Editor’s Note: This story originally was printed in the program for the inaugural Montana Football Hall of Fame banquet in the spring of 2016.
Jan Stenerud has had two recurring dreams during his 70 years.
The NFL Hall of Famer and Montana State legend’s story of growing up a prodigious skier in Norway before transforming into the only kicker in Canton makes it seem like Stenerud has been living a dream all his life.
“I have two dreams: one is that I’m standing on top of a ski jump and I can’t wait to go down because the feeling of flying through the air — and you could fly a lot higher in those days — is so much fun,” Stenerud said as he stood atop a podium placed on the Bobcat Stadium turf in 2015. “But I would always wake up before I hit the hill.
“Now the other dream, I’m in the locker room before a game in the pros and because I can’t find a shoelace or a chinstrap, I can never get to the field on time. I wake up before I go on the field and for some reason I feel relieved.
“What I’m saying is the pressure must have been much stronger than what I ever realized it was because it never bothered me when I was awake. When I wake up, I’m disappointed that I didn’t get to fly through the air, but I’m relieved when I wake up from football. That dream indicates to me, I was probably under more pressure than I ever realized.”
Those who watched Stenerud’s legendary career might think one of the all-time great kickers was immune to pressure. It sure seemed like it.
During his 18-year NFL career, Stenerud essentially wrote the record books. His 373 made field goals and 1,699 points were all-time records when he retired. He earned seven All-Pro selections and was named to four Pro Bowls. He played on the Kansas City Chiefs team that won Super Bowl IV and he’s a member of the Chiefs’, Green Bay Packers’ and Montana State Bobcats’ Hall of Fames.
On this spring day in 2015, Stenerud was in Bozeman to honor Montana State as one of 68 schools from across the nation honored by the Pro Football Hall of Fame, in conjunction with Allstate Insurance, in its Hometown Heroes series. The native of Fetsund, Norway chose to be honored on the Montana State campus because Bozeman has always held a special place in his heart.
“I’ve been to 49 states and Montana is my favorite state,” Stenerud said with a warm smile. “The way the people are hasn’t changed much, even over five decades. It’s a beautiful place. I’m so lucky that Montana State is the one that gave me the chance to come all the way from Norway and experience what I did.”
About 15 of Stenerud’s former teammates sat front and center as Stenerud unveiled a bronze plaque commemorating his memorable football achievements. The storybook football career of a man from the other side of the Atlantic was almost a story that was never written.
In 1962, Stenerud was fresh off a sixth-place finish at the Norwegian Junior National Ski Jumping Championship when a letter from Montana State arrived at his family’s home. Former MSU ski coach Bob Beck was offering a full-ride scholarship to come halfway across the globe.
“It was a free education in the most tremendous country on earth,” Stenerud said. “It was very exciting. My mother wasn’t as excited because she thought I might stay here for awhile.”
Stenerud hopped on a plane. He flew into Reykjavik, Iceland, then to Newfoundland, then to New York City. After spending time with relatives in Buffalo, New York, Stenerud hopped on a train that took him across America to the heart of the Gallatin Valley.
“That took awhile,” Stenerud said with a laugh.
Stenerud was instantly enamored by campus life. Although he was far from home, living independently was an exhilarating time, he said, and his ski jumping career was just taking off.
As a sophomore in 1964, Stenerud finished fourth at the NCAA National Championships in the ski jump, earning All-America honors in the process. Then his life took an unexpected twist.
The following spring, Stenerud was running the stairs at Gatton Field with his teammates. After the cardio session, MSU football player Dale Jackson talked Stenerud into cooling down by kicking a few footballs.
It so happened on that afternoon that MSU men’s basketball coach Roger Craft was taking his typical shortcut across Gatton Field back to Brick Breeden Fieldhouse. He witnessed the young Norwegian consistently kicking footballs from the opposite 40-yard line “out of the back of the end-zone and beyond.”
The next day, Craft went into head football coach Jim Sweeney’s office.
“I said, ‘Jim, have you ever seen Jan Stenerud kick a football?’ and he kind of ignored things,” Craft said during his introduction of Stenerud on Thursday. “So I said, ‘You should get him because he could really be a great asset’. He shrugged his shoulders like we basketball coaches don’t know what the hell we are talking about.”
A few weeks later, Craft saw Stenerud running the Gatton stairs. Sweeney and his team were also on the field that day, so Craft yelled at Stenerud to come down and show his stuff.
Stenerud was wearing loafers that afternoon, so he had to wear one of Sweeney’s waffle-soled coaching shoes.
“I said, ‘Jim, you are going to watch this guy kick the football’, so Jim lined them up in kicking formation,” Craft said. “The holder was on the hash mark of the 35-yard line. Jan put it right through the uprights. Jim said, ‘Let’s see that again’. So he did it again. Right then, Jim walked over to Jan and patted him on the rear and said, “We have pregame breakfast tomorrow morning at 10 o’clock.”
In that moment, a record-setting football career was born. Stenerud’s first season, however, he didn’t play. And he was perplexed by what he saw each day at practice.
“I went to football games because that was the thing to do and most students went to football games, but I didn’t know a single thing about it,” Stenerud said. “I didn’t really like it because they played for four seconds then stood around for 30 seconds and talked for awhile and then did the same thing all over again. Once I got involved with the game, then I realized it was the greatest team game ever invented.”
The idea of a kicker who only kicked was foreign at the time. When a lanky skier from Norway was all of a sudden on the football team, some of the Bobcats hesitated. Once they saw Stenerud kick, all doubts were erased.
“When you line him up and he kicks one some 50 yards, you have a pretty good thought that, ‘Wow, we better not screw him up,” said Tom Parac, an assistant coach under Sweeney at the time and the head coach’s eventual successor. “It didn’t take long for that to change in everyone’s mind. He was raw off the ski hill and he rolled off his skis, put a pair of shoes on and kicked the ball. It was an exciting time for all of us.”
When he first became a football player, Sweeney gave Stenerud No. 78, a non-traditional football number to say the least.
“Jan told you that he didn’t know diddly about football, but you see the No. 78 up there,” former teammate Terry Albrecht said, pointing to the top of Bobcat Stadium to Stenerud’s retired jersey. “That’s a tackle’s number. So Jan, somewhere in his infinite wisdom, thought that that should mean he should tackle somebody if he could figure out what tackle meant. There was a game where Jan kicked off the first year he was kicking for us. The guy broke a run and here comes the flying Norwegian. He puts this headlock on this guy. Other guys were hitting him, but Jan’s got him by the head. The guy isn’t going anywhere. Somebody said, ‘That’s not a tackle, Jan, wrong kind of tackle.”
Stenerud quickly adjusted to his new athletic escapades and gained a whole new respect for the game in the process. While attending meetings, he learned of the toughness, skill and discipline each position required, the strategy each game plan entailed and, most importantly, the paramount importance of teamwork.
“My teammates embraced me instead of making fun of me even though my first game, my hip pads were on backwards,” Stenerud said with a laugh. That’s why I feel so strongly about my teammates because they made me feel comfortable, welcome, part of the team.”
In 1965, Stenerud forever etched himself in MSU lore and put his name on the national map. In Montana State’s annual rivalry game against the University of Montana, Stenerud hit a 59-yard field goal, the longest in college football history at the time.
“I remember after 13 (field goal) attempts in my life — and my first step was backward, I didn’t even have the steps down — I get a telegram from the Kansas City Chiefs that said, ‘Congratulations, you have been drafted in the third round of the AFL Futures draft,” Stenerud said. “I had no idea what it meant.”
By 1966, he was a star. That season, the Bobcats scored 50 touchdowns and won the Big Sky Conference title. Stenerud hit 11 field goals and 49 extra points in scoring an NCAA-record 82 points. He was a consensus All-America selection and was picked by the Atlanta Falcons in the NFL Draft.
Stenerud ultimately decided to play for Hank Strom’s Kansas City Chiefs. By his fourth season, KC became just the second AFL team to win a fledgling football game known as the Super Bowl.
Stenerud spent time in Green Bay and Minnesota before retiring in 1985. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1991 and remains the only player who was primarily a kicker enshrined in Canton, Ohio. All along the way, he never forgot the first coach who gave him a shot.
“Sweeney got a hold of me, and Sweeney, he was a dominant individual,” Stenerud said of his former coach who passed away earlier this year. “He dominated every room he was in. He gave me the chance of a lifetime because I was a sideshow, a circus. I was the only guy on the team who couldn’t play football, didn’t even try to play football, couldn’t play football. He’d never had a guy who had just kicked. Instead of being the sideshow or distraction, he embraced this idea and it was absolutely great.
“I think about him almost every day in my life. There will never be another man like Jim Sweeney.”
Nor will there be another story like Jan Stenerud’s.