Quite possibly the Sugar Bowl's national championship game will
come down to the left foot of a 260-pound Polish placekicker
with a skull as smooth as Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura's, a
football history that dates only to his senior year in high
school, a deep love for his parents (the father in the U.S., the
mother at home in Poland) and just slightly less affection for
gut-busting buffets, cold beer and late-night games of nine ball
in Tallahassee pool halls. From Florida State's perspective
there'll be no problem if the game does come to this, because
Seminoles junior Sebastian Janikowski has been preparing since
childhood to carry his team to a clutch victory, except that the
sport in his imagination was soccer and his team was AC Milan.
Details, details. Is this a great country, or what?
On the night of Jan. 4, when No. 1 Florida State plays No. 2
Virginia Tech, the most lethal weapon in the Superdome will be
Janikowski's meaty left leg, a freakish appendage that fires
thunderbolts better judged by their sound than by their
appearance. "It's like somebody fired a gun when he kicks," says
Kerry Kramer, Janikowski's coach at Seabreeze High in Daytona
Beach. "I never see his kicks," says Clay Ingram, the Seminoles'
long snapper, "but I hear every one of them."
In three years at Florida State, Janikowski has made 65 of 83
field goal attempts (78.3%), with four coming from more than 50
yards. He is just as deadly kicking off: This fall 57 of his 83
kickoffs were touchbacks, and he drilled four through the
uprights at the opposite end of the field, 75 yards away. The
last two years he has won the Lou Groza Award, the kicker's
Heisman, and on Monday was named to the All-America team.
Yet statistics and awards sanitize Janikowski's legend. In
practice teammates watch him pound 70-yard field goals, small
potatoes compared to the 82-yarder he kicked in practice at
Seabreeze High. Last year Seminoles defensive back Abdual Howard
blocked a Janikowski rocket in practice, and one of Howard's
fingers is still disfigured from the impact. As Howard lay
writhing on the ground, Janikowski stood over him and said, with
a mix of Schwarzeneggerian malevolence and teammate's love,
"Abdual, don't ever do that again. It's going to hurt really bad
every time." Florida State players no longer try to block
Janikowski's kicks in practice.
Janikowski is embraced by his teammates as a one-of-a-kind
character whose accented, deadpan English and relentless good
cheer provide a daily hoot. He'll also bust the chops of anybody
in the locker room. "He won't let me forget that he made
Playboy's All-America and I didn't," says guard Jason Whitaker,
who has made other All-America teams. "It's impossible not to
like him," says Seminoles coach Bobby Bowden.
It's also impossible to stay out at night with him, because
Janikowski has been known to eat, drink and shoot pool until
sunrise, which isn't necessarily a good thing. "Nobody on the
team can keep up with him," says Ingram, "except maybe a couple
of big, old offensive linemen. But pound for pound, it's no
The same is true for his status among college kickers.
Janikowski has said he will skip his senior year and enter the
NFL draft, thus becoming one of the first kickers to leave
early. He is expected be among the highest-drafted kickers in
history. "He's got the most powerful leg ever coming out of
college," says one AFC personnel man. "The ball explodes off his
foot." An NFC executive says, "He's phenomenal. You cannot
return his kicks."
NFL people don't view the 6'2" Janikowski as a fat-boy kicking
specialist. Although he doesn't look it, he's athletic. He can
bench-press 395 pounds and, despite having gained 40 pounds over
the last three years, runs the 40 in 4.6 and has a 33-inch
vertical leap. Since 1967, only two kickers have been taken in
the first round: Russell Erxleben of Texas in 1979 and Steve
Little of Arkansas in '78. No kicker has been drafted as high as
the second round since Detroit took Washington's Jason Hanson
there in '92.
The last six years have been a dizzying ride for Janikowski. In
the spring of 1994 he was living with his mother in a small
apartment in Walbrzych, Poland, hoping that one day they might
join his father in the U.S. Now reality has surpassed those
dreams. Last week he sat poolside at a resort in Orlando, where
he would receive his Groza Award as part of a television show
honoring top college players. "It hasn't hit me yet," he said.
"It's all too unbelievable."
Sebastian, 21, the only child of Henryk and Halina Janikowski,
was born in Walbrzych, a small city in southwestern Poland,
close to the borders of what were Czechoslovakia and East
Germany. Henryk was a pro soccer player, and Sebastian's first
toys were stuffed soccer balls put in his crib. The Janikowskis
moved whenever Henryk was traded or transferred, living in
Walbrzych before going to Mielec for six seasons and then to
Krakow for another before landing back in Walbrzych in 1985,
when Sebastian was seven.
A year later, at 33, Henryk left Poland for the U.S., leaving
Halinka and Sebastian behind. His soccer career had peaked in
1981, when he was one of the last players cut from Poland's
World Cup team, and was in steep decline. He came to the U.S.
ostensibly to play for club teams in Bridgeport, Conn., and
Yonkers, N.Y., but really "to find a better life in America," he
Henryk risked immigration problems by staying in the U.S. when
his visa expired, and after three years he divorced Halina and
married an American. "I was lonely, I was in love, and it was
the only way I could stay," he says. Halina and Sebastian,
meanwhile, lived for eight years in a three-room apartment.
Halina worked occasionally, but they subsisted largely on
whatever money Henryk sent from America. Sebastian spent long
hours in the school yard, honing the shot that would be his
salvation. "I always knew where to find him," says Halina. At 15
Sebastian earned a place on the Polish under-17 team. A year
later, in '94, Henryk sent word that his marriage made it
possible for him to finally obtain a visa for Sebastian to come
to the U.S. The marriage also meant that Halina would have to
stay in Poland.
That April, Halina put Sebastian on a plane bound for John F.
Kennedy Airport in New York. The years have done little to dull
the pain of that moment. "The farewell at the airport was so
difficult," says Halina, her voice cracking over a phone line
from Walbrzych. "Sebastian didn't want to leave me. I told him
to go. I told him I would join him someday."
Sebastian's eyes mist as he tells the story. "Lots of tears," he
says. "Very tough. I didn't want to leave my mother alone."
Nearly as difficult was his arrival in New York, where he was
greeted by a father he didn't know, a man who had visited him
and Halina once in eight years. "I saw him, and it was kind of
weird," says Sebastian. "We didn't know how to act with each
other, whether to hug or kiss or shake hands or high-five."
They settled on an awkward embrace and went to Orlando, where
Henryk, who had retired from soccer after two seasons in the
U.S., was living with his new wife and working in maintenance at
a nursing home. Sebastian enrolled in the 10th grade at
Orangewood Christian Academy and was overwhelmed by class work
in a language that he didn't speak. "Every day I felt stupid,"
he says. "Once, my English teacher called on me, and I didn't
even know what she said. It was quick motivation for me. I
learned that if you're going to live in this country, you had
better learn to speak English."
Sebastian also joined the Orlando Lions under-19 soccer team,
coached by Argentinian expatriate Angelo Rossi, who had played
low-level pro soccer in his native country and in the States.
Janikowski had grown to a muscular 215 pounds, yet Rossi was
astounded by his quickness in small spaces, vital to soccer
excellence, and by the power in his left foot. "In our first
practice he took a shot that hit the side of the goal and moved
the goal about six inches," says Rossi. "I fell in love with
Rossi was also the coach at Seabreeze High in Daytona Beach and
encouraged Janikowski's father to move Sebastian there, where
the high-profile soccer program would expose him to top college
recruiters. Henryk agreed but remained in Orlando. Sebastian
lived with the Rossi family for 2 1/2 years. Under Florida's
transfer rules Sebastian had to sit out his junior year, but
Rossi took him on a two-week trip to Argentina, where Sebastian
played in two friendlies with a club team and, according to
Rossi, was offered a two-year, $1.8 million contract to turn
pro. Sebastian declined, uncomfortable with the culture and
fearful of the demands on a young professional.
In the halls at Seabreeze High, word had spread that the
bald-headed guy (Sebastian shaves his head) in their midst was a
soccer stud. Some football players, in particular lineman Brad
Cjeka, badgered Sebastian to try out his leg during spring
practice. "Everybody was talking about what a great kicker this
big kid was," says Cjeka, who would join Sebastian at Florida
State. "We wanted to see what he had." So one afternoon
Sebastian, wearing shorts and sneakers, walked onto the practice
field, set a football on the tee at the goal line, took two
steps back and pounded it high over the head of Kramer, who was
standing at midfield. "One of my assistants was in the other end
zone, and the ball bounced past him on one hop," says Kramer.
Practice came to a halt.
Sebastian joined the football team for his senior year and
turned Seabreeze games--and even practices--into sideshows.
"We'd have 20 cars parked along the fence with people watching
Sebastian warm up," says Kramer, "and they'd all leave when the
game started." Some of them were college recruiters, who watched
Sebastian kick four field goals of more than 50 yards, including
a 60-yarder in a key late-season win over Palatka. One of the
recruiters was Florida State assistant coach Bill Sexton, who
encouraged Bowden to sign Sebastian. Bowden refused because he
already had Bill Gramatica, the younger brother of former Kansas
State and current Tampa Bay Bucs kicker Martin Gramatica, on
scholarship. Sexton begged Bowden to look at Sebastian on tape.
Recalls Bowden, "I saw him and I yelled at Billy, 'What are you
doing here? Go sign him.'" In 1997 Janikowski beat out
Gramatica, who transferred.
Smitten with the intensity of football in the South, Janikowski
signed with the Seminoles even after scoring 69 goals in 24
games in soccer and attracting scholarship offers from schools
that would allow him to play both sports. He has caught on
quickly to the subtle--and not so subtle--rhythms of football,
ripping himself after failing to convert field goals ("He missed
a couple [against Wake Forest] and acted as if he'd let the
whole team down even though we won by 23 points," says Whitaker)
and acting cool in the face of pressure. In the third quarter of
the Seminoles' 30-23 victory over Florida, Janikowski was called
on to try a 49-yarder. As the kicking team waited to take the
field, Janikowski turned first to Ingram, looked into his eyes
and taunted him. "You scare?" he said, dropping the d, as
always, because of his accent. Then he whirled on holder Marcus
Outzen and said, "Just spin the f------ ball, O.K.?" Outzen
always spins the ball laces away, perfectly. It was Janikowski's
way of keeping everybody loose. He made the kick and, after a
delay-of-game penalty moved the ball back five yards, pounded it
through again, from 54 yards, tying the game 16-16. Then he
mocked the Gators fans' chomping motion, just for fun.
Sometimes Janikowski, a sports management major, has too much
fun. His indifference to schoolwork and his difficulties with
English have put him on the verge of flunking out of Florida
State more than once. "I had to bust my ass last spring and
summer to play this year," he says. His nocturnal habits haven't
helped. In August 1998 Janikowski got into a fight outside a
Tallahassee bar. He was charged with failure to leave the
premises and pleaded no contest to the misdemeanor. Three months
later he was involved in a fight at another bar. "He's a big,
tough guy, and people like to challenge him," says Outzen. "We
try to make sure somebody is with him when he goes out." Bowden
has told Janikowski to walk away from fights, but that's not
"He drinks too much and eats too much; I worry about him," says
"When someone says 'vodka,' his eyes light up," says Cejka, "but
he can handle it."
Janikowski claims that's all behind him now. "I'm more grown up,"
he says. "Sure, I got drunk and got into fights, but I was
younger. I drink less now; I say no. My life is moving on, and I
realize what I can have."
What he wants most is to bring his mother to the U.S., and
that's the primary reason for his early departure to the NFL,
because once he starts making pro football dollars he'll be able
to give Halina the financial sponsorship the U.S. government
requires. She visited him for three months in 1997, but
immigration officials would not allow her to stay longer, and
they haven't seen each other since. "I've never had a mother and
a father at the same time," he says. "I would like to have both."
The next months will throw a heavy load on Janikowski: help
Florida State win the national title, continue to grow up, begin
an NFL career and bring his mother to the U.S. That is much to
ask of a single leg. But his is no ordinary limb. "It is
something he was given at birth," says Rossi. "It's a gift."
Rarely is a placekicker selected in the first three rounds of the
NFL draft, but if two-time Lou Groza Award winner and All-America
Sebastian Janikowski (below), a junior at Florida State, declares
himself eligible, as expected, he'll be snapped up early. Listed
are the kickers picked highest in the 1990s and how they've fared
as pros, through Sunday.
Player, College Round, Year Seasons
Martin Gramatica, Kansas State 3rd, 1999 1
Brett Conway, Penn State 3rd, 1997 3
Steve McLaughlin, Arizona 3rd, 1995 1
Doug Brien, Cal 3rd, 1994 6
Jason Elam, Hawaii 3rd, 1993 7
Jason Hanson, Washington 2nd, 1992 8
[Player] Team FGs (%) PATs (%) Points
Bucs 22 of 26 (84.6) 21 of 21 (100) 87
Redskins 18 of 26 (69.2) 43 of 44 (97.7) 97
Inactive 8 of 16 (50.0) 17 of 17 (100) 41
Saints 121 of 151 (80.1) 181 of 184 (98.4) 544
Broncos 179 of 228 (78.5) 280 of 281 (99.6) 817
Lions 192 of 237 (81.0) 271 of 276 (98.2) 847
out of college. The ball explodes off his foot."
"Sebastian didn't want to leave me."