I wanted to be young enough to play, and 24 was younger than 27. I still thought that being able to play as well as kick would give me a better chance to stick and more respect if I did. Most players have a narrow opinion of place-kickers because they see them standing around in clean uniforms. Paul Maguire used to say, "A football team is made up of 38 players and a kicker," and when I checked in at a hotel and the clerk asked, "Are you with the team?" Maguire would say, "No, he's the kicker."
I turned out to be the slowest Buffalo. I was beaten in a footrace by Jim Dun-away, a 289-pound tackle. Coach Joel Collier finally said he didn't want me to fool around anymore as a defensive back.
Our first exhibition game was against the Boston Patriots at Boston College. The Boston papers played it up. HOME TOWN BOY BOOTH LUSTEG RETURNS TO BC. On the bus ride to BC the driver got lost. Maguire said, "Ask Lust, he played at Boston College."
I slid down in my seat. They asked again. "Straight ahead," I yelled. I was looking frantically for signs. I saw one. "Right at the next light," I shouted. I had only been to BC once or twice. When we pulled up I saw two boys with athletic bags walking toward a building. "Over there," I said. When we got inside the building it was the hockey rink.
Then I spotted a familiar face—Butch Songin, my coach with the Sweepers. "Hi, Booth," he said. He had read the papers. I pulled him off to one side. "Where's the dressing room. Butch?" I hissed. He told me. (We were in the right building after all, but the dressing room was downstairs.)
The game with the Patriots was nationally televised. The first field goal I went in for was a 28-yarder. I was nervous enough as it was—the phony name, the big buildup, the close scare on the bus—but now my foot was twitching. Also, the feeling seemed to be going. I had an appalling vision of my foot going numb, of me keeling over and a stretcher having to be called.
A 28-yarder is a relatively easy kick. In a game today I could make 48 of 50. But back then it looked like two miles. I lined up wrong. My foot was twitching, and I was trying to be calm, but I was swirling inside. The ball began to curve as soon as I hit it, and I thought it was going to miss. It didn't. I had kicked my first big-league field goal—my first big-league anything.
I kicked four field goals that day—the 28-yarder, one from the 42 into the wind, one from the 47 and the last from the 18. We won 19-13, and the papers the next day said what a shame it was that the Boston College coaches had let cum laude graduate and star-placekicker Booth Lusteg slip through their fingers.
I doubt anyone had a wilder season than my first in Buffalo. I kicked eight field goals the first two exhibition games and got sued by the Sweepers for $50,000. The Sweepers claimed they still owned me. Buffalo had offered $500 for my contract, and the Sweepers had agreed, but nothing was written down. After those eight field goals the Sweepers looked on me with fresh respect. They demanded $20,000. Buffalo refused to pay. The Sweepers sued: me for $50,000, the Bills for $50,000. It was a new experience, being fought over.
I was keyed up the whole season. A lot of guys have to take pills to pep them up for a game. I needed pills to calm me down. After I missed a field goal that cost us a win over San Diego I went into a two-week sulk. We had an open date before the next game with the Jets at Shea Stadium. My father and a group of people in New Haven wanted to come down and have a Booth Lusteg Day. I talked my father out of it.