers." Big John Schmitt walks up and lurches to a halt like a sideburnedGodzilla, then launches into an eloquent, articulate and totally charmingaccount of how he, Babe and Tank were getting the ball up in one secondflat—one second, mind you, not the customary 1.2 or 1.3—from snap to kick thisafternoon. Yet the feeling persists that Tank Turner is a lot more to the Jetsthan just an Educated Toe. In this highly commercial game, which somehowtranscends commercialism, Turner holds the balance between those two antitheseswhich are symbolized on the one hand by points, bucks and endorsements, and onthe other by pride, cool and teamwork. In a tawdry but telltale way, the Scorecommercial says a lot about this inarticulate area. In it, the Tank sings alongwith "brothers" Matt Snell, Don Maynard and Bake Turner in melancholy,unmelodious, country-and-western praise of "no more fussin', no morefightin'." A good goal for a football team or a society, a placekicker or aholder.
"Youknow," says Turner in one of his nearly rhapsodical passages of praise forBabe Parilli, "a holder can really give you trouble if he wants to. He cangive you the white knuckle—hold the ball down real hard when you get your toeinto it—or he can tilt it just half an inch one way or the other. Then thewhole equation goes kaboom." So Score is more than a grooming aid. In fact,when I looked on the top of Turner's dresser in the dorm, there was no Score inevidence, only a can of hair spray that shall remain nameless. What's that,Tank? No Score? He looked at the ceiling and cleared his throat.
"Ahhh,gosh," he said, "I guess I loaned it to a teammate. Or maybe it's overat the locker room. Anyway, let me tell you a little bit more about kickingwith the wind...."