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Jan Stenerud's journey to NFL immortality started in Buffalo – with a lift from Larry Felser

Erik Brady

Jan Stenerud saw his first professional football game in Buffalo in 1963. He saw his most recent pro game last week — the Super Bowl in Miami, where he was introduced as one of the 100 greatest players in NFL history.

Much of Stenerud’s story is well-known: Born in Norway. Came to the U.S. on a ski-jumping scholarship. Kicked his way into the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

But here’s a part of his story that’s virtually unknown: Stenerud’s aunt and uncle immigrated to Buffalo in 1921 – and they were his boyhood connection to the far-off land known as the United States of America.

Their names were Maien and Per Svenskerud, though they changed the surname to Hansen when they got to the United States. Both would work for decades for the Edward H. Butler Jr. family, owners of The Buffalo Evening News.

“My aunt was a cook, and she did other things in the household,” Stenerud says. “My uncle was a jack-of-all-trades with a lot of duties. Sort of a butler for the Butler family.”

Stenerud, who is 77, remembers that Per and Maien – his father’s sister – came back to Norway for a visit in 1947, when Stenerud was 4.

Jan Stenerud at the the 2014 Legends For Charity Dinner in New York City. (Joe Kohen/Getty Images)

“I was fascinated by America,” he said. “And they gave me an American dollar.”

It was a tegn – omen in Norwegian – for a boy who would grow up to make his fortune there.

“They came back again seven or eight years later, when I was 10 or 12,” Stenerud says. “They talked about the skyscrapers in New York and the big cars and the big country.”

That was a tegn, too. Stenerud would one day buy a big car – in Buffalo – and drive it to Big Sky country. Ah, but that’s getting ahead of the story.

Stenerud’s uncle died around 1960. Berit, Stenerud’s sister, who is three years older, moved to Buffalo in 1961 to help out their aunt.

By this time Stenerud, 19, was a promising ski jumper in Norway. Montana State University offered him a scholarship – ski jumping was an NCAA sport then – and Stenerud, well, jumped at the opportunity.

“It didn’t take me long to know I wanted to go,” he says. “And my dad agreed with me right away, because it was a free education.”

So, in August 1962, Jan Stenerud (pronounced Yon STEN-a-rude) flew to New York. Berit met him there, and they stayed in New York for a few days and then flew together to Buffalo to see their aunt. After a few more days, Stenerud took a train to Montana – Buffalo to Bozeman.

Jan Stenerud is one of many Kansas City Chiefs players enshrined in the "Hall of Honor" at Arrowhead Stadium. (Derek Gee/Buffalo News)

He came back to Buffalo the next summer, and that’s when he saw the Bills play a preseason game at War Memorial Stadium. He’d seen some college games at Montana State, but this was his first time seeing the pros.

“Everything around the game was impressive,” he remembers. “They were big people. The collisions were impressive. I enjoyed it very much. It was an experience – like going to a show.”

He could not have imagined then that he’d be a star in The Show himself someday; heck, he didn’t understand much of what was playing out in front of him that afternoon, all of it happening in bewildering fits and starts, so different from the continuous flow of soccer, which he’d played at a high level growing up in Norway.

“I didn’t know how they scored, how much for a touchdown, how much for a field goal – nothing at all,” he said. “I was there with my sister, and she didn’t know any more than I did.”

Larry Felser (News file photo)

Berit worked in bookkeeping at The News at the time. That’s where she met Larry Felser – the late, legendary sports columnist – who had just come from the Courier-Express to be the Bills beat writer at The News. Felser was the one who took Stenerud and his sister to that seminal preseason game.

“We met at Coles bar, on Elmwood,” Stenerud said, “just a few houses away from where my aunt lived.”

The Bills played two preseason games at home that August, beating the New York Jets 23-8 on the 16th and the Boston Patriots 24-14 on the 24th. Stenerud can’t say for sure which game they saw.

This much is sure: Felser would one day vote for Stenerud as the first pure placekicker elected to the Pro Football Hall of Fame. That vote came on the same weekend that the Bills lost to the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXV, in 1991.

“I hope I got his vote,” Stenerud says, chuckling softly. “I think I did.”

So how did Stenerud happen to be back in Buffalo in August 1963? Turns out he came to buy a used car.

“I heard cars were cheaper back east, so I bought a blue 1955 Bel Air Chevrolet in Buffalo for $450,” he said. “And then I drove it back to Bozeman, about 2,000 miles.”

Defensive end Mack Yoho was the Bills’ kicker in those 1963 preseason games. That’s how it often worked then, when quarterbacks and linebackers moonlighted as placekickers and punters.

All that began to change in 1964, when the Bills introduced Pete Gogolak as pro football’s first soccer-style kicker. Gogolak’s success changed pro football history — and Stenerud’s life.

He was running the stadium steps at Montana State in 1964 when he noticed the football team’s injured placekicker (who doubled as a defensive back) on the field. Stenerud joined him and kicked a few field goals just for fun. He even asked if kicking with the side of his foot would be legal, as he didn’t yet know about Gogolak’s pioneering exploits in Buffalo.

Montana State’s basketball coach happened to see Stenerud booting the ball great distances and told the football coach, Jim Sweeney, that he had to give this Norwegian undergrad a look.

Jan Stenerud's story has something in common with a lot of good Buffalo stories: It involves a stop at Coles. (Sharon Cantillon/Buffalo News)

“So the next day I was running the stadium steps again,” Stenerud says, “and Sweeney calls out, ‘Hey, skier, get your butt down here!’ And that’s how it all started.”

Stenerud became the Bobcats’ kicker in 1965. That season he hit a 59-yard field goal in a win against archrival Montana, then boomed the ensuing kickoff over the end-zone bleachers – Paul Bunyan feats in cleats.

“It took like a week for them to know that 59 yards was the longest kick in college and pro football history up until then,” Stenerud says. “It wasn’t instant to know that, like it is now.”

It got to the point that when the Bobcats reached the 50-yard line, students would chant: “Put Jan in! Put Jan in!” The Sporting News named him to its All-America team in 1966 – and who else has been All-America in both football and ski jumping?

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Stenerud joined the Kansas City Chiefs in 1967, and in his first three seasons he made 70% of his field-goal tries, while the other kickers in the NFL and AFL combined for 53%. In 1969 he made 27 of 35 field goals – including 16 straight, then a pro record. Stenerud saved his best days of that magic season for the Bills, against whom he made 10 field goals – five in Buffalo, five in Kansas City.

Then, in Super Bowl IV, he booted three field goals for a 9-0 lead in the Chiefs’ 23-7 upset win over the Minnesota Vikings. The first of those field goals, from 48 yards, stood as the Super Bowl’s longest until Steve Christie’s 54-yarder for the Bills in 1994.

Minnesota defensive end Carl Eller said after the game that Stenerud should have been named Super Bowl MVP. “He makes you feel you can’t give up a thing,” Eller said, “because he is so dangerous from anywhere inside the 50.”

So last week, 50 years later, there Stenerud stood on the field before Super Bowl LIV as he was introduced as one of two kickers on the NFL’s 100-player centenary team. (The other is Adam Vinatieri.) Stenerud greatly enjoyed the game that followed as his Chiefs won for the first time since he kicked for them half a century ago.

Oh, and there’s one more astonishing fact in all of this: My sister, Karen Brady, who worked at The Buffalo News for more than 40 years, was living in New York in the early 1960s – and she joined Berit and Jan in 1962 on the night he arrived in the U.S. for the first time.

They set out to see the sights, including those skyscrapers Stenerud had heard about from his aunt and uncle all those years ago. And when Berit moved to New York two years later, she was Karen’s roommate in a brownstone on West 88th Street.

Stenerud takes in this coincidence – his sister and my sister – and lets out a whistle of surprise.

“Well, I’ll be darned,” he says. “Isn’t that something?”

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