The phone rang early one morning at Sam Baker's house in Philadelphia. Baker, punter and field-goal kicker for the Eagles, listened for a moment, said, "Oh sure, Bud, anytime," and hung up. "It's a guy I know on SPORTS ILLUSTRATED," Baker told his wife. "He's trying to play some kind of trick on me." Mike Mercer, field-goal kicker for last season's AFL champion Kansas City Chiefs, wasn't quite so suspicious. When Associate Editor Edwin (Bud) Shrake approached him at the Super Bowl game in Los Angeles and asked if he would like to go to England, Mercer replied that he certainly would. "But then I forgot about it," Mercer said later. "I had an idea it would probably never happen."
Meanwhile, our man in London, John Lovesey, was asking the British soccer star, Bobby Charlton, and Rugby League standout Len Killeen if they would be interested in a kicking contest, using American professional footballs, against Baker and Mercer. Although they had never heard of the two Americans (and vice versa), Charlton and Killeen agreed at once. "I just hope I don't embarrass you," Charlton said to Lovesey.
The notion of a contest began—as many interesting notions do—with a discussion in a Chinese restaurant near our New York office. The topic was whether a soccer-style field-goal kicker has an advantage over one who kicks his field goals in the ordinary straightforward manner. The notion-originator, Associate Editor Les Woodcock, got in touch with Lovesey and Shrake, who in turn got in touch with the kickers, and the project was on. The result unfolds on page 38.
It took two more phone calls to convince Baker he wasn't being kidded, perhaps because Baker is a noted kidder himself. But when he decided Shrake was serious, Baker set about intensive preparations—which included packing three of his own footballs. Neither Baker nor Mercer had ever been to England before, and Baker, a home-movie fan, wanted to record every step of his journey. That was a lot of steps. Baker carried along eight rolls of color film and shot them all up the first morning in London. "The best tip I got," Baker said, "was from an old man during the changing at the Horse Guards. I started to stand with the rest of the tourists, but he told me if I did, all I would get was pictures of the wrong ends of the horses. He was right. I climbed up a wall and shot some beautiful pictures before a bobby made me get down." Baker, an outgoing type, filmed the twice-daily march of the umbrella-and-bowler-hat brigade, rode buses around London shooting movies from the windows and did not hesitate to criticize British haircuts, which he thought left too much hair on the head and not enough on the floors of barber shops.
But the British, polite as ever, let Baker get by without violent incident. The closest anybody came to trouble was when the driver of a rented car carrying Mercer, Baker, Lovesey and Shrake turned into a one-way street in Liverpool—going the wrong way. They drove onto the sidewalk, scattering pedestrians, continued for four blocks into the oncoming traffic and finally stopped at the railroad station. "It's a shortcut, y'see," explained the driver, who'd had a pint or two. Baker, anguished, was temporarily out of film. So then Sam went off" to Dublin to fulfill his ambition of singing in an Irish pub, and Mercer quietly opted for a trip to Paris. Shrake returned to New York with a story guaranteed to fire discussion among football fans anywhere—inside or outside Chinese restaurants.