NFL

Who Was the NFL’s First Soccer-Style Kicker?

There was a long time in pro football when kicking specialists were considered a luxury not worth employing. Coaches mostly auditioned kickers from the roster of players good enough to make the team on offense or defense. There were exceptions along the way, but specialists mostly remained afterthoughts until the first generation of soccer-style kickers like Pete Gogolak entered the NFL.

Now, contenders for the Super Bowl know they can’t get by without the likes of an Adam Vinatieri or Stephen Gostkowski.

George Blanda epitomized the old school of thought

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George Blanda joined the NFL in 1949 out of the University of Kentucky but only played extensively at quarterback for two seasons of his decade with the Chicago Bears. He jumped to the Houston Oilers of the AFL in 1960, where Blanda was one of the top quarterbacks in the league for seven seasons. After his release by the Oilers, Blanda logged nine seasons with the Oakland Raiders, primarily as the kicker but occasionally as the backup to QB Daryle Lamonica.

Blanda would finish his pro career having made 943 of 959 extra points and 335 of 639 field goals. In mid-career, he also quarterbacked Houston to a pair of AFL championships. He went into the Pro Football Hall of Fame leaving observers wondering to some degree if he was a quarterback who also kicked or a kicker who also played quarterback.

Today, quarterbacks do the throwing and kickers take care of the field goals, and rarely do the two roles converge for more than a trick play or two. It’s largely the result of the rise of soccer-style kickers.

Pete Gogolak was the NFL’s first soccer-style kicker

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Pete Gogolak, who began his pro career with the AFL’s Buffalo Bills before jumping to the New York Giants, was the NFL’s first soccer-style kicker.

Gogolak was born in Budapest in 1942 and emigrated to the United States with his family after the Hungarian Revolution. His high school in Ogdensburg, New York, did not field a soccer team, so Gogolak put his athletic skills to use on the football field, where he amazed onlookers with his distance and accuracy despite approaching the ball at an angle and striking it with his instep. The key to the soccer style is the fluidity and flexibility of the kicking motion, prioritizing technique over brute strength.

Gogolak’s style was radically different from that of the straight-on kickers who connected with their toes, and the Buffalo Bills took notice during his final season at Cornell.  They drafted him in 1964, and Gogolak led the league with 28 field goals in 46 attempts in his second season as the Bills won the AFL championship.

Gogolak connected on a modest 58.8% of the attempts in his pro career, but his innovative style captured the attention of pro and college coaches, and soccer-style kickers soon dominated the sport.

Soccer-style kicker Pete Gogolak ushered in another change

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Besides changing special teams by introducing soccer-style kicking to professional football, Pete Gogolak played a role in speeding up the merger of the NFL and AFL by jumping leagues after the 1965 season with the Buffalo Bills.

After his rookie year in the AFL, Gogolak turned down a raise and instead took a 1% pay cut to play out his option, which would have required the Buffalo Bills to match and 1966 offers in order to retain the kicker. Up until that point, the two rival leagues had mostly avoided poaching players from the other.

However, the New York Giants had just witnessed rookie Bob Timberlake go 1-for-15 in field goals for them and made the decision to sign Gogolak. The Giants’ move triggered reciprocal recruiting by the AFL, putting the leagues on the road to escalating salaries. On June 8, 1966, they agreed to a merger that was completed when they became one league for the 1970 season.

All stats courtesy of Pro Football Reference.