Sometimes you can view something so often you stop seeing it. Case in point: For the next half-year or so, those who watch football will see dozens, probably hundreds, of kickoffs, field goals and extra points launched by kickers in a variety of playing conditions and game circumstances. But chances are excellent every kicker will have one thing in common, other than the equipment he (or she) wears – he will kick soccer style, approaching the football at an angle before sending it aloft.
The unvarying technique is accepted without a second glance. This in a game that at its highest levels has specialists coaching nearly every position, their instruction buttressed with data analysis and video. (A few schools, among them Clemson and UCLA, even use drone aircraft to record practices). Yet the diagonal run-up to kicking a football – arguably soccer’s deepest if least recognized penetration into American sports – is a relatively recent and modestly analyzed phenomenon.
Even the most experienced college football coaches are uncertain how we went from a world in which straight-on kicking was the norm to a universe in which soccer-style launches are ubiquitous.
“There isn’t any one answer,” offers Rick Sang, director of American Football Specialists. Sang runs kicking camps with NFL Hall of Fame punter Ray Guy (once a straight-on field-goal kicker at Southern Mississippi) and is considered a master of the kicking trade. Sang says factors propelling the stylistic shift include rules changes, more room for error on kicks “if you’re not right on dead center” when striking the ball, the dearth of athletic shoes designed to accommodate a straight-ahead approach, and the plain popularity of youth soccer. The trend is so pronounced, Sang says NFL Films spent two days this summer at his camp at Eastern Kentucky to do a historical piece outlining the effective demise of straight-on kicking.
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Sang and many others trace the shift to Pete Gogolak, a Hungarian immigrant who kicked at Cornell and was drafted by the American Football League’s Buffalo Bills in 1964. Until Gogolak came along, every NFL kicker stepped straight toward the ball like Lou “The Toe” Groza, namesake of the annual award given to the best collegiate kicker. In an age prior to extensive specialization, many kickers were big and strong (Groza was 6-foot-3 and weighed 250) and able to play a field position as well.
Not Gogolak, whose “off-center approach to kicking revolutionized football,” according to Sports Illustrated. In 2000 the magazine dubbed him one of the NFL’s most influential players of the preceding 50 years. He was a kicker, and that was enough. “I don’t look at soccer-style kicking as something I created,” Gogolak told SI. “Frankly, I’m amazed nobody else saw the potential.” Gogolak finished as the New York Giants’ all-time scoring leader after they lured him away from the Bills; his jump stoked bidding wars that led to the AFL-NFL merger.
Within two decades of Gogolak’s joining the Giants, sidewinders were the only kickers left. Mark Moseley, the sole kicker honored as the league’s most valuable player (during the strike-shortened 1982 season), retired in 1986 as the last straight-on practitioner in the NFL.
‘Just the way things went’
The college game, as usual, emulated the pros.
“I think (soccer-style) just got to be the way things went,” says Frank Beamer, the holder for a straight-on kicker, Jon Utin, at Virginia Tech during the latter 1960s. Beamer, whose Hokies squads are known for blocking kicks, thinks a soccer approach generates enhanced leg speed and power, much like the whipping motion used to swing a golf club. But, admits the ACC’s senior coach, “I’m not sure.”
David Cutcliffe likewise lacks a ready explanation for the shift in style. “It’s a good question,” says the Duke coach. “I think those straight-on guys had some great accuracy, but I think the range, I think the kickoff included, became a little different” with the soccer-style.
Niklas Sade, 21, makes a powerful supporting argument – the N.C. State senior has 82 touchbacks through Saturday’s win against Old Dominion. Sade grew up playing soccer, then he used the sport to find a place on the football field. Now he’s on the watch list for the Groza award and within 48 points of matching the N.C. State career scoring record (312) held by Hall of Fame running back Ted Brown. “I think I can get more distance with the approach I take,” says Sade, the man responsible for the Wolfpack’s field goals, extra points and kickoffs. As for straight-on kicking, he’s only seen it demonstrated once and “never tried it out.”
Sang, the kicking expert, sees fewer differences between the styles than people assume. “They would always say soccer-style kickers are more powerful, but yet some of your major college and pro records for the longest field goal were also held by a straight-on kicker,” he says, rattling off names and distances.
Ken Olson teaches at Sang’s camps, working with the few conventional kickers who attend. He is well-positioned to see both sides of the argument. Olson studied the physics of the soccer-style kick for his master’s thesis in exercise physiology at Washington State, and performed as a straight-on kicker in college and the pros.
“Straight-on kicking is the easiest,” says Olson, a high school coach and teacher in Phoenix. “You give a 5-year-old a ball and you tell him to kick it, or a 4-year-old or a 3-year-old; they’re not going to take side steps and an angle over. He’s going to kick it straight on. A kid in a crib is going to kick the ball straight on; he’s not going to kick it soccer style. That’s a natural habit, so mechanically it’s more sound.”
Still, the old-style kickers Cutcliffe calls “dinosaurs” are hard to find; they came to only three of 18 Sang camps recently worked by Olson. The lack of a sufficient sample size might limit definitive comparisons, but Olson insists the soccer and straight-on approaches go “toe to toe” in accuracy and distance. If anything, Olson says conventional kickers have an edge because they get the ball airborne more quickly and are steadier-footed in adverse weather conditions.
“It could shift again,” he says wistfully of contemporary kickers’ clear stylistic preference. But that probably won’t happen – with or without supporting data, soccer and fashion now thoroughly define our expectations when shoe meets ball.