South Africa’s footnote in NFL history

Gary Anderson, kicker extraordinaire, nearly 43 years of age, and one of only three men to play in 300 games in an NFL career, has played in the league since 1982. 

Gary Anderson, kicker extraordinaire, was born in Parys and raised in Durban, South Africa. (Image: Flickr)

Brand South Africa Reporter

It is well known that South Africa has produced some of the all-time greats of golf, cricket and rugby – golfers Bobby Locke and Gary Player, cricketers Mike Procter and Graeme Pollock, and rugby players Frik du Preez and Naas Botha are among those that spring to mind.

Less well known is the fact that a man seemingly destined for American football’s Hall of Fame, the scorer of the most points in the history of the NFL – the professional American football league that culminates in the spectacular Superbowl every year – was born in Parys and raised in Durban, South Africa.

Gary Anderson, kicker extraordinaire, nearly 43 years of age, and one of only three men to play in 300 games in an NFL career, has played in the league since 1982. He leads all NFL players with 2 133 points over his 20-year career, and holds the incredible record of going through an entire season – 1998 – without missing a single kick, making 94 out of 94 shots at goal.

In that year, Anderson was a key figure in the the Minnesota Vikings’ run to the NFC Championship game, his 164 points breaking the NFL record for single-season scoring by a kicker and earning him his fourth career selection to the Pro Bowl.

The Vikings’ elected this year not to re-sign the SA-born veteran, a decision that may have turned on the NFL’s complicated rules limiting the amount that any one team can spend on players’ salaries.

It is interesting to note that Anderson attributes his great powers of concentration to his time in South Africa. Playing cricket at school, he was an opening batsman and, as he explains: “Cricket takes one full day to play out. Each team only bats once at the high school level, and if you make just one mistake, you’re out.

“I was always the first batsman, and I remember from a very young age I always hated to make a mistake and then sit around and watch for a couple of hours while the rest of your team mates finished up that particular innings. The whole concentration part of cricket always helped me.”

Hearing how the future Hall of Famer stumbled on the game leaves one with a sense that it was all predestined. His family moved from South Africa to Pennsylvania in 1978 after he finished high school.

His father had played professional soccer, and Gary too was good at the game. Curious to see how an American football compared to a soccer ball, he got his hands on some pigskins one day and took them down to the local high school field to see how they travelled when kicked – more like a rugby ball or more like a soccer ball?

A man approached him and starting chatting. He turned out to be the local school’s coach, and was interested in signing Anderson up. The coach was also a friend of highly respected coach Dick Vermeil of the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles. He arranged a tryout for Anderson with the Eagles when, as Anderson admitted, “I didn’t even know what football was”.

As it happened there were coaches from various colleges watching the Eagles’ practice that day and, after some good words from Vermeil, Anderson was offered scholarships from a number of the universities. He chose Syracuse in New York State. In his final year playing for the Orangemen, Anderson set a college record when he was successful with 97.4% of his kicks (18 of 19 attempts), and was named to the All-American College team.

When the professional football draft came round, the Buffalo Bills selected Anderson, but when they released him during training camp the Pittsburgh Steelers pounced and signed him up. It proved to be the Bills’ loss and the Steelers’ gain. Anderson played nine games in his first season in Steel City, scored 52 points, and was named to the NFL All-Rookie team at season’s end.

The following season Anderson totalled 119 points, leading the American Football Conference (the NFL is divided into two conferences, the winners of which advance to the Superbowl) in scoring. He was named Most Valuable Player on the Pittsburgh Steelers’ roster and earned selection to the Pro Bowl, the All Star game at the end of the season to honour the top players in the game.

In 1984 he led all scorers in the AFC once more and set a team record for the longest field goal with a successful 55-yard kick against the San Diego Chargers. In 1985 Anderson was again the leading scorer in the conference, becoming the first player since Gino Capeletti (1963-66) to win the scoring title for three consecutive seasons. His 139 points for the season was a new Steelers record, as were his 33 field goals, 18 consecutive successful field goal attempts and five successful field goals in a game.

1986 brought Anderson the one-hundredth successful field goal of his career, a mark he achieved as the most accurate kicker in NFL history. The following year he was named as an alternate (reserve) for the Pro Bowl.

In 1988 Anderson had his fourth season of scoring over 100 points, finishing with 118, the third-highest total in the league. He improved on his team record by kicking six out of six field goals for the Steelers against the Broncos and finished the game with 21 points, becoming the first kicker from the AFC to achieve the feat. His streak of successful point after tries (kicks after touchdown) was brought to an end at 202.

Anderson became the highest points scorer in Steelers history in 1989, scoring 91 points in the season. In 1990 he improved on that mark by one point, scoring 92.

He reached the 100 point mark again in 1991, finishing the season on that mark exactly and in the process becoming the 19th player in the history of the NFL to score 1 000 career points. In 1992 Anderson’s points output improved to 113, third best in the AFC, while in 1993 he scored 116 points. He was selected to the Pro Bowl once more after successfully converting 93.3% of his field goal attempts.

Anderson missed just five kicks all season in 1994, scoring 104 points to top the 100-point mark for the eighth time. The following year he contributed 98 points as the Steelers made it into the playoffs, where he established an NFL record for consecutive field goals made and team records for points in a game and point after attempts successfully made in a game.

Anderson became the fourth-highest scorer in NFL history in 1996 after a season in which he scored 115 points. He missed only four kicks all season, making 25 of 29 field goals and 40 of 40 point after tries.

There was a change of scenery for Anderson in 1997, away from the cold of Pittsburgh to the warmth of San Francisco, when he joined the 49ers as a free agent. He scored 125 points for his new team, finishing third in the NFL in scoring.

It was back to cold weather again in 1998 when Anderson joined the Minnesota Vikings. Playing in a dome seemed to agree with his game, and he made every one of the 94 kicks he attempted that season. He was a unanimous choice on numerous All Star teams and to the Pro Bowl.

His 14 field goal successes from more than 40 yards tied the NFL record, and he became only the 14th player in Vikings’ history to score more than 100 points. His 164 points were the most by a kicker in the history of the league and the second-most points ever scored in a season, bettered only by the Green Bay Packers’ Paul Hornung, who not only kicked for his team but was also a star running back, thus giving him more than one means of scoring.

Anderson started the 1999 season slowly but finished with 103 points, including making a number of clutch kicks to earn the Vikings wins over Chicago in overtime, and over Denver with one second left in the game.

In 2000 he became the highest scorer in NFL history when he scored 11 points against Buffalo, taking him past the record of the legendary George Blanda. Anderson enjoyed an excellent season, making 67 out of 68 kicks, the one miss being a blocked effort against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

His points total fell to 74 in 2001 as the Vikings experienced a poor season, resulting in Anderson having only 14 field goal tries all season.

Today, Anderson’s life in snowy Minnesota is a far cry from the sun and surf of Durban, and he recalls, while at Syracuse, thinking to himself: “What is a South African soccer player doing, diving in the snow at football practice, at snowy Syracuse University?” The answer to that question is written in the record books of the NFL.

By the way, after all this time, Anderson still maintains a solid South African accent!

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