The demise of the United States Football League in 1985 marked the end of a great many professional football careers, but Roger Ruzek figured he'd be alive and kicking for a living for a long time to come.
After all, he had made 71% of his field goals (34 of 48) in two years with New Jersey Generals after setting NCAA Division I-AA career records with 45 field goals and 221 extra points at Weber State.
But 1986 came and went and Ruzek was home in Utah, working out with his former college teammates.
"I just tried to keep in shape, hoping that somebody would at least give me a look," Ruzek said.
The Dallas Cowboys did give him a tryout last November and he was impressive enough to get invited to training camp. But this summer, his prospects didn't look too swell--unlike his ankle. He had twisted it while working out at home and showed up in Dallas' Thousand Oaks training camp with a new, slightly modified kicking style developed to compensate for the injury.
The Cowboys weren't exactly impressed with the new-and-not-too-improved Ruzek, however, and they released him on August 6. Thirteen days later, however, they reconsidered and re-signed him. And when the roster was trimmed to 45 for opening day, he was listed at kicker, replacing Rafael Septien, who had been in that position since 1978.
Monday night in Anaheim Stadium, Ruzek accomplished something no Dallas kicker ever has, booting five field goals in the Cowboys' 29-21 victory over the Rams. Ruzek connected from 24, 42, 44, 47 and 37 yards out.
"Records are nice and a good feeling for the individual," he said, "but nobody wants to go home to their family for Christmas after losing five in a row. So the win is more important this time."
Ruzek got the record with a bit of help from Coach Tom Landry and despite a couple of close encounters with the Rams' Jerry Gray.
Twice, Gray ran into Ruzek--which meant the Cowboys were entitled to automatic first downs--but Ruzek managed to put the ball through the uprights on both and Landry decided to leave the points on the board.
The first time, a 42-yarder with 9:16 left in the second quarter, Gray got the worst of it. Ruzek kicked him square in the helmet on his follow-through. The second time, on a 47-yarder with 13:16 remaining in the third quarter, Gray left Ruzek laying in a heap, clutching his right leg.
"That one was a pretty good sting," Ruzek said, pointing to the bruise on his shin. "It was one of those things where you have to ice it and then keep walking on it so it doesn't get stiff. It still hurts now, though."
Kickers usually suffer more from mental anguish than physical discomfort, but this has been a relatively pain-free season for Ruzek.
He has made 22 of 25 field goals (88%) and all 23 extra points he's attempted. Septien set the Dallas record for field goal accuracy with an 81.5% mark in 1982.
And when the pressure's been on, Ruzek's been cookin'. He's made 7 of 7 fourth-quarter field goals, including an NFL record-tying four in the fourth quarter against the Giants. He's also kicked two game-winning field goals and one that tied the game against New England with 31 seconds remaining in regulation.
"I've had some prayers answered, that's for sure," Ruzek said. "The biggest came when the Cowboys gave me that second chance."
Ruzek was home again, kicking field goals at Weber State and wondering what had gone wrong. Then Gil Brandt, Dallas' vice president in charge of personnel development, phoned to say that the Cowboys wanted to give him another look--if he promised to go back to his old kicking motion.
"Gil said he really liked the way I was kicking in mini-camp (before the injury) and wanted to know if I could do that again. I had adopted the new style because of the ankle and I decided to stick with it. But I didn't have the same strength, so I changed back."
The change back changed his life. Instead of kicking field goals for free on a deserted field at Weber State, he was kicking them for money in front of thousands in packed stadiums and millions in front of their television sets.
"I feel pretty good, yeah," he said, smiling, "but kicking is a tough, tough job. You miss a couple and all of a sudden, you're a bad guy."
Maybe, but, at least for the time being, this Cowboy is wearing the whitest of hats.