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Ex-Spartan Andersen seeks finishing kick for Hall of Fame

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News
Morten Andersen is the NFL’s all-time leading scorer with 2,544 points.

Why this even ranks as a tussle, as a debate topic chewed to fragments, mystifies more than a few familiar with NFL lore.

Morten Andersen’s self-crafted numbers are, well, astonishing.

All-time NFL leader in points (2,544), field goals (565), and winning field goals (103). He is the NFL’s only player to have made two — two — All-Decade teams (1980s and ’90s). He was named All-Pro six times. In the final of his 26 seasons (2007) he made 25 of 28 3-pointers — as a 47-year-old.

A blessed all-around athlete who kicked at Michigan State before heading to the NFL was a force, strategically as well as statistically. Coaches at New Orleans and Atlanta knew they could risk with Andersen something they hadn’t preferred to do with other kickers: shoot for long-range field goals and not worry about handing over field position.

They knew, too, his left leg cannoned kickoffs so far they could cross “runback” off their list of game-plan concerns. The ball more likely was headed for a stadium’s seats.

And still he has no plaque in The Pro Football Hall of Fame.

“Oh, I agree, I agree,” Andersen said during a phone conversation last week, acknowledging the irony of a game’s all-time scorer being a Hall of Fame shutout. “I hope the voters see that and do something about it.

“I’m not a self-promoter. I never have been. I went about my business for 25 years and simply tried to do the best I could. But I just think the numbers are important. And, in the context of the game, I became a weapon that modernized the kicking position and helped bring it partly to where it is today.”

Some agree. Voters have another shot at getting Andersen his plaque on Feb. 4 at Houston when Hall of Fame selectors bolt the door, fix bayonets, and spend their typical Saturday-before-the-Super Bowl dueling over names, numbers and cases.

Andersen is one of 15 finalists for 2017 enshrinement at the Hall’s home in Canton, Ohio. Four times he has made the 15-man cut, but not once has he been among the final 10 names considered.

If he ever is to score — he must make 80 percent of the 30-plus voters’ ballots — this should be his year. LaDainian Tomlinson is considered a sure thing because of his dazzling running. Not far behind is quarterback Kurt Warner.

Along, perhaps, with Washington guard Joe Jacoby, Andersen might have his best shot at making a group that typically spans six to seven players.

“Every leading scorer in every other sport is in that particular sport’s Hall of Fame — except Morten Andersen,” said Rick Gosselin, a Dallas Morning News columnist and Detroit native who is among the Hall of Fame voters.

“He did it all. He made the kickoff a weapon. He routinely kicked 50-yarders that gave coaches the courage to try long field goals. In terms of statistics or having an imprint on the game, in both ways he’s Hall of Fame worthy.”

Kicked to the curb

Ah, but there’s a hang-up. It’s a perception. Disposition. Maybe even bias, Andersen’s supporters would say. Kickers are viewed in so many corners as, well, kickers. As guys who don’t do the dirty work NFL Sundays demand.

Only two men have cracked Canton by way of their legs. Jan Stenerud is the lone place-kicker to have earned one of the Hall’s prized yellow jackets. The other is Ray Guy, a Raiders punter whose punts left his foot like thunder and buried return men deep, their fair-catch arm flailing. Guy waited 18 post-retirement years for voters to get past issues with him.

Morten Andersen was an All-American kicker at Michigan State in 1981.

Andersen here and there draws his shoulder-shrugs. He had helpful indoor fields at New Orleans and Atlanta and ranks 51st in field-goal accuracy (79.8 percent) among kickers with at least 100 attempts (Stenerud is 100th). On the list of all-time kickers (combined statistics), Andersen is 46th, Stenerud 96th.

“And you know where John Unitas ranks among quarterbacks?” wrote Clark Judge, a longtime NFL writer and Hall of Fame voter? “He’s tied at 76 with Jim McMahon and Bert Jones.

“So, I don’t care where Morten Andersen or John Unitas or any of the past greats rank now,” said Judge, who along with Gosselin and Boston Globe writer Ron Borges host a national Pro Football Hall of Fame radio show, “The Talk of Fame”. “I just care if they were among the best of their generation, and Morten Andersen was.”

In agreement is Jerry Green, the longtime Detroit News sports writer and columnist who this weekend leaves for Houston and a press-box seat at his 51st Super Bowl.

Green was a 20-year Hall of Fame voter and appreciates the closed-door banter, as well as a player’s hard path to 80-percent approval.

“Some guys are really hard nosed and won’t pull for special-team players,” Green said, “just as some baseball guys won’t vote a pitcher as a MVP, or put a Hall of Fame player on the first ballot. Some guys in there (NFL voting conference) get pretty grouchy.

“But Morten Andersen, I think, is deserving.”

Green believes Stenerud had more cachet with voters because of a Super Bowl he helped the Chiefs win in Super Bowl IV and the spotlight gained from four postseasons, when fewer teams played, and when Stenerud had more exclusive-stage time, including a double-overtime classic in 1971.

“But my first thought is that special-teams players do not get the recognition they should. Probably the best example is Ray Guy. Best punter in the history of the game. And look how long it took for him to make it.”

Andersen agrees as he seizes on Judge’s comment about kickers and accuracy.

“I was about 80 percent,” said Andersen, whose longest NFL field goal was 60 yards. “Would you take a receiver who makes eight of 10 catches? A quarterback who completes eight of 10 passes?

“Would you take them? Our standards for some reason have been raised so high that people expect kickers to be robotic. But kicking is not an exact science.”

Andersen knew that from the get-go. Which wasn’t terribly early. He never kicked a football until 1977 when he arrived at Indianapolis’ Ben Davis High School as an exchange student from Copenhagen, Denmark. He quickly met a fan: The school’s football coach. Bob Wilbur saw a marvelous athlete who was a supreme team handball player, who ran blazing times in track and also high-jumped, who was agile enough to compete in vaulting and floor-exercise gymnastics, and who was on his way to what could have been a pro soccer career in Denmark.

Ben Davis, as events quickly made clear, had a new kicker.

A few months later, Andersen had college offers. Purdue wanted him desperately. So did Michigan State, which sent assistant coaches Bob Baker and Matt Means on a safari to Indianapolis in tandem with another Danish kicker who was just graduating from State, Hans Nielsen.

“They came down and took me to a pizza place that night when it was time to sign a letter of intent,” Andersen remembers. “Purdue was heavily recruiting me, and the family I was staying with were all Purdue grads and hoped I was going there.

“But I think, really, Hans clarified it all for me. We could speak the language (Danish) and he gave me his whole experience there. I thought if Hans could do it, I could, too. I signed one minute after midnight on the day letters of intent could be sent.”

Andersen kicked as a freshman on the Spartans’ 1978 Big Ten co-championship team that was headlined that autumn by a superstar receiver: Kirk Gibson, who earlier that year had signed to play baseball for the Tigers.

'Organized chaos'

Andersen’s next three years in East Lansing weren’t as giddy. Darryl Rogers, then MSU’s head coach, left a year later for Arizona State. Muddy Waters came aboard and the Spartans steadily sank until Waters was fired in 1982, just as Andersen, a fourth-round draft pick that year, began working as the Saints’ kicker.

He was on his way to 26 years in the NFL. Ironically, Andersen believes it’s the fact he never played football until 17, never had a football culture or its stakes ingrained into his psyche, that an athlete, 6-foot-2, 217 pounds was able to enjoy such amazing longevity.

Morten Andersen played for five NFL teams, including 13 seasons with the Saints.

“I came out that senior year (at Ben Davis) and I had never seen a football game — didn’t know the rules at all,” Andersen said. “It just looked like people were fighting, like organized chaos out there. I wasn’t really enthused.

“I remember asking: ‘Do I have to wear all this gear?’ Can I just come out in shorts and soccer shoes?’”

Uh, no, he was told. Not if he wanted to return in one piece to Denmark.

Andersen’s psyche, on the other hand, needed no armor.

“Coming from Europe, not growing up with the sport,” he said during a “Talk of Fame” interview, “I didn’t grow up with the pressure to perform. I was mostly self-taught, with a one-kick mentality. I never thought it was life or death. I knew it was a game. I had kind of a sense of humor about it.”

But he came to know that in the NFL, as he had learned even during college, kicking a football was intensity on another level from anything he had known in athletics.

He knew it that day at the Metrodome in January, 1999, when he lined up a 39-yarder on the left hash and drilled it for an overtime field goal that put the Falcons in the Super Bowl.

He felt it dozens and dozens of times. The call to make a 3-point kick that so often became a game’s decider.

But is it enough, all those years, the data, the testaments?

Gosselin isn’t sure. What he knows is what all NFL Hall of Fame students probably understand about 2017: This could be Andersen’s last best chance.

Next year’s ballot newcomers are gaudy: Ray Lewis, Randy Moss, Jeff Saturday, Ronde Barber, Brian Urlacher, Richard Seymour, Steve Hutchinson, etc.

“I don’t know, he’s been up four times and hasn’t made it,” Gosselin said, “but I don’t see this year, after Tomlinson, many slam-dunks.

“There’s usually a wildcard winner, and maybe this is the year he qualifies as a wildcard. Somebody normally comes out of the blue.

“But as a kicker, it’s a long road for him. And for every other kicker.”

About Morten Andersen

Age: 56; born Aug. 19, 1960 in Copenhagen, Denmark.

College: Kicked at Michigan State from 1978-81. Finished MSU career with 261 points, including 45 of 72 field goals (62.5 percent). Named All-Big Ten and All-American in 1981 with 73 points, including 15 of 20 field goals. Was elected to MSU Athletics Hall of Fame in 2011.

NFL: Drafted by New Orleans in the fourth round in 1982. NFL career spanned 26 seasons from 1982-2007 with five teams – New Orleans (1982-2004), Atlanta (1995-2000, 2006-07), New York Giants (2001), Kansas City (2002-03) and Minnesota (2004). NFL career leader in scoring with 2,544 points and first in career field goals with 565. Was named first team All-Pro three times (1986, 1987, 1995) and made seven Pro Bowls. Named to Pro Football Hall of Fame All-1980s team.

Personal: Wife, Jennifer; two sons. Resides in Buford, Ga.

Business: Founded his own business, Morten Andersen Global, which specializes in business consulting, event planning, etc. Directs, in union with his wife, a non-profit organization, the Morten Andersen Family Foundation, devoted to youth, assisting special-operations military personnel.

lynn.henning@detroitnews.com

Twitter @Lynn_Henning