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Ben Agajanian, 98, place-kicking pioneer

UPI/file 1967

Mr. Agajanian kicked with a square-toe shoe after four of his toes were severed.

By Richard Goldstein New York Times 

NEW YORK — 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.

Mr. 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.

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Mr. Agajanian, who died on Thursday in Cathedral City, Calif., at 98, was known as the pros’ first career kicking specialist, kicking field goals and converting 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 Mr. Agajanian, a man without a position as a result of his injury, was valuable enough to continue kicking until he was 45.

After kicking for teams in the 1940s All-America Football Conference, he did the same for the New York Giants’ 1956 NFL 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 for more than two decades, advised several other NFL teams on their kicking games, and taught thousands of young kickers at his camps and clinics in Southern California.

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A pair of Mr. Agajanian’s shoes went on display at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, in 1974.

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.

He 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, designed by a boot maker, with a square leather front section.

He made his pro debut in 1945, playing briefly for the Philadelphia Eagles before joining the Pittsburgh Steelers, for whom he was a reserve defensive end until he broke an arm, then kicked while wearing a sling.

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

Mr. 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 and converted 343 of 351 extra points, and had league-leading kicking percentages with the Dons in 1947 and the Giants in 1949.

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Mr. Agajanian had approached his kicks in the conventional straight-on style, making contact with the toe. But the kicking game began to change 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. He cultivated that style when he tutored kickers.

“When I saw these little fellows 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. He taught kickers to begin an approach to the football three steps behind it and two steps to the side, at an angle less severe than the one the Europeans used, something he felt would improve accuracy. That style became common throughout the NFL.

In addition to his daughter Lynne, Mr. Agajanian leaves another daughter, Lori Hinkle; a son, Lewis; 10 grandchildren; and 11 great-grandchildren. His wife, the former Arleen Phelps, died in 2007.