In the Kroger Field press box before a football game earlier this season, the hot topic of discussion was, “Who was the last ‘straight-ahead’ kicker for Kentucky?”
My Herald-Leader colleague John Clay and I both thought the answer was Tommy Griggs.
As soccer-style kickers were taking over American football, Griggs was an old-school, straight-ahead kicker who handled UK’s place-kicking in the 1978, 1980 and 1981 seasons.
“I think it was me,” Griggs said recently when asked who the final “toe kicker” was at Kentucky.
After some research, as best as I can tell, the 59-year-old Griggs was the last front-of-the-foot kicker who held the Kentucky place-kicking job for an entire season.
However, straight-ahead kicker John Hutcherson handled the placements for UK in its 20-16 loss to West Virginia in the 1983 Hall of Fame Bowl after regular place-kicker Chris Caudell (a soccer-style kicker) was suspended for the game.
Back in the day, the straight-ahead kickers ruled football. However, by the late 1970s/early 1980s a wave of soccer-trained, foreign-born players started revolutionizing the art of place-kicking in the NFL.
The success of soccer-style kicking promptly trickled down through lower levels of football.
“I started recognizing as I got around high school (at Tates Creek) that the trend was going to be soccer-style, it was going to be the future,” Griggs said. “There were times I thought about switching over.”
As a child growing up in Lexington, Griggs idolized NFL place-kicker/quarterback George Blanda.
Blanda had been a University of Kentucky star in his college days (1945-48). Griggs’ father, John Griggs, had also been a standout player for Bear Bryant at UK, serving as Kentucky’s team captain in 1952.
As former Bryant-era Wildcats, Blanda and John Griggs were friends.
“My dad and George Blanda were talking on the phone one day and he let me talk with him,” Tommy Griggs said. “I was really nervous. (Blanda) was my idol. But he gave me some pointers, some things to do and some things not to do.”
“How to practice. How much to practice,” Griggs said. “(Blanda) told me a kicker’s leg is sort of like a baseball pitcher’s arm, you don’t want to overdo it.”
A straight-ahead kicker, Blanda booted 335 field goals in an NFL career that, amazingly, ran from 1949 until 1975 — when he was 48 years old.
Griggs decided if straight-ahead kicking was good enough for George Blanda, it would remain good enough for him.
“I had been the kicker on my teams since I was, like, 8 years old in pee wee (football),” Griggs said. “(Straight-ahead) kicking was just the way I had always done it. So, I just kind of stuck with it.”
To understand how thoroughly soccer-style kicking transformed the parameters of what was possible in football, consider:
In his epic NFL career, Blanda hit on 52.4 percent of his field-goal tries, going 335-for-639.
There are three primary theories for why soccer-style place-kicking has proven so much more effective than toe kicking ever was.
1.) “When you kick the ball off the side of your foot, you have more surface (of the foot) on the ball for a longer time, so that will allow you to be more accurate and more consistent,” said Steve Ortmayer, a former NFL general manager and University of Kentucky special teams coach.
2.) In a July 2018 Sports Illustrated article on Mark Moseley, the last great straight-ahead kicker in the NFL, writer Michael Farber noted that swinging the leg in a soccer-style motion “generate(s) and direct(s) more speed onto the ball (than toe kicking) because of the angular momentum, the rotation of the hip across the axis of the torso.”
3.) “There are so many kids playing soccer now, the talent pool of kids training their legs to kick that way is huge,” Ortmayer said. “There’s just a lot more kicking talent to choose from.”
Even as the window for straight-ahead kickers was closing, Tommy Griggs produced a solid UK career.
He led Kentucky in scoring in three seasons, 1978, 1980 and 1981.
In 1979, Griggs missed a potential game-winning field goal in a season-opening loss to Miami (Ohio) and, as a result, lost the starting place-kicking position to another straight-on kicker, Rick Strein.
However, Griggs persevered and won the starting job back over his final two seasons. For his UK career, Griggs hit 21 of 31 field goals and 47 of 51 PATs.
“The old square-toe kicking shoe,” Tommy Griggs said. “You can probably only find them in a museum now.”