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Three years ago Washington State Kicker Jason Hanson found himself in an unaccustomed position—the fetal one—hugging a fumbled kickoff beneath a half ton or so of heaving meat. The Cougars led UCLA, at the time the nation's No. 1 team, 34-30 with six minutes to play. All things considered, it was a lousy time for Hanson's voice to crack.
Immediately above Hanson in the pileup was a Bruin who sought, by means verbal and physical, to separate Hanson, then a freshman, from his prize. "Give me that ball you little [homophobic epithet]!" said the student-athlete, "that's my——ball!"
Something—possibly nerves, possibly the hundreds-of-pounds-per-square-inch of pressure crushing his body—caused Hanson's voice, nasal to begin with, to ascend several octaves. "No it isn't," he squeaked. "It's mine! Mine!" The UCLA player scrambled away, alarmed. Hanson's theory: "I think he thought I was a child that had somehow sneaked into the game, and he was afraid he'd injured me."
Hanson clung to the ball, and the Cougars to victory. During that pileup he sustained a bruised forearm, which he brandished for a week like a purple badge of machismo. "He was so proud," recalls Jason's father, Doug. "He came home saying, 'I tell ya, Dad, those guys are animals.' "
There is no doubt, as the decidedly unbeastly Hanson files with his teammates onto the team bus or out of a hotel, that he is some species of kicker. (Even team managers, who must haul around those heavy water coolers, tend to have physiques more formidable than the 6-foot, 180-pound Hanson's.) Yet, of the 108 Cougar players, Hanson is the one whose photo graces the cover of the Washington State media guide—for the second year in a row. Now a senior, he is thought to be the best kicker-punter prospect since 1973, when the Oakland Raiders made a gangly Southern Mississippi senior named Ray Guy their first-round pick.
In his 3½ seasons with the Cougars, Hanson has 21 punts of 50 yards or longer. And punting is only his hobby. His kickoffs routinely sail to the back of the end zone, unreturnable. He has kicked 59 field goals, 35 of them from 40 yards or longer, including an NCAA-record 18 from beyond 50 yards, two more than the previous mark that Tony Franklin set for Texas A&M from 1975 to '78. In the fourth quarter of Washington State's 40-13 win over UNLV on Sept. 28, Hanson booted a 62-yarder, the longest field goal in an NCAA game since kicking tees were banned after the '88 season. And according to Hanson, the kick had "a couple of yards to spare." Before Washington State's game against Arizona State last season, he nailed a 72-yarder in warmups. The day Hanson enters the NFL, he becomes an immediate threat to Tom Dempsey's 1970 record for the longest field goal in league history, 63 yards.
Yet Hanson conceives of himself not so much as a kicking specialist but as a middle linebacker in miniature. "I think I'm as good an athlete as some of the guys that play skill positions," he says. "The difference is size."
And Hanson is working on that. Upon finishing with the arduous one-legged squats prescribed by strength coach Jay Omer, Hanson often does the same upper-body workout the linemen do—albeit with a skimpy fraction of the weight. Folks in Pullman still talk about the lick Hanson put on teammate Steve Broussard, now a running back with the Atlanta Falcons, during a practice in 1988. "Wrapped him up, shot his hips through like a free safety," marvels offensive coordinator Tim Lappano. Broussard did not live the hit down for the remainder of his college career. The following year, an open-field tackle that Hanson made on a kickoff against Brigham Young left a blue smear on his helmet. He begged the equipment managers not to scrub it off.
He is keen to play pro ball, but not for reasons you're used to hearing. "I'll be able to make some quality money to set aside for medical school," says Hanson, who is a premed student with a 3.76 grade point average, down but slightly from the 4.0 he had at Spokane's Mead High.
What we have here is a bookworm with strong Christian values and a Gumby build who didn't play a real position in high school, either. He's been a kicking specialist virtually all of his football life.