It was a nice night in Pittsburgh on Sept. 1, when the Steelers played their final preseason game: 81°, a light southwest wind, no threat of rain. Late in the third quarter, with the Steelers and Eagles tied 10-10, Pittsburgh kicker Gary Anderson stepped into the summer calm and lined up a 51-yard field goal attempt. His kick cleared the crossbar by five yards, landing 15 yards beyond the goalpost. It might have been good from 65.
One wondered: How good would Anderson be if he kicked under a dome?
Considering his numbers in the unpredictable outdoor climes of the north, Anderson might be the best field goal kicker ever if he enjoyed a dome-field advantage. That is, if he isn't already. After Sunday's games, Anderson had made good on 187 of 244 career field goal attempts, all with the Steelers. Entering his ninth season with a .766 career percentage, he trailed only Kansas City's Nick Lowery (226-291, .777) and New Orleans's Morten Andersen (171-222, .770 heading into Monday's game against San Francisco) on the alltime accuracy list.
Andersen, the only one of the three whose home stadium is domed, will play 11 games indoors this season, compared with two each for Anderson and Lowery. Moreover, each year Andersen has outdoor games in the temperate NFC West cities of Anaheim, Atlanta and San Francisco. Lowery annually passes through AFC West comfort zones in San Diego and Los Angeles and has an indoor game in Seattle, but faces unpredictable weather in Denver. With the Steelers belonging to the AFC Central, Anderson has the toughest schedule, having to kick outdoors once in Cincinnati and Cleveland, in addition to his eight games in Pittsburgh.
Lowery, Andersen and Anderson are likely to play leapfrog atop the career field goal accuracy list until they retire. Last season they changed places five times at the top of the list. "I'm amazed Nick and I have stayed close to the top over the years, with the weather we have to kick in," Anderson says. "When you try a 50-yarder in Pittsburgh in December, it's almost impossible. When you try a 50-yarder in a dome anytime, it's a lock if you kick it straight."
"It's tougher, obviously, to kick in the wind and the rain," Andersen says. "That's why Gary's record is remarkable. He's a great kicker." But....
"If I were on a northern team, kicking outdoors, I think I would adjust," Andersen says. "I kicked for four years in East Lansing [at Michigan State] and made All-America. That's comparable to kicking in Pittsburgh. I've made a 53-yarder at Cleveland and a 53-yarder at Giants Stadium."
Anderson says the most underrated factor in kicking is footing. "I attack the ball when I kick it," he says. "Under ideal conditions, I plant my left foot and really attack the ball with my right. But you have to adjust your style in bad weather. In Cleveland, if you plant your foot hard and kick, you're almost sure to fall."
Anderson's story is an only-in-America one. In 1978 he had just finished high school in Durban, South Africa, when his father, a Baptist minister moved his family to the U.S. because South Africa's apartheid policy was not in line with the family's Christian principles. The timing of the move distressed Gary, who was a budding soccer star.
The Andersons settled in Downingtown, Pa., and a family friend suggested to Anderson that if he was so good at soccer he ought to try kicking an American football. "I'd never seen American football played," he says. When he tried kicking a few field goals at the local high school, one of the school's coaches, who happened to be watching, told him he ought to show the Eagles—in camp at nearby West Chester—what he could do.
Anderson took the advice, and in a brief tryout he impressed a handful of college coaches who were visiting the Eagle camp that day. Anderson, who didn't bother warming up, kicked a 50-yard field goal for starters. "After I finished," says Anderson, "my father said to me, 'I think this football must be a pretty big game in this country. This one coach saw you kick six balls and offered you a college scholarship, which he said was worth $40,000.' " Actually, four schools offered him scholarships, and Anderson picked Syracuse, where he set an NCAA record with a career field goal percentage of 87.4 and converted 72 of 72 extra-point attempts.
But as many kickers do, Anderson failed in his first NFL trial, with Buffalo, which had drafted him in '82. The Steelers plucked him from the waiver wire, and he is living happily in Pittsburgh with his wife, Carol, and their 17-month-old son, Austin. "I do sit back sometimes and think it's amazing what's happened in my life," says Anderson.