Few pro football careers were as serendipitous as legendary Kansas City Chiefs placekicker Jan Stenerud’s.
The Norwegian-born Stenerud, who had no inkling to become a pro football player, had always aspired to become a ski jumper.
Seemingly out of nowhere, he received a ski scholarship from Montana State University that shortly turned into a football scholarship.
That became Jan Stenerud’s ticket to greatness in the American Football League (AFL) and National Football League (NFL)—a pro football career that spanned 19 seasons from 1967 to 1985.
Stenerud, who played soccer as a youngster in Norway, revolutionized the art of placekicking with his soccer-style approach.
Today, Stenerud is one of just five placekickers enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, OH.
To make a long story short, Jan Stenerud’s memorable journey from the ski slopes to the gridiron is one for the record books.
Jan Stenerud was born in Fetsund, Norway on November 26, 1942.
According to The Norwegian American’s Michael Kleiner, Fetsund’s population was so small that Stenerud was one of 17 students in his class the first seven years he attended school.
Norwegians loved sports year-round. Stenerud played soccer with his brother in their yard in the summer. He was good enough to make the first team when he was just eight years old.
When the winter months came, Stenerud traded his soccer cleats for skis and skates. While Stenerud did speed skating and cross-country skiing, he had an insatiable passion for ski jumping.
In fact, the sport ran in his blood. His grandfather was an alternate on the Norwegian ski jumping team at the 1928 Winter Olympics in St. Moritz, Switzerland. On the other hand, Stenerud’s father could also hold his own in ski jumping. It was a family tradition that trickled down to young Jan Stenerud.
He told Kleiner in 2019 he jumped off a stool in his kitchen when he was seven or eight years old so he could get the hang of the sport. When he trained outside, he started on small hills.
He was discovered at Montana State University where he attended on a ski jumping scholarship from Norway to become one of the AFL NFL's greatest Hall of fame kickers. Jan Stenerud played in 2 Superbowls as well as other NFL teams. A GREAT kicker! Thanks Jan! By Sports beat Radio. pic.twitter.com/eLTpRg2n6v
— Sports Beat Radio (@johnspoulos) January 13, 2018
Stenerud eventually earned runner-up honors in his first ski jump meet in 1950. He was one of the top ten finishers in the Junior National Championships some twelve years later.
Around that time, Jan Stenerud received a letter that would change his life forever.
Coming to America
Montana State Bobcats ski coach Bob Beck reached out to Stenerud out of nowhere. The former was looking for a replacement for Stenerud’s compatriot, Tor Fageras, who attended Montana State on a ski scholarship, per The Norwegian American.
By Stenerud’s estimate, roughly 25 American colleges and universities had ski teams in the 1960s.
Stenerud, who knew nothing about American sports at the time, learned about the United States from an aunt and uncle who immigrated to Buffalo, NY in 1921. They visited Norway every five years and told stories about the USA’s architecture, among other things.
“I always had a fascination with the United States,” Stenerud told Kleiner. “I also read about America quite a bit. It was the most intriguing and most powerful nation in the world by then.”
Jan Stenerud’s American dream turned into a reality sooner than he expected. What began as a journey on the ski slopes of Montana turned into a Hall of Fame career in the American Football League and National Football League nobody ever saw coming.
College Days with the Montana State Bobcats
Shortly after receiving a recruitment letter from Montana State Bobcats ski coach Bob Beck, Jan Stenerud set foot on American soil to begin his college athletic career.
Stenerud promptly picked up where he had left off in his native Norway. His excellence on the ski slopes in Bozeman, MT helped him earn All-American honors in the mid-1960s.
All of a sudden, Stenerud’s fortunes would drastically change in the fall of 1964.
Stenerud, a junior exchange student, nonchalantly joined the Bobcats kicker Dale Jackson on the gridiron as he was practicing his kicks.
Apparently, Stenerud’s three-year hiatus from the soccer field made him miss the game so much that he wanted to get his kicks in again.
When they began practicing, Jackson and Stenerud kicked with their square toes. Not only that, but Stenerud also kicked the pigskin wearing regular tennis shoes.
After several attempts, Stenerud asked Jackson to kick the football on the side similar to how soccer players kicked corners or penalty kicks.
Jackson obliged and told Stenerud the AFL’s Buffalo Bills had a placekicker, Pete Gogolak, who performed the same kicking motion.
The two continued practicing over the next few days. Stenerud’s soccer-like kicking motion made the football travel extremely long distances.
Unknown to them, Bobcats head basketball coach Roger Craft was witnessing everything from his office window, per The Norwegian American.
Craft then reached out to Bobcats head football coach Bob Sweeney and told him about Stenerud’s exploits on the gridiron.
The Start of Something Good
Stenerud ran up and down the stadium steps for conditioning purposes as the 1964 football calendar wound down. His workout coincided with a Bobcats football practice on that day.
Sweeney summoned Stenerud over to the gridiron and told him he had heard about his kicking leg. The Norwegian skier nailed long-distance kicks to the astonishment of Sweeney and his Bobcats football team.
By the time the spring season arrived in 1965, Stenerud left the Bobcats ski team and joined the football team.
A stunned Stenerud had no idea he could get a scholarship and eventually make a living by kicking footballs.
Stenerud told Kleiner some 54 years later, “My question to my teammates was, ‘You mean you can actually make a living and get paid kicking a football?'” He continued, “They said, ‘Yes.’ This was all news to me.”
Although Stenerud had just 13 field-goal attempts in the 1965 NCAA season, he nailed an incredible 59-yard field goal in a 24-7 victory over the Bobcats’ in-state rivals, the Montana Grizzlies.
Stenerud’s field goal eclipsed Charlie Gogolak’s previous NCAA record of 54 yards. The feat was made even more remarkable with the goal posts’ placement at the goal line.
In two short years, Jan Stenerud would take the field for the American Football League’s (AFL) Kansas City Chiefs and evolve into one of the greatest placekickers in franchise history.
Pro Football Career
The Kansas City Chiefs chose Jan Stenerud as the 24th overall selection of the 1966 American Football League (AFL) Draft.
Stenerud discovered that he became a pro football player after his college football coach Bob Sweeney received a telegram from Chiefs general manager Jack Steadman that year.
The message was short and succinct.
Part of it reads (via The Norwegian American): “Congratulations, you have been drafted in the third round of the AFL Redshirt Draft.”
However, Jan Stenerud didn’t take the field for the Chiefs until 1967. At the urging of Sweeney, he remained at Montana State for his final year of eligibility in the 1966 NCAA season. That way, Sweeney believed the National Football League would get a shot at drafting his prized Norwegian kicker.
That’s precisely what happened. The NFL’s Atlanta Falcons drafted Stenerud, who earned Sporting News All-American honors in 1966. That particular draft featured players whom AFL squads already selected previously.
Jan Stenerud had a decision to make at the start of his professional gridiron journey. Should he choose the Falcons, a second-year NFL team that struggled mightily, or the Chiefs, an up-and-coming AFL team that lost to the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl I the previous year?
Stenerud told Kleiner he ultimately chose the Chiefs because of owner Lamar Hunt, general manager Bobby Beathard, and head coach Hank Stram.
— Old Time Football 🏈 (@Ol_TimeFootball) March 19, 2019
During Stenerud’s transition from college to professional football, he joined the National Guard in 1967. Although he didn’t become an American citizen until 1976, his visa allowed him to join the Armed Forces as his tenure in Montana State came to an end, per the Chiefs’ official website.
Stenerud underwent basic training in a National Guard unit in Kansas City, MO after he signed with the Chiefs. The rigorous training from January to July 1968 included running a six-minute mile lugging hefty equipment and a low crawl. Candidates who come up short in either of these events had to start from the beginning.
“Basic training in the U.S. Army, it was an eye-opener,” Stenerud told Chiefs.com in 2015. “I was shocked at how much they demanded and how tough it was.”
Although the Army never called Jan Stenerud to active duty, his six-year tenure in the National Guard was another glowing credential in his stacked resume.
A Different Kind of Kicker
It didn’t take long for Jan Stenerud to take the American Football League by storm. His 70 percent field goal average from 1967 to 1969 was 17 percentage points higher than the AFL and NFL averages.
Consequently, Stenerud earned Second-Team All-AFL honors in his rookie year in 1967. He became a First-Team All-AFL and AFL All-Star selection in his next two seasons from 1968 to 1969.
The Chiefs were a powerhouse that averaged eleven wins per year in their last three seasons in the AFL from 1967 to 1969. The pinnacle was winning Super Bowl IV against the Minnesota Vikings in January 1970.
— Morten Andersen (@GreatDane2544) February 3, 2019
Stenerud acknowledged the pioneer of soccer-style kicking in pro football was Pete Gogolak, a native Hungarian who suited up for the AFL’s Buffalo Bills and NFL’s New York Giants.
Gogolak was the same kicker Stenerud had found out about from the Bobcats kicker he practiced with during their college days at Montana State.
Stenerud believed he helped revolutionize that particular style of kicking because he did it in Super Bowl IV against the Minnesota Vikings.
“I contributed to the evolution because I was the first one to kick in the Super Bowl and display it on a national stage,” Stenerud told The Norwegian American via a phone interview in January 2019.
Helping the Chiefs Win the Super Bowl
Behind Jan Stenerud’s dynamite kicking leg—he had three field goals and two PATs—the Chiefs won their first Super Bowl Trophy after beating the Vikings, 23-7.
Stenerud’s 48-yarder in the first quarter against Minnesota remained a Super Bowl record for 24 years, per Kleiner.
Jan Stenerud was one of the main reasons why the Chiefs won the last Super Bowl prior to the historic AFL-NFL merger in 1970.
Forty-nine years later, Stenerud told The Norwegian American that he remembered the streets of Kansas City were empty during the Super Bowl. Fans were either watching the big game on television or listening to it on the radio.
Stenerud was also happy for his fellow veterans on the squad. They had received a second lease on life with the AFL after the NFL spurned them. They all felt vindicated after beating an NFL team in the last Super Bowl of the AFL era.
The Norwegian-born kicker’s popularity reached epic proportions almost as soon as he broke into the pro football ranks. He even had a radio show that aired in the Kansas City area from 1968 to 1976, per Kleiner.
A Bright Spot in Dark Times
The Chiefs were mainly a below-average football team in their first decade in the National Football League from 1970 to 1979. They averaged just six wins per year during that 10-year time frame.
They made the postseason just once during their decade of incompetence. The Kansas City Chiefs lost to the Miami Dolphins in the 1971 AFC Divisional Round, 27-24.
Despite the Chiefs’ struggles, Jan Stenerud became one of the few bright spots in the 1970s. His exemplary kicking skills earned him two Second-Team All-Pro, three First-Team All-Pro, and three Pro Bowl honors.
Jan Stenerud became an American citizen in 1976. He was 34 years old at the time and was in his tenth season in Kansas City.
Green Bay Packers
Born this Day: Jan Stenerud
NFL Hall of Fame
59-73 FG- 80.8%
292 Points (23rd in franchise history) pic.twitter.com/n5YNKSLI9T
— Herald of 90's Football (@sconiesportsguy) November 26, 2021
Stenerud signed with the Green Bay Packers prior to the 1980 NFL season. He spent the next four years kicking at a high level for head coach Bart Starr.
In fact, Stenerud became the first kicker in Packers franchise history to nail at least 90 percent of his field goal attempts. He made an astonishing 91.7 percent of his kicks in the 1981 NFL campaign.
Stenerud’s success as a placekicker set off a massive paradigm shift in the National Football League. Teams began scouring the globe for soccer-style kickers in subsequent years.
The hunt for more soccer-style placekickers intensified as Stenerud’s pro football career neared its end. He told Kleiner in 2019 that there were only four of those kickers when he broke into the professional ranks in 1967.
Toward the end of Stenerud’s legendary pro football career, he was the only one left from that elite group. That trend changed as the years went by.
Stenerud compared playing for the Packers to the atmosphere at Alabama Crimson Tide, Notre Dame Fighting Irish, and Nebraska Cornhuskers games. Football was a way of life for the locals every day of the year.
The Packers were a mediocre squad during the latter phase of Bart Starr’s head coaching tenure in Green Bay. They averaged barely seven wins per year from 1980 to 1983.
Stenerud and Co. made it to the Divisional Round during the strike-shortened 1982 NFL season. Unfortunately, they lost to Tom Landry’s Dallas Cowboys in the NFC Divisional Round, 37-26.
In 1984, Jan Stenerud signed with the Minnesota Vikings—the team his Chiefs beat in Super Bowl IV.
Stenerud enjoyed his time in Minnesota because of the many people of Norwegian and Scandinavian descent living in the state.
He remembered seeing a sign written in Norwegian that some of the fans had put up behind the goal posts. In English, the sign read, “Jan, he can do it,” per The Norwegian American.
Stenerud proved he still had a spring in his step during the latter years of his pro football career. His remarkable 87 percent field-goal accuracy in 1984 earned him his final First-Team All-Pro and Pro Bowl selections.
Although Stenerud’s pinpoint accuracy made headlines, the Vikings were a below-average team during his two-year tenure in Minnesota. They averaged just five wins per year from 1984 to 1985 and missed the postseason each time.
Jan Stenerud retired following the 1985 NFL season. He finished his remarkable 19-year pro football career making 373 of 558 field-goal attempts for a 66.8 percent accuracy rate.
He also made 580 of 601 of his extra-point attempts for an incredible 96.8 conversion percentage.
Jan Stenerud and his wife Lindy currently reside in the Kansas City, MO area. They have three children: Shane, Klancy, and Betsy.
After retiring from the NFL in 1985, Stenerud resided in Bozeman, MT from 1986 to 1988.
Stenerud spent twenty-two years as a business manager for a Kansas City-based architectural firm that constructed and rebuilt various sports stadiums and arenas, per The Norwegian American.
The night before the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s selection committee made their choices for the Class of 1991, Stenerud ran into St. Louis Cardinals announcer Joe Buck inside an elevator. Buck told him that he had his vote.
“I thought, ‘Wow, at least I got one,'” Stenerud told The Norwegian American in 2019.
— Pro Football Hall of Fame (@ProFootballHOF) November 26, 2020
The Pro Football Hall of Fame inducted Jan Stenerud in the summer of 1991. His head coach with the Kansas City Chiefs from 1967 to 1974, Hank Stram, introduced him.
Part of his induction speech reads:
“When I grew up in Norway, my dream was to become an outstanding ski jumper, but I never dreamed that my greatest jump of all would be to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.”
Jan Stenerud is one of just five placekickers currently enshrined in Canton, OH. The other four are Ray Guy, George Blanda, Lou Groza, and Morten Andersen.
The Kansas City Chiefs retired Stenerud’s No. 3 jersey in 1992. He’s also a member of the Kansas City Chiefs Hall of Fame and Green Bay Packers Hall of Fame.
Stenerud is also part of the NFL 75th Anniversary All-Time Team and NFL 100th Anniversary All-Time Team.
Keeping Up with Old Friends
Stenerud told MontanaSports.com in February 2020 that he has kept in touch with his former college teammate Gary Richards the most since he retired from the gridiron.
Richards played mostly tight end and quarterback on occasion for the Bobcats. He was the starting quarterback when Stenerud nailed the improbable 59-yard field goal against the Montana Grizzlies in the 1965 NCAA season.
Stenerud has also been in touch with his other Bobcats teammates Dennis Erickson, Marv Tiller, Joe Tiller, Terry Albrecht, Don Hass, Jerry Jamison, Jim Tuss, and Dan Duff whenever they watch Montana State football games.
Jan Stenerud became a member of the Big Sky Hall of Fame on July 25, 2022.
That month, Stenerud told 406MTSports.com’s Victor Flores (via the Bozeman Daily Chronicle) that he mainly spends time with his wife and friends in Kansas City. He has also been playing golf just months shy of his 80th birthday.
Jan Stenerud has been playing an active role for the Chiefs to this day. He helps facilitate local fundraisers and charity events as a member of the Kansas City Chiefs Ambassadors.
Stenerud also attends public speaking obligations nationwide occasionally.
“It sounds boring, but I’m not bored at all,” Stenerud told Flores. “I feel like I’m busy enough.”