Meeting coach gave legs to ex-Spartan Andersen’s career

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

When Morten Andersen arrived in Indiana as a cultural exchange student in 1977, he spoke very little English and didn’t know anything about football.

The original plan was to stay for 10 months to complete his studies, soak up as much as possible about American culture, language and social values, and take it back home to Copenhagen, Denmark, to share his experience with other young kids who might be interested in visiting the United States.

Former Michigan State kicker Morten Andersen played 25 seasons in the NFL with the Saints, Falcons, Giants, Chiefs and Vikings.

But that plan changed once he met Bob Wilbur, the football coach at Indianapolis’ Ben Davis High who recruited Andersen as the team’s kicker and kick-started what would blossom into a record-setting Hall of Fame career.

“There’s no question if these 10 months don’t happen, we’re not talking today because of the circumstances,” Andersen said Wednesday on a conference call with reporters. “I wanted to play soccer. I was a gymnast, I was a handball player. I had no interest (in football). The shape of the ball was different. There was so many things that were so foreign to me.

“But it became a vehicle, a vessel if you will, for me to integrate very quickly into the American high school way of life. I had 80 new friends like that when they saw the ball fly vertical and high through the uprights. I was the new kicker and that happened overnight, literally. That’s how my American dream started and without it, no question, we wouldn’t be talking today.”

Andersen, a former Michigan State standout, was elected into the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s 2017 class in February, becoming the first pure placekicker to be inducted since Jan Stenerud in 1991 and the second to ever earn enshrinement.

A fourth-round pick in 1982, Andersen played 25 seasons in the NFL with the Saints, Falcons, Giants, Chiefs and Vikings. He retired as the NFL’s all-time leader in career points (2,544), field goals made (565), winning field goals (103) and games played (382).

Andersen, 56, earned All-Pro honors five times, was a seven-time Pro Bowler and was named to the first team of two All-Decade teams, the 1980s and 1990s, becoming the fifth player to achieve the feat. The others are Dick Butkus, Walter Payton, Jerry Rice and Reggie White, all first-ballot Hall inductees.

Over the course of his professional career, Andersen converted 79.7 percent of his field goals (565-for-709), including an astounding 89.3 percent (25-for-28) in his final season at the age of 47. Yet, none of his misses gnawed at him for a long period of time because he turned the “distasteful” kicks into fuel that pushed him.

“My failure was a big part of my longevity and my success, too, because without it I don’t think I would’ve had the will, the stubbornness and the tenacity to go on and motivate me for a long, long time,” Andersen said.

Arguably his most memorable kick took place in the 1998 NFC championship game against the Vikings, when he booted a 38-yarder from the left hash in overtime to catapult the Falcons to their first Super Bowl appearance in franchise history.

“I was glad to be able to finish the job that the rest of the team had laid the groundwork for,” said Andersen, who always kept a detailed log of his kicks and goals that helped with his game-day preparation. “We were underdogs going to Minnesota and were not really given much chance to win up there and trailed most of the game.

“But it sure was fun to watch that ball hit the net right between the pipes and hear the silence in the Metrodome.”

Former Michigan State kicker Morten Andersen still holds the Big Ten record for longest field goal made, a 63-yarder against Ohio State in 1981.

Before his NFL days, Andersen starred at Michigan State from 1978-81 and finished his All-American career with 45 field goals and 126 extra points made.

He started as a freshman on the Spartans’ 1978 Big Ten co-championship team and still holds the mark for the longest field goal made in Big Ten history, a 63-yarder against Ohio State in 1981.

“It’s one of those balls when you hit it, it just took off and sounded like a rocket, sounded like a cannon coming off the foot and cleared the goal post by about 10 yards,” Andersen said of his record kick. “I got the old 8-millimeter tape to prove it. There were some big moments there playing with Kirk Gibson and Ed Smith in 1978 when we won the Big Ten championship and were co-champions with Michigan.

“A lot of great memories from my Spartan days and I look forward to seeing about 30 of my old teammates in Canton.”

Andersen was a four-time Hall finalist before finally making the cut this year, joining quarterback Kurt Warner, defensive end Jason Taylor and running backs Terrell Davis and LaDainian Tomlinson in the 2017 class.

Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones will be inducted as a contributor and former Seahawks safety Kenny Easley as a veterans committee selection.

Andersen and the rest of the class will be formally enshrined on Aug. 5 at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium in Canton, Ohio. Andersen’s son, Sebastian, will serve as his presenter at the ceremony.

Andersen said he hopes his long-awaited inclusion will help open the door and garner recognition for other deserving kickers and punters.

“There has been a stigma that not being an every-down player somehow was a handicap when it came to consideration for the Hall,” Andersen said. “I think we need to move the conversation forward and say who were the trendsetters, who were the best at their position regardless of whether they played 20 plays or 75 plays and how do they affect the game?

“More games are won and loss on the foot of a specialist. We have to recognize that the position is important, it’s relevant and it’s a powerful one.”