SI Vault
Robert F. Jones
September 22, 1969
A LOT OF KICKS COMING Good kickers like the Chiefs' Jan Stenerud [below] and those on the following pages are priceless. Last year a record 421 field goals-were kicked and nearly a fourth of the regular-season games-were won on kicks—and the Super Bowl.
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
September 22, 1969

The Face Of An Educated Toe

A LOT OF KICKS COMING Good kickers like the Chiefs' Jan Stenerud [below] and those on the following pages are priceless. Last year a record 421 field goals-were kicked and nearly a fourth of the regular-season games-were won on kicks—and the Super Bowl.

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3

How, then, does a kicker "aim"? Turner can talk for hours about such factors as windage, trajectory, initial velocity, angle, etc. with all the jargon and enthusiasm of a rifle nut, but what it boils down to is this: "You line up your foot and your holder along a line that comes just inside the windward upright, you hit it a good shot to get it over the upraised hands of the incoming linemen, and then it either goes through or it doesn't." Turner is not known as an out-standing long-ball kicker. His longest field goal (50 yards) came in his rookie year against Houston, but he was third in the league behind Jan Stenerud and Dennis Partee at 40 to 49 yards. Frankly, he doesn't care that much about distance. His toughest three points was a nine-yarder at an acute angle against the Colts in the Super Bowl. "You've got to get the ball up," he says. "Altitude is the thing. Bubba Smith is 6'7", and when he gets a yard's worth of penetration on the rush, you've got to get that ball up there. It's like kicking over a 10-foot wall, only this wall is mean and strong and covered with hands." Turner likens his kick to a chip shot in golf. "When it gets up high like that, you've got to play the winds. I try to bank 'em into the wind and let it roll the ball over the goalpost. What people don't realize, a following wind is the most difficult. It can drift a ball all over the place."

The ball itself is also a factor. Turner, like most AFL kickers, prefers the NFL football—"The Duke." As he explains it: "The Duke is a little bit fatter, or rounder, than our ball, which is built more for the passing game. There's more meat on their ball to get your toe into." What's more, a ball gets "meatier" with use, probably because with the abuse it gets, its waistline tends to sag a bit. "Sometimes a kicker will try to sneak in last week's ball," says one AFL kicker, "particularly on rainy days." Last season, in fact, just such a ball came flying onto the field from the Oakland Raiders' sideline during a field-goal try, but the officials detected it. The Raiders innocently explained that they were only trying to save the cost of a new ball, which very possibly would disappear into the stands. But the officials weren't buying it. Would Turner ever try such an underhanded tactic? "Gosh, no," he says.

Last season, at least, Turner needed nothing underhanded to help him along. Kicking at a smoky 73.9%, he set a season record of 34 field goals which, when combined with 43 extra points, gave him a total of 145 points—an alltime pro record for a pure kicker. During the exhibition season Turner made 76% of his field-goal attempts, kicking 13 of 17.

"It was the Jets' year in '68," Turner maintains, "and it will be again this year. Our offensive line is as good or better than ever. They protect Joe like a mother hen, and they take care of me pretty well, too. A lot of people criticize us for going after the field goal when we bog down inside the 35. But we can afford to do that because we have the luxury of a good defense. Joe knows it'll turn the ball back to him pretty quick and give us another shot for the seven. Of course, that makes me look a lot better, getting all those attempts, but one good season for a kicker doesn't mean he's the greatest by any means. But I think my approach is much sounder now. Babe taught me that, along with a lot of other things. He's a real confidence builder. The first day in camp last year, with Babe holding for the first time, I didn't miss a kick. He came up to me afterward and said: 'You know, you're going to kick more field goals than anyone ever.' And he was right."

Turner himself is no slouch at confidence building. His burly presence on the bench seems to transmit that same sense of certainty in scoring that Groza's did for so many years in Cleveland. No one will ever be able to compute just how much of a team's success or "momentum" or call it what you will derives from the vibrations of a confident man on the right side. A good kicker is one of those mystical vibrators. Just knowing that a Groza or a Bruce Gossett, a Stenerud or a Turner is on the sidelines can guy up an offense to drive that extra four yards into field-goal range—and sometimes the four yards turn into 40, and a touchdown. As a reverse case in point, last year's Green Bay Packers—plagued by the lack of a sound kicker until midseason when AFL veteran Mike Mercer showed up—lost much of their momentum, not to mention games. Thus Jim Turner's value to the Jets far transcends his statistical worth (which of course is considerable) as a mere kicker, however pure.

It helps, too, that Turner is quite a guy—wry, warm, witty, low-key and loose. Ambling around the Hofstra campus with Turner, one gets a sense of what he means to the Jets. Hofstra used to be a drag on the eyeballs: beat-up Quonset huts, cracked cement with crab-grass bursting through as if the earth were trying to grow a green Afro. Now the campus stands tall with weird, high-rise dorms, all glass and concrete, grown like the Jets themselves from seedy disrepute to a thing of power, if not glamour. As we slouch along, talking, a figure comes pelting toward us from the cafeteria—a lean, blond kid who seems to be faking out ghosts as he runs back to Tower C, where the Jets live while in camp. The kid flashes Turner a cool, sideways wave of the hand as he passes. Turner flashes him back. "That kid will be good," he says. "Mike Battle out of USC. Punt-return kind of kid, very quick and tough. We all like him."

In the dining hall, where Turner packs away two plates of cold cuts, a mound of coleslaw no larger than an indoor soft-ball and a small pitcher of Kool-Aid, we talk about his nonfootball interests. Turner hails from Crockett, Calif., a small town situated on the tortuous headwaters of San Francisco Bay, near the big and ugly U.S. Navy shipyard at Mare Island. " Crockett isn't one of your precious little pastel California Dreamin' kind of towns," says Tank. "It's the real world, with about 4,000 real people in it. It's a hell of a little town, and everything there is great. You can let your little girl walk across town to go to kindergarten. When you can do that, you know you're in a pretty good American town." A 1959 graduate of John Swett High School (enrollment 550), Turner didn't like Crockett all that much as a kid. "Too small and constricting," he says. Now, of course, he's something of a celebrity. His family home is just a block from the John Swett football field, and he reports with a wistful smile, "They put up the goalposts for me when I'm in town, so that I can practice kicking. They even gave me a key to the locker room and unlimited use of the whirlpool bath."

At Swett, Turner excelled not only in football, where he captained and quarterbacked the Indians to an undefeated season in his senior year, but in swimming as well. "It wasn't swimming like you have today," he says, "with that age-group stuff that encourages little girls to swim faster than I ever did as a strong young man. I swam the freestyle sprints and the individual medley, turned the 100 free in about 55 flat. Back then, swimming was part of something bigger called water sports, which included skin diving and water polo and water skiing and surfing. I mean, if you loved the water, you did everything in it." Then as now, Turner liked to dive for abalone, working the chilly currents that swirl around the rocks of Point Arena and Point Reyes, north of the Golden Gate. He rarely plied his tire iron any deeper than 30 feet, but in those waters, for a free diver, that is deep and dark enough. Proximity to the water also turned Turner on to striper fishing. "There's a little bass club in Crockett," he says, "and this summer we were taking a lot of fish—10-and 12-pounders, small but a lot of fun. I wish somebody would introduce bluefish to the West Coast. I've plugged for blues out near Montauk Point in New York and gotten into schools that just wouldn't quit." Jim's wife, Mary Kay, is also an ardent angler and killed a 10�-pound steelhead during a recent visit to Depoe Bay, Ore., where Turner owns two big oceanside lots. Mary Kay, who comes from El Sobrante, a town near Crockett, tied the marital blood knot with Turner four years ago. They have a 2-year-old daughter named Lisa Anne, and an infant daughter Christine. Turner also owns property at Mt. Shasta in Northern California, where he plans to do a lot of skiing after he retires—maybe five years from now. "I won't go 15 years like Tittle," he says. "You just can't afford to move a family around that much."

There is this myth about football players that anyone who messes around with a pigskin doesn't deserve a sheepskin. At Utah State, where Turner played quarterback on the same team with such other future pros as Merlin Olsen, Bill Munson and Lionel Aldridge, he earned a degree in history and political science, and he still reads deeply in both fields. Walking back to Turner's room after lunch, we talked about the Civil War, and our discussion of Carl Sandburg's Lincoln and Bruce Catton's books led, logically or illogically, to troubles in the current American domestic scene. "I didn't vote last year," said Turner. "Protest, I guess, but there weren't any candidates. Wallace and weaklings, and I don't like either choice. When you look around, as a football player, it makes you glad that you're in the game. Here it's all pretty clear—win or lose, heroes or villains." He ran his hand over his shingle of jet-black hair. "If I don't get a haircut soon I'll have to get a dog license. I guess that tells you what I feel about longhairs."

What about that most famous of longhairs, Joe Willie Whatsisname? "He's all right," Turner said. "When he had the trouble with Rozelle, I sent him a telegram from Crockett, telling him I was 100% behind him. He pulls this team together and he holds it there. This team is together, there's a sense of community here, and a lot of it derives from Joe."

Continue Story
1 2 3