Once upon a mid-20th century time in the West German hamlet of Salzgitter Lebenstadt there lived a determined young man named Waldemar Mojsiejenko and his wife, Annemarie.
Waldemar’s sister had immigrated to the German-American community of Bridgman, a small southwestern Michigan town situated unobtrusively on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. Bridgman is 30 minutes by car from the steel mills of northern Indiana; an hour’s drive from the teeming grain markets of Chicago and 3 hours from the auto industry of Detroit.
The disproportionate number of workers in Bridgman are either farmers or tool-and-die makers. And many of Waldemar’s and Annemarie’s compatriots had made new and successful lives for themselves there. So in 1963, the Mojsiejenkos packed their belongings, bundled up their two small children and bravely set out for the new world. They spoke not more than a dozen words of English between them.
Their youngest child was a boy, Ralf. He would grow up to be the American equivalent of the soccer player Waldemar would have wanted if the family had stayed in Salzgitter Lebenstadt.
Ralf Mojsiejenko is the Pro Bowl punter for the Chargers. After 7 games of the 1988 season he has the best average in the league. He expects to improve every year--demands it of himself.
To whit: His special teams coach, Wayne Sevier, says the left-footed Mojsiejenko only punts into the wind during practice. “You are forced to have the correct mechanics that way,” Sevier says. “You can’t muscle it into the wind or change your swing.”
Sevier has always insisted his punters work into the wind. But he swears he never had to tell that to Mojsiejenko. “If I let him do what he wants,” Sevier says, “he’ll still turn and hit into the wind because that’s the best thing for him.”
Waldemar Mojsiejenko, the tool-and-die maker, “was always a perfectionist, too,” says Annemarie. “Ralf got that from him.”
When the Mojsiejenko children finished school and left home, Waldemar turned one of the spare rooms into a weight-training center. At 51, he still lifts for an hour every morning before arriving at work, pumped and primed, promptly at 7 a.m.
“There is not a gram of fat on him,” says Annemarie, invoking an endearing sort of metrically converted colloquialism.
Ralf is very much his father’s son.
He still summers in Bridgman, where the 12-inch, slow-pitch softball team he sponsors plays an ambitious 80-game schedule. When the games end, everybody repairs to The Getaway, a local haus , for beers and billiards. But first Ralf and his younger brother Roger, a former kicker, stop off at the football field to punt.
“We’re both sports nuts,” Ralf explains. Their softball friends figure he’s at least half right.
Sports nuts love their heroes. And Mojsiejenko is no exception. When he found himself wandering around the lobby of a swank Honolulu hotel last winter, surrounded by the highest-priced football talent ever assembled, he didn’t know whether to pinch himself or ask for autographs. “You can’t do that,” he told himself. “You’re one of them.”
Mojsiejenko was in Hawaii for the Pro Bowl. He had led the AFC in punting in 1987. And the players in his conference had rewarded him with their votes. This was a long way from the disappointment of being ignored out of high school by nearby Notre Dame.
The Irish boosters from Ralf’s neck of the woods would hustle back up from South Bend on Saturday nights after games and stop off at Tossi’s restaurant in nearby Stevensville for pasta and steaks. But none of them bird-dogged Mojsiejenko. Michigan State won him by default.
Mojsiejenko and his high school sweetheart, the former Mary Rambo, now own a home in Stevensville, 2 hours from East Lansing. They have a 4-month-old daughter named Alexandra Kay. After the NFL, their plans are to live there happily ever after.
Mary’s parents own a nursery in Bridgman that grows, among other things, grapes. Every year, Waldemar makes 50 gallons of wine from grapes grown at Rambo’s Nursery. This year’s crop is fermenting in the Mojsiejenko basement at this very moment.
While Ralf and the Chargers were readying for the Colts this week, Annemarie was back in Bridgman preparing large quantities of red cabbage for a community dinner at the nearby Lutheran church where, until recently, services were still in German.
Sunday, Waldemar and Annemarie will watch their son on the satellite dish he bought for them in 1985, his rookie year. “I wish,” Annemarie says, “his team was a little better.”
Alas, the Chargers are 2-5. They have lost 11 of their past 13 regular season games. But Mojsiejenko has averaged 48 yards or better in 5 games this year. Barring injury or the unlikely event of a complete collapse, Mojsiejenko will probably return to Hawaii in January. He might be the only Charger there.
The 1987 Pro Bowl was also a long way from East Lansing, where for Mojsiejenko’s first college football game, there were more than 30 times as many people in the stands as there are in Bridgman on any day. Mojsiejenko paid Michigan State and all those fans back immediately. He kicked a 61-yard soccer style field goal on his first try as a scholarship athlete.
Waldemar had started Ralf out as a straight-on kicker when he was 8 years old. Those were the days when Ford sponsored a national Punt, Pass & Kick competition.
Ford provided instruction manuals for its contestants, with tips from punters like Ray Guy and Jerrel Wilson. Waldemar studied them assiduously. When he got home from work, he would take Ralf and Roger out back where they would punt and pass and kick and punt and pass and kick and punt and pass and kick some more.
“He would chart us and tape the distances off,” Ralf says. “But he did it for fun. He loved us kids, and he wanted us to have fun, too.”
When he was 10, Ralf hurt his toe the day before a local PP&K; competition. No problem. He kicked soccer style the next day. And won. He says his field goal range is still 60 yards. And he regularly suggests to the Chargers that they let him kick off. The 25.1-yard average kickoff return the Chargers are currently allowing opponents ranks them last in the league.
But the Chargers fear kicking would harm the mechanics of a punting stroke that rarely needs more now than an occasional fine tune.
“Regardless of the fundamentals, the thing that makes a good punter is being able to repeat the swing,” Sevier says. “It’s like golf. Lee Trevino doesn’t have a beautiful golf swing. But he can repeat it. And he can repeat it under pressure.”
Last year was the first season together for Mojsiejenko and Sevier. Sevier had spent 1979 and 1980 with the Chargers before leaving for the Redskins in 1981. He returned to San Diego last year and quickly decided Mojsiejenko wasn’t getting his punts off fast enough.
Mojsiejenko had been needing 2.2 seconds from the snap to the moment the ball hit his foot. Too long, Sevier said. So began the painful process of bringing Mojsiejenko under 2 seconds. Among other things, Mojsiejenko no longer had time to turn the laces of the ball upward before he buried his foot into it.
“I was thinking he might drop off last year compared to his previous years,” Sevier says.
Instead, Mojsiejenko had his best season: a 42.9 average and no blocks. He managed to land 14 of his 67 punts inside the opponents’ 20-yard line.
But he and Sevier, also a perfectionist, were concerned with his career-high 12 touchbacks. Here’s why:
Say the line of scrimmage is the Charger 45. If Mojsiejenko punts the ball into the end zone, he gets credit for a 55-yard punt. That looks great on the stat sheets. But the ball comes out to the opponent’s 20 for a net of 35 yards. If Mojsiejenko can hang the ball for 4.2 or 4.3 seconds and force the opposing punt returner to fair catch on the 10, he only gets credit for a 45-yard punt. But the net is also 45 yards.
That’s why the NFL keeps net punting figures as well as punting average. Through 7 games, Mojsiejenko’s 47.5 punting average leads the league. But his net average of 36.7 is fourth in the conference behind Bronco Mike Horan (40.8), Seahawk Ruben Rodriguez (37.9) and Colt Rohn Stark (36.8). Last year, Mojsiejenko’s net average (33.5) was sixth in the AFC.
“Pooch punting” is the phrase special teams coaches use to describe the delicate art of guiding the ball down inside the 20. Pooch punting takes the same kind of touch that makes a golfer effective inside 100 yards. And it’s the reason many of them now carry three wedges in their bags.
But a punter has only one kicking leg. And the notion of pooch-punting generally runs contrary to the booming mindset that lures punters into this discipline in the first place.
Roger and Ralf Mojsiejenko discovered this a long time ago back in Bridgman. “We noticed that if I was out punting, and nobody else but Roger was around, I wouldn’t do so well,” Ralf says, “But all of a sudden, if a car drove up and parked and that person started watching, all of a sudden I’d start crushing the ball.”
This summer, Sevier and Mojsiejenko focused on Ralf’s pooch punting. It has paid off. Of his 37 punts, only 3 have resulted in touchbacks; 10 have either been downed, rolled out of bounds or been caught inside the 20.
Another important element in the equation is the punt-snapper. Sevier and Mojsiejenko claim there may not be a better one in the league than reserve linebacker Randy Kirk. Moreover, Kirk rarely works with the regular defense in practice, which enables Mojsiejenko to take his practice snaps in the same rhythm he receives them during a game.
Mojsiejenko’s goal for the season is a 45.0 average. But there are so many variables. Punters with home fields of artificial turf generally get better roll. Punters with home fields inside domed stadiums don’t have to worry about wind. Outdoor punters in cold weather cities generally watch the Pro Bowl on television.
The NFL single-season record for punting average is 51.4 set in 1940 by Washington quarterback Sammy Baugh, during an era when quick kicks were an offensive weapon. Baugh punted only 35 times that year, which wouldn’t even qualify him for the official league statistics in 1988. A minimum of 38 is needed these days.
Mojsiejenko says it is unlikely anybody will ever touch Baugh’s record. Nor does he expect soon to break the NFL single punt record of 98 yards set by Jet Steve O’Neal at Denver in 1969. To break O’Neal’s record, Mojsiejenko would have to punt the ball 99 yards. Which means the end result would be a touchback. Which means the net would be no better than 79 yards.
When Mojsiejenko came to the Chargers as a fourth-round draft pick in 1985, he had a lot to learn about everything. “I have been blessed with a lot of physical ability,” he told The Times in an interview then. The remarks didn’t sit well with the many friends incumbent punter Maury Buford had made.
On a public relations fact sheet, Mojsiejenko listed his hobbies as “jogging, water-skiing, softball, all sports and my girlfriend!”
Priorities and 22-year-olds don’t always come in the same package. But things worked out. He married his “girlfriend.” And Buford became the punter for Super Bowl champion Chicago Bears when the Chargers traded him for a 12th-round pick.
On a Monday evening last November, police arrested Mojsiejenko on Clairemont Mesa Boulevard; he was booked and jailed on suspicion of driving under the influence. Mojsiejenko had been playing golf with friends and insisted the arresting officer was prejudiced against him “because I’m a football player.”
He hired an attorney and the authorities wound up reducing the charges to a misdemeanor. “The guy (police officer) really didn’t have a leg to stand on,” Mojsiejenko says now. “He was just being a jerk about the whole thing.”
And in Mojsiejenko’s mind it was the idea of being treated differently because he was a football player that bothered him so much.
“That’s another good thing about Bridgman,” he says. “I can go back there and just blend in. It’s hard not to be recognized. But people there realize I go back to relax and be one of the normal guys or normal people. I don’t want the notoriety that I get out here. That’s not what I’m looking for.
“I’m the same old guy that they all went to high school with back there. That’s small town morals, I guess. Which I love.”
Bridgman is still a place where the old world flavor is all the spice its people want. When Arizona State recruited Mojsiejenko, Annemarie told its coaches Tempe was too far from home. Then she waited a month to tell Ralf what she had told them. It is still one of his favorite stories.
If you want to know about Bridgman, Mojsiejenko says, listen to the lyrics of Indiana native John Cougar Mellencamp’s “Small Town.”
“That’s about how it is,” Mojsiejenko says. “No one wants to break away from that way. And not many people do. More do now than used to.”
Mojsiejenko broke from the Bridgman norms when he became a professional athlete. But every time he goes back, it is to a place he has never really left.
It is unknown whether Wednesday’s ruling by the secretary of the Navy regarding basketball player David Robinson will affect attempts by Charger running back Napoleon McCallum to rejoin the NFL before 1990. “I don’t even know if the two are linked,” said Steve Ortmayer, the team’s director of football operations. McCallum doesn’t complete his service obligation until December of 1989. Navy Secretary William Ball III ruled that Robinson would not be allowed to leave the Navy early to join the San Antonio Spurs this fall. . . . Charger reserve offensive lineman Darrick Brilz missed practice with the flu. . . . Cornerback Elvis Patterson re-aggravated a shoulder injury and was listed as “probable” on the injury report.