Morten Andersen, the new Orleans Saints placekicker, is standing on an oil-and-gas production platform called Ship Shoal 246-A, 10 stories above the swirling, deep-blue water of the Gulf of Mexico, making a promotional appearance. Out here it's 110 miles from downtown New Orleans and about 5,200 miles from Andersen's family home in Struer, Denmark. A few hours earlier on this Tuesday in December, Andersen boarded a helicopter at the Superdome Heliport and flew first to Transworld Rig 68, then to the Ship Shoal, 36 miles away.
Andersen, 27, shakes hands with the hearty souls who spend a week at a stretch working the Gulf—weathered, bearded men in oil-spattered jumpsuits with nicknames like LONE WOLF and SQUEEKY scrawled across their pockets. Electricians. Mechanics. Sandblasters. Mud engineers. Maintenance men. Roustabouts. Cooks.
Andersen autographs hard hat after hard hat, always drawing two eyes and a big smile in the middle of the round, script letter A of his last name. He chats with each of Ship Shoal's 44 workers about the loneliness, drudgery and dangers of the job. Archie Bellard, the assistant field foreman, tells Andersen, "Just in case we blow up or a ship plows through us, we'll evacuate into the two orange capsules on the sides of the platform. I don't promise to keep you alive, but I'll do the best I can."
"Archie," says Andersen, squashing his spiky blond haircut under a hardhat, "I just need to be back in time for Sunday's game."
Tom Fetters, president of CNG Producing, points out that his company has one of the nation's best safety records. One of their offshore facilities went more than five years without a serious accident. At the same time, Fetters boasts of the company's record of striking oil or gas in 75% of its drillings. "Remarkable numbers in such a risky business," Andersen says.
Andersen can relate to risk and success, since he makes a living in the NFL. In only six seasons he has become the best kicker in NFL history. He has made 119 field goals in 151 tries (.788) as well as 163 of 166 points after (.982). He has missed only five field goal tries from inside the 40.
At 6'2", 212 pounds, Andersen is physically unlike most of his fellow kickers. He developed a broad chest, large, muscled arms and powerful thighs by weightlifting, which he does five days a week in the off-season, as well as by swimming, skiing, running, cycling, tennis and in aerobics classes. Several times a season he sends kickoffs sailing through the uprights. His longest NFL field goal is 55 yards.
"Morten gives me a sense of security," says New Orleans coach Jim Mora. "I know if we get within his range—and I feel comfortable up to 50 yards—we'll get three points. He makes me breathe easier."
Andersen believes that the stubborn, hardworking and strong-willed traits in his heritage keep him stable under pressure. When the Saints' offense advances the ball to midfield, Andersen begins his mental preparation. He moves away from his teammates, at least 20 yards down the sideline. He's off-limits. "I don't want to be spoken to," he says. "Everybody knows to stay away from me."
Then Andersen begins his own mental pep talk. I will make this kick. Yes. I can do it. Yes. Come on. Come on. Come on. He takes three practice kicks into a net. Then he closes his eyes and visualizes the ball going through the goalposts. He is oblivious to potential distractions.
"At Pittsburgh, fans were shouting obscenities at me, calling me all sorts of names," he says. "Some of the guys were bothered by it, really disgusted. They asked me after the game if I had heard the stuff. I hadn't heard a thing."
Sometimes, though, he hears a second voice coming from within. That voice is hard to ignore because it tugs on his heart. "I get extremely homesick," he says. "Waiting to try a crucial kick sets something off inside of me. I'll tell myself. My mother doesn't care about this field goal, my father doesn't care about this field goal, and my brother doesn't care about this field goal. Five million Danes don't care if I make this kick. Please. Let me go home."
Andersen and his twin brother, Jakob, were born in Copenhagen and grew up in the fishing village of Struer on the Jutland peninsula. Their father, Erik, is a psychologist who supervises the local county's educational programs for handicapped children. Their mother, Hanne, teaches Danish language and culture and is a school librarian.
These fraternal twins had little in common. Morten was loud and rambunctious, Jakob quiet and shy. Morten's energy exasperated his parents. When they went on drives, he would demand to race against the family Peugeot. "I can run 20 kilometers an hour!" he would brag. As soon as the car would pull away, Morten would crumble to the pavement in tears, until it came back to pick him up. On Sunday afternoon walks, Morten would zigzag through the woods, while Jakob lagged behind, picking flowers and collecting stones.
The boys started playing soccer at age five, and as a teenager Morten just missed making the Danish junior national team. In gymnastics he excelled in the floor exercise and was made an instructor at the local club. "He had such a good touch with everything," says Jakob, now a biology student at Denmark's ‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√±rhus University. "It still makes me mad." And let's not forget team handball. Morten and his teammates won the Danish national title when he was 16.
Hanne became concerned that Morten was too involved in sports and insisted he read history books and learn languages. By the time he finished high school, he had studied English, French, German and Latin. On his own, he picked up Norwegian and Swedish. Being multilingual came in handy on Andersen family weekend trips throughout Europe.
"I was born in Copenhagen just before World War II and couldn't leave the country," Erik says. "I believe it is important for Danes to look at other people. We are such a little country. We need to explore."
After Morten graduated from the 10th grade—the final year of high school in Denmark—Erik suggested he visit the U.S. as a cultural exchange student. The Youth for Understanding program assigned Andersen to Ben Davis High in Indianapolis, and he lived with Jean and Dale Baker and their four children. Andersen arrived on the afternoon of Aug. 19, 1977, his 17th birthday. That evening the Bakers took him to a high school football "jamboree," a scrimmage involving six local teams. Andersen was captivated by this first glimpse of American football. The next morning. Dale Baker brought his son, Roger, to practice, and Andersen, in his soccer shoes, went too. Since Andersen knew how to kick. Baker placed a kicking tee at the 20-yard line. Andersen easily booted the ball over the goalpost. Then Baker moved him back to the 25. And then the 30, 35, 40, 45, 50. From each spot, Andersen easily split the uprights. Bob Wilbur, the Ben Davis coach, watched Anderson make the last two kicks. Wilbur immediately issued him a uniform and jokingly said, "If you miss a field goal, I'll send you back on the boat."
Andersen made five of his seven attempts that season. He missed only one point after—his last, in the state's semifinal game against Evansville Reitz. After Ben Davis scored a touchdown to lead 13-0, Andersen's extra-point kick sailed so high one official lost sight of the ball and it was ruled no good. Davis eventually lost 14-13.
In addition to football, the Bakers introduced Andersen to other bits of Americana, like Disney World and the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade in New York City. They helped him discover peanut butter ("It stinks"). Andersen's picture now hangs in the dining room next to those of the Bakers' "other" children.
Andersen faced a difficult decision in the spring of his year abroad. Both Michigan State and Purdue had offered football scholarships. "Morten phoned and said he had a chance to get an education and that it was free," says Hanne. "We were too far away to know what was right. We had to trust Morten and trust the way we had raised him."
Says Andersen, "I think it hurt my mother that I could give up my family and my country so easily."
Hans Nielsen, the Spartans' senior placekicker, was from Vejle, Denmark. He persuaded Andersen to attend Michigan State, and the two Danes became friends. "We helped each other keep the Danish ties." Andersen says. "Hans was somebody I could really talk to."
Says Nielsen, "We went from bar to bar looking for Carlsberg beer. Morten was like a brother."
Howard and Janice Cummings of Holt, Mich., "adopted" Andersen at the end of his sophomore year. Janice, a receptionist in Andersen's dorm, typed his German papers. Morten borrowed the Cummingses' car to practice for his driver's test. At football games, they waved a gigantic Danish flag when he kicked.
In his senior year, Andersen kicked a Big Ten-record 63-yarder against Ohio State and was named to several All-America teams. His 261 points is the Michigan State career scoring record.
Andersen has already selected a title for his yet-to-be-written autobiography: The American Dane. That's appropriate. His lightly accented speech is dotted with American colloquialisms. "Hey, dude," he says to a buddy. (He's speaking on the phone in his Mercedes.) "O.K., man," he signs off. Driving past a front yard overloaded with Christmas decorations, he howls, "That's tacky."
Last Fourth of July he threw a $4,000 catered bash for 120 neighbors and friends. He pitched a tent in his backyard in Harahan, La., and hung American and Danish flags on the fence. He hired a band and shot off fireworks.
The American Dane is the most popular athlete in New Orleans. Women regularly call the Saints' offices to get his unlisted number. It's not uncommon for Andersen to hear female squeals while dining in the French Quarter. The truth is, he loves the limelight and capitalizes on it by dressing up his Scandinavian good looks with a chic European wardrobe.
In 1983 Andersen posed for a beefcake poster in a sheer, belly button-baring jersey and tight short shorts. More than 16,000 were sold in a few months. He followed that with a record, Take It to the Top, which he sang with Saints punter Brian Hansen. It sold 5,000 copies. Mortenmania peaked in 1985, when New Orleans magazine named him one of the city's 10 most eligible bachelors. The magazine's cover featured a picture of him lounging against the hood of a red Porsche. "In those days, every night was like a rock concert," he says. "My life had to change."
And it did. Dramatically. Andersen immersed himself in charities. He now attends 30 black-tie fund-raisers a year. He is cochairman of the Young Professionals for the New Orleans Ballet. To help sell subscriptions to the city's symphony orchestra, Andersen guest-conducted Mozart's Eine kleine Nachtmusik. If he had to choose a favorite cause, he says it would be Children's Hospital.
"Morten used to visit the hospital once a week, but it got to be too hard on him," says Brian Landry, a hospital official. "He gets so involved with the children. He looks into their eyes. I can't do that. I have to focus on their ears or try to look past them."
A couple of years ago while Andersen was visiting the hospital, a desperate doctor pulled him aside and told him about a boy who seemed to be losing his will to live. Andersen rushed to intensive care and talked to the boy for 30 minutes, pleading with him not to give up. Weeks later Andersen received a thank-you note from the doctor saying the boy was well enough to go home.
During a September visit, Andersen found Devet Frye, a pretty 17-year-old girl from Dodson, La., in a hallway, immobilized on a gurney, partly paralyzed and with a crushed pelvis. Andersen rolled an empty gurney alongside, lay down and introduced himself. She could barely speak, so Andersen held her hand.
Today Frye is walking with a cane. Andersen took her to a performance of The Nutcracker in the hospital's auditorium. "You've come so far, Devet," he told her. "You must be positive. And strong. Please don't ever give up."
Ronnie Lair, 11, is racing through the halls in his wheelchair, shouting, "Morten's coming! Morten's coming!" Ronnie recently underwent a rare operation to lengthen his left leg. Andersen gave him a football that was autographed by the Saints for his birthday.
While alone in his rambling house, Andersen spends many hours thinking about his future. He is surrounded from floor to ceiling by Scandinaviana: furniture, paintings, wall hangings, pottery, clocks, dishes and silverware. He still speaks to himself in Danish, delves into Danish novels and pores over Politiken Weekly, a newspaper his parents send from home. Often he puts a C.V. J‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√árgensen album on the stereo and cranks up the volume. But lately Andersen has been catching himself writing his grocery lists in English and Danish. His dreams are now bilingual, too.
"I make sure to talk to my parents and brother once a week," says Andersen. "I have to keep up my Danish. Phoning is easy, a quick fix. But it's getting harder and harder to write. I have trouble formulating the semantics."
The thought of leaving the U.S. scares him. He has been "adopted" by two more families, the aforementioned oilman Tom Fetters and his wife, Jan, and Bob and Diane Winston, all from the New Orleans area. He is dating professional tennis player Anne White, who lives in Los Angeles and is best known for appearing at Wimbledon two years ago in a white bodysuit. But the prospect of losing his Danishness scares Andersen even more. "I'm asked so many times if I'll move back to Denmark when my career is over," he says. "I don't know. There are intriguing things about both countries, incredible emotional ties in each place. I hope I'll never have to choose."