So it comes as a mild surprise to learn that Hanson's teammates warmed to him immediately. He is well liked and, before each of the last two seasons, drew some votes for team captain. Hanson is popular partly because of his foot—"You've got to respect that talent," says wide receiver C.J. Davis—and partly because he falls easily into the giving and taking of verbal abuse, the staple pastime of locker rooms everywhere. Teammates report that Hanson has been known to organize games of rock-paper-scissors and that he takes special relish in meting out the standard punishment to losers: ear-flicks. "You've got to watch him," warns oft-flicked safety Darryl Hamilton. "He's crafty."
"He's actually become a leader for us," says Washington State coach Mike Price. "He gets up at team meetings and gives his little talks. He'll say, 'I know I'm just a kicker. I'm not going to hurt anyone. But we need to get out there and get after it!' " Of course, the Cougars have yet to storm out of the dressing room in a rabid frenzy following one of Hanson's speeches, but at least no one laughs.
One look at Jason and his brother Travis—who is two years younger and kicks for the University of Washington—and an image of station wagons and suburban soccer leagues springs to mind. But the Hansons haven't always lived in the suburbs—it only seems that way. For eight years after they married, Doug and Cheryl Hanson lived in a two-bedroom house on Ash Street in north Spokane. But the boys kept kicking balls over a backyard fence onto the property of a crabby neighbor who wouldn't return them. Though not a typical reason cited for urban flight, the search for kicking room seemed, for the Hanson family, wholly appropriate. They moved to a more 'burblike part of Spokane.
In the backyard of their new split-level ranch on Hillcrest Drive, Jason and Travis staged kicking contests, booting footballs into the poplars separating their property and Colbert Road. By his early teens Jason was booming kicks over the trees. Theretofore a soccer and basketball star, Hanson decided—with the prompting of locals who had seen him kick—-to give the oblong brown ball a chance. As a sophomore he played jayvee football at Mead High and the following year he was a scholastic All-America punter. His senior year, having attracted the avid interest of college coaches, he self-destructed.
That year Hanson made a measly four field goals in 12 attempts. "I didn't know how to kick 50-yarders," says Hanson. "I was gritting my teeth, trying to kick the ball to the stars. The trick is to kick it the same way every time, no matter where you are on the field." The 21-year-old Hanson smiles ruefully at the ignorance of youth.
No scholarship offers were forthcoming, so Hanson walked on at Washington State. On the first day of practice, Dennis Erickson, then the Cougars' coach, noted approvingly that there was some left-footed walk-on kicker hitting consistently from the 35- and 40-yard range. Then Erickson learned that Hanson wasn't left-footed. "Scary," recalls Erickson, now coach at Miami. "He is the best kicker I've ever seen."
Upon seeing what Hanson could do with his right instep, Erickson awarded him the starting job. On the first field goal attempt of his college career, at Illinois in the season opener of his freshman year, Hanson converted a 41-yarder from a tough angle. As an encore, he later missed an extra point.
Hanson did not miss another extra point—he connected on his next 81 attempts—until the last regular-season game of his sophomore year. That one was blocked. That was the season he imposed himself on the national consciousness with four field goals, including 58-, 52- and 46-yarders, in a 46-41 win over Brigham Young. His performance in that game helped earn him Price's near-absolute trust. "When we get to within 70 yards, I'll look at him," says Price. If Hanson thinks the kick is too long or there is too much wind, he politely declines. Price appreciates that candor. "A lot of kids would stand there and go, 'Put me in coach, I can do it' " says Price. "Jason won't say yes unless he knows."
The leg that will someday depose Dempsey is not much to look at. "He's got nice legs," says Hanson's girlfriend, Kathleen McCloskey, a tad defensively. Perhaps. But they are not the rippling, vascular gams of an American Gladiator or a professional wrestler. They are the legs of, say, a good high school half-miler.
So how does Hanson boot footballs half a mile? Cougar backup kicker Aaron Price, the coach's son, thinks it has to do with where Hanson lines up. "He comes in from way out on the side," says Aaron. "That gives him a lot more torque."