Culture  /  Biography

The Man Who Changed Field Goals Forever

A Hungarian immigrant first brought the soccer style field kick to the NFL.

The story of the change in NFL field-goal kicking begins with the aftermath of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. When the Soviet Union crushed the Hungarian uprising, a 14-year-old named Pete Gogolak and his family fled Budapest for the U.S. Gogolak was a good enough soccer player to have earned a spot on the Hungarian Junior National Team.

Yet when the Gogolaks arrived in Ogdensburg, N.Y., Pete and his brother Charlie were unable tofind a soccer league to play in. So they started playing football. Pete initially played offensive and defensive end. But perhaps not so surprisingly given his soccer prowess, he eventually found his calling as a kicker. He did so using a style very different than the one that kickers had used to that point—one that he adapted from his soccer experience. Gogolak took three steps back and then two to his left before running at the ball as if he were on the soccer pitch.

When Gogolak sent a film of himself kicking 45-yard field goals to the Cornell coaching staff after the 1959 season, they gave him a scholarship. During his three years on the varsity football team (freshman were ineligible), Gogolak made 54 of 55 PATs and still holds the school record for most consecutive conversions, as well as for career conversion percentage.

Gogolak wasn’t the first to use soccer influenced field goal kicking mechanics. In 1957, Polish immigrant Fred Bednarski—whose family had spent three years in a Nazi concentration camp—had kicked that way at the University of Texas. Yet, there is no evidence that Gogolak was aware of Bednarski, so the footwork he used was likely his own invention.

And after his success at Cornell, Gogolak became the first kicker to bring this soccer style to the NFL. Years later he told ESPNs Doug Williams that a Buffalo Bills scout who had watched him during the spring of 1964 remarked, “Geez, I’ve never seen anybody kick that way.” The Bills of the American Football League drafted him and he made a 57-yarder in his first exhibition against the New York Jets. During his time with the Bills, Gogolak made 47 of his 75 field goals (63%) and converted 76 of 77 extra points.