Birmingham placekicker Dan Miller never played soccer. He has no funny nickname, no foreign accent, no discernible personality quirks. And until last Saturday at Birmingham's Legion Field, the 24-year-old's kicking exploits had gained him little fame and not much of a living. But in this first-round USFL playoff game against Houston, before the Stallions' smallest crowd (18,500) of the year, Miller kicked five field goals. The most dramatic came from 35 yards out with only 1:56 left and gave Birmingham a 22-20 lead.
But then quarterback Jim Kelly, in action again after a four-week injury hiatus, brought Houston back. With one time-out, Kelly took the team 58 yards in nine plays and got the ball down to the Birmingham 32 with five ticks remaining. Now the outcome rested on the right instep of a 5'7", 220-pound sack of broken melons named Toni Fritsch. As Fritsch waddled onto the field, his face a blank, Miller, on the opposite sideline, figured his own heroic effort was about to be undone.
"I knew Toni was going to make it," said Miller. "Toni is the most accurate kicker I've ever seen. Toni just doesn't miss."
Fritsch, a 39-year-old former soccer pro and Austrian national hero from Vienna, hadn't missed from outside the 40-yard line all season. But—ach du Lieber!—he missed this one, hooking it to the left by scant feet. Miller ran onto the field, dodging Birmingham celebrants and Houston head-shakers. Fritsch shrugged and put his arm around Miller's shoulder when they met. In less than two years, Miller had been cut by three NFL teams and one USFL team. "I didn't even think I would beat Scott Norwood out of this job to begin with," said Miller. "Now I'm outkicking Toni Fritsch. I'll never figure this game out."
Fritsch, the 13-year veteran of both leagues and assorted restaurants, described his kick in accented, inimitable fashion. "He was a regular hit like always," said Fritsch. His pronoun choice for the football might seem out of place, were it not for the circumstances. "I was eight for eight, so maybe odds against me. Normal, I am good from there. We had him on left hash, wind to side. But he, you cannot predict. He, you cannot control. I hate to end my career with this kind of kick. Is kind of tragic."
But not to worry about La Machine, as Fritsch is called. That last remark will help set him up for his next placekicking job, wherever that is. Even if Houston folds, even if the entire league folds, Fritsch could always land in the NFL.
Miller, however, knew exactly where his next game would be—at home against Monday's New Jersey-Baltimore winner. He had seen to that himself. Miller kicks soccer-style only because he grew up watching the likes of Fritsch doing it that way on television. "I tried it and liked it," he says. Miller never played soccer, but he learned to kick as a kid in Clewiston, Fla., where some neighbors had a grove of banana trees with fronds that intertwined to form arboreal goalposts. He kicked a 53-yarder in high school, a 57-yarder against Florida State for Miami—where he played with Kelly and was the Hurricanes' alltime leading scorer—and a 58-yarder for the Colts against San Diego in 1982. Yet, he had lost kicking jobs to Mark Moseley (Washington), John Smith (New England) and Raul Allegre (Baltimore). Miller was even banished from his home state by Brian Franco at Jacksonville of the USFL. His hot-and-cold kicking had also been cause for concern in Birmingham, for whom he had kicked a USFL playoff record five field goals in a game last season. "If Danny can have a good day, come back and be confident," Birmingham coach Rollie Dotsch had said on Friday, "we walk home." On Saturday Miller had told Dotsch that, with the wind, he had a chance from 55 to 60 yards. Obviously, confidence was high.
Houston went into the playoff game with a big question mark because Kelly hadn't played since tearing ligaments in his right knee against Arizona on May 26. Also, as Dotsch says, "We have a defense that can choke and strangle people." The Stallions couldn't quite choke off Kelly, but they minimized his impact by keeping him off the field for the first nine minutes of play. After Birmingham got off to a fast start with Miller's 39-yard field goal, the Gamblers' Clarence Verdin was stripped of the ensuing kickoff. This positioned the Stallions for their only touchdown of the day, an eight-yard pass from Cliff Stoudt to Jim Smith. When Kelly finally got on the field, he turned the run-and-shoot offense into the stand-and-deliver offense by completing his first seven passes, including a 23-yard scoring shot to minuscule (142-pound) Gerald McNeil that made it 10-7.
Birmingham, the better team up and down the line, flirted with disaster all day. Two turnovers—the only way to really stop Kelly in this league—had helped the Stallions to a 13-10 halftime lead. They would have trailed were it not for a valiant goal-line stand; two dives by Houston running back Todd Fowler gained nothing, and Kelly was nearly decapitated by defensive end Don Reese on third-and-goal. Fritsch's 20-yarder was an afterthought and tied the score at 10. Miller reciprocated from 26 yards after Stoudt threw twice, ill-advisedly and incomplete, to Smith.
The only other touchdown in the game came in the third quarter, on a 21-yard pass from Kelly to Richard Johnson, who found a seam between the safeties and bounded up for Kelly's pass. Tucking the ball away in mid-flight, Johnson then skidded through the end zone on his rump, and Houston took a 17-16 lead. A 57-yarder by Miller—yes, with the wind—put Birmingham up 19-17 late in the third quarter. Fritsch countered from 46 yards with 9:09 left, and it was 20-19 Houston, but then Miller put the Stallions back in the lead at 22-20.
To set up Fritsch for the final kick, Kelly completed a 21-yard improbable beauty to McNeil on a fourth-and-18 play. When Fritsch missed, Kelly didn't carp. He swaggered off the field—if a man can be said to swagger when he is wearing a bulky knee brace and has played tough and been played tough in 90° heat. He paused to hug the Stallions' 288-pound defensive tackle, Malcolm Taylor, who had sacked Kelly hard on the Gamblers' final drive. "Hey, you fat piece of ——," laughed Kelly before sauntering off, raising his arms for the fans who lined the fences. In the locker room, he went around and slap-shook hands with each of his teammates, took a shower, put on a pair of Levi cutoffs and stood with his arms folded as if to say, "Next."
The Stallions may have problems moving the ball next week because running back Joe Cribbs suffered bruised ribs and a badly bruised left hand while gaining 70 yards on 16 carries. Stoudt is no Terry Bradshaw. By looking too long, hard and often at Smith, Stoudt turned what should have been a 30—20 walk-through into a 22-20 nail-biter. But he got the Stallions close; his unrehearsed naked bootleg left for 21 yards to the Houston 20 set up Miller's winning kick. Five field goals can be construed as five missed touchdowns, but Stoudt (13 of 26, 156 yards) did get them close. Miller made that close enough.
"The only stat that counts is who got the W and who got the L," said Stoudt. "I feel real bad for Toni Fritsch...well, I don't feel real bad."
Truth be told, Miller didn't either.