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South Africa: Happy to Kick a Funny-Shaped Ball for a Living


Business Day (Johannesburg)
 

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Business Day (Johannesburg)

18 April 2007
Posted to the web 18 April 2007

Renée Bonorchis
Johannesburg

YOU'D be forgiven for thinking that Gary Anderson not only had the perfect season, but seems to have the perfect life. As a South African-born kicker for the US National Football League (NFL), he will go down in sporting history as the first NFL kicker to have a perfect season -- in 1998 he successfully made 94 kicks out of 94.

But his ability to kick a ball is just one part of Anderson's rather extraordinary story of how he got to where he is now.

He was born in Parys and grew up in Durban. With a father who had played professional soccer in the UK, Anderson was passionate about sport, playing soccer, rugby and cricket with the view to playing professional soccer for SA. But it was the late '70s and his father, a pastor, objected to apartheid and in 1978 had convinced his family, with Gary being one of five children, that it was time to leave. At the age of 18, Anderson was not that easy to convince.

"As a teenager I didn't have insight. I'd been focused on my sports career. But soccer wasn't a big game in the US at that time. I wasn't at all keen or excited," says Anderson.

The family spent its first few days in the US in a town outside Philadelphia. On the second night in the country, Anderson went to dinner with his dad and a couple of men who knew they were soccer players. They explained how the NFL worked and how in American football each team has a player whose sole job is to run out and kick the ball over the posts. Anderson was intrigued and wanted to see one of these new balls, pointier than those he was used to in rugby. The guys dropped one off the next morning and Anderson took it up to a high school field that afternoon to kick it around a bit.

"The coach came to ask me who I was," says Anderson. "I was doing something I'd been doing my whole life, kicking through the posts, but he said he'd never seen anyone kick a ball so far."

The coach was hoping to sign Anderson on, but discovered he was ready for college. Being friendly with the head coach of football team the Philadelphia Eagles, the coach set up for Anderson to try out at the team's summer camp the next day.

"At the time I had no idea what was going on," says Anderson, but he went on to the field at about midday and they brought out a big bag of those "strange-looking balls" and he began to drop kick them over the posts. The coaches present on the day agreed that they hadn't seen anyone kick like Anderson in more than 20 years.

"Fortunately, I didn't realise university coaches go and watch the pro teams practise, so that day there were four university coaches watching. After 30 minutes of kicking they all offered me a scholarship if I'd be their kicker."

In the US, to play pro ball a player has to have four years of college behind them -- so these offers were a godsend. And after a whirlwind couple of weeks with Anderson and his dad visiting the four campuses and checking out their credentials, they chose Syracuse, in New York State, because it was the strongest academically. And all of this was based on Anderson's ability to kick a funny-shaped ball accurately and far.

He says he had a natural ability from a young age and was always out in the back yard in SA using his feet.

"Most US kids are good with their hands. They play basketball, baseball and football, so it was unusual for them to have good feet. That has changed as soccer has become more popular."

But back then, Anderson was in top physical shape and his feet were in high demand. At Syracuse he studied accounting, so that he would have a profession to fall back on should his football career not work out. He also had four valuable years to get into the rather odd way that football is played in the US.

"It drove me crazy at first -- being at football practice for four hours and just doing a few kicks. I convinced the coach to let me go play with the soccer team and be called when they needed me to kick."

Anderson, in fact, didn't like the game of American football for the first couple of years because it was so different. The concept of standing on the sidelines for most of the game was not an easy one. He explains that in an average game he would get called out three times. In a busy game it would be five times.

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But he got into it and spent the next 22 years playing for a range of teams from the Pittsburgh Steelers to the Philadelphia Eagles, the San Francisco 49ers and the Minnesota Vikings.

"I enjoyed myself at all the various teams. I really enjoyed my early career in Pittsburgh. I always considered myself to be very fortunate, being a kid from SA and getting to kick a ball for a living."

The life of a kicker is charmed on the one hand -- they are not out on the field being beaten up. But their job is highly pressurised. Sometimes with just a fraction of the match left they are called out to save the day. And as the season winds on, kickers with a hot record will become more and more anxious to keep up their points every time they walk out on the field.

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