Morten Andersen turned kicking into performance art of the highest order

Morten Andersen, the NFL's all-time leader in points, will become just the second kicker elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Yardbarker

When Morten Andersen gets enshrined into the Pro Football Hall of Fame on Saturday, he will become only the second pure placekicker to receive this honorable distinction, 26 years after the legendary Jan Stenerud was enshrined in 1991. And while it is an acceptable stance that a kicker is not the flashiest of NFL positions, the Great Dane’s place is rightfully among the greatest who have ever played the game. Before doubt or disinterest arises, let’s disclose the thoroughly convincing career highlights and statistics: seven Pro Bowls, six First- or Second-Team All-Pro awards, and placement on the 1980s and 1990s All-Decade Teams.

Even more stunning is that Andersen currently holds the record for most points scored in NFL history at 2,544 — more than double the points scored by the Greatest of All Time, Jerry Rice. Mr. Automatic has also made the most number of field goals (565) and played in the most games (382). When the average number of seasons in the career of an NFL player stands between three to six years (according to differing opinions by the NFL Players Association and the league itself), Morten’s 25 years of professional football from 1982-2007 seem unfathomable.

Although his discovery of the game aligns with a storybook pursuit of the American dream, his career didn’t exactly start off on the right foot. It kind of started out on the left foot.

'American football was not on the radar at all for me'

Former NFL player Morten Andersen took an unlikely path to pro football supremacy. Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports

During a conference call in July, Andersen told reporters how an international exchange program brought the Copenhagen-born teenager with a talent for gymnastics, soccer and handball to Ben Davis High School in Indianapolis.

“The intent was to come to America as a cultural exchange student for 10 months then go back home and finish my studies in Denmark,’’ he said. “American football was not on the radar at all for me. It was simply to learn the language, immerse myself in the American way of life, soak up as much as I could about American culture.”

However, a chance opportunity to display his exceptional athleticism came at a time when all things seemed foreign to Morten, including the language and the shape of the ball. The combination of gymnastics and soccer played perfectly as the left-footed Andersen was instantaneously booting the oblong ball through the goal posts from near midfield.

After one game of ineligibility, Ben Davis High head coach Bob Wilbur demoted his own son in place of the star-in-the-making who was finally finding his footing — athletically, socially and culturally.

“It became a vehicle for me, a vessel, if you will, to integrate very quickly into the American way of life,” Andersen said of football. “I had 80 new friends, like that, when they saw the ball fly vertical and high through the uprights. I was the new kicker, and that happened overnight, literally. That’s how my American dream started.”

It only took one season of exceptional high school play for the neophyte to extend his American dream by landing a full scholarship to kick for the Michigan State Spartans. Andersen was named a First-Team All-American his senior year and holds the Big Ten record for longest field goal at 63 yards against Ohio State. His impressive play in college led to a fourth-round selection in the 1982 NFL Draft by the New Orleans Saints, but the Great Dane’s 25-year career started in ominous fashion.

'It was almost derailed from the very beginning'

Morten Andersen is among other New Orleans Saints greats like Archie Manning and fellow Hall of Famer Rickey Jackson. Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY Sports

When Morten Andersen was first nominated as a finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2014, he sat down with public relations folks for the New Orleans Saints to talk about his career, including the 13 years he spent in the Big Easy. However, it couldn’t have begun more disastrously:

“It was almost derailed from the very beginning. I was hurt on the opening kickoff of my NFL career by a guy named Randy Love, of all people, from the St. Louis Cardinals back then. It was on the opening kickoff, and I had kicked a touchback, and the upback kept running at me and [I] decided to start running away from him, and I snapped my ankle on the turf in the Superdome and was out for eight weeks. The strike came and that was really kind of a blessing for me. I was able to rehab and get healthy so when the game started back up I was able to come back and play. It was a very ominous start to say the least.”

Morten went only 2-for-5 in field goals but hit all six extra points attempted in only eight games during that strike-shortened season of 1982. It was not a positive start at all and could have been much worse, but like any competitor facing adversity, Andersen turned things around, rehabilitated the injury and was able to overcome the lowest point of his Hall of Fame career just as it was starting. In the following 24 seasons, Andersen missed only 10 games, and he played until he was 47 years old. His NFL record of 382 total games may never be broken.

'Ice water in his veins' 

The kicker’s job is highly specialized. From the drastically different body type, to the near-balletic athleticism and flexibility, to following long stretches of inactivity with an extremely high-pressure situation, these players stand out on the field, protected (most of the time) by a wall of imposing blockers. They must enter into the game after warming up on the sidelines kicking into practice nets and turn on a razor-sharp focus. This is often the make-or-break point between the good and the bad: Who can come through in the clutch?

Former coach Jim Mora made the introductory remarks at the 2009 awards ceremony inducting Andersen into the New Orleans Saints Hall of Fame. His position on the clutch kicker was clear after having coached him for nine years, and Mora fondly remarked on what it was like to watch Mr. Automatic at work.

“I can remember so many times standing on the sidelines when the game was on the line, no matter what the distance, and he would go out there with a great deal of confidence, with ice water in his veins, and he would stick it through the uprights. That's the big difference between Morten Andersen and other kickers in the NFL.”

Even eight years ago, Mora was convinced that an enshrinement in the Hall of Fame was in the future for Andersen.

He went on to say, “Not only should Morten Andersen go down as the greatest kicker in National Football League history, but he should go down as one of the great players in National Football League history. I really believe that.”

After moving on from the Saints to their division rivals, the Atlanta Falcons, those ice-water-filled veins were best on display during the biggest kick of Andersen’s career. The Falcons had dominated the regular season on the way to a 14-2 record, but a road game in Minnesota against the 15-1 Vikings stood in the way of the franchise’s first Super Bowl appearance. The NFC Conference Championship was a slugfest that saw the Falcons battle back from two double-digit deficits to land a tie at the end of regulation. Overtime wasn’t any easier, with a total of three short possessions before Atlanta put together a 70-yard drive to line up Morten Andersen’s 39-yard game-winning field goal and a trip to the big game. When watching the "Relive the Kick" video, you get a clear sense of Andersen’s composure. He had already visualized the kick the night before and knew the Falcons were going to the Super Bowl.  

'I really spent a lot of time rehearsing'

Morten Andersen is an exceptional athlete, and physical prowess aside, he truly personified the mental aspects of the game — a component which was essential to the position.

“I really focused on what I controlled which was my effort and attitude and work bench and really owning my skill set. My focus was on that. The moment of truth when my plant foot hit the ground, you were either in the right place or wrong place.”

But it went so much further than that. Andersen was an artist: “I really spent a lot of time rehearsing mentally and physically training that particular movement, that skill, so that it became unconscious. I think that if you do that as an athlete you can apply that to really anything in the high performance business.”

How many athletes talk about rehearsing? These are the words of a performance artist — someone who has trained a specific skill set that maximizes potential, worth and accomplishment, but with the understanding that the body in a high-impact sport can be poetry in motion designed to awe and impress an audience. If you have ever seen a slow-motion video capturing the form of a kicker, how could you not be impressed, particularly when witnessing that grace against a backdrop of massive bodies constantly smashing into each other?

Morten Andersen knew of the gifts he possessed.

“You have to own your skill set. You have to have confidence. You have to let the game play you and trust it enough that you don’t over think things, and you just become an athlete and just react. That’s really what I tried to do in my 25 years.”

Even though he is only the second pure kicker to join the Pro Football Hall of Fame, he was the best at what he did, deserves his place among the best, and has opened the floodgates of recognition and honors for the current and future place kickers of the game.

PLAYERS: Morten Andersen
Oldest players to ever be on Super Bowl rosters
QUIZ: Name every player on the NFL All-Decade Team of the 1990s

The best players of the 1990s in the NFL are chosen by members of the Hall of Fame Selection Committee for the All-Decade Team.

How many of the 1990s All-Decade First Team can you name?

Clue: Position

John Elway
Barry Sanders
Emmitt Smith
Jerry Rice
Cris Carter
Shannon Sharpe
Tony Boselli
Gary Zimmerman
Bruce Matthews
Randall McDaniel
Dermontti Dawson
Bruce Smith
Reggie White
Cortez Kennedy
John Randle
Junior Seau
Derrick Thomas
Kevin Greene
Deion Sanders
Rod Woodson
Steve Atwater
LeRoy Butler
Morten Andersen
Darren Bennett
Michael Bates
Deion Sanders
Bill Parcells

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