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Henning: 'Everything's OK' for 1970s UM kicker Mike Lantry, whose three misses made him famous

Lynn Henning
The Detroit News

Today, it comes across as ridiculous. Archaic. Punitive. Even masochistic.

The University of Michigan from 1972-74 rolled up a football record of 30-2-1. Never once during three seasons of preposterous success did the Wolverines play in a single bowl game.

Mike Lantry is a former University of Michigan place kicker from 1972-1974 who lives in the Sarasota, Florida. Lantry is pictured with his football helmet and letterman's jacket at a beach pavilion overlooking the Gulf of Mexico in Bradenton Beach, Florida.

Now add to that era of unrelenting torture in Ann Arbor a final dash of cruelty:

Had two of three field-goal bids by an ex-Vietnam soldier, Mike Lantry, have been even inches tighter, the Wolverines would not have lost a single regular-season game for three consecutive years.

But no. These moments for Michigan, and for Lantry, were sports scripts not of sweetness, but savagery.

The kick from 58 yards with 1:01 to play in that 1973 showdown with Ohio State was long by plenty but trickled left. The one — same game — with 24 seconds on the clock, from 44 yards, slid a hair right. Game over.  Unbeaten teams finished in a 10-10 deadlock, leaving — of all unlikely tiebreakers — Big Ten athletic directors as deciders. They voted to send Ohio State to the Rose Bowl even after Michigan had, by almost all accounts, out-punched OSU for four quarters.

Twelve months later, at Columbus, the Buckeyes led, 12-10, with 16 seconds to play. Lantry’s try from 33 yards seemed to travel so true and high that many there that day never quite believed that it missed the right upright.

But fail, they did. All three kicks. With consequences that crushed a college football cosmos.

For three consecutive winters, Michigan stayed home while Ohio State won three Rose Bowl tickets that then were the only bowl game Big Ten teams were allowed during an era of illogical bowl-season deprivation in the Big Ten and elsewhere.

Mike Lantry became a one-stop shop of horrors for not only Michigan’s football faithful, but for all who through their football-watching lives have wondered how kickers can absorb, in the swing of a leg, their often-excruciating fate when a field goal decides games and history — or in Michigan’s case, a tedious holiday season at home versus a week-long New Year fest at Pasadena, California.

“I think I long ago got over the field goals,” said Lantry, who Thursday turned 72, and who now lives near Sarasota, Florida, with his partner Carla Smith.

“Sometimes it gets tiring, some aspects of it, when people will say: ‘Aren’t you the guy who missed that field goal?’

“Some people are maybe a bit tentative in bringing it up. Or, a guy will say: ‘Boy, I lost a lot of money on your kicks.’

“But so many others, they still hurt for you. And then you tell them, no, everything’s OK. You find that the consoled becomes the consoler.”

Mike Lantry, a former University of Michigan place kicker from 1972-1974, is pictured with his football helmet and letterman's jacket at a beach pavilion in Bradenton Beach, Florida.

Heavy mettle

Lantry and Carla have been tucked for the past 18 months aboard Lantry’s  51-foot Sea Ray Sundancer, although that’s about to change. The Sundancer is for sale. A man from Oxford, in Detroit’s far north suburbs, is transitioning to a home somewhere in the Sarasota/Siesta Key/Longboat Key vicinity. He will continue to work at a happy pace with his Detroit auto-supply business, Lantry & Associates, Inc.

Almost 50 years later, there are those who yet wonder how he handled those consecutive November football tragedies, with millions watching on ABC’s national telecast, all of them sympathetically joined at the soul of a man on whom so much rested. And from whom so much seemingly had been torn.

What they can’t always appreciate is Lantry’s uniqueness. The very psyche that enabled him to kick for a college superpower — he held UM career kicking records galore at the end of ’74 — meant he carried mental crust of a kind only kickers can fathom.

How much of that mettle had been forged during his Vietnam years, he can’t measure. But he understands it left its mark, indelibly, after he arrived at Tan Son Nhut Air Force Base in February of 1969, just after the second Tet Offensive.

Those long nights on guard duty in the Mekong Delta, south of the Laotian border and just inside the Cambodian border, were nerve-shredding shifts protecting 175 mm ordnance — 147-pound artillery shells that could travel 21 miles and that would have made one colossal crater had they been hit by North Vietnamese snipers or guerrillas. There was an M60 machine-gun on a pivotal pedestal in front of him, and Claymore mines in the surrounding perimeter. Lantry had the responsibility to detonate each and every one of them if the base were over-run.

Huey Cobra helicopters roared overhead, carrying men and supplies.

“There were constant mortar attacks, small fire, several close calls,” Lantry remembers. “There were too many times when you didn’t know if you were coming back.

“I lost a lot of friends.”

He had enlisted in the Army in 1968, not quite two years after finishing at Oxford High, where he was a running back, defensive back, and kicker, as well as an all-around track star who also threw the shot put. And threw it mightily. Lantry won the state championship in 1966 with a heave of 60 feet, 7½ inches. It remained an Oxford High record for 50 years.

Why an athlete so accomplished, one who was 6-foot-2, 185 pounds, didn’t immediately head for Ann Arbor, was easily explained. Or, rather, not so easily.

Mike Lantry, a former University of Michigan place kicker from 1972-1974, is pictured with a photograph of him from 1974 making a field goal against Michigan State.

Finding his footing

On top of being a Michigan State fan at a point when MSU and Duffy Daugherty were winning or dueling for national championships, Lantry was a classic jock. Classrooms weren’t as thrilling as practice fields. It wasn’t that his IQ was substandard — it by no means was, as his ACT scores confirmed. But he wasn’t interested in academics. And he wasn’t all that sure what it meant to be grown up.

The Army, he later decided, would at least change the latter issue.

By the time he was discharged, in January of 1971, Lantry had a GI Bill waiting to finance school. It might also be time to reunite with sports, which is what Jack Harvey, then a UM track coach who had seen Lantry’s artistry at Oxford, thought possible.

Lantry enrolled at Ann Arbor for winter semester, 1971. And what an introduction it was the day he checked into South Quad.

Carrying clothes in an Army duffel bag, Lantry headed down a hall toward his assigned room and heard live guitar music. He knocked on the door where a would-be successor to Jimi Hendrix was hammering chords.

“Hi,” Landry said. “I’m your new roommate.”

The gents before him, still in their teens, wore long hair and leather pants. They looked at Lantry as if the state police had just arrived.

Lantry headed for the resident adviser.

“I’ve got one chance to make it in this university,” Lantry said, explaining that the Woodstock culture into which he had just walked would not be helpful.

His room was changed. Soon came friendships with UM football players: Jim Brandstatter, Les Miles, Jim Lyle, and others. They were fascinated by this Army vet who had performed in Vietnam with stakes greater than a football game.

They thought he should walk on. Give it a shot. Winter conditioning was just beginning.

Lantry was game. So, too, was assistant coach Gary Moeller, who was running conditioning while Bo Schembechler was on the road recruiting. Lantry was issued sweats and an invitation to re-live the kind of exhilarating physical ordeal he had last known at Army basic training.

A few days later, Schembechler was back in Ann Arbor presiding over drills and wondering just who was the 22-year-old he had never seen before. After a fill-in, he pulled aside Lantry and said, minus venom:

“OK, if you want to play football at Michigan, don’t you think you should talk to the head coach first?”

“Absolutely,” Lantry answered.

He was invited a day later to stop by Schembechler’s office. The head coach was himself an Army veteran. A walk-on’s background impressed him.

There was no shot at Lantry playing varsity football in 1971, for two reasons: Not until 1972 were freshmen eligible to play NCAA varsity sports. Also, Dana Coin was a senior in ’71 and nicely handling UM’s kicking chores.

Not that Lantry was necessarily going to kick, exclusively, for Michigan. There were no specialty players in 1971. Not on a Schembechler team. A kicker was a position player, first, and Lantry’s job was in the defensive backfield.

But by the time of Michigan’s spring game in 1972, he had won the kicking gig. It would be his for the next three autumns, kickoffs included. And it could have delivered a Rose Bowl off the bat, in ’72, had Schembechler not decided on a fourth-and-goal from the 1 to go for a TD rather than a game-tying field goal that would have sent Michigan to Pasadena.

“We didn’t come down here to tie,” Bo told his players after they had been stuffed at the line and lost, 14-11. “We came to win.”

Mike Lantry missed this field goal against Ohio State in 1974.

Game of inches

A season later, all was going niftily for Michigan, and for Lantry, who seemed to have this knack for making news. In a Sept. 22 game at Ann Arbor against Stanford, Lantry twice — in the same quarter — set a Wolverines record for longest field goals. He got the school’s first-ever 50-yarder in the second quarter, and before halftime one-upped his own 12-minutes-long record with a 51-yarder.

The Buckeyes (9-0) and Wolverines (10-0) were, as could be their style, unbeaten when they got together for their standard November showdown. OSU was ranked No. 1, Michigan No. 4, with Alabama and Oklahoma sandwiched between.

For four quarters, Michigan outplayed OSU — conspicuously — not that the scoreboard agreed. It was 10-10 with 61 seconds to go when Michigan was stuck on fourth down at OSU’s 41. If the Wolverines wanted a field goal, it was going to be a monster: 58 yards.

“Bo asked me, ‘Can you make it?’ and I said, ‘Absolutely,’” Lantry remembers of a day that weather-wise was reasonably friendly: sunshine, mild temperatures, even if a crosswind at the north end of Michigan Stadium made kicks tricky.

“It was three-quarters of the way up the (left) upright,” Lantry says of his 58-yard bomb. “It would have been good from 70. And it was inside that upright at least 75% of the way. Then it hooked, ever so slightly, and just fell to the ground.”

Ohio State got the ball and did what Woody Hayes mostly abhorred: Trying to win, trying to sew up a Rose Bowl invite and stave off at least three teams for the national championship, Greg Hare threw a pass that UM defensive back Tom Drake intercepted.

Michigan pushed to OSU’s 27. Lantry needed a bullseye from 44 yards to send Michigan to the West Coast. Time on the clock: 16 seconds.

“It wasn’t a howling wind,” Lantry recalls as he set up, “but I was trying to deal with the winds and crosswinds and I figured, ‘Let’s just make a slight adjustment and hit the ball good – drive it.’ I hit it really good, but I don’t know if I overcompensated, but it tailed off at the right upright.”

By inches.

The 10-10 tie came at a time when college football had no overtime protocol. What then does a conference do about the Rose Bowl when two teams so mighty finish the year with otherwise flawless records?  You do the worst thing imaginable, politically speaking: You allow Big Ten athletic directors to vote 6-4 (conference expansion was years ahead) to send Ohio State, probably in part because Michigan’s quarterback, Dennis Franklin, had broken his collarbone late in the OSU game.

Devastation strikes again

A year later, little had changed. The Buckeyes, shockingly, had lost a couple of weeks earlier to Michigan State and had coughed up their No. 1 ranking. But if they won at Columbus they and the Wolverines (10-0) would have the same record and OSU would march again to California for the Rose Bowl.

Again, the Wolverines outmuscled Woody Hayes’ team for most of four quarters. Michigan snagged a 10-0 lead in the first quarter and kept OSU out of the end zone, leaving Buckeyes kicker Tom Klaban’s four field goals responsible for a 12-10 game with 16 seconds showing and Michigan at OSU’s 16. Thirty-three yards for a winning kick. Nothing strenuous for Lantry, even if the snap was coming from a not-so-cozy angle on the left hash mark. He had made a 37-yarder in the first quarter. He had kicked 21 field goals in three seasons for a team that typically scored touchdowns and didn’t bother with three-pointers.

Lantry made the sign of the cross as he left UM’s sideline and headed for history, either way. But it was more a sign of trust and faith than it was about specter. He had wanted, badly, to make that last kick. He wanted Ann Arbor to set an urban record for partying.  

“You take a couple of deep breaths, get a line on the kick, and do what you’ve done thousands of times before,” he says now, running through his mental routine as 88,243 at Ohio Stadium listened to their hearts pound like bass drums. Keith Jackson was taking care of the narrative on ABC-TV’s telecast.

The snap to holder Tom Drake was crisp. He got the ball down fast, cleanly, “like he always did,” Lantry said.

And then the ball took off like a mini-rocket, climbing high, moving toward and over the right upright.

“There’s a picture at that moment,” Lantry said, “of Tom Drake’s hands in the air, of my hands in the air, and of the referee beside me with his hands in the air.

“But that kick was so high over the upright. It wasn’t easily inside, but it was so high there was a question of whether it was too high to really have made an accurate judgment.

“But the ruling umpires under both sides of the uprights had the final call, and one of them called it off.”

The following sequence Lantry remembers much the way torture or trauma can be recalled in searing detail.

“I went numb,” Lantry said. “I remember, in slow motion, walking to the sideline. The crowd was going wild. And I was just kind of by myself on the bench.

“I took my helmet off and sat on the bench, head in arms. What apparently captured so many people’s emotions was that no one appeared to be coming over. No pats on the back. It left people feeling that they were abandoning me.”

But that wasn’t a sideline’s reality.

“No,” Lantry said. “It was that everyone was in shock. We had shut down their offense, had kicked their (tails) all over the field. And now it had come down to a missed field goal.”

The players made it through a mass of manic fans that swamped the field and pushed into UM’s locker room where Schembechler slammed the door.

In a team’s silence and grief, Schembechler said:

“I don’t want anyone to blame Mike Lantry for this game.”

Don Canham, Michigan’s athletic director, later put his arm around Lantry, soothing him as best an AD could, and said he and his Big Ten partners would be changing, pronto, the Big Ten’s nonsensical, Rose Bowl-only policy, which in fact happened in 1975.

Lantry was still in a haze — disconsolate and feeling physically gutted — when he stepped from the locker room, saw his mother, and walked past her.

“In her motherly instinct, she wanted to console me, give me a hug, try and make things right,” Lantry remembers. “I didn’t slip past her out of disrespect — I was simply in a different frame of mind. All I wanted to do was get on the bus and get the hell out of there.”

He acknowledges that the next days were spent dealing with at least borderline depression.

Then came a call from the athletic department. Lantry was getting letters. By the box-full. From across the nation. Thousands of letters. The pathos had been too much for those watching, either at Ohio Stadium, or by the millions tuned to ABC.

Keeping perspective

He has had to talk about it endlessly in the years since. Football fans have long memories. They also have within their souls a place for the game’s Mike Lantrys. Everyone can take at least a stab at imagining agony of the kind a football field can reserve uniquely for one man — a kicker.

But what is that, really, for a man predisposed to make the most of life? A man so affected by an experience far more impossible for the average person to fathom: Lantry’s time making sense of death and life and the randomness with which those experiences are decided by war. A war, to be precise, fought in Vietnam that ravaged not only a southeast Asia country, but another 14,000 miles away.

“What I reflect on,” Lantry says now, “are the great opportunities I had to play football at the University of Michigan and to get a degree (in education). And, best of all, the friendships.

“They’ll always endure.”

He can even laugh at one thought. At the irony of it all.

“In anyone’s life, it’s nice to be known,” he said, warming up for a closing chuckle that helps when a football fan’s compassion gets to be a bit much. “Had I made any of those field goals, I doubt I’d be as well-known as I am today.”

Lynn Henning is a freelance writer and former Detroit News sports reporter.