The NFL Pioneers Who Kicked Off Their Cleats

The NFL Pioneers Who Kicked Off Their Cleats

Why you should care

Because sometimes it’s best to think with your feet.

The temperatures in Cleveland had dropped below freezing. Unlike the local children, who were bundled up, one young man dressed only in polyester and wearing a single shoe ran around in the cold. The Browns were ahead and gunning for just their second playoff win in nearly 20 years when Denver’s Rich Karlis stepped onto the field — with a bare right foot and only 5:32 remaining on the clock.

The unexpected heroics of quarterback John Elway, who led the Broncos on “The Drive” in that ’86 AFC Championship Game and broke the hearts of the 80,000 Cleveland fans present, are the stuff of legend. Less well known was Karlis’ stunning contribution to one of Elway’s career highs: He kicked the game-tying extra point after a 98-yard drive to take it to overtime before once again pacing out to the frigid hash mark with everything on the line. When commentators remarked that Karlis’ 33-yard game-winning boot just barely toed it through, they were uncannily accurate … and he became one of the NFL’s most renowned barefoot kickers.

His image was immortalized on the cover of ‘Sports Illustrated’ — arms extended in his bright orange jersey, both feet in the air, but only one in a sock and shoe.

The play that afternoon on Jan. 11, 1987, was probably the most significant of the league’s brief foray into barefoot kicking. “[Elway] and I are somewhat disliked in Cleveland,” says Karlis, whose image was immortalized on the cover of Sports Illustrated — arms extended in his bright orange jersey, both feet in the air, but only one in a sock and shoe.

But Karlis was neither the first nor the last to employ this seemingly simple technique. American football lends itself to copycats, especially novices, and the Ohio native came to kicking late, as a high school senior. Completely self-taught, he tried the unconventional approach as a walk-on at the University of Cincinnati after watching Texas A&M’s Tony Franklin do it in the late ’70s. “I was desperate to figure it all out,” says Karlis. He knew if he hit it well, it would go far. “So I was trying to figure out how to hit it well more times than not.”

Franklin got drafted in the third round by the Philadelphia Eagles in 1979 and was a Pro Bowl selection in 1985 for the New England Patriots, playing two Super Bowls and converting 67 percent of his field goals and 96 percent of his extra points during his 10 years in the league. That success wasn’t lost on Karlis, nor on University of Washington’s Mike Lansford, both of whom launched their NFL careers in 1982. After trying out for the Broncos that year, Karlis proved his method worked — as did Lansford for nine years with the Rams — and helped Denver to two Super Bowls, in 1986 and ’87.

The argument for losing the cleat was to enhance a kicker’s feel for the ball — thereby improving accuracy and control — not unlike a quarterback who throws bare-handed instead of wearing a glove. Karlis, having never found a shoe that gave him such control, opted to put his best, barest foot forward. “You go with the one that brung ya,” he says. He tried kicking without a cleat, after which, he says, “it felt terrible to put a shoe on.”

Kickers have always been a breed apart. While the other players train together, kickers practice their fancy footwork, distance and precision solo — honing a specialty that’s considered more challenging mentally than physically. Kicking a ball — rock hard when the temperatures plummet — without the protection of a shoe naturally raises questions about pain. There isn’t any, if it’s done correctly. But “if you mishit it,” says Karlis, “it hurts. So you learn to pay attention.” The risk of slipping in wet weather and having to dodge a teammate’s occasional vomit — laid bare at the sidelines owing to pregame jitters — were the biggest pitfalls, not to mention weird sunburns. “One leg from the calf down, I had a tan all season,” says Karlis.

A handful of other kickers picked up on this trend of yesteryear, including the Eagles’ Paul McFadden; the Rams’ Jeff Wilkins was the last to experiment with it, in 2002. As place-kicking skills have advanced — today they routinely convert well into the 80s compared with the standard 70 back then — so too has shoe technology, and today it’s unthinkable for a player to kick off his cleats.

“People would always ask me, ‘Why don’t you kick barefoot?’ ” says David Treadwell, the Broncos kicker who succeeded Karlis in 1989. “I played soccer with my shoes on,” he would reply, questioning, “Why do you need to kick barefoot?” By then, cleats had become so lightweight and form-fitting that it was easy to achieve the desired contact with the ball.

Karlis, the unsung hero of “The Drive,” still lives in Denver, working as director of corporate sponsorships for CenturyLink. He periodically teaches place kicking to youngsters — still preferring to take his own rips without a shoe. But in case the weather turns hostile, he counsels up-and-comers that “it’s wise” to lace ’em up. Both of them.

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