NEW ORLEANS — Although Morten Andersen grew up with absolutely no notion of kicking an American football, he always had designs on playing sports at an elite level – albeit with his hands.
As he neared the end of high school in his native Denmark, he had an invitation to try out for his country’s junior national handball team. Instead, he heeded his parents’ wishes that he spend a school year abroad in the United States.
He opted to become a more well-rounded citizen of the world, and serendipitously put himself on a path to becoming one of the best at kicking a not-so-well-rounded ball.
“The safe bet would have been to say, ‘I’m just going to stay in Denmark, but I don’t think that was ever really in the DNA of our family to play the card that was always comfortable and safe,” Andersen said in an interview with The Associated Press.
“Little did any of us know what kind of journey was ahead. And that’s what’s so interesting about life. If your ears and eyes are open to new possibilities and opportunities, they are right in front of you sometimes.”
Andersen, who began his NFL career with the New Orleans Saints in 1982 and played for the Atlanta Falcons on two ocassions, enters the Pro Football Hall of Fame as the leading scorer in NFL history with 2,544 points. He played in a record 382 games during his 25-year career. He played for Atlanta from 1995-2000 and 2006-07.
He is only the second kicker elected to the hall. Both are Scandinavians who knew virtually nothing about American football when they arrived in the United States, but had been powerful and accurate kickers in their youth soccer days.
The first was Norwegian Jan Stenerud, who came to America after receiving a Nordic skiing scholarship from Montana State, where he was persuaded to give kicking a try. He later starred for Kansas City for 13 years before spending his last six seasons between Green Bay and Minnesota.
Stenerud knew so little about football when he arrived in the 1960s that, after being persuaded to try out in college, he asked if he was allowed to kick with the side of his foot. In the few games he’d seen, he’d noticed kickers tended to approach the ball straight on.
But while Stenerud helped revolutionize kicking in American football, Andersen’s all-around athleticism, competitiveness, calm under pressure and eagerness to embrace cutting-edge training techniques helped him to the NFL’s longest and most productive kicking career.
“I always felt Morten was going to be the next kicker in the Hall of Fame,” Stenerud said. “You can’t survive in the league by accident. Not only did he have to fight off competition (from other kickers) for 25 years, but he did it at a high level. Every year they try to replace you. He had to earn it every year.”
Andersen participated in team handball, soccer and gymnastics growing up, and contends his experience in each sport helped his kicking. Because of that, he is “not a fan,” of funneling kids into year-round specialization in a particular sport.
His kicking career began at an Indianapolis high school at 17. When first asked if he was interested in trying out, Andersen recalls saying, “Not really,” and then, “All right, I’ll try it,” after a little more prodding.
Less than a year later he was headed to Michigan State on a kicking scholarship.
When selected in the fourth round of the 1982 draft, the first words Andersen remembered then-Saints coach Bum Phillips telling him were: “I hope you like Budweiser and country music.”
Andersen says he dishonestly replied, “Yes, sir,” when in fact he was more of an “ABBA and merlot” kind of guy.
After a shaky, injury-plagued rookie campaign during the strike-shortened 1982 season, Andersen blossomed in ‘83, hitting 75 percent of his field goals. He made four straight Pro Bowls (1985-88) and dipped below 71 percent accuracy only once more in his career, in 1989. He viewed that season as a wake-up call that led him to hire New Orleans fitness specialist Mackie Shilstone, along with a sports psychologist, massage therapist and chiropractor.
The left-footed Andersen began kicking with both feet during training to avoid repetitive-motion injuries. He changed his diet and performed exercises designed to improve flexibility and maximize the explosive power in his legs. His sports psychologist helped him set goals in the form of “percentage windows” so he wouldn’t become unduly discouraged by isolated misses.
“That really helped me getting rid of unnecessary mental baggage,” Andersen said.
Jim Mora, who coached the Saints from 1986-96, said he always admired Andersen’s intangibles and competitiveness.
“Kickers can make 60 yarders during warm-up when there’s nobody watching and nothing matters,” Mora said. “Morten was the best when the game was on the line.
“You don’t appreciate how important a good kicker is until you don’t have one, and you can ask any coach. He’s so deserving of this.”
Mora was part of a Saints decision in 1995 to cut Andersen, believing they could re-sign him at a pay cut – a decision Mora now calls a “horrible” mistake.
Andersen sounds as if he still harbors some resentment over his sense that the Saints treated him as being past his prime.
“I played at a high level for another 13 years,” Andersen noted. “Not bad for a declining player.”
Andersen went to rival Atlanta, hitting a kick to clinch the Falcons’ first Super Bowl berth at the end of the 1998 season. He also spent a season with the New York Giants and a couple with Kansas City.
Andersen had a goal of playing until 50. He made it to age 47, retiring after the 2007 season, when he made 25 of 28 kicks, nearly 90 percent.
Knee pain in his plant leg was affecting his preparation, and he hadn’t kicked off for several seasons, meaning a team would have to use two roster spots on kickers in order to play him.
“I was probably done,” Andersen said. “I had a great year in ‘07, so it was a really good stopping point.”
Next stop: Canton.