SOLID FOOTING : Rams Get a Real Boot Out of Mike Lansford's Dependable Kicking

Times Staff Writer

Her husband's streak has stretched so long it almost frightens Teresa Lansford, which takes some doing considering she was nearly scared to death by Hodgkin's disease as a teen-ager.

"I brace myself every year," she said. "Is this going to be the bad year? I wonder what it's going to be like."

In a field-goal kicker's leg there are good kicks and bad ones. You hope the shanks come in the first quarter, not the last second. Failure is inevitable, or so they keep telling you.

"We've seen almost every kicker in the league go through something depressing," Teresa said.

Everyone except Mike Lansford of the Rams, who has been playing Russian roulette with his right foot for 16 years. He has missed his share of kicks, sure, but never with a game on the line. Never.

OK, there was that one collapse, in the fall of 1973, after Arcadia High School's sophomores tied Alhambra, 6-6, with a last-second touchdown. In trotted Lansford for the Apaches, presumably to put an end to it. He was wearing a right shoe then. Mike Hull, his best friend, was the holder. You don't forget details like that.

Lansford hooked the extra-point attempt wide of the left upright--a flat-out, two-hands-around-the-throat choke. If it's a golf swing, he loses ball and strokes.

"I went home and cried," he recalled. "I cried like a baby. I vowed I'd never do that again."

And he hasn't. Not with the Arcadia varsity, Pasadena City College, the University of Washington or the Rams. Lansford and foot have made their name quietly and steadily. He's not even the most famous kicker in his division, still having to settle for Morten Andersen's publicity leftovers.

Yet, last season, while no one was looking in week 15 against Atlanta, Lansford passed Bob Waterfield to become the franchise's all-time leading scorer.

Mike Lansford passes Bob Waterfield. Imagine that.

"Me, a derelict," Lansford said, continuing the thought. "Rejected by three teams. A longshot in '82 to becoming the all-time scoring leader. . . . "

Lansford is not sure what the secret is. His even keel, perhaps. Perseverance, for sure. He'd been released three times--New York Giants, San Francisco 49ers, Raiders--before catching on with the Rams in '82. The Rams were so impressed, they snatched kicker Chuck Nelson in the fourth round a year later. Nelson and Lansford were college buddies, which made it that much harder when Lansford had to send Nelson packing.

Lansford is also forever indebted to a blister and a booster.

In 1981, having already been released twice, Lansford developed a sore on his heel during a workout. He removed his shoe and belted a few bare-footed.

"I'd tried everything else," he said. "What it did was remove the cleats (along with) my shoe and allowed me to get under the ball better. Not being a complete idiot, I stayed with it."

Lansford can't imagine how he'd react to missing a kick to win the Super Bowl. He's seen last-second losses devastate others. Some have attempted to relate Donnie Moore's recent tragedy to one pitch thrown in a baseball championship series. Lansford questions the logic.

"I've learned there's a real world out there," he said. "Life and death isn't determined by a kick that may make it. Life goes on."

Easier said by one who has never suffered such a fate. But Lansford believes he could handle any situation.

"Donnie Moore might have had a lot more problems than anyone realizes," he said. "I don't see myself in a catastrophic condition going completely in the tank. My emotional and mental approach is stronger than any individual kick."

Lansford was fortunate to have been tested early. He's still riding the wave of his last-second, game-winning 42-yard field goal against the New Orleans Saints in 1983. The kick, before a packed house at the Superdome, prevented the Saints from reaching the playoffs and posting their first winning season. It also sent the Rams into the playoffs as a wild-card team and put a $16,000 bonus check in every Ram's pocket.

Who knows where Lansford might have landed had one kick not passed between two uprights.

"I remember actually standing out there and shaking," he said. "I was so nervous. What relieved a lot of the pressure was that the snap was bad. Our regular snapper, Doug Barnett, had gone down with a knee injury. Doug Smith had played center all game. His hands were beaten up and swollen. So he zips it up behind (holder) Nolan Cromwell's ear, and I just had to put it on auto pilot."

A career-saving boot? Maybe. Since, Lansford has been as steady as they come. He made two game-winning kicks in 1986, including a dramatic 50-yarder to beat the Chicago Bears. He kicked another game-winner against St. Louis in 1987. He has made 120 of 163 career attempts (74%).

Lansford, never one to wear emotions on his jersey sleeve, said his football life was jolted into perspective after he attended a Ram booster luncheon in 1984. There, he was introduced to Teresa Nelleson, a local beauty queen. Mr. Lansford, meet Miss Anaheim.

"A booster kind of pushed me in her direction, and I followed," Lansford said.

They were engaged 3 1/2 months later and married within the year.

Teresa didn't tell Lansford of her bout with Hodgkin's disease right away.

"At first, I didn't talk to him about it," she said. "I felt there was something wrong with me."

Though her disease was in complete remission, she didn't know how Lansford might react. By his own admission, he'd lived rather recklessly to that point. Was she just another pretty face?

"I was living dog years there for a while," he said. "Seven to every one."

Teresa was afraid her disease might scare him off.

"He had never had anyone close to him die, not even his grandparents," she said. "In my case, I'd seen best friends die."

The Hodgkin's was discovered just before Teresa's 16th birthday, after she'd developed a lump on her neck.

"When I first found out, nobody knew what it was," she said. "I'd never been ill. I had three older brothers. I was the baby. It was devastating. Five years before I had it, there was only a 50% cure rate."

The disease was discovered in its earliest stage, and Teresa recovered fully after radiation treatment and surgery to remove her spleen. She was also fortunate to have been born with two spleens.

"The doctor said it was one in a million," she said.

Lansford said that understanding Teresa's illness made it easier to separate sport from life. Lansford spends much of his off-season time sponsoring benefits for the American Cancer Society. Teresa said he was greatly affected by the loss of Kirk Collins, a Ram cornerback who died of cancer in 1984.

Football isn't the rudder that guides the Lansfords' life. They don't take for granted what is theirs. Teresa was told the radiation treaments might render her infertile. So they are thrilled to be celebrating daughter McCall's second birthday next month.

Lansford wants to hold this job until his toe turns blue. He jokes that an exciting day at the office amounts to watching snapper Mike McDonald watch practice. But he has learned to manage his boredom. He turns every kick in practice into a game situation. He has replayed his Super Bowl-winning kick in his head a thousand times.

"It's never been easy for him," special teams coach Artie Gigantino said. "He's been bounced around and hung in there. He taught himself to kick off the ground. He's a self-made guy."

As kickers' lives go, Lansford's has been relatively painless. There have been no Garo Yepremian passes or screeching headlines: "LANSFORD HITS CROSSBAR, TEAMMATES HIT LANSFORD."

So far, Lansford has only to live down one high school extra-point attempt that sailed high and wide, a mistake he does not fully accept.

Best friends don't always make the best holders.

"To this day, I still blame him," Lansford said of Mike Hull.

Ram Notes

The team departs for Tokyo at noon today for next Sunday's exhibition against the San Francisco 49ers. Some familiar names won't be on the plane--offensive linemen Robert Cox and Duval Love, tailback Greg Bell and first-round picks Bill Hawkins and Cleveland Gary. All have yet to sign contracts. . . . Running back Mel Farr suffered a sprained right shoulder in Sunday's scrimmage against the San Diego Chargers at La Jolla and is considered questionable for the game.

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