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To stroll through the locker room at the Tennessee Titans' practice facility is to see how teens would live if they received six-figure allowances. Clothing and shoulder pads have been shoved aside to make room for flat-screen TVs and video-game consoles, while some stalls are lit by the luminous glow of laptops that are left running all day long. You never know if you'll have to IM your agent or dump a stock between the game-plan meeting and your deep-tissue massage.
Against that boys-and-their-toys backdrop last Friday kicker Gary Anderson, with his receding hairline and burgeoning paunch, looked like a dad who doesn't know when to excuse himself from the rec room. At 45 Anderson is the oldest player in the NFL; his locker-room neighbors, wideouts Eddie Berlin and Drew Bennett, were four years old when he was a Steelers rookie in 1982. His locker contains no high-tech items, just a cellophane-wrapped welcome basket and a white-and-blue Titans helmet with a prehistoric-looking single-bar face mask. "They don't make these anymore," Anderson says in his r-bending South African accent. "If this one breaks, I don't know what I'll do. Might have to retire."
In fact, the NFL's alltime leading scorer has retired--twice. Last week, after kicker Joe Nedney was lost for 2004 with a hamstring injury, the Titans persuaded Anderson to come back to work after the season started for the second year in a row. He had been relaxing in the mountain-resort town of Canmore, Alberta, an hour west of Calgary, playing forward in a pickup soccer league, monitoring the construction of the dream home he's building with his wife, Carol, and two teenage sons and indulging his nonkicking passion, fly-fishing. He had spent much of the off-season angling in Alberta's Bow River, with breaks for fishing trips to New Zealand and Alaska, and he's in the process of starting up a fly-fishing tour company in Canmore. "I'm trying to get on with my retirement life in the mountains," Anderson says. "I'm thinking, Isn't there someone else you can call?"
The short answer is no. Anderson's endless career is proof that a) he loves to kick, b) he's blessed with a freakishly durable right leg, and c) even in a land obsessed with football--and, increasingly, soccer--there's a dire shortage of quality kickers. Quality kickers who have earned their bosses' undying trust are rarer still, which is why coaches hold on to them like talismans. "The psychological effect a kicker can have on a team, positively or negatively, is tremendous," Anderson says. "When you cross the 50-yard line, you don't want everyone in the stadium worried that you're going to miss a kick."
And so old kickers never die, they just decrease their range. (As he did last year, Anderson will let punter Craig Hentrich handle kickoff duty and most field goal attempts more than 45 yards.) The 32 NFL kickers who suited up last weekend--including graybeards like the Vikings' Morten Andersen (44) and the Saints' John Carney (40)--had an average age of 30.8, which is 3.7 years older than the league average. Earlier this month the Giants cut rookie Todd France, who had the audacity to miss the last of his five preseason field goal attempts, and persuaded 36year-old Steve Christie not to retire after 14 NFL seasons. "We didn't have any choice," is how Titans coach Jeff Fisher explains his decision to drag Anderson out of the Bow River. "There's nobody I know who I'm more confident in than Gary."
Fisher was so desperate last season that he lured Anderson with the promise of a part-time workload. He was allowed to fly home to his family in Minneapolis after Sunday games and not report back until Thursday practice. (Since he now lives in Canada, Anderson may move his brood to Nashville for the season.) Anderson, the first kicker to go an entire season (1998) without missing a point after or a field goal, paid his coach back by hitting 27 of 31 field goal attempts and knocking home the game-winner, a 46-yarder, with 29 seconds left, in a wild-card game against the Ravens.
Anderson thought that boot was the perfect kicker for a career that began in 1978, when his family moved to Pennsylvania from South Africa and he first laid eyes and toes on an American football. But he's been drawn back to the game again for yet another shot at a better finale, a trip to his first Super Bowl. And if the Titans fall short?
He's a kicker. There's always next year.