Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Making history was the last thing on Fred Bednarski‘s mind when he went in to attempt a field goal for Texas on Oct. 19, 1957. Most of his attention was focused on the two goalposts in the distance — 18½ feet apart, 38 yards away. The Longhorns’ offense had bogged down deep in Arkansas territory early in the game, and Darrell Royal, their first-year coach, wanted to come away with something. So he asked the strong-legged Bednarski, normally his kickoff man, to see what he could do.

Just the week before, Royal had sent him in to try a 55-yarder against Oklahoma, not expecting much. “If you miss,” he told Bednarski, “it’ll be better than a punt, anyway, so go on in there.” That boot, at the limit of Fred’s range, had landed short; but the kick he was now facing — with Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus in the crowd, rooting on his 10th-ranked Razorbacks — was nothing out of the ordinary. He had made field goals that long many times in practice.

The snap came back. The ball was put down. Bednarski swung his fullback’s leg. Texas 3, Arkansas 0. Fred Bednarski had booted college football’s first soccer-style field goal.

Few moments in football history have had a greater impact than the one in 1957 — 50 years ago Friday — in Fayetteville, Ark. And yet it got barely a mention in the Sunday newspapers, just a sentence in the stories about Texas’ 17-0 upset.

“Fred Bednarski, a soccer-type kicker who uses a sideways foot motion, kicked the field goal after the Longhorns had been halted in the first quarter.” (Associated Press)

“The kick, executed in Bednarski’s distinctive soccer style, came early in the opening period.” (United Press)

Far bigger news was the presence of Queen Elizabeth II at the Maryland-North Carolina game in College Park. That got lots of play in papers all over the land. Besides, who could have envisioned soccer-stylers taking over the game the way they have, literally changing the game? Back then, Bednarski was just a curiosity, like an ambidextrous quarterback or a 300-pound lineman. He was a sideshow, somebody to entertain the fans with his booming kickoffs and quirky technique.

Heck, soccer hardly existed in the United States in 1957, and in Texas it was just a rumor. Which is why Bednarski, who had grown up with the game in Europe, turned to football when his family came here as displaced persons after the war.


Much confusion surrounds the first soccer-style field goal. An article in the Cincinnati Enquirer in 2001 credited it to Hank Hartong, a soccer player from the Netherlands who had kicked for the University of Cincinnati 40 years earlier. “Hey, I invented something,” Hartong is quoted as saying.

Uh, no, you didn’t, Hank. Fred Bednarski did. Unless, of course, somebody in some remote outpost came up with the idea before him. In the pre-ESPN era, you can never be 100 percent sure.

Many folks are under the impression Pete Gogolak, pride of Cornell, was the first sidewinder (as they were called in those days). But Gogolak was merely the first to play in the pros, originally with the Buffalo Bills in 1964 and later with the New York Giants.

As for Hartong, he isn’t even the second soccer-styler … or the third. Ever hear of Evan Paoletti, a kicker for the Huron (S.D.). College Scalpers in 1958? (Talk about off the beaten path.) How about Walt Doleschal, who did the booting for Lafayette College from 1959 to 1961? They, along with Bednarski, are The Forgotten, the first wave of side-foot kickers. So why don’t we, on this 50th anniversary, shine the spotlight on them for a spell, try to set the record straight?

It’s somewhat miraculous Bednarski even made it to this country. After all, his family was uprooted from its home in Poland in 1942, when he was 5, and spent the next three years in a Nazi labor camp outside Salzburg, Austria. The conditions there were almost unlivable.

“In the wintertime,” says Bednarski, now living in Austin, Texas, “we had to melt snow to have enough water just to wash up. There was only one toilet at the end of the barracks. In our room we had two families — ours and an older couple. We used a blanket to separate us. There were triple-decker beds. No mattresses. We slept on straw with a sheet over it.”

There wasn’t much food, either, just servings of watery carrot soup and meager portions of black bread. His parents would try to get by on less so the children could eat a few morsels more. “It really was kind of a slow starvation,” he says. “We were just lucky to be liberated by the Americans when we were. My mother weighed about 75, 80 pounds at the end of the war.”

Long hours were spent in bomb shelters, waiting for Allied planes to dump their loads on the nearby radio and cannon factories where the men worked. When the skies cleared, the kids would come out — Jews, Poles, Ukrainians, Russians, Czechs — and play soccer with a ball fashioned from rolled up socks. Or maybe someone would have a tennis ball. This was where young Fred learned to kick soccer style, under the gun of the Germans.

After arriving at Ellis Island in 1950, the Bednarskis were supposed to go to North Dakota, where a job was said to be waiting. But there was a problem with the paperwork, and the family wound up on a dairy farm in Smithfield, Texas. Fred’s first exposure to football — watching the local high schoolers play under the Friday night lights — didn’t exactly make him run out and join a team.

“I couldn’t believe what these people were doing — fighting each other!” he says. “But I went out anyway and tried to play with the guys [on the playground], even though I didn’t know how to tackle or anything. I guess I just stuck my foot out to see if I could make a tackle that way.”

One day in junior high, a game was going on during recess, and Fred was called over to give the ball a kick. He was barefooted — times being what they were — but didn’t think twice about it. Approaching from an angle, as soccer players do, he proceeded to blast the ball about 40 yards, much farther than his schoolmates had.

Witnessing all this was the school’s football coach, Floyd Martine. He could hardly believe his eyes.

“Who is that kid?” he said.

“The Polish boy,” came the reply.

“Try it one more time,” he told Fred. “Let me see you do it again.”

The Polish Boy obliged — and launched another long one.

“He invited me to come out the next day for football and gave me some shoes,” Bednarski says. “And that’s really when I started learning to play ball.”


Almost all the early soccer-stylers have stories like that, stories of smirking onlookers, soaring kicks and dropped jaws. Jim Long, Paoletti’s coach at Huron College, remembers Evan picking up a ball on the practice field, giving it a twirl so it spun upright on the ground and side-footing it right between the goal posts.

“So he became our kicker that year,” Long says. “Kicked extra points [16 in all]. I was always open to anything that would help me win a ballgame. I assume he might have tried a field goal or two, too, but we very seldom went for field goals. We were one of the top small college teams in the country and had a very dominant running game.”

Paoletti was the exception — the pioneer sidewinder who actually was born in the United States. He had grown up in St. Louis and been a member of the St. Cecilia parish soccer team, one of the best in the state. But he had played football in high school and — here’s the funny part — kicked in the conventional fashion, straight-on, with a square-toed shoe the school had issued him.

“Well, the school took it away after my senior year — I suppose so they could give it to the next guy,” says Paoletti, who lives outside Phoenix and scouts teams for the Fiesta Bowl. “So after two years of junior college, I went up to Huron — to play baseball on a scholarship-type thing — and decided to try out for football. I was wearing a pair of soccer shoes I’d brought with me, and at first I was kicking the ball with my toe like I always had. But it didn’t work as well with a pair of soccer shoes, so I kinda started messing around with a tee, kicking them sideways. I got more length and accuracy and everything else right off the bat.”

His holder, quarterback Dave Bowe, was a little unnerved by the experience at the outset. “I thought he was going to kick me right in the teeth the first time,” he told the Associated Press. But it was obvious Paoletti — and Bednarski before him — were on to something. To Evan the logic was inescapable: By using his instep, he was getting “about six inches of my foot against the ball,” giving him much more of a margin for error than a straight-on kicker.

It seems hard to believe now, given how fast news travels, that Bednarski and Paoletti had no awareness of each other’s exploits. For most of his adult life, Paoletti was convinced he was the first soccer-styler. Not that he yearned for the recognition, mind you, “but my boys are kinda fond of telling their buddies about it,” he says. “Then I found out there was another guy, but I’d never heard of him.”

Back at Lafayette College, Walt Doleschal was equally in the dark about Bednarski and Paoletti. Like Bednarski, Doleschal had been a displaced person after the war, a Czechoslovakian forced to live under Nazi rule when Hitler swiped the Sudetenland. One day in 1950, he and his mother, Emilie — his father had died years before — boarded a Scandinavian Airways flight in Hamburg and came over to live with an aunt in New Jersey. An all-state football career at Memorial High in West New York got him recruited by Lafayette, where he starred as a halfback and all-purpose kicker.

The soccer skills he had developed in his homeland came in handy on the gridiron. He learned to kick in the conventional style — “a pendulum kick,” he calls it — but on the shorter ones he would use the side of his foot. He even punted soccer style. On one pet play of Lafayette’s, he would fake an end sweep to draw up the safetymen and quick-kick the ball, end over end, over their heads. The ball would roll forever.

“He throws the ball high up in the air, just like a soccer player,” his coach, Jim McConlogue, told United Press International. “Then, somehow, he gets off a 50- or 60-yard kick. He gets the job done, but it sure is hard on my nerves.”

That was the thing about sidewinders: Their method was so, well, foreign, that it made coaches uncomfortable (and their strange accents didn’t help any). Some coaches also feared that soccer-stylers booted the ball too low and were more susceptible to blocked kicks. And in the pros there was the issue of roster sizes. In 1957, NFL teams were allowed to carry 35 players, 18 fewer than today. Only three kickers in the league that year could be described as specialists. The others either started at other positions or provided depth.

Which brings us to George Squires. He was another early side-footer, an English immigrant who settled in Laramie, Wyo., and kicked for the Wyoming Cowboys. Squires says he was booting soccer-style for Laramie High in 1957; and in just his fourth varsity game at Wyoming in 1962, he sent three field goals through the uprights, setting a school mark. (The next day, he scored three goals for the Cowboys’ soccer team in a 4-2 victory over Colorado.)

Squires had the stuff to make it in pro ball. He could have been the second soccer-styler after Gogolak. He even went to training camp with the Denver Broncos in 1965 — and was doing well.

“I was hitting 50-yarders,” he says. “Then one day the head coach, Mac Speedie, puts me in at running back [the position he had played in college before concussions sidelined him]. So I run a curl route over the middle, two linebackers hit me and blow my knee out and that’s the end of my career. I came back the next year and kicked well again, but they said they just couldn’t take a chance on me because the injury was to my plant leg.”


Over time, though, the soccer-stylers proved their worth. They were just too good to keep off the roster — even if they had only one function. You can debate whether they boot the ball farther than straight-on kickers, but there’s no question they’re more reliable. In 1957 NFL kickers made 52.2 percent of their field goal tries; last season they made 81.4. There’s no comparison.

Beyond that, though, it was just time. Kicking was the most undeveloped area of the game, something teams might spend a few minutes of practice on. The field goal in pro football’s early days just wasn’t that big a weapon. Consider: Only once before 1962 was a pro title game decided by a late three-pointer — in 1950, when the Browns’ Lou Groza kicked a 16-yarder in the last seconds to beat the Rams. It was a game of touchdowns, not field goals.

But that changed in a hurry. By 1977, two decades after Bednarski’s kick, 20 of the NFL’s 28 teams had soccer-stylers, most of them from other countries. There were kickers from Austria, from Poland, from Mexico, from Norway. Once it was clear sidewinders were here to stay, clubs went to great lengths to find one of their own. In the 1960s, the Cowboys staged cross-country Kicking Karavans, at which they looked at anybody with even one good leg. The first year (1967), they drew 1,400 candidates in 29 cities — and invited 30 of them to a four-day “kick-off” at the Cotton Bowl. Three of the finalists, two kickers and a punter, wound up playing in the NFL.

The Chiefs, meanwhile, held tryouts at London’s White City Stadium (where they discovered Bobby Howfield, who would later kick for the Broncos and Jets). And sometimes a soccer-styler just fell in a team’s lap. Imagine this happening today:

A recreational soccer player in London flies to Indianapolis in June 1966 to visit his older brother, who had come to the United States in the late 1950s to play soccer for Indiana University. He has never seen an American football game. The older brother gets hold of a football, and the two of them start going down to Butler University and practicing kicking — the older brother holding, the younger one booting. The younger brother picks it up so fast that the older brother sends a letter to a bunch of pro teams, asking for a tryout.

The Falcons grant one but don’t offer a job. Then the younger brother auditions for the Lions, and they sign him to a contract. On Nov. 13, in his fifth NFL game, the younger brother kicks six field goals to break an NFL record that had stood for 15 years. Ladies and gentlemen, meet Garo Yepremian (who would gain greater fame on the Dolphins’ Super Bowl winners in the 1970s).

Week 5 of this NFL season was typical. First, the Texans’ Kris Brown broke the Dolphins’ hearts with a 57-yard field goal at the gun — after booting two 54-yarders earlier. Then on Monday, the Cowboys were deader than dead against the Bills — until rookie Nick Folk rescued them by blasting a 53-yarder on the last play.

The kicker has become football’s thief in the night, stealing victories from Foxborough to San Diego. And it all began with Fred Bednarski, the Polish refugee, in that Texas-Arkansas game half a century ago.

He couldn’t be prouder of his place in history.

“It’s nice,” he says, “as you get older, to be able to say, ‘Well, I did contribute something to the game.’ The only place this could have happened was in America. You can do all kinds of things in the United States if you’re willing to try.”

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