Bill Bell: A Disappearing Breed

Bill Bell was a place kicker in the NFL for only three seasons, but he established a legacy in his adopted hometown of Lawrence, Kansas. Bill was drafted in the 17th round (428th player) by the Atlanta Falcons.

Bell was on the famed Kansas Jayhawks 1969 Orange Bowl team, a dump penalty from upsetting the undefeated Penn State Nittany Lions. Back in those days, kickers were not just kickers, they were punters, defensive backs, quarterbacks and even linemen. Scholarships and roster spots were valuable, not to be wasted on girlie-men kickers, as old school football players would say.

Bell made it to the NFL as a place kicker who kicked with a squared-off toe, he was called a straight-on kicker, as differentiated from the soccer-style type who has a sweeping motion and kicked with the side of the big toe, the proximal phalanx of the first metatarsal.

I knew Bill Bell, but only slightly. He received his teaching degree from the University of Kansas and student-taught physical education at West Junior High School in Lawrence, where I was a juvenile delinquent. To the other students, he was an NFL player; to me, he was a kicker. I spend hours and hours in my backyard kicking footballs over the power line. I practiced in the rain, summer heat and snow.

So, one day in gym class, I worked up the courage to ask Mr. Bell how he could recommend a scrawny, rail-thin kid add strength to his leg. I don’t recall specifically what he suggested, although he spent time talking about the mechanics of how to get the most from good technique. It made sense to me, even if I did not totally understand it.

I did not own a squared-toe kicking shoe, those were quite expensive as I recall, so I used my regular football cleats. Later, I traded those in for lighter-weight soccer cleats, which I painted white, like Joe Namath’s cleats.

I used those soccer cleats to kick straight-on, which was tricky with a soft rounded-toe. Nothing like another challenge. I did not particularly like the soccer-style kickers, but eventually I taught myself how to use that technique. I admit, it was easier and the whipping motion of the leg compensated for leg strength.

So, back to Bill Bell. He settled in Lawrence and enjoyed a long career working for Douglas County in charge of county buildings and grounds. He retired a few years ago. I read that he passed away on June 25, 2022. Fifty-one years ago he talked to me about kicking.

Bell’s NFL career ended shortly after that student teaching encounter. There were already a dozen or more soccer-style kickers in pro football then, mostly Europeans who ended up in America as soccer players. Hall of Fame kicker Jan Stenerud came to America on a skiing scholarship. He and Garo Yepremian faced off on the longest pro football game on Christmas Day 1971. Two soccer-style kickers.

The AFL and NFL had merged and pro football now played on Monday nights. Aging Johnny Unitas was replaced as starting quarterback of the San Diego Chargers by rookie Dan Fouts. It was now a different era.

For the next decade, straight-on kickers would hang around the NFL, but in decreasing numbers. The “kicking game” would undergo a number of modern changes. Gone were the days when you lined up a meaty looking guy with a strong leg to attempt field goals. Even though the goal posts were at the goal line, extra point kicks were not a given. For years, teams had no designated coaches for kick teams, coaches took on the extra duty. Then a funny thing happened, ambitious young coaches began using kickoff, punting and field goal duty as opportunities to make game-defining plays, and these teams became where kamikaze players gravitated. Kick teams were no longer the stepchild of the football team. Punters began angling punts to the sidelines and learned that outkicking the coverage got back results. Specialized returners, usually backup defensive backs, wide receivers and running backs became sought-after and made teams principally as returners or “gunners”.

Until the 1970s, kickers often handled both placekicking and punting. Kicking was kicking. George Blanda, Don Crockroft, Don Chandler, Bill Dudley, Don Hutson, Mike Mercer, Bob Waterfield, Doak Walker, Sam Baker, Tommy Davis, Danny Villanueva, Fred Cox, Jim Bakken, Mike Eischeid and others punted and kicked at various times in their careers.

In college, many quarterbacks were often punters as well. Paul Hornung, Steve Spurrier, John Hadl, Dan Pastorini, Sammy Baugh, Sid Luckman, Norm Van Brocklin, Danny White, Bob Lee, Daryle Lamonica, Cotton Davidson, Charlie Conerly, Earl Morrall, Zeke Bratkowski, Eddie Lebaron, Babe Parelli, Bob Waterfield, Frankie Albert, George Blanda, and many others. Tom Landry, Hall of Fame Dallas Cowboys head coach, was a defensive back and punter for the New York Giants.

Some of the greatest placekickers were also position players. Lou Groza was a Hall of Fame Tackle. George Blanda went into the HOF as a quarterback and kicker. Jerry Kramer finally made it into the HOF as a guard, but was also a placekicker. Paul Hornung was a HOF running back who also handled the placekicking for the Green Bay Packers. Lou Michaels was a very good defensive end and Wayne Walker a famed linebacker. Gino Cappelletti was an All-AFL receiver who also handled the placekicking. Tommy Brooker played tight end and kicked the winning field goal to lead the Dallas Texans over the Houston Oilers in the AFL Championship.

Perhaps the most controversial placekicker was Tom Dempsey, born without toes on one foot or fingers on one hand. He became a kicker and wore a modified shoe with a flat surface. He kicked what was a record field goal in 1970, a 63 yard effort, to win a game over the Detroit Lions.

The record-setting Tom Dempsey.

Besides quarterbacks, other position players were above average punters. Gary Collins played on the Cleveland Browns teams of the 1960s and handled the punting. Pat Studsdill, a starting wide receiver for the Rams and Lions, was a punter, as were Packer receivers Max McGee and Boyd Dowler. Donny Anderson was a running back, Chuck Latourette and Lem Barney defensive backs, Jackie Smith, Pat Summeral and Larry Seiple were tight ends, etc. Long ago, before larger rosters and specialization, punters and kickers were not treated with kid gloves as they are today. It was a much different era.

Bill Bell was near the end of that era. Strength, diet, training, stadium playing surface, domed stadiums and coaching and larger rosters led to great changes in kicking. Not only did kicking style change, but kickers became specialists and perfection was expected. Punters did not just focus on length of punt, height, direction, hang time were metrics used to evaluate each kick. Placekickers were expected to make every extra point, even when the ball was placed further back from the goal line. Field goals made from beyond 50 yards were expected as were kickoffs into the end zone. Everything was measured, recorded and evaluated. Tom Landry’s computer printouts of the 1970s might seem silly now, but analytics had arrived.

Jim O’Brien kicks the winning field goal in Super Bowl V.

Maybe kids still enjoy kicking around in the backyard and dreaming of booting the ball over the crossbar in the final seconds. Likely, they are on a soccer team at school and spend a week at summer soccer camp, participating in soccer tournaments around the region. A different way to get your picks.

For more about the life and career of Bill Bell

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