A Hungarian teenager bored in an American high school decided to start kicking a basketball, which fortunately the coach of the local American football team saw. Peter Gogolák then changed the sport and played a considerable role in the fact that the rivalling leagues eventually merged – writes Forbes.
Pete Gogolak, or – as he was born in Budapest in 1942 – Péter Kornél Gogolák was a football player in Ferencváros – known as Kinizsi at the time – in his childhood when he was the teammate of Albert Flórián. However, history has intervened, making Pete not one of the dominant figures in soccer but in American football. He and his family fled the 1956 Revolution when Pete was a child – but he later “revolutionised” a sport overseas.
The essence of American football is that teams have to run as many yards as possible to get the egg-shaped ball into the other team’s so-called endzone; this is the well-known touchdown. However, a point or an extra point can also be earned by kicking the ball through the huge U-shaped goalpost; this is a field goal. In the ’60s, American footballers were kicking the ball by running towards it head on kicking from the front, so there was a lot of excitement about whether the ball was within the target and players could not kick the ball very far. This was changed by the Gogolak brothers, mostly thanks to the eldest of them, Peter.
Like all great things, it all started with a coincidence
The Gogolak family settled in Ogdensburg, New York, where Peter went to high school. On a rainy day, the school’s American football team could not train outside, and there was Gogolák in the hall, kicking a basketball far across the hall out of pure boredom. Bill Plimton, the coach of Ogdensburg, immediately asked Pete to go out on the field and kick the American football. He kicked it so hard it was difficult to follow it with plain eyes.
Although it may appear that Pete had superpowers imported from Eastern Europe, Gogolak still had a lot of work to do to become a truly outstanding player – and he trained hard. Plimton recalled a high school game when Gogolak kicked the ball so hard that it broke the goalpost in half.
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While at Cornell University’s team, Pete employed the “soccer-style” kick for the first time in the history of the sport, which has been quite a significant innovation among the pros. Gogolak kicked the ball slightly from the side, which was more effective for two reasons: he was able to aim more precisely, and he was able to kick it farther. Of course, he took the technique from his early days of playing European football, but Pete changed the game in one fell swoop. Although not a member of the Hall of Fame, the American Professional League, the NFL still considers Pete Gogolak’s kicking technique among the top 10 things that changed American football.
He was drafted in 1964 and began his professional career with the Buffalo Bills team, where he immediately excelled, delivering a quarter of the team’s points. At that time, the two professional leagues, the rival National Football League (NFL) and the American Football League (AFL) that started later organised their championship separately. Pete Gogolak became a champion in the AFL for a year in 1964 and was selected to the league’s all-star team in his first professional year.
His younger brother of two years, Charles Gogolak, graduated from Princeton University and also became a renowned player. Of course, he also used the “soccer-style” kick so effectively that the Washington Redskins first drafted him after college in 1966, never before having a kicker drafted so early after graduation, which shows good Gogolaks were as kickers compared to their competitors.
Peter gained over 100 points in his first two professional years. This record was only broken more than 20 years later, in 1988 (but Gogolak managed to get this point in 14 games instead of the record-breaker’s 16).
“Today, everyone in the league is doing point kicks in the “soccer-style”, and it is good to see that,” – Pete said in a 1991 interview.
He could have started a “war”
1966 was an important year for a different reason. The older of the Gogolaks, Pete changed teams. “This move could even spark a war between the two pro leagues,” wrote the AP news agency on May 18, 1966, about Peter leaving Bills in the AFL, joining the New York Giants in the NFL. It was the first transfer from AFL to the competitor NFL.
Until then, there was a tacit agreement between the two leagues not to entice players away from each other’s teams, and while there was nothing legally inconceivable in the Giants’ move, many AFL team owners were angered. In fact, the loss of an emerging star hurt AFL so much because along with hiring many talents from the University Championships, they had just struck a new contract for television broadcasting rights. Gogolak later said that the Giants simply had a much better offer. Buffalo paid $ 2,900 for two consecutive champion titles, and the New York Giants offered three times as much. He earned the second-most points in the league and was already a sought-after player, so accepting the offer of the Giants, who struck a four-year contract with Pete for $ 35,000. But this put intense pressure on the leaders of the AFL teams to give their stars a fair pay going forward.
The AFL slowly realised that a bigger national league could mean more profits and the two leagues would no need to compete with one another.
The American sports press later remembered the infamous transfer as the first step toward merging the AFL and NFL. The war between the two leagues did not break out in the end; instead, it was first organised in 1967 that the ever-popular AFL champion competed with the NFL champion. This eventually opened the way to a merger in 1970, henceforth called the American Super Bowl officially. The 32-team NFL has two main groups, so-called conferences.
According to Pete Gogolak, it is an exaggeration to claim that his transfer has begun the merger of the two pro leagues, though he modestly admits that he might have had something to do with it.
Peter Gogolak retired from the Giants in 1974, leaving many records behind. His brother was certified by the New England Patriots and finished his sports career there. The Gogolak brothers who reformed the American football, Charles and Peter are still living in the United States. Charles had a career as a broker, and Peter worked as a firm manager in Manhattan. He is now 77 years old and lives in Connecticut.