Posted by: siday38 | March 21, 2013

Part 6: John Lennon, a Snowplow and the kicker from Oxfordshire

The small Oxfordshire village of Leafield may seem like an unlikely starting point for an NFL story, but the career of kicker John Smith was never anything but unconventional.   Born in 1949, Smith would be one of the most successful ever imports into the NFL and be involved in 2 of its most memorable moments.

During Smith’s youth he was a talented cricketer and rugby player, but it was soccer that he truly excelled at.  At the age of 16 he was offered an apprenticeship with Swindon Town, but decided to concentrate on his education and go to college.  It seems unlikely that this is a career decision that many teenagers make nowadays – professional sport with the chance to earn millions every year or an HND in Media Studies?

Back in the sixties, soccer wasn’t the financial behemoth it is today, so Smith went to Southampton College.  He carried on playing soccer for the next few years at Wealdstone and Winchester City, as well as making numerous appearances for Swindon reserves and pursuing a career as a teacher.   He was on the verge of joining QPR for a trial, when he was contacted by an agent from the New England Patriots.

They were looking for a new kicker and had decided to expand their search outside of the US.  They wanted him to come over for a one week trial.  Smith said yes, the Patriots liked the look of Smith, they offered him a 3 year contract for $18,000 a year, Smith said yes.  This was roughly double the salary for a professional soccer player in the English First Division.  In the space of a week, Smith had gone from being a teacher and a part-time footballer to being an NFL player!  Not that Smith had any great understanding of his role “I thought that was a fortune, just to kick a football”.

Smith  - England's Number 1

Smith – England’s Number 1

Not surprisingly, there were a few teething problems for an Oxfordshire native playing American Football.  For a start, he had never seen a game before he made his debut in the 1973 preseason.  He had no idea what downs were and he certainly wasn’t expecting to line up against a bunch of padded up monsters shouting abuse at him.  His initial kick off barely reached the 20 yard line and he was a bundle of nerves throughout the game.  The Patriots cut Smith before the regular season began, but 12 months later they gave Smith a second chance and this time he was ready.

Despite these initial problems, Smith was a massive hit in New England.  In his first season, he was the second ranked kicker in the NFL and his unusual background was making him a hit off the pitch.  He appeared in adverts for Weetabix and a Boston Department Store and was also a star attraction for his fellow Pats.  The novelty value of having a Brit on the team meant that Smith was regularly asked to perform songs during nights out and serenade the team with Beatles hits.

In all, Smith played 10 seasons for New England, leading the league in kicking in 1979 and 1980, he was widely regarded as one of the best kickers in the NFL and was elected to the Patriots all decade team for the 1970s.  However, Smith is most remembered by NFL fans for his role in 2 of the stranger occurrences in NFL history…

 

The Death of John Lennon

December the 8th 1980 was a sad day in history.  It was the day that John Lennon was shot dead by Mark Chapman in New York.  Lennon’s wife, Yoko Ono wanted the death to remain a secret until she had informed their son Sean.  However, an ABC New reporter also happened to be receiving treatment at the same hospital and word quickly reached station executives who decided that the news needed to be broadcast straight away.

It just so happened that at the precise moment, John Smith was trotting on to the Orange Bowl field to attempt a last second game winning Field Goal against the Miami Dolphins.  In those pre social networking days, nobody was aware of Lennon’s fate until commentators Frank Gifford and Howard Cosell decided to break the news just as Smith was lining up his kick.  “An unspeakable tragedy, confirmed to us by ABC News in New York City: John Lennon, outside of his apartment building on the West Side of New York City, the most famous, perhaps, of all the Beatles, shot twice in the back, rushed to Roosevelt Hospital, dead … on … arrival.  Hard to go back to the game after that news flash.”  Given the circumstances, it was a remarkably good piece of commentary and fully encapsulated the severity of the situation.

John Lennon in an NFL commentary booth!

John Lennon in an NFL commentary booth!

Oblivious to this bombshell, Smith watched in frustration as his Offensive line disintegrated and his kick was blocked.  Miami went on to win 16-13 in Overtime, whilst the crowd and players were still unaware of the events in New York.  It wasn’t until Smith entered the locker room and found that the waiting reporters were more interested in John Lennon than a blocked kick, that he released what had happened.

So for millions of Americans, the answer to the question “what were you doing when John Lennon died?” is “I was watching John Smith missing a Field Goal!”

Amazingly, Cosell had actually interviewed Lennon 6 years previously as part of a segment for Monday Night Football.  According to Lennon, the NFL made “rock concerts look like tea parties”.

 

The Snowplow Game

Two years later, Smith was at the centre of a much more amusing part of NFL folklore.  Once again, it was during a Dolphins-Pats encounter.  Although significantly this game was in New England.  Significant, because the New England climate was somewhat cooler than that in Miami.  The night before the game, the temperature was minus 26 degrees and the game itself was played shortly after a heavy snowstorm.

Predictably enough, the game was a midfield war of attrition as both sides struggled to move the ball.  The plan had been for a snowplow to clear the field sporadically between plays, but more snow meant this was a futile task.  Eventually, deep into the 4th quarter, New England found their way inside the Dolphins 20. Sensing a chance to grab 3 potentially match winning points, Pats coach Ron Meyer frantically asked snowplow operator Mark Henderson to clear the area of the pitch where the kick would be placed.

Weeeeeeeeeeeee!!!!

Weeeeeeeeeeeee!!!!

Henderson, who was a convicted burglar on day release, played his role beautifully. He started off driving straight across the field, before curving off into an arc that coincided with where Pats holder Mark Cavanaugh would be situated.  Suddenly a nigh on impossible conversion looked decidedly easier.  It still required a tricky 33 yard kick from Smith, who after all was still stepping through snow in attempting the kick, but the Brit nailed his attempt and ran off celebrating wildly.

Miami coach Don Shula was also acting wildly, although his actions were slightly less celebratory.  He went ballistic and spent a lengthy amount of time ranting at officials.  “I really was bewildered about what was happening out there on the field in front of my eyes.   The magnitude of it never really set in until after he had lined up to kick the field goal.”  Miami actually had a chance to equalize in last minute, but without the aid of a snowplow, Shula elected to not attempt a Field Goal, but the Dolphins 4th down effort failed and the Pats ran out the clock.  Shula took his protests to the NFL Commissioner, who decided to ban snowplows for the following season, but the damage had been done.

Following his retirement, Smith moved back to the UK to work as a pundit on Channel 4’s NFL coverage (more of that in later articles!), before returning to the States in 1988 and opening the John Smith Sports Centre for young soccer players.  The centre was a massive success and is now run by his daughter Felicity.

There have been plenty of other overseas players who have tried to make it in the NFL, but few have had quite as colourful a career as Smith.  The Snowplow Game is still talked about today and is one of the most memorable incidents in NFL history.  It’s certainly the most memorable moment to feature a kicker from Leafield!

 

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Responses

  1. Only just had chance to catch up on this series Simon but so far it is great.

    Not sure if your carrying on (given that it is over a month since your last post) but if you are I look forward to the next instalment.


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