Right before this past Sunday’s Super Bowl between the San Francisco 49ers and the Kansas City Chiefs, the NFL celebrated the Shield’s centennial season by introducing the leagues’ all-time team in front of a national audience. Most MSU students who were watching the game probably did not recognize the tall blonde-haired Norwegian introduced alongside a couple of other former Chiefs, but perhaps they should have. That blond was Jan Stenerud (emdash) the greatest Bobcat to ever play the game of football.
Surprisingly, football was never part of the reason Stenerud left his hometown of Fetsund, Norway for the MSU campus. Instead, Stenerud was a member of the Bobcat ski team when he first enrolled in classes in Bozeman. The story goes that he was training for the upcoming 1964 ski season by conditioning on MSU football’s former home at Gatton Field. To cool down after his workout, the former fútbol player would kick some field goals with one of the football players. His skill drew attention from former men's basketball coach Roger Craft, who told legendary football coach Jim Sweeney to check Stenerud out. Sweeney went down to meet the young man and take a look at what he could do. After a handful of kicks, Stenerud was offered the opportunity to suit up the following day for the season’s final game. Reflecting on this interaction, Stenerud mentioned in an earlier interview that, “It is Sweeney that changed my life.”
The first season Jan experienced as a full-time member of the MSU football team was the following campaign in 1965. That season he established himself as one of the country’s top legs, finishing the season with more field goals than the Bobcats had recorded the previous three years combined. One of those field goals was a 59 yard-attempt in a 24-7 victory over UM, which at the time was the longest successful field goal in collegiate or professional football history. His senior season in 1966 was more of the same, resulting in his recognition as the only small school player who was a member of The Sporting News All-American Class.
Stenerud’s legacy with the Kansas City Chiefs organization was the most notable during his NFL career. In KC, Stenerud became a Super Bowl champion in 1969, scoring the first nine points of the game. The Bobcat great went on to become a seven-time All-Pro, six-time Pro Bowler, Pro Bowl MVP and was the NFL’s all time leading scorer at the time of his retirement in 1985. In 1991, Stenerud was the first full-time placekicker to be rewarded a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. His fantastic professional career led to his number three jersey being retired by the Chiefs organization and, as mentioned prior, he is now recognized as one of the best players to take part in the NFL’s first 100 years of history.
Jan still holds a special place in his heart for MSU and Bozeman. MSU can say the same for Stenerud, whose legacy represents the Bobcat spirit in so many ways. He now stays connected to the community by raising thousands of dollars for athletic scholarships at MSU and working with Montana’s Special Olympics program.
Hopefully, MSU students recognized Jan Stenerud when he was introduced during the Super Bowl. If you didn’t recognize him then, you will now certainly realize and appreciate the incredible Bobcat’s legacy.