Saturday, April 24, 2010

Pete Gogolak: Better Than Blackpool

Not just anyone can write Football With 1 Stick Gum – with a straight face, anyway. You gotta be qualified. Among my more unusual qualifications is that I accompanied the U.S. National Semipro Football team to Blackpool, England, as assistant general manager. It wasn’t just rolling out the balls, either. I had to drive. A stick-shift car with the stick in my left hand and the steering wheel in my right, and the driver’s side where the passenger’s side ought to be. In London. Trying to find Wembley Stadium. Which no one, in those pre-Mapquest days, could find. And I had to shepherd Lucky Jim, who swore he could drive a stick and drove 12 miles out of Heathrow without once shifting into second. They towed the car, and we went back for Lucky Jim and his mates. It was later he broke ribs running into the hotel staircase, and never played a down on the trip.

My mentor in this endeavor was my ad manager at the time, a fellow named John Guy. John talked like The Great Gildersleeve and looked like a Bozo the Clown Rock 'n' Bop and had a career ambition of owning a 10,000-watt AM station in Odessa, Texas.

John was, in many ways, a match for his charges. I remember one linebacker in particular who believed it was perfectly acceptable to take a passport picture with an Instamatic camera in your backyard, in front of a tree, with your cat. He never made it out of the country.

A word about Blackpool before I move on. Blackpool is an English resort town. As a sentence, this is the equivalent of saying “Lady Gaga is beautiful.” You know that under the pushups, powder and paste is a walnut. And not one of your cuter walnuts. The temperature never got above 50, the wind howled like Yoko, and it seemed that every other storefront was selling something they claimed was rock candy but I’m sure was crystal meth. That’s the only way anyone could have gotten a holiday out of the place.

The kicker on that trip was a 55-year-old Yugoslavian who claimed to have taught Pete Gogolak how to kick a football soccer-style. The Yugoslavian’s story sounded convincing despite the fact that Gogolak is Hungarian and he wasn’t, but it was late at night and the cider is mighty strong over there. In his defense, the Yugoslavian did have a trick were he would line up 10 footballs on tees and kick them one after the other, with the object being to kick the 10th through the uprights while the first was passing over the bar. He pulled it off with the surety and slick patter of someone who has kept 10 footballs in the air more than once, and his continental arrogance about this and other things began to bug the team after a while. In response, the members of the extra-point squad decided to lay down instead of block on an extra point after the team was comfortably ahead, which in the case of this game (like most of the games over there) was early in the second quarter. The linemen took it a step further by telling the opposing linemen, “Hey, we’re going to lay down on the extra point. Get in there and knock that kick back in that idiot’s face,” or somesuch. When the ball was snapped and the linemen hit the deck there was a split second of incredulity followed by several moments of lyric poetry that could only be matched by Van Morrison scat-singing WWE results. The British American footballers performed their duties with élan and then some, as the block actually spurred a brief rally on the Brits’ part. The Americans took the game by 10 points, give or take, and all except the Yugoslavian agreed a close game was a small price to pay for the satisfaction.

In the Bills' championship year of 1965 Jack Kemp was the AFL's MVP, despite not leading the league in a single statistical category. In fact, the Bills' offense was pretty awful that year. It was seventh in team passing, which is understandable given the Buffalo climate and the Buffalo pass-catchers, the best of which was either the speedster Elbert Dubenion or ex-CFL tight end Ernie Warlick. MVP Jack Kemp chipped in with 13 TD passes and 24 interceptions. The rushing offense wasn't much of a panacea, either, finishing sixth in the league, averaging 3.3 yards per carry and fumbling away the ball 28 times. So how'd the Bills do it? Defense and astonishing kicking. The Bills D allowed four rushing touchdowns all year, and only 226 points in 14 games. Punter Paul Maguire averaged 43 yards per punt; try that sometime in a Buffalo winter. (To put it in perspective, the supposed king of winter punting, the Packers' Don Chandler, averaged 42.9 yards/punt in '65.) And not only was Pete Gogolak perfect on all his extra-point tries (as was every other kicker in the league), but he kicked eight more field goals than anyone else. Twenty-four points to a team that gives up a rushing touchdown every fourth game would seem to be immense, but if Gogolak kicks 10 fewer field goals the Bills go 9-5 and still win it all. If he doesn't kick a single field goal the Bills still win it all; that's how bad the AFL's Eastern Division was that year. That doesn't diminish Gogolak's accomplishments; he was a phenom. He just happened to play for a team that didn't need one.

The question of how quickly an AFL-less NFL would have caught on to soccer-style kickers is moot. Gogolak was kicking footballs in college, as was his brother. College-football innovations migrated quickly to the pros in those days. At best Gogolak sped up the process by two or three years. Had there been no Gogolak and no AFL there would have been Jan Stenerud in 1967. He was simply too good to ignore.

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