I can remember watching "Bootin' Ben" Agajanian kick against the Denver Broncos in the 1960s and having the feeling at the time that I could not believe I was seeing this. He had already been a legend for so long, and it was remarkable to actually see him perform.
What made me think about Ben Agajanian is the impending move of the Rams back to Los Angeles. And of course, they could be joined, in time, by the Chargers or the Raiders.
Not only is Agajanian still living -- he is 96 years old -- but he is the oldest player to have been with all three teams, along with several others.
His shoe size was 11, but that was for his left foot, his non-kicking foot. His kicking shoe was just a 7 and 1/2.
They called him "The Toeless Wonder," which gives one an idea of why his kicking shoe size was so small.
He was a college football kicker at the University of New Mexico and had a summer industrial job in 1941 when an accident in the factory irreparably damaged all but the little toe of his right foot. Agajanian begged the doctors to save his toes, but when told they could not, he bargained with them to shave the nubs down to an identical size so he could still kick -- or try to kick.
They did, and he did, for the Eagles (1945), Steelers (1945), the Los Angeles Dons (of the All-America Football Conference, the franchise owned by movie star Don Ameche, in 1947 and '48), the Giants (1949 and 1954-57), Rams (1953), Chargers (1960), Dallas Texans (1961), Packers (1961), Raiders (1962) and Chargers (1964).
He moved around a lot, but that is a lot of demand considering he was a kicker with no toes.
He spent just one season with the Los Angeles Rams, but there was no question he fit right in as a Southern California native whose story was pure Hollywood. He said he never liked being called "The Toeless Wonder," but there is not much you can do about a nickname that is mostly true.
He was quoted by Bill Plaschke in the Los Angeles Times as saying, "You don't have your toes, so you can't say nothing. They call you 'Toeless?' Sure!"
The late Broncos general manager Fred Gehrke, who had played for the Rams and was doing television for them when Agajanian played, once told me that they had to make a special squared-off shoe for him, and Fred -- a great student of the game's history -- said that Bootin' Ben was the first true kicking specialist in pro football. Previously, and in fact for many years after, the kicker also played a regular position on the team.
It seemed odd to watch a player wearing number 3 back then, but he chose it because a field goal is three points, and the number was indicative of the kind of flair Agajanian possessed. Of course, it took tremendous self confidence to succeed with the specific physical "handicap" he had.
There were four different occasions on which he announced his retirement, but the American Football League gave new life to a lot of careers, and his was one. He came out of retirement to kick again all four times.
On one of those occasions he was allegedly spotted in the bleachers watching a Chargers 1960 training camp practice and became their kicker.
The story I like the best is when he was "negotiating" with the 1962 Oakland Raiders, at that time one of the cheapest outfits in pro football -- this was one year before Al Davis took over -- and he finally just told them he would kick for nothing.
They took him up on his offer and it is the only recorded instance in the modern game in which a player played pro football for free. Agajanian kicked in six games for the Raiders in 1962, the last season before they became the Raiders we have known ever since.
The Santa Ana native kicked for 14 teams overall and was one of just two players to play in the All-America Football Conference, the NFL and the AFL, and his kicking prowess was so well-recognized as the first pure kicker in the game that he became the kicking coach of the Dallas Cowboys when he retired, staying with the Cowboys for 20 years.
Agajanian is credited with creating the method by which soccer-style kickers align and approach the ball.
He was way more that just a sideshow, but he definitely could be that as well.
Former Rams public relations director Pete Donovan was one of the guys I knew in my first few years in the business. Pete still keeps tabs on virtually all the former Rams, and Pete says, "The Rams were Showtime before Showtime, and Ben was part of that group."
He remains the oldest living player against whom the Broncos ever played, and certainly the only one they later faced as kicking specialist for another team as well.
We salute the game's history, and we salute "Bootin' Ben" Agajanian.