Ben Agajanian, 1919–2018
The ‘Toeless Wonder’ who became an NFL kicker
In 1941, Ben Agajanian suffered a gruesome injury that should have kept him off the gridiron forever. The kicker with the University of New Mexico’s football team crushed his right foot while riding an open elevator at his off-season job at a soda bottling plant, damaging four toes beyond repair. Rushed to the hospital, Agajanian pleaded with doctors to shave the remaining nubs to the same size so that he could still kick. They did, and Agajanian went on to become pro football’s first career kicking specialist. He booted field goals and extra points for nine teams, including the Los Angeles Rams and the New York Giants, over 13 seasons—all while wearing a specially designed square-toed shoe on his right foot. “Lot of guys said I was cheating because I had the hard square toe,” said Agajanian. “I said, ‘Well, you can do it, too. If it helps you, why not?’”
Born to Armenian immigrants in Santa Ana, Calif., Agajanian played football in high school and for New Mexico in 1940 and ’41, said The New York Times. He made his NFL debut in 1945, playing briefly for the Philadelphia Eagles before joining the Pittsburgh Steelers, where he was a defensive end until he broke an arm. “He then kicked while wearing a sling.” Agajanian’s teams touted him as “Bootin’ Ben the Toeless Wonder,” said the Los Angeles Times. He wasn’t a very accurate kicker by today’s standards, making about 51 percent of his field goals over his career. But he was good enough to lead the league in 1947 and 1949, and helped the Giants win the 1956 NFL Championship Game, kicking two field goals.
Agajanian made his biggest mark on the game after retiring in 1964, said NBCSports.com. As an assistant coach for the Dallas Cowboys, he realized “that soccer players kicked balls farther by approaching from an angle than football players like himself could kick with a straight-on approach.” Agajanian was so successful teaching soccer-style kicking that famed Cowboys coach Tom Landry argued he deserved a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Agajanian was never officially inducted, but a pair of his mismatched shoes—“the size 11 he wore on his plant foot and the size 7 he wore on his injured right kicking foot”—went on display there in 1974.