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Pete Gogolak started the argument. Ever since the former Hungarian soccer player ran sideways at an American professional football and kicked it between the goalposts three years ago in Buffalo, there has been debate over which is better—the ritualistic, squared-up, one-step field-goal method that has dominated the game since the end of the dropkick era or the diagonal approach of kickers who have been trained in soccer.
Soccer-style enthusiasts claim their method is more accurate, especially from shorter distances. There is enough merit in their claim to have persuaded two more pro clubs to employ soccer-style kickers last season, and nearly every team in both leagues has had a soccer kicker in for a tryout.
The classicists insist their method is just as accurate, gets the ball away faster and is more powerful. It might seem the argument could be settled by comparing the statistics of the three soccer-style kickers—Pete Gogolak, now of New York, brother Charlie Gogolak of Washington and Garo Yepremian of Detroit with the results obtained by conventional kickers. But that is not the case, as the kickers themselves, a touchy group, are quick to declare.
Many factors have a bearing on a kicker's success, among them the condition of the field, the quality of his protection against the rush he is facing, the weather and the distance he is attempting. Sam Baker of the Philadelphia Eagles tried a 58-yard field goal against San Francisco in the rain last season. "It was like kicking a wet duck." Baker says. The miss from 58 yards shows up in Baker's statistics merely as a number, as does the kick he made from 51 yards.
Strangely enough, hardly any coach in either pro league is really satisfied with his field-goal kicker. Last season Danny Villanueva of Dallas kicked 56 extra points without a miss, kicked 17 of 31 field goals and finished second in the NFL in scoring with 107 points. To show what they thought of Villanueva's performance, the Cowboys have launched what they call a Kicking Karavan to cover 29 cities, offering open trials for any waiter, enchilada cook or truck driver who considers himself a pro kicker.
Coaches believe no field-goal kicker should miss from inside the 30-yard line, regardless of his style. The good kickers rarely do miss from that range. The fad that they ever do is as much the fault of the coaches as of the kickers, according to Baker.
"Most coaches are ignorant." Baker says. "They don't understand what is involved in kicking. The truth is the center makes the holder and the holder makes the kicker. Kicking is a matter of timing. The more a coach lets his center, his holder and his kicker work together in practice, the better the kicking will be. A kicker can stand out there by himself in practice and kick the ball off a tee all day long and it doesn't help him.
"At Philadelphia we have a great center in Jim Ringo. He gets the ball back fast and right to the spot every time. We have a great holder in Joe Scarpati. He catches the ball out in front of him, where I can see it, and he gets it down fast onto the spot without spinning the laces in a way that would distract my vision. Our coach [ Joe Kuharich] let us have all the practice time together that we wanted. That's why we had a good kicking year."
With all those factors to mull over, it would be impossible to judge soccer-style kickers' results against those of conventional kickers. The only way to make any sort of judgment would be to match a good soccer kicker against a good conventional kicker under precisely the same conditions—on the same held, on the same day, with the same center and holder.
That is what SPORTS ILLUSTRATED did recently at St. Helens, north of Liverpool, England, putting two conventional U.S. kickers against one of the best English soccer kickers and throwing in a top Rugby kicker to cover the field.