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Now, with 47-man rosters, teams can afford the luxury of specialists, including players who do nothing but kick. And of these kickers, the only one who puts foot to ball except for field goals, PATs or kickoffs is Don Cockroft of Cleveland, who also punts for the Browns. But once they have kicked off, most specialists are considered liabilities, since few are capable of making an open-field tackle.
Marcol, the Green Bay kicker, played high school and college football after he came to the U.S. from Poland, but even he admits to his deficiencies. "I made a few tackles in college," he says. "If I have to do it, it's something I have to do. But I don't take tackling practice. I've never had to tackle anybody as a pro."
Mirro Roder, a Czech who specializes in long field goals for the Chicago Bears (Mac Percival, a short field-goal specialist, is also on the squad), recently broke a finger on his left hand trying to make a tackle. A cheerful rookie who is also a qualified bricklayer, Roder was asked to compare the two professions: "Laying brick, it relax," he said. "Lot of funny guys lay bricks. Much smile." This was after he had his finger broken.
With smaller squads, no club could afford a Marcol or a Roder or, for that matter, a Garo Yepremian. Yepremian is the balding Miami tie salesman and field-goal kicker who was born in Cyprus, played soccer in England and, at 5'8" and 175 pounds, looks like a refugee from the Pop Warner League when he trots onto the field. But he won the longest game ever played when he beat Kansas City with a 37-yard field goal after 22 minutes and 40 seconds of overtime in an AFC playoff in 1971. He is better known for his pass attempt after a bungled field goal in the Super Bowl last year. The feeble throw was intercepted and returned 49 yards for Washington's only score.
Not all kickers are so helpless. Roy Gerela, the Canadian-born kicker for the Steelers, was a fourth-round draft choice as a back from New Mexico State. Although he is small (5'10", 185 pounds), he has made tackles on kickoffs and on blocked field-goal attempts. "We have 11 football players out there when the kicking team is on the field," says Coach Chuck Noll.
If larger squads and the zone defense created more opportunities for the specialist kickers, a rule change last year also made their job easier. The idea behind moving the hash marks closer to the center of the field was to put more of a burden on the zone defenses. But it gave the kickers a cleaner target. There are no more sharp angles; even from the shorter ranges the kicks are almost straight on.
A number of suggestions have been put forward about how to deal with the field-goal problem. The Chicago Bears experimented with a direct solution in a preseason game against Green Bay. Abe Gibron, the hardbitten Bear coach, assigned a hatchet man to assault Marcol after he had kicked off. The New York Jets later went Gibron two better and assigned three men to knock Marcol down.
Marcol did not complain about the Bear incident, but when the press did Gibron growled, "What is Marcol, anyway, a Polish prince? When you're on the football field, you gotta expect to get hit."
But the offending team's own kicker is vulnerable, too, and foot-for-a-foot retaliation coud lead to an appalling casualty rate in small, foreign field-goal kickers. The homebreds, most of them, are big enough and have enough football savvy to take care of themselves. Tom Dempsey, the 6'1", 255-pound kicker for the Philadelphia Eagles, was born with half a right foot and a stub of a right hand, which did not prevent him from playing defensive end in college. He holds the league record of 63 yards for a field goal, set against Detroit when he was with the New Orleans Saints. That happened when a new coach sent Dempsey in to kick, thinking the Saints were on the Detroit 40-yard line.
Dempsey is not intimidated by any hatchet-man plan. "They blindside me," he said, "and I'll hit them with this stump. I can kill a man with this."