Friday, July 13, 2012

Kickin' It Old School: Stars on the Pitch and the Gridiron

So today my son, who’s two years old, is finishing his first week-long soccer class.  OK, so he spent more time chasing bees and picking dandelions than he did kicking the ball, but it’s the experience that counts.

To commemorate this remarkable achievement (by me, who spent the week of chasing him down for an hour a day), I thought we’d take a look at the few athletes who made names for themselves in both the NFL and professional soccer.  Plenty of NFL current and former players played soccer at some part in their youth. 

Take Morten Andersen, for example.  Born in Denmark, Morten Andersen grew up playing soccer and narrowly missed making the Danish junior national soccer team.  He came to America during high school as an exchange student, and, on a whim, tried out for the school’s football team as a kicker.  He only played one season, but his performance was so incredible that he received a scholarship to attend Michigan State University.  He set numerous records while at Michigan State and continued his record setting ways in the NFL, including the record for most points scored in a career (with 2,544).  Andersen played for six teams over his 25-year career, finally retiring in 2008 at the age of 48.

And, as NFL wide receiver Chad Ochocinco will tell you, soccer is a great way for players to stay in shape.  In the spring of 2011, during the player lockout, Chad tried out for the MLS team in Kansas City, Sporting KC.  Though it was obvious that he lacked the skills needed to play, the team gave him an honorary spot on its reserve team; he wasn’t given a contract or money.  It worked out for all parties involved:  Chad had a professional-level workout regimen, and the Kansas City team, and Major League Soccer generally, got some free publicity.  Click the following link for more on the Ochocinco soccer odyssey:

Below, though, are those who took their devotion to The Beautiful Game much further, actually turning pro in both soccer and “American football” (as the rest of the world calls it, since they call soccer “football”).  As you might expect, each of these players were kickers in the NFL.


Brothers Chris and Matt Bahr have soccer (and the State of Pennsylvania) in their blood:  their father is Walter Bahr (right), who is a member of the National Soccer Hall of Fame.  Their brother Casey played professional soccer, and was a member of the 1972 U.S. Olympic soccer team (their sister, Davies, didn’t play soccer but was an All-American gymnast at Penn State). 

Chris attended Penn State and was the first round draft pick of the 1975 North American Soccer League Draft.  He played for the Philadelphia Atoms for one impressive season before leaving the pitch for the NFL.  He also made the 1976 U.S. National Team and scored the team’s only two goals in their win over Bermuda in the Olympic qualifiers.  Chris joined the Cincinnati Bengals, for whom he played from 1976 until 1980, when he was signed by the Oakland/L.A. Raiders.  His tenure with the Raiders was when he hit his stride, becoming second on the Raiders’ all-time scoring list (with 817) and setting a career field goal record (162) that stood until 2007; he also earned two Super Bowl rings with the Raiders.  He finished out his career with the San Diego Chargers in 1989.

Brother Matt also went to Penn State and, like his brother, entered the world of professional soccer after graduation.  He played for teams in the North America Soccer League and American Soccer League in 1978 and 1979, until he was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in the sixth round of the 1979 NFL Draft.  Between 1979 and 1995, Matt kicked for six different teams.  Don’t let his nomadic career fool you into thinking he wasn’t a success, though.  He won a Super Bowl ring in his rookie year (he kicked one field goal and three extra points) and single-handedly won the 1990 NFC Championship Game for the New York Giants, kicking five field goals to beat the San Francisco 49ers 15-13.  One week later, he kicked the winning field goal for the Giants in Super Bowl XXV (he scored two field goals and two extra points).* 


How most of the world knows Clive
Clive Allen has the distinction of playing for more London-based clubs than any other soccer player in history.  He started his career in 1978 with the Queens Park Rangers at the age of 17.  He had a stellar two years with QPR, prompting soccer club Arsenal to offer his team £1.25 million for his services.  Strangely, Allen spent only two months with Arsenal and never played a single match.  He likely never bought a house during his whole career, ultimately changing jobs ten times over his seventeen-year career.  Long after his playing career was over, Allen became manager of Tottenham Hotspur’s reserve team.  So, how does Clive Allen make this list?  Glad you asked.  In 1997, he was a kicker for the London Monarchs, a team in NFL Europe.


Aldo T. “Buff” Donelli only played soccer professionally.  He was an excellent college football player, but he earns a spot on this list for his brief career as an NFL coach.  Donelli attended college at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania, where he played halfback and punter.  Although he had respectable success in football, he excelled at soccer and enjoyed a thirteen-year career playing for five different clubs between 1925 and 1938.  His crowning achievement on the pitch, however, was his selection to the U.S. team for the 1934 World Cup.  The United States beat Mexico 4-2 in their qualifier; Donelli scored all four U.S. goals, making him the first American to score his first three international goals in the same match (the next person to do that was Sacha Kljestan in 2009). Aldo scored the only U.S. goal in the World Cup tournament, in their 7-1 loss to Italy in the first round; no other American would score on Italian soil for 58 years.  Donelli’s achievements in soccer led to his induction into the U.S. National Soccer Hall of Fame in 1954.

After his soccer career ended, Aldo returned to football as a coach—first for his alma mater, Duquesne (pronounced “dew KAYN”).  Over his four seasons as head coach, the Dukes had a 29-4-2 record and finished in the Associated Press top ten twice.  In 1947, he became the head coach at Boston University where he stayed until 1956 and had a 46-34-4 record.  His next stop was Columbia University, earning the Lions their only Ivy League championship in 1961.**

It was during his tenure at Duquesne, though, that he first dipped his toe in the NFL coaching pool.  In 1941, Pittsburgh Steelers co-owner Bert Bell resigned as head coach after the Steelers lost its first two games.  Donelli was asked to replace Bell, and was allowed to continue coaching the Dukes, who were on their way to a perfect season.  He would coach the Steelers in the mornings (while classes were going on) then commute to school to coach in the afternoons.  After five games, the NFL made him choose between the two teams, and Donelli chose Duquesne.  It was probably for the best—the Steelers lost all five games under his stewardship.  This juggling act earned Aldo the distinction of being the only man to coach a college and NFL team at the same time—not a feat likely to be repeated.  Aldo would experiment with the pro game one more time, coaching the Cleveland Rams to a 4-6 record in 1944.

*Super Bowl XXV is also remembered for Whitney Houston’s inspiring rendition of the Star Spangled Banner.  Click here to see a video of that performance.

**The hole in Donelli’s coaching resume was caused by World War II; he was drafted into the Navy in 1944.


  1. Kyle Rote, the SMU star who played on the great Giants' teams of the 1950's, had a son -- Kyle Rote, Jr. -- who became the first major American-born soccer star. (Rote's cousin, Tobin Rote, was a star QB at Rice who is the only QB to win both an NFL and AFL championship.)

  2. Football and soccer intersect in some ways, and I was surprised that there weren't more players who went pro in both, especially in the early days of football. My husband is a huge fan of English Premier League soccer, and it's easy to follow because there are so many Americans who are having stellar careers there--Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard among them. I wonder how US players like Kyle would have fared overseas.


Have a question you want answered, a correction or a comment?