BOZEMAN -- Like all great legends, the story of Jan Stenerud’s signature moment as a Montana State Bobcat has evolved over the years.
“Even now, 50 years later, people will tell me they were at that game,” laughs the former two-sport All-America at Montana State whose 59-yard field goal was the longest on record when he drilled it on November 6, 1965 at Bozeman’s Gatton Field.
“The strange thing is that people tell me, ‘Oh, I remember how that kick beat the Grizzlies (MSU won the game 24-7),’ but it was actually in the first quarter and it made the score 3-0.”
Stenerud will be honored by the Pro Football Hall of Fame, in conjunction with Allstate Insurance, in its Hometown Heroes series at Bobcat Stadium Thursday. The event begins at 11 am, and is free and open to the public.
That 59-yard kick marks the moment of Stenerud’s entry into the national consciousness, which culminated with his election into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, in 1991. His Hall of Fame status leads Stenerud back to Bozeman on Thursday for a “Hometown Hero” presentation which will honor his excellence in the National Football League where his career in the sport began.
But like all great legends, there is much to the back story. The career of the first pure kicker inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame began in a football stadium that no longer exists by a Bobcat student-athlete training for a sport that the NCAA no longer sanctions.
Stenerud was running stadium steps in old Gatton Field to train for as a Bobcat ski jumper in the fall of 1964, his junior season on the MSU ski team, when he decided to cool down by kicking a few footballs with Dale Jackson, an injured member of the Bobcat squad. It wasn’t his first time doing so, but on this afternoon Montana State basketball coach Roger Craft happened to “stride across the field going from the old (Romney) gym to the new gym (the Fieldhouse),” Stenerud recalls.
Craft told legendary Bobcat football coach Jim Sweeney of his find the next chance he got, and after some prodding from Craft Sweeney offered Stenerud a tryout.
During practice one day, “Sweeney got me down on the field and had me kick a couple,” Stenerud said. “Then they made me take my (right) shoe off and put on one of (Sweeney’s) terrible old coaching shoes. I clunked a couple, but then I found my groove and I kicked one a long way.
“Sweeney put his arm around my shoulder,” Stenerud said with a laugh, “ and said, ‘What are you doing tomorrow afternoon.’”
Ineligible for competition that season, Stenerud suited up without competing just to get used to a sport which remained foreign to him. Before he joined the football team, Stenerud clearly grasped the importance of football in his adopted country.
“It was fun to go (to games),” he said. “Here come the cheerleaders, which we’d never seen on Norway, and here comes the team, and we all stood and sang the (school songs). It looked funny to me. They ran into the pile, and for someone who didn’t know the games, it looked like they lined up 30 seconds later and did the same thing again.”
As a newcomer to the sport and to the team, Stenerud recalls the kindness of his new mates. “Football players, they were the big deals on campus,” he says, “and instead of making fun of me for being the new guy from a different country they made me feel very welcome. They were so nice to me. Instead of treating me like a newcomer and someone who didn’t fit in they welcomed me.”
Stenerud had kicked plenty of balls as a soccer player in Norway, but when he began kicking for fun he didn’t immediately utilize what is now known as ‘soccer style.’ “I kicked with my toe at first,” he says. “I don’t know why.” Quickly, though, he transitioned to the style that made him the greatest kicker of footballs to that point in the sport’s history.
Stenerud said he never really dealt with nerves from participating in a new sport. “I’d ski jumped in front of 80,000 in Oslo, but you don’t feel the crowd in ski jump. So I was used to competing all the time, but it was a different thing. I guess I was (nervous), but my first ski meet I was 8 years old, my first soccer match I was 8 years old, so I’d been competing all my life.”
Stenerud was an instant sensation in the fall of ’65, long before the 59-yard boomer. “At times the student section would start yelling for me (when the team neared the 50-yard line) because people hadn’t seen a ball kicked that far,” he laughed. “Every time I kicked there was a kind of commotion in the stands.”
The Bobcats finished 1965 with a 3-7 record, but bounced back in ’66 to win the first of three straight Big Sky Conference titles. Months later, Stenerud signed with the Kansas City Chiefs of the fledgling AFL, and the rest is history. He kicked three field goals in KC’s Super Bowl win over the Minnesota Vikings, was chosen for six Pro Bowls (including a pair of AFL all-star games), and has his jersey retired by three different organizations (MSU, the Chiefs, and the Green Bay Packers).
As a Bobcat, he was an inaugural member of the school’s athletic hall of fame, and was an All-America in two unrelated sports, ski jumping and football. As a football All-America, he was selected as the top kicker in the nation regardless of division, joining players from schools like Notre Dame and Michigan State. And he held school and NCAA records upon his graduation.
He has held Bozeman dear in his heart since his days on campus. “I’ve always held this town in the highest regard,” he said. “It is so beautiful, and the people are so nice.” He helped raise nearly a quarter-million dollars for athletic scholarships at MSU through a celebrity golf tournament, and was active in the state’s Special Olympics program for many years.
And he remembers one more story related to that famous 59-yard kick. “There was a good wind blowing (at his back), I’m not afraid to say that,” he says. “And on the kickoff after that field goal, I kicked it all the way over the bleachers in the end zone.”