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Elam comes full circle


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POSTED: Wednesday, November 04, 2009

ATLANTA » Those who know best say any debate over the NFL's greatest-kicker list is a short one with Jason Elam in the mix.

Now in his 17th season in the league, the former University of Hawaii star and current Atlanta Falcon has established himself as one of the all-time best in an often precarious position best defined by longevity as much as clutch production. The three-time Pro Bowler boasts 23 game-winning field goals in his career and is the only player in NFL annals to have recorded at least 100 points in each of his first 16 seasons.

He entered 2009 ranked fifth all-time in field goals made (424) and points scored (1,915).

The cleats Elam sported when he booted a 63-yard field goal against Jacksonville in 1998 to match Tom Dempsey's 28-year-old league record are already on display at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

His bust could soon be there next after Elam calls it quits.

“;He's among the elite kickers in the game,”; said former NFL kicking legend Morten Andersen. “;I would rank Jason in the top 10 in the history of the league, for sure. He knows his limits, knows what he can do and he's a professional. He prepares and he performs on Sundays. That's what you need to be a difference-maker on Sundays.”;

He'd get no argument from the man most responsible for first bringing Elam and the Rainbow Warriors together.

“;There's no question, with his stats,”; said Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson. “;He's on a short list, but I think he'll definitely be a Hall of Famer.”;

Elam, however, isn't worried about such honors just yet. He's only too aware that Jan Stenerud is still the only place-kicker in the Hall (inducted in 1991). No punter has ever earned a spot in Canton, Ohio.

Other kickers considered possible Hall candidates someday include Andersen, Gary Anderson, John Kasay, Jason Hanson and Adam Vinatieri.

“;There are so many good kickers out there,”; Elam said. “;There's always a certain professional standard you want to be at. ... I'm just trying to always keep up with them.

“;So if (Hall of Fame induction) came, that would be an incredible honor, obviously. But that's so out of my control and it's so far in the distant future. I'm just trying to do the best I can for the Falcons right now.”;

The Falcons (4-3) have improved and could be headed to the playoffs. Elam, who will be 40 in March, has made just six of 10 field goal attempts this fall after going 2-for-4 in a loss to New Orleans on Monday. But the makes include a season-long 50-yarder in the season-opening win over Miami on Sept. 13.

It's been a great career for a guy who just longed for an opportunity and wasn't even sure he'd get drafted after competing for UH from 1988 to '92. Elam remains the Rainbow Warriors' all-time leader in scoring (395 points), in addition to still holding school marks for the longest field goal made (56 yards vs. BYU in 1992) and career punting average (43.51).

Vast potential grabbed Johnson's attention when he began recruiting the relatively unknown Elam from the North Atlanta suburbs. Johnson was UH's offensive coordinator at the time and in dire need of a kicker in 1987 when he got word from one of his former kickers at Georgia Southern about two standout high schoolers from the Atlanta area.

Chris Gardocki, however, had already committed to Clemson, leaving Elam and Johnson to form a close relationship that lasts to this day. The only other schools expressing interest in Elam at the time were Furman, Jacksonville State and Appalachian State.

“;I didn't even know Hawaii had a football team,”; Elam mused. “;I thought somebody was playing a joke on me.”;

Elam (5-foot-11, 195 pounds) spent 15 spectacular years in Denver (including two Super Bowl championships) after the Broncos selected him in the third round of the 1993 NFL Draft. He returned to Georgia with the intent of closing out his career with his hometown Falcons after signing a four-year, $9 million deal as an unrestricted free agent in March 2008.

“;I just feel very blessed to have the life that I've had and how things have gone,”; he said. “;I was just hoping to land with a team for two or three years. Maybe if I could have a five-year career, that would have been awesome. But for things to work out like they did — get 15 years in Denver with the organization there and then getting to come back and play with your childhood team and finish things off with your family and friends back home — it's been a dream story.”;