Though nearing the end of his career when the AFL started up in 1960, Bootin’ Ben Agajanian made his impact on the league. Agajanian was pro football’s first true kicking specialist, and likely developed that phase of the game more than anyone else in history. In addition, he likes to talk. Here is a portion of an interview that I did with Bootin’ Ben back in 2002. As you can see, I got our my first question, and then sat back for the next 20 minutes and just listened. Ben has an interesting story!
AFL – Tell me about how you came to the Chargers.
BA – Well, I was retired. 1957 was my last year with the New York Giants, because I wanted to fly back and forth. I held out for the Giants in ’56, and the Giants told me to get someone else. I coached Gifford and Chandler, so they could kick. But Gifford couldn’t kick and play, so they brought me back and we won the world championship in ’56 in New York. I decided in ’57 that I was going to quit, but I flew back and forth. In ’58 they brought Pat Summerall in, and he did the kicking, so I retired. They asked me if I was going to retire and I said, “No, just give me a release.” So in ’58 and ’59 I didn’t do anything, but in 1960 the Chargers were working out at camp, training camp, here in Chapman College. So I went over and sat in the bleachers to watch them. And funny thing, Sid Gillman looked at me and he yelled, “Hey, old man. Can you still kick?” And I said, “Yeah.” He says, “Practice up and come over in a couple of days. Let me see you.” And I said, “I don’t need any practice.” So I went over there the next day and I kicked and we looked over, and their kicker picked up his helmet and shoulder pads and walked off the field and went home.
AFL – You were what, 41 years old at that point.
BA – Yep. Then Sid Gillman says, “You’re not eligible to play for us.” I said, “Why?” He said, “You belong to the Titans.” I said, “How come?” He said, “Well, the draft.” The New York Titans selected me as one of the players from the Giants. I was on their roster so to speak. I didn’t know it, but they had selected me. So what did I do? I told Sid that I would take care of it. So I called the Titans and they said that they were in South Carolina or something where their training camp was. I said that I wanted to talk to Sammy Baugh. They gave me the number and I called Sammy Baugh. I said, “Hey Sammy Baugh, I’m coming back to kick for you.” He says, “What? Who is this?” I said, “Ben Agajanian. I’m on your roster and I have decided to come out of retirement and kick for you.” He said, “Oh Jeez, we already have a kicker.” So I said, “Why don’t we do this. Why don’t we make a trade?” I said, “The kicker for the Chargers also is a player. He’s a darned good player. Why don’t we trade him for me?” What the heck was the guy’s name?
TT – Bob Reifsnyder?
BA – Probably. So he said, “OK.” So I made my own trade and I came back and told Sid. “Everything’s fine. I made a trade and I’m on the team.” He said, “OK, great.” So I kicked and I had a pretty good year. But then they decided to move to San Diego, and I said, “I can’t move to San Diego. I’ve got my business up here. I’m in the oil well business and I have the Long Beach Athletic Club.” And I had sporting goods stores and discount houses. So I didn’t need the money, but at the same time, when someone says, “We want you, we need you,” I go running. So he said, “Can you come down and coach one of the kids,” Lincoln, I think it was. And I said, “Sure.” S I went down to San Diego for the preseason and I did some coaching. I kicked in their inter squad game. Then I came home and I told Sid to just give me a release. So he did. But in ’61 the Dallas Texans called. They said, “We need a kicker, our kicker is hurt. Can you kick for us?” I said, “Sure.” So I flew back there and met with Lamar Hunt and his man. I kicked the first game and then the second game we went to New England and I got hit in the back after a kickoff. A guy came around from behind, and I couldn’t raise my leg. I kicked the ball very poorly. I tried a field goal and the ball rolled down the field. Somebody said I kicked like his grandmother and I was just as old. Anyway, I came back and Hank Stram says, “Lombardi wants you at Green Bay.” I said, “Oh Jeez, if you don’t want me, then OK.” I was so excited to go to Green Bay, because Lombardi and I were together in New York for five years. I said, “Well, if you don’t want me, then I’ll go to Green Bay.” So I flew home and I flew up to Green Bay. I kicked with Bart Starr holding and Paul Hornung was still there. They made a trade. Val Keckin, a quarterback, was supposed to go to the Dallas Texans. And this was a secret trade between two leagues that were not talking to each other. But Hank [Stram] idolized Lombardi, so Hank would do anything to help Lombardi, and I would too. Well, I kicked up there with Bart and everything, and then I got a phone call from Lamar Hunt saying that he understands that Paul Hornung’s not going in the service until the following week and they need a kicker for one more week. Could I come down? I said, “Oh Jeez.” I’m in Green Bay and it’s Saturday, and the game is Sunday. I said, “Well, I’ll come down.” Lamar says, “You can be free to go to Green Bay if you’ll just help us this one week.” And I said, “OK.” My wife was with me and it was her birthday. And I said, “What do you want for your birthday?” She said a record field goal, and I said, “You’re crazy. I’m 42 years old. I can’t kick.” We flew back. You won’t believe this… A little DC-3, Green Bay to Oshkosk to Fond du Lac to Milwaukee to Chicago. Stop, jump, stop, jump, up, down… Then we go to O’Hare and then we have to take a helicopter to Midway. My wife hates to fly and here we are in a helicopter with an open door. Jeez! And I said, “I’m taking my shoes in my hands.” Because my kicking shoe with the square tow, if I don’t have it, I don’t kick. So I wouldn’t pack it. I carried it. I knew. Well, my clothes never showed up.
I got there Saturday night. Sunday morning we got a cab and went to the Cotton Bowl. I got dressed up and went out there and I kicked one field goal, and I kicked another field goal. Then they called a 51-yard field goal. I went out there and made it, and it was a record. It was a team record and a Cotton Bowl record. When I came jogging off the field, I looked up and my wife blew a kiss to me. I blew a kiss back everybody in the stands thought I was kissing them, so they all threw a kiss at me. So immediately after the game, I got dressed and was leaving and this kid comes up to me limping. He says, “I’m the kicker here. I was the kicker and you came in and broke the record. I just want to shake your hand.” I shook hands with him. I don’t know who the guy was. I left and I flew up to San Jose to open another store. Sporting goods and discount stores was my deal then. And I opened another store and I got a phone call from Lombardi saying… He says, “The deal is off. You can’t come to Green Bay.” I said, “Why?” He said, “Well, they won’t release you.” And I said, “They already have.” He said, “No way.” I said, “Well, Lamar Hunt said if I went one more week, they’d let me go.” When I called, I got ahold of Hank Stram and I said, “Hank, you didn’t want me when I missed one, and then when I make three in a row, you want me.” He said, “Well, how could I explain to the fans? They all love you. The press… How could I explain? Jeez.” I said, “Hank, you already released me. I’m not gonna come back there. I promised Vince I would go to Green Bay and help him. Paul’s in the service now and they don’t have a kicker.” He said, “Well, if I can’t talk you out of it, good luck in Green Bay.” So I called Green Bay back and Lombardi got on the phone. He started chuckling, and I said, “I made my own trade again. I’ll be there Friday.” He said, “OK.” And I flew back and forth every week, and we won the championship at Green Bay in ’61. Then in ’62 I go back for the All-Star game, but I go back there and I coach. I taught Jerry Kramer how to kick, and Green Bay went that year, in ’62, and won the championship also, with Kramer kicking three field goals in the championship game.
Meanwhile, in ’62, I get a call from the Raiders. Not Al Davis, but the Raiders called and said, “Would you kick for us?” It was in the middle of the season in ’62. They said, “What did you get in Green Bay?” And I told them, “It was $1,000 a game.” “Oh gee, we can’t pay you that much.” So I said, “That’s OK, I’ll kick for nothing.” So for $0 salary, I flew up there and they had a contract all made out with $0 salary. Well, I X’ed out the option clause and signed it, and I flew back and forth to Oakland. They didn’t win a game until the last game. At one time there was nine men out on the field. I kept yelling on the kickoff. And they’d wave at me, “Nah, I’m not on that team.” No one wanted to play. Hell, I’m now 43 years old, and I’m kicking. One time I kicked a field goal and they blocked it, and everybody went off the field except me. I’m chasing this guy who’s going for a touchdown. I’m limping and chasing, and I can’t catch him. Then we punted to them once, and the guy’s going for a touchdown, and no one knew this. As he went by the bench, I went out and tackled him and went right back to the bench. Nobody knew this until Jim Otto and them were looking at films and I’m home. Jim Otto calls me here in Long Beach and he says, “Goddammit, you were the guy that made the tackle, saved the touchdown.” I said, “Yeah, I sneaked off the bench and did that.” He just got a big kick out of it. But finally, the last game I told the coach, “Why don’t we try an onside kick?” It was raining and muddy, and I couldn’t kick it to the goal line then. Oh I could, maybe. But he said, “What for? They’ll get the ball on the 40.” And I said, “Well, they run them back to the 40 anyway, so what the Hell’s the difference.” He said, “OK, go ahead.” I kicked a perfect onside kick, we got the ball, we made one or two first downs, and I kicked a field goal. 3-0 the score is until the end of the game and we scored a touchdown and won the first game in 17 games. That was in ’62. Then ’63 I didn’t play.
In ’64 Sid Gillman calls me and I go down to San Diego to watch practice. He says, “I want you to kick for us.” I said, “No way. I’m retired. I’m 45.” And he tells my wife, “I want Ben.” And my wife tells me, so I say, “Well, if I can fly back and forth, I’m still busy with my businesses.” Someone said, “Why did you kick for nothing for the Raiders?” I said, “Well, I was making more money than they were, so why should I charge them. I had all these oil wells and everything going. So, at 45 I went and signed with the Chargers, and the funny thing, a couple days before the first game, Sid tells me that I’m ineligible. I said, “What?” “Yeah, you’re ineligible. You can’t kick for us.” “Why?” “You belong to the Raiders. Al Davis says you belong to the Raiders.” I said, “That’s a lot of baloney.” I think it was the day before the game. He said, “Why?” I said, “I X’ed out the option clause. I’m not that stupid. I know what the Hell’s going on. I know how pro football works.” So I said, “I X’ed out the option clause and I don’t belong to the Raiders.” He said, “Well, let me call Joe Foss.” In fact, Joe Foss, the commissioner, thanked me for coming into the league to help with publicity and stuff like that, an old, old kicker. Anyway, they said, “Sure, Ben’s eligible.” Well, Sid didn’t say anything to me until the day of the game. I think Hadl threw a pass to Alworth for a touchdown. I’m standing there, Sid looks at me and I said, “Do you want me to kick? Am I eligible?” He says, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, go kick.” So I ran in and kicked. Well, after another two or three games, I think we went to Denver and I kicked a 47-yard field goal. But one of my friends was the referee and he said, “Ben kicked a 47-yard field goal that went 47 yards, 47 rows in the stands, and he’s 47 years old.” Well, he was exaggerating, but anyway, Lombardi called. He said, “Paul Hornung’s having trouble. Would you come coach him?” I said, “Sure.” So I flew to Green Bay, and I said, “Paul, how are you doing?” And he said, “I can’t kick.” So anyway, I gave him a lesson and kicked there. And then I met the team in Kansas City. That’s when it all ended. I flew from Green Bay to Kansas City and the wind was blowing and it was Saturday. I told Sid all this, that I was going to Green Bay to help and I would be back. And Sid had me kick off on Saturday morning, a cold, windy day. And I pulled a hamstring. Tore a muscle. I just couldn’t lift my leg. They took me in the locker room and gave me about four or five shots. And it bled from my groin down to my knee, it was all black and blue. They gave me quite a few shots. I dressed up and went out Sunday, and I still couldn’t lift my leg. I tried in the pre-game warm up to kick and I just couldn’t kick. So they got someone else to kick and that was it. They went on and I think they won the championship or the playoff in Buffalo or something that year, in ‘64. And that was my last kick, and I retired.
Then in 1969, I was 50 years old and Coach Halas asked me to kick for them. I said, “I can’t kick.” He said, “I just saw you kick.” I went to coach them and I worked. I kicked a couple of 50-yard field goals to show the guys in scrimmage how to kick. And he picked me up in his golf cart and we rode around the field after practice and said, “I want you to kick for us.” I said, “I can’t kick.” And he said, “I just saw you kick two 50-yarders.” “Yeah, but I felt good today. I’m 50 years old. Maybe next week I won’t feel so good. I just know myself.” I played handball, so I was always in good shape. But anyway, I said, “No way. Thanks a lot for the thrill for a man at age 50.” In fact my son said, “Hang in there dad, and we’ll play together.” He was at UCLA and Green Bay drafted him later on, in ’78 or ’79, I think he was drafted.
But I kept all this time, in 1964 or 1965, I went to work with the Cowboys and their kicking I was an advisor with Tom Landry and their kicking game. And in between coaching kickers, I worked with the Steelers. Phil Austin was my teammate and he asked me to help him once. And I worked with the Giants, I worked with the Bears, I worked for the Rams. When the Rams, when George Allen moved to the Redskins, Tex Schramm of the Cowboys said, “You’re not going to help them and help us.” I said, “Well, give me more work.” I had sold out my sporting goods stores and so forth. And he said, “Well, name your own schedule.” So I would just tell them I would work all the preseason, I ‘d work the first two league games, I’d come home and I’d come back in the middle of the season, I’d come home and then I’d go back for the Super Bowl at the end of the season. And that’s the way I did until Tom Landry got fired. When he got fired Jimmy Johnson called me and said, “I don’t know what you do, but I can get someone cheaper.” So he got this guy named Hoffman to coach the kickers because Hoffman was helping him at Miami for nothing. And so that’s when I retired from coaching.
I still have camps. I still have camps where I teach kickers, and I’ve had quite a few go into pro football. Brad Daluiso and Phil Dawson went to Cleveland, were a couple of them. Recent kickers that went in. Josh Bidwell, the punter for Green Bay, and a kid named Breens. Alegre, Septien, these are all campers, kids that have been to our kicking camp. And I’m still doing it. But you gotta answer me one question. You’re in sports writing and so forth. George Halas wrote a letter to the Hall of Fame, recommending me. And Tom Landry wrote a letter to the NFL Hall of Fame. And the results are the man, Joe Horrigan, calls and says, “You have not received enough support from the sports writers.” This was about 5 or 6 years ago. “But you’re now in the veterans group.” Well, when are they going to realize the importance of the field goal? I’m the one that invented the back three and over two for soccer kickers when I was coaching for the Cowboys. Kids didn’t know how to line up, so I came up with this idea. It was simple and everybody did it. I was the first guy to have the center snap the ball with the laces front. I was the first guy to show the holder how to turn the ball, instead of putting it down and spinning it, but to turn it as he is putting it down to get the lace front, straight up and down. I was the first guy to bow the line and have the outside guys protect. A lot of guys are not bowing the line, even now they don’t know. But I coached for 24 years for the kicking game. Things that I have done that way, Landry said that I have done more for the kicking game in the past 50 years than anybody in the history of pro football. The sportswriters don’t recognize the value. In fact, they don’t know. See, if they knew what I did, it would be different. But they don’t know that I have a kicker kick the ball in 1.4 seconds in practice. They don’t understand that becomes 1.3 in a game. Some coaches say kick it in 1.3 because they’ll be rushing. Well, if you kick 1.3 in practice, then in the game it is 1.2, and so damn fast that the holder can’t turn the ball and the kicker shanks the ball and they blame the kicker. There is so much to kicking that you don’t know, that I initiated. I came up with the standard of 4.5 seconds and 45 yards for a punt to be an NFL punt. Anything and anything shorter would not qualify. You kick a ball 50 yards and 4.2 hang time on a line drive, they’re going to return it. But it all boils down to the speed of the outside people going down on punts, and your punter punting the ball high enough and deep enough where it is a fair catch. And if you average 45 yards, you’re going to lead the league.
Anyway, those are some of the things I have done. I am 83 and it just hurts me to think that I have been avoided. I was the first kicking specialist in pro football. I broke my arm with the Steelers in 1945 and they said, “You can still kick.” And they kept me for kicking, and look at the record books. I made four out of four in 1945. The team was a poor team and they didn’t score much, and they didn’t kick much. So I came home and quit football. Jock Sutherland came out as the new coach and wrote a letter and wanted me to come back. I said, “No,” and I opened a sporting goods store in Anaheim and moved to Long Beach. After I came home, the Hollywood Bears called and said, “Would you kick for us?” And I said, “Yeah, if I just kick. I am not gonna play.” They said, “OK.” Well I kicked 15 field goals and the Rams called me, the Redskins called me, and the L.A. Dons were just forming and they called me and I signed with the L.A. Dons. And I broke the records and everything, and kicked a 53-yarder, which was a league record. It still is because the league folded up. But anyway, I did real well and when the league folded, the Giants called me. So I go back to New York and my wife wouldn’t stay at New York, so in ’54 and then ’55 I said, “I want to fly back and forth.” And they said, “Well, come back here.” And I went back and kicked for them. Then in ’56 I held out and wouldn’t go back and forth. So finally they let me go back and forth after Gifford missed a field goal. He kicked the ball and hit the center’s ass with the ball. His own center. And the ball rolled back and Cleveland picked the ball for a touchdown. I think it was Bob Gain, took the ball. I think they tied Cleveland, and Gifford went to Wellington Mara and said, “Hell, if we tie Cleveland, Jimmy Brown and them, we can win the championship. Bring Ben back, I can’t kick, I can’t do everything.” So I flew back and forth every week and helped them out and we won the championship. And you know what? We had a big reunion 20 years later in ’76, then in ’96 we had another reunion. We all went back to New York and I sat way in the back and Gifford has the microphone, and Sam Huff gets up and tells how he knocked Jimmy Brown out-of-bounds and fore-armed him. Everybody’s bragging and talking, and I’m sitting way back there. Somebody said, “Why don’t you say something?” I said, “No, I’m nobody.” If it wasn’t for me, they wouldn’t be there. I knew that. The way I kicked several field goals that were instrumental in winning, and we won the championship by one game, the playoffs, then we went into the championship and beat the Bears on an ice-frozen field. Even there I kicked two field goals on an ice field that you couldn’t walk on. I had one tennis shoe and one kicking shoe without any cleats. I took the cleats off and I did just a little one-step kick, and boom, kicked a 34-17, two field goals. I think the 40-something was as good as any 60-yarder anywhere. But in the field and weather and everything like that, that just made us roll. And we beat them 47-7. But I got no credit because the newspaper people don’t give a damn about kickers. I kept saying things will change, I kept saying, “Everybody will have a kicker.” I went 10 years as the only guy kicking. Everybody was a player-kicker. But evidently I had the talent that they wanted, and if people wanted me, I’d go. I’d go for nothing. I never argued about salary. My first salary was $200 a game, with the Eagles. And you know what? I got married back in Philadelphia and I bought a ring and I bought a little car, and drove home, all on the $200 a game. My room was $5 a week. So I didn’t need any money. That takes care of half of your questions.