Three years ago Washington State Kicker Jason Hanson found himself in an unaccustomed position—the fetal one—hugging a fumbled kickoff beneath a half ton or so of heaving meat. The Cougars led UCLA, at the time the nation's No. 1 team, 34-30 with six minutes to play. All things considered, it was a lousy time for Hanson's voice to crack.
Immediately above Hanson in the pileup was a Bruin who sought, by means verbal and physical, to separate Hanson, then a freshman, from his prize. "Give me that ball you little [homophobic epithet]!" said the student-athlete, "that's my——ball!"
Something—possibly nerves, possibly the hundreds-of-pounds-per-square-inch of pressure crushing his body—caused Hanson's voice, nasal to begin with, to ascend several octaves. "No it isn't," he squeaked. "It's mine! Mine!" The UCLA player scrambled away, alarmed. Hanson's theory: "I think he thought I was a child that had somehow sneaked into the game, and he was afraid he'd injured me."
Hanson clung to the ball, and the Cougars to victory. During that pileup he sustained a bruised forearm, which he brandished for a week like a purple badge of machismo. "He was so proud," recalls Jason's father, Doug. "He came home saying, 'I tell ya, Dad, those guys are animals.' "
There is no doubt, as the decidedly unbeastly Hanson files with his teammates onto the team bus or out of a hotel, that he is some species of kicker. (Even team managers, who must haul around those heavy water coolers, tend to have physiques more formidable than the 6-foot, 180-pound Hanson's.) Yet, of the 108 Cougar players, Hanson is the one whose photo graces the cover of the Washington State media guide—for the second year in a row. Now a senior, he is thought to be the best kicker-punter prospect since 1973, when the Oakland Raiders made a gangly Southern Mississippi senior named Ray Guy their first-round pick.
In his 3½ seasons with the Cougars, Hanson has 21 punts of 50 yards or longer. And punting is only his hobby. His kickoffs routinely sail to the back of the end zone, unreturnable. He has kicked 59 field goals, 35 of them from 40 yards or longer, including an NCAA-record 18 from beyond 50 yards, two more than the previous mark that Tony Franklin set for Texas A&M from 1975 to '78. In the fourth quarter of Washington State's 40-13 win over UNLV on Sept. 28, Hanson booted a 62-yarder, the longest field goal in an NCAA game since kicking tees were banned after the '88 season. And according to Hanson, the kick had "a couple of yards to spare." Before Washington State's game against Arizona State last season, he nailed a 72-yarder in warmups. The day Hanson enters the NFL, he becomes an immediate threat to Tom Dempsey's 1970 record for the longest field goal in league history, 63 yards.
Yet Hanson conceives of himself not so much as a kicking specialist but as a middle linebacker in miniature. "I think I'm as good an athlete as some of the guys that play skill positions," he says. "The difference is size."
And Hanson is working on that. Upon finishing with the arduous one-legged squats prescribed by strength coach Jay Omer, Hanson often does the same upper-body workout the linemen do—albeit with a skimpy fraction of the weight. Folks in Pullman still talk about the lick Hanson put on teammate Steve Broussard, now a running back with the Atlanta Falcons, during a practice in 1988. "Wrapped him up, shot his hips through like a free safety," marvels offensive coordinator Tim Lappano. Broussard did not live the hit down for the remainder of his college career. The following year, an open-field tackle that Hanson made on a kickoff against Brigham Young left a blue smear on his helmet. He begged the equipment managers not to scrub it off.
He is keen to play pro ball, but not for reasons you're used to hearing. "I'll be able to make some quality money to set aside for medical school," says Hanson, who is a premed student with a 3.76 grade point average, down but slightly from the 4.0 he had at Spokane's Mead High.
What we have here is a bookworm with strong Christian values and a Gumby build who didn't play a real position in high school, either. He's been a kicking specialist virtually all of his football life.
So it comes as a mild surprise to learn that Hanson's teammates warmed to him immediately. He is well liked and, before each of the last two seasons, drew some votes for team captain. Hanson is popular partly because of his foot—"You've got to respect that talent," says wide receiver C.J. Davis—and partly because he falls easily into the giving and taking of verbal abuse, the staple pastime of locker rooms everywhere. Teammates report that Hanson has been known to organize games of rock-paper-scissors and that he takes special relish in meting out the standard punishment to losers: ear-flicks. "You've got to watch him," warns oft-flicked safety Darryl Hamilton. "He's crafty."
"He's actually become a leader for us," says Washington State coach Mike Price. "He gets up at team meetings and gives his little talks. He'll say, 'I know I'm just a kicker. I'm not going to hurt anyone. But we need to get out there and get after it!' " Of course, the Cougars have yet to storm out of the dressing room in a rabid frenzy following one of Hanson's speeches, but at least no one laughs.
One look at Jason and his brother Travis—who is two years younger and kicks for the University of Washington—and an image of station wagons and suburban soccer leagues springs to mind. But the Hansons haven't always lived in the suburbs—it only seems that way. For eight years after they married, Doug and Cheryl Hanson lived in a two-bedroom house on Ash Street in north Spokane. But the boys kept kicking balls over a backyard fence onto the property of a crabby neighbor who wouldn't return them. Though not a typical reason cited for urban flight, the search for kicking room seemed, for the Hanson family, wholly appropriate. They moved to a more 'burblike part of Spokane.
In the backyard of their new split-level ranch on Hillcrest Drive, Jason and Travis staged kicking contests, booting footballs into the poplars separating their property and Colbert Road. By his early teens Jason was booming kicks over the trees. Theretofore a soccer and basketball star, Hanson decided—with the prompting of locals who had seen him kick—-to give the oblong brown ball a chance. As a sophomore he played jayvee football at Mead High and the following year he was a scholastic All-America punter. His senior year, having attracted the avid interest of college coaches, he self-destructed.
That year Hanson made a measly four field goals in 12 attempts. "I didn't know how to kick 50-yarders," says Hanson. "I was gritting my teeth, trying to kick the ball to the stars. The trick is to kick it the same way every time, no matter where you are on the field." The 21-year-old Hanson smiles ruefully at the ignorance of youth.
No scholarship offers were forthcoming, so Hanson walked on at Washington State. On the first day of practice, Dennis Erickson, then the Cougars' coach, noted approvingly that there was some left-footed walk-on kicker hitting consistently from the 35- and 40-yard range. Then Erickson learned that Hanson wasn't left-footed. "Scary," recalls Erickson, now coach at Miami. "He is the best kicker I've ever seen."
Upon seeing what Hanson could do with his right instep, Erickson awarded him the starting job. On the first field goal attempt of his college career, at Illinois in the season opener of his freshman year, Hanson converted a 41-yarder from a tough angle. As an encore, he later missed an extra point.
Hanson did not miss another extra point—he connected on his next 81 attempts—until the last regular-season game of his sophomore year. That one was blocked. That was the season he imposed himself on the national consciousness with four field goals, including 58-, 52- and 46-yarders, in a 46-41 win over Brigham Young. His performance in that game helped earn him Price's near-absolute trust. "When we get to within 70 yards, I'll look at him," says Price. If Hanson thinks the kick is too long or there is too much wind, he politely declines. Price appreciates that candor. "A lot of kids would stand there and go, 'Put me in coach, I can do it' " says Price. "Jason won't say yes unless he knows."
The leg that will someday depose Dempsey is not much to look at. "He's got nice legs," says Hanson's girlfriend, Kathleen McCloskey, a tad defensively. Perhaps. But they are not the rippling, vascular gams of an American Gladiator or a professional wrestler. They are the legs of, say, a good high school half-miler.
So how does Hanson boot footballs half a mile? Cougar backup kicker Aaron Price, the coach's son, thinks it has to do with where Hanson lines up. "He comes in from way out on the side," says Aaron. "That gives him a lot more torque."
Then why doesn't everyone kick that way? Because most kickers can't maintain their accuracy doing so. "The further out to-the side you are, the harder it is to control where it goes," says Aaron. "I tried it and had balls going all over the place. I don't know how Jason does it."
The NCAA Football Rules Committee put an even higher premium on accuracy in the off-season by narrowing the distance between the uprights by five feet, to 18'6", the same distance as in the NFL. It did this without a corresponding narrowing of the hash marks, and the resultant tougher angles can now make it harder to kick a field goal in college than in the NFL. Before this season Hanson professed to be unconcerned by the change—when he misses, he said, he misses by acres.
Hanson is devoutly religious, but he's not one to wield his faith like a prohibitionist wielding a hatchet. When it is 6:55 and he is still 15 miles from Freeman High, where he is to be the keynote speaker at the school's spring sports banquet beginning at 7:00 sharp, he is not above flicking on his old man's Fuzzbuster and doing 60 in a 45-mph zone.
"I was asked to speak for a half hour, but I'll cut that short," Hanson tells a gymnasium full of rapt athletes and parents. "I know how these banquets can .drag." Appreciative murmurs. For a 21-year-old he is a polished public speaker, alternately profound ("I see a lot of people who do one thing great, but that's the extent of their greatness, because they've lost a sense of balance in their lives"), self-deprecating ("God gave me an above-average ability to put a ball through a pair of uprights") and fast on his feet. When an escaped two-year-old in a pink nightie kicks a cord out of the wall, causing Hanson's microphone to go dead, he has a good laugh like everyone else and simply raises his voice.
Most important, Hanson is brief. He brings the talk home in roughly 20 minutes and receives a standing ovation. The first person up and cheering is a muscular, crew-cut fellow in the back of the gymnasium. "That was Miles Conklin," assistant coach Ted Lundgren informs Hanson. "He's one of our defensive ends—a bit of a hell-raiser. I guess you really reached him."
Of course Hanson reached him. Conklin likes playing defense and is a bit of a hell-raiser, right? As Hanson sees it, that makes them a couple of kindred spirits.