18 April 2007

South Africa: Happy to Kick a Funny-Shaped Ball for a Living

Johannesburg — YOU'D be forgiven for thinking that Gary Anderson not only had the perfect season, but seems to have the perfect life. As a South African-born kicker for the US National Football League (NFL), he will go down in sporting history as the first NFL kicker to have a perfect season -- in 1998 he successfully made 94 kicks out of 94.

But his ability to kick a ball is just one part of Anderson's rather extraordinary story of how he got to where he is now.

He was born in Parys and grew up in Durban. With a father who had played professional soccer in the UK, Anderson was passionate about sport, playing soccer, rugby and cricket with the view to playing professional soccer for SA. But it was the late '70s and his father, a pastor, objected to apartheid and in 1978 had convinced his family, with Gary being one of five children, that it was time to leave. At the age of 18, Anderson was not that easy to convince.

"As a teenager I didn't have insight. I'd been focused on my sports career. But soccer wasn't a big game in the US at that time. I wasn't at all keen or excited," says Anderson.

The family spent its first few days in the US in a town outside Philadelphia. On the second night in the country, Anderson went to dinner with his dad and a couple of men who knew they were soccer players. They explained how the NFL worked and how in American football each team has a player whose sole job is to run out and kick the ball over the posts. Anderson was intrigued and wanted to see one of these new balls, pointier than those he was used to in rugby. The guys dropped one off the next morning and Anderson took it up to a high school field that afternoon to kick it around a bit.

"The coach came to ask me who I was," says Anderson. "I was doing something I'd been doing my whole life, kicking through the posts, but he said he'd never seen anyone kick a ball so far."

The coach was hoping to sign Anderson on, but discovered he was ready for college. Being friendly with the head coach of football team the Philadelphia Eagles, the coach set up for Anderson to try out at the team's summer camp the next day.

"At the time I had no idea what was going on," says Anderson, but he went on to the field at about midday and they brought out a big bag of those "strange-looking balls" and he began to drop kick them over the posts. The coaches present on the day agreed that they hadn't seen anyone kick like Anderson in more than 20 years.

"Fortunately, I didn't realise university coaches go and watch the pro teams practise, so that day there were four university coaches watching. After 30 minutes of kicking they all offered me a scholarship if I'd be their kicker."

In the US, to play pro ball a player has to have four years of college behind them -- so these offers were a godsend. And after a whirlwind couple of weeks with Anderson and his dad visiting the four campuses and checking out their credentials, they chose Syracuse, in New York State, because it was the strongest academically. And all of this was based on Anderson's ability to kick a funny-shaped ball accurately and far.

He says he had a natural ability from a young age and was always out in the back yard in SA using his feet.

"Most US kids are good with their hands. They play basketball, baseball and football, so it was unusual for them to have good feet. That has changed as soccer has become more popular."

But back then, Anderson was in top physical shape and his feet were in high demand. At Syracuse he studied accounting, so that he would have a profession to fall back on should his football career not work out. He also had four valuable years to get into the rather odd way that football is played in the US.

"It drove me crazy at first -- being at football practice for four hours and just doing a few kicks. I convinced the coach to let me go play with the soccer team and be called when they needed me to kick."

Anderson, in fact, didn't like the game of American football for the first couple of years because it was so different. The concept of standing on the sidelines for most of the game was not an easy one. He explains that in an average game he would get called out three times. In a busy game it would be five times.

But he got into it and spent the next 22 years playing for a range of teams from the Pittsburgh Steelers to the Philadelphia Eagles, the San Francisco 49ers and the Minnesota Vikings.

"I enjoyed myself at all the various teams. I really enjoyed my early career in Pittsburgh. I always considered myself to be very fortunate, being a kid from SA and getting to kick a ball for a living."

The life of a kicker is charmed on the one hand -- they are not out on the field being beaten up. But their job is highly pressurised. Sometimes with just a fraction of the match left they are called out to save the day. And as the season winds on, kickers with a hot record will become more and more anxious to keep up their points every time they walk out on the field.

Anderson believes that NFL pro kickers have the most pressurised job across all sports.

"Some days you don't go out on the field at all. And then you go out with one second left to decide the game. Your team-mates have been out there for three hours and now they want you to rescue the day."

Anderson says he handled the pressure by enjoying the game and relishing each challenge. He adds that growing up playing cricket, and always being the first batter, taught him a lot about concentration and patience under pressure.

After trying to retire a number of times, but being called back to play, Anderson finally retired at the age of 45. Most NFL players last about three years -- the stress on their bodies is just too much and they sacrifice their physical wellbeing for the rest of their lives. Thankfully, Anderson didn't have to do that and at the age of 47 he leads a healthy, active life.

He now lives in a small town in Alberta, Canada, called Canmore. It is in the Rocky Mountains and Anderson, apart from many public-speaking engagements, runs a fly-fishing charter business called The Perfect Season. Fishing is another passion and finding Canmore was another of those charmed episodes in his life.

He, his wife and a South African buddy and his wife were holidaying in the Rocky Mountains in Canada. And even though they had all travelled the world extensively, they felt it was the most beautiful place they had ever seen.

Anderson and his wife had been looking around the US in areas like Colorado for a holiday home, but when Anderson and his friend discovered a town called Canmore on the last day of their holiday, Anderson was sold. He and his wife, Kay, returned six weeks later and fell in love with this town of just more than 10 000 people. And instead of making it a holiday getaway, they decided to make it home.

"You never get to spend as much time in your vacation home as you would like," he explains. It's also a great environment for his two sons. There is skiing, fishing, golf and a large range of possible activities. Hence Anderson's fly-fishing business and his work as a spokesman for the industry. Anderson's passion for fishing began when he was a boy in KwaZulu-Natal -- he would go up the coast with the big surf rods. But he doesn't actually enjoy eating fish -- it is all about catch and release.

It doesn't look like Anderson will ever move back to SA. But he still has ties to the country -- there is a grandmother in Benoni and about four years ago he brought his whole family out to visit. He says one of his sons was quite sold on SA. Who knows, if he's a good kicker maybe one day he could come and help the Springboks out. But the next time the sports-mad family is due to be in SA is in 2010 -- there is no way they're going to miss the Soccer World Cup.

Until then, Anderson will be engaged in public speaking, running up and down mountains, fishing, spending time with his family and a whole host of activities most of us never find the time to do. He is well aware of the fact that not only did he have the perfect season, but he has many blessings to count.

"I look at myself as being exceptionally fortunate. I got four years of education and then I got to play pro ball. I wouldn't have dreamed that in my wildest dreams."

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