I didn’t like the head coach, so I quit the football team my senior year in high school. The following fall (1965) I enrolled at the local community college in my hometown of Burlington, IA, primarily to avoid the draft and the inevitable trip to Vietnam if drafted. Back then, students attending the university were exempt from the draft.
In the fall of 1965, while attending Burlington Junior College, I met head basketball coach Ed Sparling, a very colorful man in his own right, and became one of his student managers. We had incredible athletic talent and a very successful basketball season. In the process, Coach Sparling and I became friends.
In the spring (1966), sometime after the basketball season ended, one of the players (Rick Lowery) mentioned to the coach that I had been a kicker on the local high school football team. Now, Coach Sparling took pride in making sure all of his players received scholarship offers after their playing days at Burlington. And, luckily for me, he included one of his student administrators in his efforts to produce scholarships.
Coach Sparling writes a letter
Even though he had never seen me kick anything, Coach Sparling wrote a letter praising my place kicking ability and sent it to a dozen football coaches across the Midwest. I never saw the actual letter, but whatever it said, it was good enough to catch the eye of Howard Fletcher, the head football coach at Northern Illinois University in the spring of 1966.
Coach Fletcher offers me a football scholarship
Coach Fletcher responded by inviting me to visit the campus. My father and I drove to NIU. We spent an hour or so touring the campus with Coach Fletcher. Then, without ever asking me to kick a soccer ball, he offered me a scholarship that covered tuition and books to play soccer at NIU. To say that he was excited beyond belief is an understatement. Would I quit my high school football team and suddenly be offered a college football scholarship? But this is just the beginning!
The square toe shoe
In the aftermath of our visit, my slightly innovative father took a pair of my old soccer cleats to the local shoe repair shop in downtown Burlington and asked the owner to invent a square toe box forefoot. law. shoe. Yes, back in 1966, soccer balls were still kicked with the ball of the foot instead of the instep, as soccer kickers do today. This increased the surface area and improved the odds of kicking the ball through the goal posts.
The first scrimmage touchdown play
I practiced regularly all summer in my new square toe shoe and in the fall I headed to NIU. After a couple of weeks of early practice, we had our first game. And I’m here to tell you that on the FIRST PLAY OF SCRIMMAGE, quarterback Mike Greisman dropped back and threw a 75-yard touchdown pass to a little speedster named Jerry Sandberg. That being said, the second play I witnessed as a member of the NIU soccer team was actually you kicking the extra point through the goal posts. It happened so fast that I didn’t have time to get nervous.
The touchdown scoring machine
That first play was an omen. As it turned out, Fletcher was a very offensive-minded coach and this team was indeed a touchdown-scoring machine. That meant he had plenty of opportunities to score extra points. In fact, we scored so many touchdowns that we set school records for most extra points in a season, as well as most extra points in a single game. This was not because I was better than my predecessors. I just got a lot more chances to kick extra points. I was even named player of the week after the single game record that included an action photo that was published in the Northern Star, the school newspaper.
A full sports scholarship
But despite all my good fortune, several weeks after the season ended, I was homesick and decided to tell Coach Fletcher that I was coming back for the second semester of Burlington Junior College. When I entered the stadium, I met the coach. And before he could give him my disappointing news, he informed me that he had just placed me on a FULL SPORTS SCHOLARSHIP! I would pay everything for my college education starting in the second semester. I was speechless. Did I mention that I would quit football my senior year in high school?
my luck vanishes
In my junior year, NIU joined the Midwest Athletic Conference, a much higher level of soccer than we were used to the year before. Our touchdown scoring machine sizzled along with my own kick production. Actually, I barely remember that second (junior) season.
The summer before my senior year I spent too much time water skiing on the Mississippi River, which is right next to my hometown. At the end of the summer I spilled and tore my right groin muscle. Needless to say, that inhibited my kicking ability. My last year was a complete failure. I didn’t play at all. It seemed my luck was running out.
And then a phone call from the NFL
Then, in the spring of that year (1969), out of the blue, I received a phone call from a man who informed me that he was a scout for the Atlanta Falcons of the National Football League. He said that he had heard that he was interested in an NFL tryout. I never knew for sure, but this call must have been a result of Coach Sparling still supporting me from the shadows.
Regardless, I hadn’t touched a football in months. And my senior season had been a complete and utter failure. But I said yes, I’m interested in trying out for the NFL. When do you want to get together? He said that he was in town as we spoke and asked when he could make it to the stadium. I told him I’d be there in about 30 minutes.
The Wonderful DeKalb Winds
I got to the stadium only to find out that there was a strong wind blowing from east to west. Sitting in the middle of miles and miles of extremely flat cornfields, DeKalb was famous for being windy almost all the time. I put on my square toed shoe and proceeded to kick soccer balls… into the wind. I went from 30 yards to 40 yards to 50 yards, and beyond, hitting each kick like a well-oiled machine. I mean, realistically all I had to do was kick the ball into the air and with the help of this wind tunnel the ball traveled long, straight and straight through the goal posts over and over. time. Talk about getting lucky! You can’t make these things up.
The Atlanta Falcons contract
The scout fixed each kick, and a week later I received an email containing a standard Atlanta Falcons player contract signed by coach Norm Van Brocklin, who was already an NFL Hall of Famer at quarterback at the time. countryside. days with the Los Angles Rams and Philadelphia Eagles.
For whatever reason, Coach Van Brocklin was not happy with his current kicker, a man named Bobby Etter from the University of Georgia and a math PhD student at the University of Kentucky at the time. There were three kickers vying for the job. I lasted a couple of weeks before I was cut by Van Brocklin, who was very kind to explain my release. I knew Bobby Etter was the better kicker.
Fifty odd years later
To put a final touch on this unlikely tale of good fortune, I recently (more than 50 years after the fact) corresponded with a high school friend named Bob McLaury, who happened to be the headline for me when we practiced kicking extra points. year in high school. Someone took a photo of Bob holding me and pretending (actually, we were posing for the camera) that he was kicking the football and published it in the school yearbook in the spring of 1964, my junior year. That photo had to have been the source of Rick Lowery’s comments to Coach Sparling. Lowery was a year older than me, and he had no other way of knowing that he had ever kicked a football for anyone.
In that conversation with McLaury, I asked him if he remembered us ever kicking extra points or field goals in a real game. I’m sure we had practiced kicking. But he didn’t remember kicking anything in a game. McLaury confirmed that he didn’t remember us doing anything of the sort. So most likely a simple photo in a high school yearbook led Rick Lowery to tell Coach Sparling that he had been a placekicker in high school. This is despite the fact that he’s probably never kicked an extra point in an actual high school football game. That conversation prompted Sparling’s letter and everything else that followed.
A seemingly inconsequential conversation
It’s interesting to think how someone seemingly inconsequential, impromptu, from a basketball player to his coach, could so completely and totally change the direction of another person’s life. If it hadn’t been for that little conversation, chances are I would never have heard of Northern Illinois University, let alone had the opportunity to play college football, set school records that lasted for over a decade, receive a full sports scholarship (ironically, I was never really a good athlete), had some contact with the NFL, met my beautiful and talented wife-to-be, had two unspeakable children of whom my wife and I are incredibly proud, etc., etc. ., etc.
Yes, you can call me Mr. Lucky!
And this football story is just one example where I’ve had much more than a little bit of luck throughout my life. It is the most dramatic. But it’s far from the only story I could tell along these same lines. There are many, many more, but I won’t bore you with them right now. Suffice it to say that I have never once complained about being lucky. I’ve had much more than my share of good luck. You can call me Mr. Lucky!