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Citizen Lee’s ‘Can’t Miss’ Label Is Lost

The thing about John Lee, UCLA’s Seoul brother, is that he might have become the first guy in history to become an All-American before he became an American.

He rectified that Wednesday by becoming a citizen--which means he may be the only guy on the UCLA varsity to know who the Secretary of State is or who won the War of 1812.

It is the dedicated policy of this country to admit placekickers to citizenship. Doctors and lawyers may have to wait their turn, cooks may not make it at all. The rush to naturalization of soccer-style kickers got so furious a few seasons ago that, when the late Coach Norm Van Brocklin was asked what remedies could be taken for his team, which had just been kicked out of the playoffs by either Jan Stenerud or Garo Yepremian, he replied: “Tighten up the immigration laws.”

There are certain occupations not open to ordinary Americans. Head waiter, for instance. Americans make lousy head waiters. Americans run more to countermen. They prefer a job where they sling a plate at you, point to the ketchup and, if you want a hamburger--well done, they yell at the kitchen, “Burn it!” Americans make lousy magicians, too. They tend to want to tell you how they did it.

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And they make lousy placekickers. When Americans were doing placekicking, they tended to think of 25-yarders as cause for headlines. the immigrants began kicking them from their own 45-yard line. Regularly. They had to move the goal posts back 10 yards because of the immigrants.

No one knows what the problem is. Automobiles, most likely. It’s hard to develop strong kicking legs sitting in the front seat of a Japanese car all day.

Placekicking is not for everyone, anyway. It’s a lonely occupation. Placekickers are like hockey goalies. They’re on the team but not of it. They have long periods where they just stand and watch. But when they’re needed, the pressure is incalculable, about what it is 50 fathoms down in a leaking submarine. It’s as someone said about flying--long periods of boredom punctuated by flashes of sheer terror.

Placekickers don’t need a coach, they need a shrink. It looks easy, plunking an 11-inch, 1-pound oblate spheroid through a 24-foot tunnel where the sky, literally, is the limit. But hitting a 1-iron to a narrow green looks easy, too. To anybody who hasn’t done it.

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John Lee had been making it look easy for UCLA. He kicked six field goals in one game to beat San Diego State last year. He kicked the field goal that won the Fiesta Bowl, 39-37. He had made 22 field goals in a row.

He was within reach of the all-time NCAA record for field goals when UCLA took the field against Oregon State last Saturday at the Rose Bowl.

In the little world of college football, a headline: “John Lee Misses Field Goal” has to rank in credibility with: “Russia Goes Republican.” The headline: “Lee Misses Three Field Goals” calls for smelling salts.

Yet, right there, in front of the horrified UCLA coaches and 45,102 fans, the Bruins’ automatic kicking machine was methodically shanking field goal after field goal wide of the posts. It was like watching your home computer go bonkers. It was like watching Fred Astaire bump into the scenery.

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Missing a field goal is not like missing a tackle or botching a block. It’s psychologically disturbing. It plants doubt. You can’t go in and make up for it on the next play. It affords time for brooding. It’s a confidence game. It requires precise, decisive, aggressive movements. Anxiety is fatal.

One of the misses was 51 yards but the other two were, for Lee, chip shots. “You ought to make 100 out of 100 at that range,” he moaned after the game. “I do all the time in practice.”

It was Bobby Locke, the golfer, who once explained the delicate tolerances involved. “If you hit 25 good shots, and then you hit one bad one, you now have to hit 25 more good ones to get your self-esteem back.”

John Lee knows what he’s talking about. “I now need 22 in a row again. But I’m on a roll. I made the last one Saturday.”

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Is the experience apt to turn John Lee into a head case, a campus recluse who goes around hiding from his public, talking to himself, kicking trash cans? Will he see those kicks veering left in his dreams? Will he wonder if he should alter his stance, change his run-up, kick higher, kick lower, get on the phone to one of those radio pop-psychologists? Should he consult a hypnotist?

John Lee, a cheerful, optimistic young man who laughs easily at himself, thinks it’s funny. “Look at it this way,” he says, “I kicked 22 straight and I haven’t missed an extra point since 1982 and I’m just a statistic. I miss three field goals, and every microphone and tape recorder and TV camera is around me, and the 11 O’clock News says, ‘What’s the matter with John Lee?’ And lots of people will say, ‘Who’s John Lee?’ I would have missed them on purpose if I knew I was going to get all this attention.

“Hey! I kicked five field goals and I missed three. But I kicked good. I’m an 80% field-goal kicker. I don’t know what happened.”

I do. John is an American now. And we Americans don’t kick field goals. We get foreigners to do that.

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