Kicking up a storm


POSTED: Thursday, July 30, 2009

Morten Andersen was exiting the Pro Bowl practice field stage left when this teenager from the University of Hawaii tapped him on the shoulder pads.

He believed it to be an autograph seeker who had mistaken him for Joe Montana, but it turned out to be a kid who would replace him as the Atlanta Falcons' kicker 18 years down the road.

Jason Elam was alarmed the NCAA rules committee had removed the tee for field goals and was hopeful Andersen would provide pointers on how to boot the ball off the ground. You see, the youngster was fearful his kicking career might be short-lived if he failed to make this conversion.

Imagine that.

“;He actually helped me,”; the three-time Pro Bowl kicker said. “;Can you believe somebody like him doing something like that for a guy like me? I never forgot it.”;

Only a year later did Elam face another dilemma born from the first. Having to adjust to life without a tee, the UH place-kicker exploded through the football even more trying to make up for lost ground. He kicked just as hard on a PAT as a 50-yarder, leading to a twinge in his hinge.

Elam tried a little bit of everything to repair the hitch in his giddy-up. Treatment? Oh yeah. Rehab? Check. Prolonged rest? You betcha. Stretching? Nearly every hour of every day.

Nothing worked.

The nagging groin injury in Elam's right leg flared up when he least expected it. He even sought advice from a faith healer in hopes that she could make the pain go away. Unfortunately for Elam, he was still a decade removed from reading a book where Jack Nicklaus said that 75 percent of his shots were misses. But because he hit the golf ball so straight, no one noticed.

Elam took that message to heart at the start of the 21st century. Instead of bombing away on every kick, he changed the angle he took on his approach that knocked off distance but improved accuracy. Had he only known that as a student at UH.

Eventually, the injury that Elam feared would cut short his playing career led him to a medical redshirt that prolonged the Snellville, Ga., native's stay by a single season. Had he not, Elam would have missed arguably the greatest campaign in UH history. He was a critical component in that 11-2 season.

His two field goals at Air Force—the day after Hurricane Iniki came ashore in September of '92—were the difference in a 6-3 victory. Elam also converted field goals of 37 and 45 yards in the 27-17 Holiday Bowl win over Illinois. Had they counted the postseason in career totals in those days, Elam would have set the NCAA scoring record.

That possibility arose in the final game of the regular season against Pittsburgh. Head coach Bob Wagner said earlier in the week he would not change the course of a game just to give Elam that opportunity. It never came, as Hawaii rallied to beat the Panthers.

Elam didn't hold it against his coach, preferring to savor the dramatic fourth-quarter win.

He finished with 395 points—79 field goals and 158 PATs. It's still No. 1 in Hawaii all-time after all these years and No. 5 in NCAA history. That Aloha Stadium night against Pitt, Elam finished a field goal shy of breaking the mark set by the University of Miami's Carlos Huerta.

“;You know, I saw him years later and he told me he thought I was going to break his record,”; Elam said. “;I told him it wasn't meant to be.”;

What was meant to be was a remarkable playing career in the NFL that began as a third-round pick for Denver. When Elam didn't get the money he wanted, he held out briefly before deciding to sign. Kickers picked 70th overall aren't supposed to cause any trouble, but all was forgiven once he got on the playing field.

For 15 years, Elam kicked for the Denver Broncos. In that tenure, the 39-year-old was a part of two Super Bowl wins, earned three Pro Bowl selections and even had his favorite shoe put in the NFL Hall of Fame after he tied Tom Dempsey's field-goal mark of 63 yards.

He returned home to Georgia in 2008 to the Atlanta Falcons with a new four-year $9 million contract in hand. In his career, Elam has missed only three PATs in 646 attempts. At one point, he went eight years between misses. As a field-goal kicker, his lifetime percentage is .814 (424 of 521), including 38 of 63 from beyond 50 yards.

Inside the 40, Elam is deadly accurate, with only 17 missed in 16 seasons. Despite a nagging hip injury last year, the NFL veteran appeared in 16 games. He made all his PATs and 93.5 percent of his field goals.

Wagner calls his career the greatest in UH history—it began as a freshman with a game-winning field goal over No. 9-ranked Iowa 21 years ago and ended with a Holiday Bowl victory over another Big Ten opponent in Illinois.

“;I loved my time at Hawaii, especially that last season,”; said Elam, who holds a commercial pilot's license and has often dreamed of flying jets in the island chain some day. “;It was definitely the right choice for me.”;


Sports editor Paul Arnett was the Star-Bulletin's beat writer for UH football from 1990 through 2000.