At the advanced age of 27, and with very little experience beyond what I had invented to make my record look good, I became a professional football player—specifically, a placekicker for the Buffalo Bills. Wilder things have happened. I have found that almost anyone who ever pulled up an athletic sock thinks he would have been a hell of a placekicker if given the opportunity.
Placekickers are somewhat like plumbers—vaguely suspect, as though they could very well be up to something uncomplicated. Once when I had missed an important 23-yard field goal for the Bills, half the Buffalo team came out early on Monday to take practice kicks (from the 23-yard line, of course) to show me how easy it was.
Attracted by the same illusion, dreamers in worn-out kicking shoes make the rounds of the tryout camps every year, some bald-headed and potbellied, others with middle-European names. There is nothing funny about them. Few of them have a prayer, but they all have hope.
The fact that four years later I was a Green Bay Packer is reason enough for the people I identify with to rejoice—those who are dogged by misfortune and know down deep they are untalented or too small or have skin problems. I have been those routes myself, and I offer them a rallying cry: "If Booth Lusteg can make it, anybody can." I would rally with them if I weren't too busy trying to catch on with another team. On Monday the Packers cut me.
In pursuit of my ambition I have done things that may not be rational. There is a simple explanation. I am basically a desperate person. Where my actions defy analysis, chalk them up to desperation.
The story of my life is that I couldn't stand the thought of being a junior high math teacher on Long Island, which I was. Originally I wanted to play baseball in Yankee Stadium. I realized this might be out of reach when I was cut by eight minor league teams in two years, none above Class D.
I decided to be an actor. I went to acting school, took a stage name, Michael Lustea (pronounced Lus-tay), and, to impress casting directors, I credited myself with a few roles I never played. After one or two parts this dream also faded.
And then one afternoon in a touch-football game with some fellow teachers I happened to get off a terrific punt. We all stood there staring at it, like it was Halley's Comet. Everybody said, "Hey, what have we here? A ringer?" And I thought to myself, well, why not? I had done some punting in high school. As a kicking specialist I could make it to Yankee Stadium—as a New York Giant. The evolution to placekicking came later. It wouldn't have mattered except it seemed a quicker route to the big leagues. Getting there was the thing.
It wasn't easy. I have pestered coaches unmercifully, begging for chances, humbling myself. I have sapped the patience of my wife, Carol, who holds for my kicks when I am practicing in the off season. (Carol has become a pretty good holder. Placekickers have a hard time finding holders.) I have taken liberties with the truth to make myself more marketable, and I have assumed other identities and another, younger, age in the belief that the traffic would never allow a man 27 years old to be a rookie.
The deception is now complete. When somebody asks the simplest questions—How old are you? What's your name?—I have to stop and think.