Kicking pioneer makes his case
Ben Agajanian is alive and kicking. OK, alive.
At 88 and living in Los Alamitos, the man who pioneered placekicking as a separate job in professional football, is walking around on two replaced hips and two replaced knees and getting to the racetrack to see and bet on his horses quite nicely, thank you.
Horse racing has been part of his life for about the last 50 years, but the only big-time run he had was with Alyrob, eighth in the Santa Anita Derby in 1996 and also eighth in the Kentucky Derby that year.
He had a horse named A.P. Charlie that was claimed from him Oct. 8. A few days later he claimed a 4-year-old filly named Lockitup. Lockitup is scheduled to run Friday at Santa Anita in one of the cheap races.
No matter to Ben, who just likes being in the game.
Always did, matter of fact.
His father was a sheepherder who came to this country from Armenia in 1913, soon ended up in Santa Ana with a garbage truck and a couple of pigs, built a farming and disposal business into a fortune and had sons named Ben and J.C.
J.C. was six years older, liked to tinker with cars and got into the field full throttle when a local promoter tried to run off with the bag of money that was the purse to pay the drivers. J.C. chased him down, got the money back and the other drivers decided he should be the promoter.
Eventually, he owned cars that won two Indianapolis 500s, one driven by Parnelli Jones and the other by Troy Ruttman.
J.C. Agajanian, a fixture for years at the Indy 500, riding around the pits in his huge cowboy hat and cowboy boots, died at 70 in 1984.
Ben was a football player of some local repute who went from Compton Junior College to the University of New Mexico, then had what would have been to most a career-ending injury. He was at a summer job and had the toes on his right foot crushed so badly in an elevator accident that he had to have them amputated.
Ben wrote the New Mexico coach a letter and said he wanted to come back, try to keep playing the defensive line, but mainly continue as a kicker.
“Didn’t hear a thing,” he says, “so when it was time for practice to start, I got in my car, drove to Albuquerque, walked into the middle of a coaches’ meeting, sat down and waited for them to finish. After a while, the coach looks up and says, ‘What are you sitting there for? Go get your uniform on.’ ”
So Bootin’ Ben, the Toeless Wonder, was reborn.
He eventually got a bootmaker to make him a squared-off kicking shoe for his size 7 1/2 right foot (the left is size 11).
“First one the guy made, it was crooked,” Ben says. “I’d kick and it’d go squirtin’ off to the left. Second boot he made, he got it right.”
When he finished at New Mexico, one of the things furthest from his mind was pro football. In those days, a field goal was an after-thought, kind of a shameful consolation prize for a stalled offense, and that job was handled by guys who played other positions.
“I came home, went to where we lived in San Pedro, and there was nobody there,” Ben says. “My father had bought this huge house -- 20 rooms for $25,000, and it’s still there -- and then my mother got nervous because of the Japanese submarines off the coast and so she made him move to Pico Rivera.”
When he found them, he got marching orders.
“My dad told me not to play football, to work on his hog farm,” Agajanian says. “I said to him, ‘Are you crazy? You send me to college and you want me to work on a hog farm?’ ”
Soon, he was playing in the NFL, on the defensive line with the Steelers, and kicking. He broke his arm, but the coach still needed him to kick a field goal. So, arm in sling, he kicked it and didn’t miss for the rest of the season.
Suddenly, the NFL had a kicking specialist.
He played, on and off, from that 1945 NFL season in Pittsburgh, through 1964 with the AFL in San Diego, at age 45. In all, he played in three pro leagues, including the old All-American Football Conference. Only one other, Hardy Brown, did that.
Agajanian’s highlights were kicking for the ’56 New York Giants and the ’61 Packers, both NFL champions. For the Packers, he was a fill-in for Paul Hornung, who missed several games while on weekend military duty. But even with Hornung there, Agajanian occasionally played.
“One time, Lombardi called me in,” he says. “He told me I was gonna kick off ‘cause he didn’t want Hornung to get hurt.”
All told, he played for 10 pro teams, made 57 field goals and 201 extra points.
And he had legendary moments.
One time, a wide-lens newspaper camera caught him, after kicking off, already on the sidelines before the receiver of his kick had been tackled. Another time, miffed over his salary, he kicked off and watched as the receiver ran past him for a touchdown. When asked why he hadn’t made the tackle, Agajanian replied, “I’m just paid to kick, not to tackle.”
For years after his career ended, he served as a kicking coach for several teams, mostly the Dallas Cowboys, where he developed, among others, Rafael Septien. While Agajanian was a straight-on kicker, he takes some credit for originating the standard approach for today’s soccer-style kickers.
He also has a bit of disdain for all the hoopla over kickers in the modern game. Asked about Jason Elam’s last-second, game-winning field goal for the Broncos to beat the Steelers last weekend, Agajanian shrugs and says, “Hell, in Denver, I can spit 60 yards.”
Soon, the luncheon table has salt shakers and knives and forks pointing in all different directions to serve as goal posts and hash marks and Agajanian is showing the angles a kicker needs to use, how to stand, and when the holder should slant the football (only into a big wind).
The passion remains, and he has been enough of a pioneer to attract the attention of local film makers, who are proposing the movie “Bootin’ Ben.”
Then, he has his horses.
“I’ve probably owned 50 of them over time,” he says. “I’m not a big bettor. Wouldn’t matter. When one of them wins, my son comes over and wants to borrow money.”
Mostly, he continues to be driven by a desire to be recognized for his pioneering by the Pro Football Hall of Fame, an honor he realizes is not likely because his numbers don’t approach those of the modern era, when field goals became part of the offensive strategy, not a symbol of offensive failure.
He sent his kicking shoes to Canton, Ohio, more than 20 years ago. Now, he’d like the rest of him to follow.
“To hell with the movie and the horses,” he grumbles. “Get me in the Hall of Fame.”
Bill Dwyre can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. To read previous columns, go to latimes.com/dwyre.
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