I didn’t like the head coach, so I left the soccer team my last year in high school. The following fall (1965) I enrolled at the local university in my hometown of Burlington, IA, primarily to avoid recruitment and the inevitable trip to Vietnam if I had been recruited. Back then, students attending college were exempt from conscription.
In the fall of 1965, while attending Burlington Junior College, I met head basketball coach Ed Sparling, a very colorful gentleman in his own right, and became one of his student directors. We had incredible athletic talent and a very successful basketball season. In the process, Coach Sparling and I became friends.
In the spring (1966), sometime after the basketball season ended, one of the players (Rick Lowery) mentioned to the coach that I had been a place kicker on the local high school football team. Now Coach Sparling prided himself on making sure all of his players received scholarship offers after their playing days at Burlington. And luckily for me, he included one of his student directors in his scholarship production efforts.
Coach Sparling writes a letter
Although he had never seen me kick anything, Coach Sparling wrote a letter praising my prowess at kicking places and sent it to a dozen soccer coaches throughout the Midwest. I never saw the actual letter, but whatever it said was good enough to get the attention of Howard Fletcher, the head football coach at Northern Illinois University in the spring of 1966.
Coach Fletcher offers me a soccer scholarship
Coach Fletcher responded by inviting me to visit the campus. My father and I drove to NIU. We spent an hour touring campus with Coach Fletcher. Then, without even asking me to kick a single soccer ball, he offered me a scholarship that covered tuition and books to play soccer at NIU. To say that he was excited beyond belief is an understatement. Did I quit my high school football team and was suddenly offered a college football scholarship? But this is just the beginning!
The square toe shoe
In the wake of our visit, my somewhat innovative father took a pair of my old soccer shoes to the local shoe repair shop in downtown Burlington and asked the owner to invent a square toe on the back. front right side. shoe. Yes, back in 1966, soccer balls were still kicked with the toe rather than the instep, as soccer kickers do today. This increased the surface area and improved the chances of kicking the ball through the goal posts.
The first play since Scrimmage’s touchdown
I practiced regularly all summer in my new square toe shoe, and in the fall I made my way to NIU. After a couple of weeks of early practice, we had our first game. And I’m here to tell you that in GAME ONE OF SCRIMMAGE, quarterback Mike Greisman stepped back and threw a 75-yard touchdown pass to a little sprinter named Jerry Sandberg. That said, the second play I witnessed as a member of the NIU soccer team was yours, actually kicking the extra point through the goal posts. It happened so fast that I didn’t have time to get nervous.
The touchdown scoring machine
That first play was an omen. As it turned out, Fletcher was a highly offensive-minded coach and this team was effectively a touchdown scoring machine. That meant he had tons of opportunities to score extra points. In fact, we score so many touchdowns that we set school records for the most extra points in a season, as well as the most extra points in a single game. This was not because I was better than my predecessors. I just had a lot more chances to kick extra points. I was even named Player of the Week after the single game record that included an action photo that was published in Northern Star, the school newspaper.
A full athletic scholarship
But despite all my good luck, several weeks after the season ended, I was homesick and had decided to tell Coach Fletcher that I would be returning to the second semester at Burlington Junior College. When I entered the stadium, I met the coach. And before I could give you my disappointing news, he informed me that he had just placed me on a FULL SPORTS SCHOLARSHIP! I would pay everything for my college education starting in the second semester. I was speechless. Did I mention that I quit soccer my senior year in high school?
My luck is gone
In my third year, NIU joined the Midwest Athletic Conference, a much higher level of soccer than we were used to the year before. Our touchdown scoring machine sizzled along with my own kick production. In fact, I barely remember that second (junior) season.
The summer before my senior year, I spent too much time skiing down the Mississippi River, which was right next to my hometown. In late summer I spilled out and pulled my right groin muscle. Needless to say, that inhibited my kicking ability. My last year was a complete failure. I did not play at all. My luck seemed to run out.
And then a phone call from the NFL
Then in the spring of that year (1969), out of nowhere, I received a phone call from a gentleman who informed me that he was a scout for the Atlanta Falcons of the National Football League. He said he had heard that he was interested in an NFL tryout. I never knew for sure, but this call must have been the result of Coach Sparling still supporting me from behind in the shadows.
Regardless, he hadn’t touched a soccer ball in months. And my senior season had been a complete and utter failure. But I said yes, I am interested in doing an NFL tryout. When do you want to be together? He said he was in town while we talked and asked me when he could get to the stadium. I told him I would be there in about 30 minutes.
The wonderful winds of DeKalb
I arrived at the stadium only to find that there was a strong wind blowing from east to west. Sitting amid miles and miles of extremely flat cornfields, DeKalb was famous for being windy most of the time. I put on my square toe shoe and proceeded to kick soccer balls … into the wind. I went from 30 yards to 40 yards to 50 yards and up, hitting every kick like a well-oiled machine. I mean realistically all I had to do was kick the ball in the air and with the help of this wind tunnel the ball traveled long, straight and straight through the goal posts, over and over again. , and again. Talk about being lucky! You can’t make these things up.
The Atlanta Falcons contract
The scout recorded each kick and a week later I received an email containing a standard Atlanta Falcons player contract signed by coach Norm Van Brocklin, who at the time was already a member of the NFL Hall of Fame from his quarterback. field. days with the Angles Rams and Philadelphia Eagles.
For whatever reason, coach Van Brocklin was unhappy with his current kicker, a gentleman named Bobby Etter from the University of Georgia and a math doctoral student at the University of Kentucky at the time. There were three kickers competing for the spot. I lasted a couple of weeks before being cut by Van Brocklin, who was very kind in explaining my release. He knew Bobby Etter was the best kicker.
Fifty years later
To put a finishing touch on this unlikely good fortune story, I recently (over 50 years after the fact) corresponded with a friend from high school named Bob McLaury, who happened to be the headline for me when we practiced kicking extra points to my youngest son. year in high school. Someone took a photo of Bob holding and me pretending (we were actually posing for the camera) to kick the ball and published it in the school yearbook in the spring of 1964, my junior year. That photo must have been the source of Rick Lowery’s comments to Coach Sparling. Lowery was a year older than me and had no other way of knowing that I had kicked a soccer ball for someone.
In that conversation with McLaury, I asked him if he remembered we ever kicked extra points or field goals in a real game. I’m sure we had practiced kicks. But he didn’t remember kicking anything in a game. McLaury confirmed that he did not remember us doing anything like that. So chances are that a simple photo in a high school yearbook led Rick Lowery to tell Coach Sparling that I had been a place kicker in high school. This despite the fact that he probably never kicked an extra point in a live high school football game. That conversation prompted Sparling’s letter and everything that followed in its wake.
A seemingly inconsequential conversation
It’s interesting to think how a seemingly inconsequential and off-the-cuff comment from a basketball player to his coach could change the direction of someone else’s life so completely and totally. But from that little conversation, chances are I never heard of Northern Illinois University, much less got a chance to play college football, set high school scoring records that lasted over a decade, receive a scholarship. complete sport (ironically, I was never a good athlete), I had some contact with the NFL, I met my beautiful and talented future wife, I had two unspeakable children of whom my wife and I are incredibly proud, etc., etc., etc. .
Yes, you can call me Mr. Lucky!
And this football story is just one example where I’ve had a lot more than a little luck throughout my life. It is the most dramatic. But it is very far from the only story that I could tell along this same line. There are many, many more, but I am not going to bore you right now. Suffice it to say that not once have I complained about being lucky. I’ve had a lot more luck than my share. In fact, you can call me Mr. Lucky!