Ben Agajanian, Square-Shoed Kicking Star, Dies at 98

Ben Agajanian in 1960, when he was a place-kicker for the Los Angeles Chargers.

When Ben Agajanian played on the defensive line and place-kicked for the University of New Mexico, he held a job with a soft-drink bottling company to help with his college costs. One spring day in 1941, he was riding in the company’s open freight elevator when a concrete wall crushed his right foot, severing four toes.

Agajanian was told that he would walk with a limp and never play football again. But not only did he return to his college team; he also became a place-kicking pioneer in pro football.

Agajanian, who died on Thursday in Cathedral City, Calif., at 98, was known as the pros’ first career kicking specialist, kicking field goals and extra points for nine teams in three leagues over 13 seasons with a specially designed square-toe shoe.

His death was confirmed by his daughter Lynne McVay.

Coaches had traditionally used position players to double as kickers. But Agajanian, a man without a position as a result of his injury, was valuable enough to continue kicking until he was 45.

After kicking in the N.F.L. and the All-America Football Conference in the 1940s, he did the same for the Giants’ 1956 N.F.L. championship team, hitting two field goals on an icy turf at Yankee Stadium in a 47-7 title-game romp over the Chicago Bears. He went on to kick for the 1961 champion Green Bay Packers and in the young American Football League.

After his playing days, he tutored kickers for Tom Landry’s Dallas Cowboys, advised other N.F.L. teams on their kicking games and taught thousands of young kickers at his camps and clinics in Southern California.

A pair of his shoes went on display at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, in 1974.

Agajanian himself was not inducted into the hall, though Landry recommended him in 1994, saying Agajanian had “done more for the kicking game in both college and the pros in the past 50 years than anybody I know.”

Benjamin James Agajanian was born on Aug. 28, 1919, in Santa Ana, Calif., to James T. Agajanian, who built a thriving trash collection company, and the former Hamas Kardashian. His parents were Armenian immigrants.

Ben played at Compton Junior College in California, then kicked for New Mexico in 1940 and 1941. The elevator accident left his kicking foot four sizes smaller than his other foot, but he resumed kicking with a shoe that a boot maker designed with a square front section.

“Lot of guys said I was cheating because I had the hard square toe,” he told The Los Angeles Times in 2016. “I said, ‘Well, you can do it too. If it helps you, why not?’ ”

After his college years, Agajanian served in the Army Air Forces as a physical training instructor at a California base. He made his N.F.L debut in 1945, playing briefly for the Philadelphia Eagles before being traded to the Pittsburgh Steelers, for whom he was a reserve defensive end until he broke an arm. He then kicked while wearing a sling.

He took a year off to start a sporting goods business before joining the Los Angeles Dons of the All-America conference and kicking a league-high 15 field goals. It was in his two seasons with the Dons that he became solely a kicker.

Agajanian, who retired several times only to return to the pros, kicked for the Giants in 1949 and again from 1954 to 1957. He also kicked for the Los Angeles Rams (1953), the Los Angeles Chargers (1960), the Dallas Texans and the Packers (both in 1961) and the Oakland Raiders (1962) before returning to the Chargers, who had moved to San Diego, in 1964.

He made 104 of 204 field-goal attempts, converted 343 of 351 extra points and had league-leading kicking percentages with the Dons in 1947 and the Giants in 1949.

Agajanian approached his kicks in the conventional straight-on, toe-first style. But the kicking game changed in the 1960s with the arrival of European soccer-style kickers, who approached the football on an angle, using a large portion of their shoe surface.

Agajanian cultivated that style when he tutored kickers.

“When I saw these little fellas kick 50 and 60 yards, I decided that’s the way to do it,” he told The Boston Globe in 1989.

But he developed his own variation, teaching kickers to approach the ball from three steps behind it and two steps to the side, at an angle less severe than the one the Europeans used, feeling it would improve accuracy. That style became common in the N.F.L.

In addition to his daughter Lynne, Agajanian’s survivors include another daughter, Lori Hinkle; a son, Lewis; 10 grandchildren; and 11 great-grandchildren. His wife, the former Arleen Phelps, died in 2007. His brother J. C. Agajanian, who died in 1984, owned racecars that won the Indianapolis 500 twice.

One Sunday, when Agajanian was playing for the Raiders at age 43, he took matters into his own hands rather than relying on his foot. In an interview with Todd Tobias on the website Tales From the American Football League, he told of a game in which an opposing player was returning a punt.

“The guy’s going for a touchdown,” he recalled. “As he went by the bench, I went out and tackled him and went right back to the bench.”

It wasn’t until his Raider teammates looked at the game films that they discovered what he had gotten away with. It was one of the few highlights of a season in which the Raiders won only one game.

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