- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 5, 2006

Today the drop kick, tomorrow the Statue of Liberty play.

It’s hard not to get giddy about Doug Flutie’s old-fashioned extra point the other day. Perhaps you saw the replay, oh, about 64 times on television. That’s how many years it had been since somebody had drop kicked a PAT in the NFL — one more reason to call it the No Fun League.

For the uninitiated, the drop kick is a vestige of the Pre-Facemask Era. It involves no holder, only a kicker standing about 10 yards behind the center. He receives the snap, drops the ball gently — as would a punter — and then, just as it hits the ground, boots it through the uprights.

Hypothetically, at least. It’s harder than it sounds — which is one reason it’s now a lost art. Back in the day, though, pro football fans thrilled to the drop kicking exploits of Fats Henry, Paddy Driscoll, Pid Purdy and Frosty Peters — not to mention Al Bloodgood, who booted four field goals in a game for the Kansas City Cowboys in 1926, scoring all of his team’s points in a 12-7 win over the vaunted Duluth Eskimos.

Not that anyone remembers.

Fortunately, Patriots coach Bill Belichick is a history buff. And when he found out Flutie — 43-year-old geezer that he is — could drop kick, he started looking for an opportunity to try one. The meaningless season finale against the Dolphins seemed as good a time as any. So after the Pats scored a touchdown in the fourth quarter, Belichick sent Flutie out to make history.

Once Doug did — to the rapture of all involved — you found yourself wishing for a drop-kicking renaissance, for a return to the carefree days of Fats and Paddy and Pid and Frosty. Think about it: If the NFL wanted to put the excitement back in the extra point, this would definitely be a way to do it. (Just as an experiment, the league could require any team that wears throwback uniforms in a game to attempt at least one drop kick.)

You have to feel a little sorry for Ray “Scooter” McLean, though (or rather, the spirit of Ray “Scooter” McLean). Because of Flutie, he’s no longer The Last NFL Player To Make A Drop Kick. McLean knocked one through — just for laughs — at the end of the 1941 championship game, the final tally for the Bears in their 37-9 thrashing of the Giants. It was a moment fraught with symbolism. The country, after all, was mobilizing for war, and when it was over nothing would be the same, especially football. By 1946, the single wing was dying out, leather helmets were in their last throes and the drop kick had become a party trick.

Why did the drop kick fall out of favor? Well, for starters, it didn’t get as much distance as the place kick. In 1934, the Lions needed to make a 54-yard field goal to beat the Packers, but it was beyond the range of their famed drop kicker, Dutch Clark. So the team turned to Glenn Presnell, who could place kick. Not only did Presnell win the game, his 54-yarder set an NFL record that stood for 19 years.

The changing shape of the football also worked against drop kickers. It had become more streamlined over the years to facilitate passing and, as a result, didn’t bounce as predictably as the old, rounder ball. Finally, the drop kick was more of a gamble in bad conditions. A gust of wind could throw things off, as could a muddy or chewed-up field.

Still, the drop kick might have hung on a bit longer in the NFL if Nile Kinnick had played pro ball. Kinnick, the 1939 Heisman Trophy winner from Iowa, was a terrific drop kicker. In the 1940 College All-Star Game against Green Bay, the defending NFL champ, he booted three extra points in three tries.

But Kinnick, scion of a well-known political family (his grandfather was a former governor of Iowa), opted for law school. Shortly after Pearl Harbor the Navy summoned him, and he died in the service in 1943.

Our discussion wouldn’t be complete without mentioning Joe Vetrano’s Accidental Drop Kick for the 49ers in 1948. (This was when the Niners played in the All-America Conference, before they joined the NFL.) In one game that year, an extra-point snap skipped through the holder’s hands and went straight to “Joe the Toe.” Nowadays, of course, a kicker would respond to such a crisis by (a) panicking; (b) running; (c) launching a Garo Yepremian-type pass; (d) calling his agent; or (e) all of the above. Vetrano, however, kept his wits about him — and calmly drop kicked the ball over the crossbar.

Too bad none of today’s kickers has a Plan B like that.

But let’s get back to Scooter McLean because this might be the last time his name comes up in conversation. McLean is a remarkable story, the only player ever drafted by the NFL from St. Anselm’s College. St. Anselm’s, located in Manchester, N.H., had all of 350 students back then, but that didn’t stop the Hawks from going undefeated Scooter’s junior year (1939) — and battling Boston College to a 0-0 draw.

Bears boss George Halas might never have taken a chance on McLean, though, if not for his a headline-making game as a senior against Catholic University. He scored five touchdowns in a shocking 39-13 upset at Fenway Park — shocking because Catholic was 6-0 at the time and wound up going to the Sun Bowl. The Washington Star described him as a “fleet-footed, hip-swinging quarterback” who was also “a power at the safety position.”

The Star’s account ended with this nugget: “McLean, when a student at Cushing Academy [in Ashburnham, Mass.] in 1934, got two kisses from Bette Davis for scoring two touchdowns in a game played before the film star, returning to her alma mater.”

Scooter went into coaching following his retirement as a player in 1948. And while he’s no longer the answer to the trivia question, “Who made the last drop kick in the NFL?” he is the answer to the trivia question, “Who coached the Packers immediately before Vince Lombardi?”

Little-known fact: He’s also the answer to the trivia question, “Who missed the last drop kick in the NFL? In 1943, two years after his nostalgic extra point in the title game, he tried to drop kick another PAT near the end of a 48-21 rout of Philadelphia-Pittsburgh “Steagles” (a merger brought about by the scarcity of manpower during the war).

“Bob Snyder … place kicked the points after the first six Bear scores,” the Chicago Tribune reported, “but yielded to Ray McLean after the last score. McLean’s drop kick was wide.”

Wide? No kisses from Bette Davis for that.

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