INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – All Morten Andersen wanted was to experience a taste of America, to learn the language and social norms.
It was 40 years ago and he was a high school senior in Denmark who would spend 10 months at Ben Davis High School as part of a cultural exchange program.
The consequences were decidedly more life-altering than intended, and nothing short of historic.
Andersen – in 1977 a kid with wide eyes, an open mind and zero knowledge of American football – finds himself part of NFL immortality. He’s a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Class of 2017 on the strength of a 24-year career that saw him set all-time records for scoring and games played. He played until he was – brace yourself – 47.
The final step comes Aug. 5 with enshrinement ceremonies in Canton, Ohio, but that first step came four decades ago.
And at the time, no one could have envisioned what would be, certainly not Andersen.
“The intent was to come to America as a cultural exchange student for 10 months then go back home and finish my studies in Denmark,’’ he said. “American football was not on the radar at all for me. It was simply to learn the language, immerse myself in the American way of life, soak up as much as I could about American culture – the language, the social values – and bring that back home and impart that knowledge to other young kids who might want to come to the United States.
“There’s no question if these 10 months don’t happen, we’re not talking today. I wanted to play soccer. I was a gymnast. I was a handball player. I had no interest (in American football). I didn’t know anything about the game. The shape of the ball was different. There were so many things that were foreign to me and I spoke very little English at the time.’’
His host parents, Dale and Jean Baker, both of whom are deceased, were the buffers as Andersen waded into a new world.
As it turned out, Andersen’s life changed dramatically when Dale Baker steered him toward Ben Davis’ football team. The kid with a thundering left foot offered immediate impact.
When the Giants opened the ’77 season, Coach Bob Wilbur’s son, Tim, handled kicking chores.
Bob Wilbur still chuckles when recalling what would be a no-brainer personnel move.
“My son kicked a 38-yard field goal and five PATs the first game because Morten was ineligible,’’ he said. “And Tim never kicked again. (Andersen) could kick the ball.
“He had no idea what a football was. He was a soccer player, but he was an athlete.’’
Andersen confirmed Wilbur’s recollection of the rapid transition, and credited football with accelerating his assimilation to the Ben Davis environment.
Football, he said, “became the vehicle for me to integrate quickly into the American high school and way of life. I had 80 new friends (just) like that when they saw the ball fly vertical and high through the uprights.
“I was the new kicker and it happened overnight, literally. That’s how my American dream started. Without it, no question we wouldn’t be talking today.’’
We are, though, because Andersen maximized his American experience.
First, a scholarship from Michigan State and productive four-year Big Ten career that included a conference-record 63-yard field goal. Next, the NFL for someone who, again, initially had no interest in American football. He was a fourth-round draft pick of the New Orleans Saints in 1982.
Andersen’s bronze bust will forever reside in Canton on the strength of an exhaustive 24-year career that included stints with five teams. He holds all-time league records with 2,544 points, 382 games played, 565 field goals and 709 field-goal attempts. He was named to seven Pro Bowls, was first-time All Pro six times and selected to NFL all-decade teams in the 1980s and 1990s.
Ben Davis H. S. figures to be well represented at the Aug. 5 enshrinement ceremony. Bob and Shirley Wilbur, along with others who helped along the way, are part of Andersen’s selected entourage.
Bob Wilbur has been battling health issues and earlier this year was hospitalized in Bonita Springs, Fla. As luck would have it, Andersen was in Bonita Springs at the time for a golf outing.
“He came to the hospital and we had a nice talk,’’ Wilbur said. “He’s just a nice young man.’’
“Bob has been instrumental and was obviously a huge part of getting my career started really, understanding that he saw some talent and giving me an opportunity to play on a really good high school team,’’ Andersen said. “I look forward to seeing him in Canton along with his wife, Shirley.’’