In the National Football League, placekickers do not get much, if any love, and certainly not nearly as much as quarterbacks or wide receivers.
But sometimes they can make the difference between winning and losing, not just during individual games, but also over the course of a season.
Jason Hanson may not have been a big headline-maker in the minds of many NFL fans. But for the Detroit Lions and their supporters, he was one of the most beloved players in franchise history.
Pacific Northwest Kid
Jason Douglas Hanson was born in Spokane, Wash. on June 17, 1970. As a little kid, his favorite sport was soccer, and he played for multiple club teams in the area over the next several years.
But as he got older, he realized that there was only so much he could accomplish as a soccer player in the United States, where most people have no more than a passing interest in the sport.
By the time he attended Mead High School, football became his main sport. There, he not only played football, but also soccer and basketball, lettering in all three sports.
When he played on the junior varsity squad as a sophomore, he played quarterback and wide receiver while also serving as a kicker. He soon found that he wasn’t cut out to be a signal-caller or a receiver.
But his experience kicking a soccer ball allowed him to pick up kicking a football without too much trouble.
By his senior year, he was both a kicker and punter on the gridiron, and he had separated himself from his peers.
That year, he earned All-Greater Spokane League honors for both positions, while also getting a first-team All-State nod from the Washington Sportswriters Association.
There is that everlasting stereotype of the “dumb jock” who excels at sports but does poorly in the classroom, either because of a lack of effort or a lack of ability.
However, Hanson was the opposite of that tired stereotype. In fact, he boasted a perfect 4.0 grade point average while at Mead High.
For doing well in both arenas, he was named as one of the top scholar-athletes in the Greater Spokane League.
Upon receiving the award he thanked both his coaches and his parents for helping him find success in both areas, and ironically, he felt that being an athlete and playing three sports helped instead of hindered his studies.
“In a way, it helped because it made me stay organized,” Hanson said. “I had to organize my time better and that helped my school work.”
Making His Name
Hanson decided to attend Washington State University, where he was a walk-on as a freshman. He got onto the football team and was named the starting kicker.
Hanson was about to establish himself as a talented and unique kicker.
Although he lacked the physical stature of his teammates (he was 6-feet tall and just 175 pounds), he quickly earned the respect of not only his teammates but also fans and observers.
As a freshman, Hanson was impressive, converting 15-of-21 field goals and all but one of his 46 extra point attempts (his only such miss came on his very first attempt) on the season. He also proved to be clutch, making a 41-yard field goal to help the Cougars defeat Illinois in their season opener.
But he was perhaps even better as a punter. That year, few WSU opponents were able to field Hanson’s punts for any kind of substantial return, which made them particularly strong when it came to special teams.
By the end of that freshman season of 1988, Hanson had earned a scholarship to pay for his college tuition. As was the case in high school, he continued to be devoted to academics as well, posting a 3.75 grade point average as a freshman while majoring in pre-med.
That year, The Sporting News named Hanson to the Freshman All-America team, quite an honor for someone who walked onto a Pac-10 (now the Pac-12) football team.
For Hanson’s sophomore season, head coach Dennis Erickson was replaced by Mike Price, and looking to make his special teams, but Hanson in particular, better, he brought on former University of Michigan kicker Mike Melnyk.
Although the NCAA outlawed using a kicking tee for that 1989 season, except on kickoffs, it did not affect Hanson.
Actually, as Price insisted when he hired Melnyk, Hanson only got better. As a sophomore, he went 21-of-27 on field goals and 36-of-37 on extra points. Although his accuracy on field goals dropped in his junior and senior seasons, his ability to convert point after touchdown attempts didn’t, as he was perfect in that department during the 1990 season.
Where Hanson really made his mark was on long field goal attempts. In his four years at WSU, he made 57.1 percent of his kicks from at least 50 yards out, which was a Pac-12 record that would remain for decades to come.
He also set other records with 20 field goals from at least 50 yards out and 39 from at least 40 yards out. In addition, he set WSU records with 328 points scored, the longest field goal converted at 62 yards, 20 games with at least two successful field goals, 63 total field goals made and 139 extra point kicks made.
In 1990 and 1991, Hanson also had the good fortune of playing with quarterback Drew Bledsoe, who would go on to become a star in the NFL and lead the New England Patriots to a Super Bowl appearance in the mid-1990s.
Once he was ready to declare for the NFL draft, Hanson was not just one of a handful of future NFL players who graduated from college with the rest of his graduating class, but he also did so with an impressive 3.78 GPA.
It earned him the National Football Foundation Scholar-Athlete Award for 1991.
Kickers don’t often go that high in the draft, but Hanson was selected by the Detroit Lions with the 56th overall pick in the second round of the 1992 NFL Draft.
At the time, the Lions were coming off a trip to the NFC Championship Game where they lost to the Washington Redskins, and it was thought that their future was bright.
They boasted a young running back named Barry Sanders who was already perhaps the best in the league, as well as Herman Moore, an ascendant young wide receiver.
It was thought that Hanson would perhaps help the Lions get over the hump. In 1991, the Lions’ starting kicker, Eddie Murray, had converted just 67.9 percent of his field-goal attempts, and a kicker who is that mediocre is a cause for concern in close games.
Hanson immediately became the Lions’ new placekicker, and he made 21-of-26 of his field-goal attempts as a rookie in 1992 for a strong 80.8 percent accuracy, while also making all 30 of his extra-point attempts.
He was named to the All-Rookie Team, and he also won the Pro Football Weekly/Pro Football Writers NFL Rookie of the Year award, making him the only placekicker to earn that honor.
Unfortunately, starting quarterback Rodney Peete missed six games that year and Moore missed four games, and Detroit finished with a dismal 5-11 record.
The Lions returned to success in 1993, as Hanson continued his marksmanship, making 79.1 percent of his field-goal attempts.
With him doing his part to help them win close games, they finished 10-6 and returned to the playoffs, where they faced an up-and-coming Green Bay Packers squad.
In the final game of the regular season, Detroit had beaten Brett Favre and company at home, 30-20, thanks in part to Hanson’s three field goals, and it felt pretty confident about its chances in the wild card round.
With Hanson perfect on all his field goal and extra-point attempts, the Lions went up 17-7, and although Green Bay was rallying, they still led 24-21 with just over two minutes left in the fourth quarter.
But after the Packers started to move the chains downfield, Favre found receiver Sterling Sharpe for a 75-yard touchdown reception that put them up 28-24, giving the Lions are heartbreaking playoff defeat in front of their own fans.
In 1994, Hanson saw his field-goal accuracy drop to 66.7 percent, which would end up being a career-low for him. The main culprit was Week 2 and Week 3, where he made just 3-of-8 field goals in a loss to the Minnesota Vikings and a victory against the Dallas Cowboys.
But against the Cowboys, he atoned for missing three field goals on the day by converting the game-winning attempt in overtime to give the Lions a big upset win.
🐐 alert❗️#Lions and #Cowboys legends @barrysanders, @EmmittSmith22, @HMAN84, @TroyAikman, @LomasBrown75, @michaelirvin88 and Jason Hanson all on the same field!
Watch our 1994 OT win against Dallas tonight at 8pm on @FOXSportsDet pic.twitter.com/bnZq15iqTL
— Detroit Lions (@Lions) August 30, 2020
With a 9-7 record, Detroit was in the playoffs again, where it would have a chance at redemption in the wild card round versus the Packers.
Playing at Lambeau Field this time, the Lions fell behind 10-0 in the second quarter, but they fought back and stayed in the contest, and with a few minutes left, they had the ball and a chance to tie or take the lead.
Quarterback Dave Krieg found Moore open in the end zone, but as he caught the ball, he stepped out of bounds, preventing a touchdown from being scored.
On the day, the Lions’ offense was terrible, as Sanders ran for -1 yards, while Hanson also played his part by missing a field goal.
This loss may have been even crueler than the previous year’s loss, as the Lions held their destiny in their own hands.
Detroit started the 1995 season 3-6, but by winning its last seven games, it ended up with a 10-6 record. Hanson made 82.4 percent of his field goals and all of his extra-point attempts.
Although the Lions made the playoffs again, this time they weren’t even competitive, as they got shot down 58-37 by the Philadelphia Eagles.
Hanson had a down year with his kicking accuracy in 1996 as Detroit missed the playoffs with a 5-11 record, but it clawed back into the postseason the following year by winning nine games. It would be Hanson’s best year yet, as he made 89.7 percent of his field goals and was named to the Pro Bowl for the first time.
Just like in college, he was especially reliable on kicks from long distances. He had the NFL’s longest successful field goal that year, which was from 55 yards, and he converted 8-of-10 kick attempts from at least 40 yards out.
Back in those days, NFL kickers were not adept at all at converting field goals from beyond about 50 yards, unlike in today’s game. But Hanson was the exception in the 1990s.
But he couldn’t save the Lions in the wild card round, as they were no match for the young and tough Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who did them in, 20-10.
Detroit appeared in the postseason once again in 1999, as Hanson had another Pro Bowl season. A memorable and important contest came in Week 6 against the high-powered Minnesota Vikings.
After going ahead 19-0 by halftime, the Lions stumbled and lost their lead in the fourth quarter. But with seven seconds left in the contest, Hanson made a 48-yard kick to give his team a 25-23 win over Randy Moss and crew.
It was one of a whopping six field goals the Spokane native made that day out of seven attempts, meaning that he had scored the vast majority of Detroit’s points.
There, it would lose to the Washington Redskins, 27-13.
Dark Days In Detroit
With Sanders retired, the Lions would go into a deep drought during the decade of the 2000s. They would consistently have one of the NFL’s worst offenses and defenses, as they weren’t able to find a reliable QB.
But the one constant in that era was Hanson and his reliable foot.
Although he had some ups and downs, as everyone does, he usually converted over 80 percent of his field-goal attempts over the course of each season, as well as almost all of his extra-point kicks.
In all, he would give the Lions 17 game-winning field goals, six of them coming after the final two-minute warning.
It was too bad they were never good enough to put him in position to win more than a game or two a season, as he was as close to automatic as it got in the NFL.
In Week 9 in 2002, during a particularly ugly contest against the Cowboys, Hanson hit from 43 yards out with less than a minute remaining to give Detroit a 9-7 win. He accounted for all of their points that day.
There would be quite a few games over the years where it would seem like Hanson accounted for most or even all of the Lions’ scoring, which was both a reflection of the team’s ineptitude on offense and his elite skill when it came to guiding the football through the uprights.
There was the 2003 contest against the Chicago Bears in which he made the game-winner from 48 yards, one of four field goals he converted on the day. Detroit was unable to get any scoring from anyone other than Hanson.
A year earlier, Hanson would win another tight game against Chicago with a 24-yard field goal near the end of regulation to force overtime and a 48-yarder to conclude matters in overtime and give Detroit a 23-20 victory.
Off the field, he became a popular figure in the Detroit area. He won the Detroit Lions/Detroit Sports Broadcasters Association/Pro Football Writers Association’s Media-Friendly “Good Guy” Award in 2002, which is an award given to players who are particularly good interview subjects and cooperative with the media.
His longevity was also remarkable. As the 2000s progressed, he got deep into his 30s, but his game remained potent, and he did not lose one bit of accuracy with age.
Late in the 2008 season, Hanson surpassed Morton Anderson to become the NFL’s all-time leader in made field goals from at least 50 yards. That year, he made a career-high 95.5 percent of his field goals, and he was even perfect on all 14 of his attempts from at least 40 yards.
Ironically, the Lions went 0-16 that year, becoming the first NFL team to lose every single game in a regular season.
But help was on its way, as Detroit’s embarrassing year earned it the first overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft, which it used to select Matthew Stafford.
Stafford would become the franchise signal-caller it desperately wanted and needed, and by 2011 the team would be in the black again.
That year, the Lions finished 10-6, sending them to the postseason for the first time since 1999, and making it the first time since 1995 they had gotten double-digit victories in a season.
It was a new era in Detroit, as Stafford paired with All-Pro wideout Calvin Johnson to form a dangerous duo.
But when the team needed a key field goal, it could still rely on Hanson, who was now 41 years of age.
In Week 3 against the Vikings, he would make yet another game-winning field goal, this time from 32 yards, to give the Lions a 26-23 win in overtime. It was one of four field goals he was successful on in that contest, two of which helped force overtime in the first place.
But the Lions couldn’t give Hanson a chance to be heroic in the playoffs, as they got routed by the New Orleans Saints in the wild card round, 45-28.
After a 2012 season in which Detroit won just four games, Hanson decided it was time to call it quits, partly because the team wouldn’t offer him a new contract worth more than the minimum salary available of $1 million.
He retired as one of a handful of pro athletes in the four major American pro sports who not only played his entire career with the same team but did so for 21 seasons, an NFL record.
He was the first player in league history to reach the 2,000 point mark with a single franchise, and he is the all-time leader in game-winning field goals in overtime with nine (he shares the record with three other men), the most consecutive made field goals from at least 40 yards with 24 and the most overall field goals from at least 40 yards with 189.
Although Hanson was nominated for the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2020 along with Johnson, he did not make the cut.
Perhaps he would already be in the Hall if he had the fortune of playing for a prominent team, rather than one such as the Lions that was usually bad or mediocre.
The Lions did, however, induct him into their “Pride of the Lions” ring of honor shortly after his retirement. He also got the nod to be placed in the College Football Hall of Fame.
2020 @cfbhall Class member Jason Hanson from @WSUCougarFB addressed the media ahead of tonight's official induction!
Watch both the 2020 & 2021 College Football Hall of Fame Classes be honored during the 63rd #NFFDinner tonight at 7 pm PT live on ESPN3 pic.twitter.com/SXQPsdnXeb
— Football Foundation (@NFFNetwork) December 7, 2021
Life Off The Field
Away from football, Hanson is a regular guy living a family-oriented lifestyle, contrary to the stereotype of pro football players.
He is extremely religious, as he is active in the Highland Park Baptist Church near Detroit, and he was blessed enough to marry his wife Kathleen in 1992. Together, they have raised three children: Ryan, Luke and Jessica.
Jason wasn’t the only member of his family to have success as an athlete. His younger brother Travis was also a kicker, albeit for the University of Washington, which is a fierce rival of Jason’s alma mater, Washington State University.
Travis Hanson won a national championship in 1991 as a member of the Huskies, something his older brother wasn’t fortunate enough to accomplish.
Occasionally he’ll coach young kickers or even do some speaking engagements, but mostly he lives a simple life, away from the limelight that some former athletes crave.
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