First, some straight mathematics. Pay attention. David Eugene Lawson, age 21, senior, U.S. Air Force Academy, kicked field goals of 45, 52 and 41 yards against Notre Dame to become the most prolific placekicker in college football history. For the moment. As of last week, he had booted 45 in four years, which breaks the NCAA record. And, of course, he is very much alive and kicking. Earlier this season, through a cross-wind in Ames, Iowa, Lawson kicked a 62-yarder, which is a major-college record for distance. His 19 field goals in 1974 are a record for one season, but that may not last long. You see, Lawson does not kick alone.
Conventional or soccer-style, everybody's doing it. There are placekickers you never heard of—if you've never heard of Lawson, it's all right because we're going to fill you in on him later—kicking more footballs higher and farther and with a greater degree of accuracy than ever. Barring an unforeseen slump, we are about to witness a season in which 1,200 or more field goals will be kicked.
Second, history. In 1959 the colleges widened their goalposts by about 5 feet (to 24 feet), which was virtually a call to—well, to feet. That year 199 field goals were kicked, an increase of 93.2% from 1958. In 1969 there were 669 field goals, a 336% increase in 10 years. In 1973, there were 958, which is the record that will, at the present rate, be broken in November. Through last Saturday, 665 field goals had been kicked in 1,249 attempts, a .532 batting average, which is 33 points higher than the record .499 of 1973. Projecting out, the grand total will be 1,211 at season's end.
There's more. Death by field goal has already come in 63 games this year. Poor Wake Forest has lost to Appalachian 19-17 and to Clemson 16-14, both on field goals made with less than 10 seconds left. Stanford managed to tie Michigan on Mike Langford's 33-yarder with nine seconds to go, and Vince Lamia's 40-yarder lifted Wisconsin over Purdue with nine seconds to play. Virginia Tech edged Florida State 13-10 when Wayne (Munchkin) Latimer booted one from 61 yards out. And last Saturday Arizona remained unbeaten when Lee Pistor hit from 41 yards out to nip Texas Tech, while Tulane upset West Virginia 16-14 on Dave Walters' late 28-yarder. The record—91 games decided by a kick in 1972—obviously is in jeopardy. Ergo, one must conclude that coaches are sending their kickers in not only more frequently but also at more crucial times and under considerably more demanding circumstances. It has been proved that coaches no longer think twice about letting a good kicker risk spectacular failure. Rafael Septien of Southwest Louisiana needed binoculars to see the goalposts most of the times he was sent in last year. His average miss was 51.9 yards.
Lawson has a 58-yarder to go with his 62-yarder this season and one of 60 yards last year (no other major-college kicker has ever made two in the 60s). Against UCLA earlier he missed a 58-yarder. Chris Bahr, the icy cool Penn State kicker who is probably the best in the country, college or pro, has hit three 55-yarders. He missed one at 61. Windage was off, apparently. Pat Bolton of Montana State kicked four last week, two of them over 50 yards, while Florida's Dave Posey hit from 50 and 51 yards away. And on and on.
Percentages are up in every distance category. For example, in field goals attempted between 31 and 35 yards, the record made is .603 in 1969. Before last week's games, 114 of 170 kicks were successful at that distance, a .671 average. Tim Gibbons of Missouri has averaged 37.9 yards on 11 field goals. He has tried just one under 30.
Reasons given for so many dangerous kickers being on the loose might not all be satisfactory, but you can take your pick:
1) The emergence of the soccer-style kicker.
2) The proliferation of artificial turf, which affords consistent footing, uniform placement of the ball, etc.
3) More thoughtful athletes, especially small ones. (In the age of the unprovoked assault and the karate dojo, getting one's teeth knocked out trying to play split receiver is redundant.)
4) George Blanda.
6) The balls are livelier (not proved).
Along with everything else, some cherished notions about modern-day placekicking and placekickers are being shot down. Everybody knows what a field goal is (boring, usually) and what a field-goal kicker is supposed to be. He is supposed to be 137 pounds dripping wet (from the shower, not from sweat; nobody expects placekickers to sweat); to have an East European or Scandinavian accent and an interesting story about how he escaped the Communists or the common folks. He will have only a very probationary pass to varsity status, not being a true athlete, and be suspect by the coaches, who can't figure him out and do not know how to coach him. Too, he is expected to have only a vague idea of what football is really like and to be a loner and/or an eccentric.
Some of the emerging kickers in this report do not entirely let us down on these scores. A young man named E.O. Whealler, who kicks "only the long ones" for Georgia Tech, has a reputation for oversleeping, missing buses and disappearing from practice to call his girl or get his car fixed. Against VMI in 1973, Tech coaches yelled for Whealler to go in for a field-goal try. When there was no response, they searched and found him asleep on the bench. Upon being awakened, E.O. rushed into the game and kicked a 55-yarder, a Georgia Tech record. He clicked his heels as he came off the field. Whealler says the only problem a field-goal kicker has is getting bored. When the game is on, he amuses himself by looking at the action in the stands.
Brian Hall arrived at Texas Tech more limp-on than walk-on. He wore an artificial leg, the result of a farming accident. Hall carried the leg under his arm when he was interviewed by reporters the first time. When asked what he did to improve his skill during the off-season, he said, "Well, I've spent quite a bit of time refinishing my leg."
Indiana's Frank Stavroff, from Yugoslavia, walked on and into the job in 1973 and has made 11 of his 19 attempts for Coach Lee Corso, who likes Stavroff fine but isn't sold on field goals. "You better not kick a field goal if you have a lousy defense," says Corso. "I made a survey one year and eight of the 10 times we made a field goal early in the game the other team came back and scored a touchdown. I'd gain a field goal and be behind 7-3." Stavroff wears size 9 shoes but crams his kicking foot into an 8 "so it will feel like part of me."
Tony DiRienzo, Oklahoma's first soccer-style kicker, is from S√£o Paulo, Brazil. As a sophomore two years ago, DiRienzo kicked a 60-yarder against Kansas; this season he has not tried one that long, but he has made every one of the nine he has tried, including three last week.
With such inconclusive evidence to go on, it is not surprising that coaches are often willing to concede that they have the best placekicker in the world kicking for them. In Boston, the best kicker in the world is Fred Steinfort, a 22-year-old left-footer from Westphalia (Wetter, West Germany) who broke the Boston College lifetime scoring record by booting a 46-yarder against Navy on Saturday. Steinfort has scored 191 points in four years. USC's Glen Walker is the "best all-round kicker" (he also punts) John McKay ever had. Well, certainly the best all-round kicker who was ever a guard at the U.S. Army's maximum security prison in Fort Leavenworth. Abby Daigle is "the best field-goal kicker in Oklahoma State history." Daigle uses a straight-on approach, but he kicks the ball off the bottom of his shoe. He is credited with four field goals of 50 yards or more since starting as a freshman.
Ohio State's "best kicker in college football" is a walk-on named Thomas Klaban, who was born in Czechoslovakia and is spindly and splay-footed and can be seen almost every day of his life making solitary trips up and down the steps of 100-foot-high Ohio Stadium, hopping on one leg, then the other. Klaban's best buddy is his sister Jane, with whom he escaped to Canada from Prague, then came to America in 1967, which was fortunate for him because NFL scouts seldom draft anybody living in Prague. When he wasn't watching TV to improve his English, Klaban kicked Michigan out of the Rose Bowl last year with four field goals. He prepped for Woody Hayes by starring as a high school swimmer in Cincinnati. When he needs coaching, Klaban doesn't go to Hayes, he goes to sister Jane. Naturally.
"Nobody can coach 'em, those soccer kickers," says Indiana's Corso. His advice to Stavroff when he uses him is "go in there and kick it." Tom Harp of Indiana State is one of the few who do not agree with Corso, at least not publicly. Harp coached Pete Gogolak at Cornell in the early '60s. Since Gogolak is said to be the father of soccer kicking in American football, what really happened is that Harp watched Gogolak very closely and tried to learn a few things. He now likens the basic technique of the soccer kick to the golf swing: the arc of the kick coming into the ball inside out. The errors of the soccer kicker, he says, are similar to those of the golfer: the foot strays one way, shank; the foot strays another, slice. Harp believes that coaching soccer-style kickers is getting easier because kids are doing it on playgrounds. He says "half the little leaguers in Terre Haute" have been imitating his freshman walk-on soccer kicker, Dave Vandercook, since Vandercook's dramatic 50-yard field goal on Sept. 20 beat Southern Illinois with no time left on the clock.
Nonetheless, most coaches still handle their placekickers intuitively, and gingerly, as one might a bomb with a faulty fuse. Rhetorical question: How do you get a soccer kicker out of a slump? Answer: you don't. If you're, say, Woody Hayes, you relieve him. Klaban kicked 52 of 53 points after touchdowns and nine of 12 field goals last year to out-score even Heisman Trophy winner Archie Griffin on the Ohio State team, but when he was laid up with an injury this year and then scuffed his first extra-point try against North Carolina, Woody yanked him. In came Klaban's roomie, team punter Tom Skladany. Skladany looks like Harpo Marx. He plays the accordion by ear, can throw a golf ball out of Ohio Stadium, does card tricks and can pronounce backward any word you give him. No wonder Woody thought he was a placekicker.
But when Skladany missed his extra-point try, Hayes didn't fool around trying to tell him to keep his head down or anything like that. He returned Klaban to the first chair. Against UCLA, Klaban boomed two long field goals and five extra points in a 41-20 Ohio State victory.
So. Now you've had some mathematics, and a little history, and are ready to meet Dave Lawson. Lawson is not a kicking specialist. Better not call him one, either, because he doesn't like it and he is 6'1", 219 pounds. He says kicking "was just a way to stay on the varsity." He stuck and also became a starting guard-linebacker for the Air Force Academy. He still kicks, all right (he says he "enjoys it" and that it "provides some color to the game"), but he doesn't work as hard at it as he does his defense. He doesn't kick soccer-style. He kicks straight on, the way Blanda does. And Lou Groza used to. Throw out everything you've learned so far. Lawson isn't even Hungarian.
Lawson is from Shawnee Mission, Kans. An excellent all-round athlete, he throws the javelin and is defending wing heavyweight boxing champion. Assistant Coach Leland Kendall says Lawson has "the strongest leg I've ever seen." (See? They all do it.)
Lawson is no chest beater. His is the short, pragmatic view of placekicking. "It's a way to win—and a way to lose," he says. And too often a lonely salvage operation when the offense has had to go off with less than it worked for, a touchdown. "I think about the rest of them beating their brains out to get downfield," he says, "and then if I miss that's when I really feel bad."
There are others among the new kickers who are players in the total sense, who would not hesitate to make a block or risk their skin for a tackle. Stanford's Mike Langford, whose coach, Jack Christiansen, calls him "the best in the country" (naturally), is 6'2", 215 pounds, and was a linebacker in junior college. Bob Wood, though only 5'7", 175 pounds, plays flanker and halfback on the Michigan scout teams. He kicked a school-record four field goals against Stanford. He is also black, a rarity among placekickers.
Look at Chris Bahr and you know he's no defensive end. Bahr is 5'9", 160 pounds, and when he goes onto the field without shoulder pads, which he sometimes does, he appears especially frail and vulnerable. Until his right foot explodes into the ball. Bahr kicks soccer-style. His 14 field goals currently leads the nation. "He is a natural," says his father Walter, who was an All-America in soccer at Temple and is now the Penn State soccer coach. Chris is one of those ail-American boys (quiet, soft-spoken, 3.5 in biology) who just happened to grow up in soccer instead of football. He is, in fact, a superb athlete. Under the 4-year-old NCAA rule that allows a scholarship athlete in one sport to play professionally in another, Bahr competed for the Philadelphia Atoms of the North American Soccer League last spring. "Competed" is not exactly the word. He led the team in scoring and was Rookie of the Year.
With kickers like Bahr around, and Lawson, and himself, Boston College's Steinfort believes that one day soon somebody is going to kick a 70-yard field goal. Watch the skies.
It probably won't be Bob Berg of New Mexico. Berg is not only small (5'11", 157 pounds), he is a professed nonathlete who "never even went to a college game until I played in one." He kicks straight on.
The thing about Berg is that if you want to be safe in your illusions about placekickers, he's your man. He is an art major (he sculpts, draws, messes around with ceramics, wants to design toys for a living). His hair springs from his head in a wide, curly arc. He taught himself to kick, using a flimsy canvas shoe from which he cut the toe out and the sole off. The shoe was held together, barely, with laces and tape.
Berg is also one of the best. He has kicked 12 of 16 this fall, including a record five in New Mexico's opening game. He is also one of the fastest guns. He gets a placement off so quickly there is scarcely time for the defense to move, much less block it.
At those times, Berg says, "I never look up. I step it off, line up the posts, put my head down and kick." He says he has "never seen anybody coming in at me. It'd probably scare the hell out of me if I did."
Ah, that's the way we like to hear 'em talk.