Agajanian Kicked Football Into Age of Specialization
In 1974, when pro football moved the goal posts from the goal line to the end line and ruled that missed field-goal attempts returned to the original line of scrimmage, they should have called it the “Agajanian Rule.”
You see, in the early days of the game, the placekick was not really an option. The college game was largely given over to the drop kick as a scoring weapon.
The pros had placekickers, but largely for extra points. And the placekickers were not specialists. They had to play a position. The Bears’ Jack Manders and the Giants’ Ward Cuff were all-league running backs. Bob Waterfield and George Blanda were Hall of Fame quarterbacks. Don Hutson, the Green Bay immortal, used to lead the league in placekicking and pass-receiving annually. Even Lou (the Toe) Groza, who kicked through more than 1,300 points, had to play offensive tackle.
Ben Agajanian was the first specialist. Early in his career, which began in the late ‘30s, he, too, had to play in the regular lineup. A few broken arms and legs convinced him it was a waste of manpower. He managed to convince coaching staffs that it was as big a mistake as making the quarterback play cornerback.
It wasn’t easy. Coaches are traditionalists, often anchored to the past. “Coaches like Jim Phelan told me, ‘You’re excess baggage. We can’t afford to pay a guy to just sit around and kick a field goal now and then.’ I was making $200 a game at the time,” Agajanian said.
His retort: “Some day, you will.”
“I used to tell those guys, ‘Some day the kicking game will become the most important part of it. You won’t be able to believe you were ever dumb enough to have your kicker making tackles.’ ”
Agajanian roamed the rosters as a kicker. He played for 13 teams, ranging from the old L.A. Dons of the All-America Conference to the Steelers, Giants, Lions, Packers, Cowboys, Dallas Texans, Rams, Chargers and Raiders. He often played for an AFL team one week and an NFL team the next.
It wasn’t any role model that made him a kicker. It was a freight elevator. It made him a star when he was riding down it one day at the University of New Mexico in 1939. His right foot was hanging over the edge and, when it encountered a jutting piece of floor, his toes were sliced off. When the surgeon was sewing up what was left after the amputation, Agajanian asked, “Will I be able to kick again?” and the doctor’s response was, “What will you do with the cane?” The answer meant he would be lucky to walk with that foot, never mind kick footballs.
Agajanian didn’t believe it. He had a special shoe made, square at the toes, and he became the best kicker in the business.
He chafed at the coaches’ insistence he be an all-purpose player. He found the owners more enlightened and, finally, Wellington Mara of the Giants not only agreed he didn’t have to play, but let him fly in for the game from his California business on weekends and fly out again after the game. The kicker as specialist really began with Agajanian.
“I won a lot of games for them,” he said. “In those days, the 50-yard kick was kind of a mental barrier. I used to compute the maximum range by the atmospheric conditions. The coach, Jim Lee Howell, used to ask me sarcastically, ‘What’s your range today?’ Then, I kicked a 50-yarder to beat Washington. I came in and told Jim Lee, ‘It’s 50 today, Jim.’ ”
Adds Agajanian: “About this time, Lou Groza comes up to me and says, ‘How much money you getting for just kicking?’ and I told him '$4,000.’ So Lou says, ‘That’s what I’m getting for getting nosebleeds.’ He went to management and became a pure kicker.”
When the coaches finally wised up that kicking was critical, they began importing soccer-style European sidewinders. The Americans largely resented this. They wanted an immediate tightening of the immigration laws, but Agajanian welcomed the new technicians. “Anybody could see that was the way to kick,” he said. “They got more velocity in the ball and therefore more distance. They were almost punting the ball.
“We had come full circle. In the early days when they changed the configuration of the ball to make passing easier, the dropkick was phased out. But when I used to scream and holler that everybody one day was going to have a kicker, they laughed at me.”
No one’s laughing anymore. The kicking game, like the 10-pound gorilla who grew up, took over the establishment. Something like seven of 10 games were decided by kicks. Games and championships were being won by guys who didn’t even need to wear shoulder pads. It got so unwieldy they had to move the goal posts and modify the rules to keep it from devaluing the touchdown altogether. Agajanian’s prediction became all too true.
Like the Energizer bunny, Agajanian kept on kicking till he was 45. He piled up 655 points, not counting All-America Conference points. “And, remember, that wasn’t kicking off carpets or in domed stadiums!” he said. “That was out of mud, slush, snow, places where they didn’t cut the grass, where there wasn’t any grass to cut and on fields where the hash marks weren’t cut in 23 yards, 1 foot from the sidelines. Sometimes, we had to kick from almost the sideline marker. You had to make the ball go at right angles.”
He was rewarded with a nickname: “Bootin’ Ben” Agajanian. Of all the field-goal specialists who came after, he and Groza are among the few with nicknames.
Groza’s in the Hall of Fame. Agajanian, who is the nearest thing to a patron saint the kicking game boasts, isn’t.
His shoes are there. Maybe, the rest of him should be too.