INDIANAPOLIS – Morten Andersen’s journey to the Pro Football Hall of Fame reads like a fairy tale, and it begins in Indianapolis.
Forty years ago, Andersen arrived at Ben Davis High School from his native Denmark as a 17-year-old senior exchange student. He spoke very little English. He had never played football, and knew nothing about the game.
Indiana was not even Andersen’s desired destination.
“On my application, I requested three states out West – Washington, Idaho and Colorado,” said Andersen in a telephone interview. “I ended up in Indiana. I don’t know how that happened. I’m sure glad it did.”
Andersen will reminiscence quite often this weekend, as one of the seven inductees in this year’s Hall of Fame class. Joining him will be running backs Terrell Davis and LaDainian Tomlinson, safety Kenny Easley, defensive end Jason Taylor, quarterback Kurt Warner, and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. The ceremony will be Saturday in Canton, Ohio, and some of Andersen’s friends from Ben Davis will attend, including Bob Wilbur, coach of the 1977 Ben Davis team that went 11-1.
Everyone else in this year’s Hall of Fame class grew up loving football. Not Andersen. His introduction to the game was pure serendipity. He wanted to play soccer at Ben Davis in 1977, but the school didn’t have a soccer team. When Andersen showed up for his first football practice, coach Bob Wilbur put a football on the ground and told Andersen to kick it.
“I didn’t even know the shape of the ball,” Andersen recalled, laughing. “I’m like, ‘This thing isn’t even round.’’’
It didn’t matter. Andersen made a field goal from 20 yards. Then 25 yards, then 30, 35, 40 yards.
“My father looked at me and said, ‘Son, you’re out of a job,'” said Wilbur.
It worked out for everybody. Tim Wilbur led Ben Davis in 1977 as the star quarterback and defensive back, and he was later inducted into the Indiana University Hall of Fame after his standout career as a Hoosier cornerback.
Meanwhile, word of Andersen’s kicking prowess spread throughout Indiana, and scholarship offers started rolling in. Andersen almost chose Purdue, but he was talked into Michigan State by Hans Nielsen, the Spartans’ kicker from 1974-77.
“Hans wanted to keep the Danish tradition going at Michigan State,” said Andersen. “It turned out to be a good decision for me. But he was the main reason I didn’t go to Purdue.”
As Andersen matured, so did his leg strength. He made a 63-yarder against Ohio State, he was named an all-American as a senior in 1981, and the Saints selected Andersen in the fourth round of the 1982 draft.
At that point, Andersen figured he would make the Saints, make some money, and enjoy his NFL career as long possible. But the ride for Andersen lasted 25 years in the NFL, longer than anyone could have imagined. He kicked for the New Orleans Saints, the Atlanta Falcons, the New York Giants, the Kansas City Chiefs and the Minnesota Vikings. He holds the NFL record for career points (2,544), field goals (565), games played (382) and field goals attempted (709). He was named to six Pro Bowls. He earned several nicknames, including “The Great Dane” and “Mr. Automatic.” His most famous kick came in overtime of the 1988 NFC Championship, sending the Falcons to their first Super Bowl.
Andersen envisioned none of that when he arrived in Indiana 40 years ago. He only spent 10 months in Indianapolis, but he remembers the time fondly, learning American life and learning to kick a football like no one at Ben Davis before or since.
Once Andersen realized his talent could lead to a college scholarship and more, he practiced tirelessly. But his memories of Indianapolis extend well beyond football. He talked about the kindness of his host parents, Dale and Jean Baker, who have passed away. Andersen said the Bakers and their four children made him feel welcome from Day 1, as did many students at Ben Davis.
“I was really involved with school and activities during my time at Ben Davis,” Andersen said. “I was at that place 12 hours a day, five days a week. It was the center of my life. It’s the place where I got my start in America, and the people in Indiana were so friendly. You have to remember, this was all new for me. My English wasn’t that good at first, and I made mistakes, especially with the slang. For the longest time, I thought “my bad” was “my bag.” I’d say, “My bag” and no one would say anything.”
Andersen rarely said “My bag” after a kick. He is just the second exclusive placekicker in the Hall of Fame, joining Jan Stenerud (1991). If someone had told Andersen he would make the Pro Football Hall of Fame when he arrived at Ben Davis, what would he have said?
“I would’ve said, ‘What’s the Pro Football Hall of Fame?”’, said Andersen.
Now living in suburban Atlanta, Andersen believes there will be more kickers following his footsteps into the Hall of Fame. Likely to join Andersen one day is current Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri, the league’s all-time leader in career playoff points (234), who shows no sign of slowing down at age 44.
“I don’t know Vinatieri, but his career speaks for itself, the quality and longevity,” said Andersen, who will turn 57 years old Aug. 19. “When people ask me how I lasted so long, I tell them it was determination. I never stopped working hard, because I knew kickers were expendable. They’ll slide your name out of that slot over your locker really fast and replace you if you don’t get the job done.”
Tim Wilbur says it will be surreal to watch a former high school teammate immortalized in Canton.
“I can’t say I could have predicted this when were all at Ben Davis,” said Wilbur, who still lives in Indianapolis. “But Morten always had a great work ethic, even way back then. My dad gave him an opportunity and did he ever make the most of it. Not only that, Morten’s a great guy. He loved to joke around and stuff — fit right in with the team right away. It’s a richly-deserved honor for a special guy.”
Andersen will be presented for his speech Saturday by his son, Sebastian. Sometimes players have difficulty keeping their emotions in check during their induction speeches, but Andersen is an experienced public speaker and will try to take the same approach he did when he kicked. Stay calm, stay focused, stay confident.
Where did the 40 years go since Andersen stepped off a plane in Indianapolis, and learned how to kick field goals on the field at Ben Davis? For Andersen, his time in Indiana will always be special.
“None of this happens for me without my unlikely start in football at Ben Davis,” said Andersen. “It sounds like a dream. But for me, it came true.”