When Pete Gogolak came to America from Hungary in the 1950s, he was crushed to discover that nobody played soccer at his high school in upstate New York. Instead, the kids played a purely American game he had never seen. When he gave it a shot, he felt strange in shoulder pads and a helmet. The first few times he kicked the odd-shaped ball, he could barely get it airborne.
“I didn’t know what the hell was going on,” he says with a laugh.
As Gogolak, 74, recalls his 11-year career as a professional place-kicker, other moments tumble from his memory. There was the time he hit the top of a Coke bottle protruding from the dirt while attempting a field goal at Buffalo’s War Memorial Stadium. There was the 57-yard kick he made in his first pro game, an exhibition against the New York Jets in 1964 at a nearly empty stadium in Tampa, Florida. There was the first time he and his younger brother kicked against each other in a pro game in 1966 — just a couple of eastern European immigrants representing the New York Giants (Pete) and Washington Redskins (Charlie) in front of the parents who brought them to the land of opportunity.
“That was wonderful,” Pete says.
Also vivid is the tryout he had with a Buffalo Bills scout in the spring of 1964 at Cornell, where he kicked a 50-yard field goal as a senior. Gogolak put on a show, drilling one kick after another through the uprights from various distances. The scout was both impressed and surprised.
“He said, ‘Geez, I’ve never seen anybody kick this way,'” Gogolak says.
“This way” was soccer style. Gogolak approached the ball from an angle, off to the side, planted his left leg and then rotated his whole body to swing his kicking leg through the ball. At the time, it was revolutionary. The Bills selected Gogolak in the 12th round of the 1964 AFL draft. After two seasons in Buffalo, he jumped to the NFL’s Giants in 1966, the same year Charlie was a first-round pick of the Redskins. Sept. 11 marked the 50th anniversary of Pete’s 26-yarder against the Pittsburgh Steelers, the first soccer-style field goal in NFL history. Other soccer-style kickers — mostly Europeans — soon followed. Garo Yepremian (Cyprus) started kicking for the Detroit Lions midway through the ’66 season. Then came Jan Stenerud (Norway) to the Kansas City Chiefs in 1967, Bobby Howfield (England) to the Denver Broncos in ’68, Horst Muhlmann (Germany) to the Cincinnati Bengals in ’69 and Toni Fritsch (Austria) to the Dallas Cowboys in ’71. Suddenly, the purely American sport was attracting impact players from around the globe.