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Way Back When: Bootin' Ben Agajanian

There have been so many characters in the Denver Broncos-Oakland Raiders series that memories of them abound.

But one of the greatest ever was the placekicker who kicked for the Raiders for free. Without a contract.

It's hard to believe now, but that was truly the case back in 1962, the last season in which the Raiders really were a woeful team.

The player was "Bootin'" Ben Agajanian, and when he passed away on Feb. 8 of this year, he was the oldest living Raider.

Agajanian was also the oldest living Los Angeles Charger, San Diego Charger and Los Angeles Ram, along with having that distinction with the Kansas City franchise, as he played for the Dallas Texans before they moved to Kansas City.

He was the very first specialist in pro football history — that is, he was the first player kept on a roster just to kick — before Agajanian, the kickers were guys who played another position. He was the first to be deemed valuable enough to be worthy of his own roster spot.

Before we get to how he kicked for the Raiders for free, we have to look at the total context of his career.

He was a college player at the University of New Mexico when he took a summer job in a factory to make ends meet in 1939, only to suffer the terrible consequences of an industrial accident that cut off four toes on his kicking foot.

An unimaginable accident for a young kicker.

But he persevered, continued to kick at New Mexico, and eventually became "Bootin'" Ben.

Known as the "Toeless Wonder," Ben had a 15-year NFL career as a placekicker and won two NFL championships, one with the New York Giants in 1956 and one with the Green Bay Packers in 1961.

He ended his playing career after four years in the American Football League, playing with every team in the Western Division except the Denver Broncos.

Agajanian is one of 20 players to have played in the most different pro football leagues ever. He began his journey in the Pacific Coast League in 1942 with the Los Angeles Bulldogs, three years after losing four toes from his kicking foot in that work accident.

He played for nine different AFL and NFL teams and 13 teams in all.

His overall teams and leagues were the aforementioned PCL (Los Angeles Bulldogs, 1942, and Hollywood Bears, 1943, 1946) and the first incarnation of the American Football League — truly a minor league — with the Hollywood Rangers (1944).

Then he was noticed by the NFL, where he earned the league's first roster spot held by a specialist.

He played for the Philadelphia Eagles (1945), Pittsburgh Steelers (1945), New York Giants (1949, 1954-57), Los Angeles Rams (1953), and Green Bay Packers (1961).

In between, he kicked in the professional All-America Football Conference (AAFC) with the Los Angeles Dons (1947-48).

He joined the Los Angeles Chargers of the fledgling American Football League in 1960, becoming one of many older NFL players who collected paychecks in the AFL before hanging up the cleats.

But "Bootin'" Ben did not hang up the cleats as fast as many others.

He kicked for the Dallas Texans (now the Kansas City Chiefs) in 1961, and then joined the Raiders in 1962 before finishing his playing career with the San Diego Chargers in 1964.

So the Broncos faced him in four different seasons with three different opponents in a five-year span.

But his most unusual situation in the AFL, besides have a 15-year kicking career with four missing toes, was his time with the Raiders in 1962.

Believe it or not, but the Raiders were the definition of awful at the beginning of their existence.

They had no stadium in 1960 or 1961 and played their games across the bay in San Francisco, first at Kezar Stadium and later at Candlestick Park, before the city of Oakland built them a place to play — Frank Youell Field, essentially a high school stadium that seated just 22,000.

This was one year before Al Davis arrived in Oakland and began to create the franchise we know today. Their finances were almost non-existent.

So when they talked to "Bootin'" Ben, who by then epitomized the player who had "been around," they could not agree on contract terms on any kind.

Ben just wanted to keep kicking, so he eventually said in frustration, "Heck (or a word to that effect), I'll just kick for nothing." And the Raiders took him up on it. 

And the AFL allowed it. Clearly, it was a different era in pro football.

Ben's unique situation only lasted three weeks before all sides came to an agreement and he was paid for the rest of the year.

He took the following year off, then kicked for the Chargers, by then in San Diego, in 1964.

And that ended Ben's travels as a kicker, with or without paycheck. 

But he was not done with pro football, having retired as an active player at the age of 45.

"The Toeless Wonder" coached the Dallas Cowboys' kickers for 20 years following his playing days, giving him a career in the kicking business from the 1930s (he graduated from New Mexico in 1941) until the mid-1980s despite missing four toes on his kicking foot.

He became pro football's first specialist, gained his own nicknames ("Bootin' Ben" and "The Toeless Wonder") and is the last player ever to have kicked (briefly) for free in pro football, that for the great lore of this week's rival, the Oakland Raiders.

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