Ex-Pats kicker forever linked to Lennon
There were three seconds left in the game, score tied at 13, and million of viewers watching "Monday Night Football" as New England Patriots kicker John Smith trotted onto the Orange Bowl field 30 years ago.
For those who remember the next few moments of that night, Dec. 8, 1980, Smith and the game itself have become historical and cultural markers overshadowed by but forever connected to Howard Cosell's announcement that John Lennon had been shot and killed.
"Remember, this is just a football game, no matter who wins or loses," Cosell told TV viewers. "An unspeakable tragedy, confirmed to us by ABC News in New York City: John Lennon, outside of his apartment building on the West Side of New York City, the most famous, perhaps, of all the Beatles, shot twice in the back, rushed to Roosevelt Hospital, dead on arrival. Hard to go back to the game after that news flash, which in duty bound, we have to take."
As fans watching the game on TV listened to Cosell deliver the stunning news, all they saw was Smith preparing for a field goal attempt. Meanwhile, players and fans inside the stadium were not aware of what Cosell had just announced on national television. There was no public-address announcement or murmur through the crowd, like there would have been today with people scanning social-networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook.
Instead, fans inside the stadium watched as Smith's kick was blocked, disappearing into the aqua and orange of Miami's defensive line. The Dolphins scored on the first possession of overtime to win 16-13, and Smith and his Patriots teammates walked off the field, knowing that another opportunity had slipped away.
"I was upset and mad because we didn't make the kick, and I was also thinking, 'What the heck happened up front with our offensive line?'" recalled Smith, 60. It was not until reporters entered the locker room that the players found out about Lennon.
"The press was talking about two things: the fact that we'd lost the game and we had a lead in the fourth quarter, and then it changed to John Lennon," Smith said. "It put things in perspective."
Smith's early years
From an early age, Smith had considered professional football -- just not the American version. Born and raised in England, Smith had excelled in soccer and was offered his first pro contract at age 16. He turned it down, though, to pursue his education. Outside the classroom and the soccer pitches, Smith enjoyed listening to a local band that was quickly breaking down international borders all over the world.
"My high school period was the middle '60s, and the Beatles were the No. 1 group in Europe, and they were the love of England," Smith said. "Everybody had Beatles records. We all grew the Beatles haircuts."
Smith arrived in the United States in 1972 prepared to teach and coach soccer when a young camper with a strange-shaped ball asked him to kick a football. It altered his career path. He had a tryout with the Patriots in 1973, and he quickly became the players' favorite rookie to haze.
"I had a funny accent. I didn't know what was going on, and I was a kicker," he said. "So they thought it was hilarious to hear me sing and almost every single night, they were looking around for me to make sure I'd get on the table."
He always chose a Beatles song, serenading his teammates as they ate dinner, slowly working his way through the Beatles catalog. With no end in sight, Smith had a plan.
"One night I stood up and sang 'God Save the Queen,' and everyone threw their bread rolls at me," he said. "I stood there singing 'God Save the Queen' until the end, and they never asked me again to stand up."
On the field
The adjustments for Smith on the field were just as entertaining. One day at camp, Smith was contently juggling a soccer ball on an adjacent practice field when he heard New England coach Chuck Fairbanks yelling his name.
He ran over to the field where the Patriots were scrimmaging the Washington Redskins. An irritated Fairbanks barked, "We need you to kick." Smith ran onto the field and kicked his first NFL field goal -- without his helmet, which was resting comfortably on the other field with his soccer ball.
Smith laughs when he thinks about his first preseason game.
"The first game of football I ever saw was the first game I was in, which was the Hall of Fame against the San Francisco 49ers," he said. "They didn't even tell me what a down was. I had no clue what was going on."
Smith says he can still see and hear the 49ers linebacker lined up across the field as he prepared for his first kickoff.
"It was the first time I'd lined up for a kickoff with live people in front of me and this linebacker was yelling all sorts of abuse towards me and my mother," he said. "By the time I kicked the ball, I forgot about kicking it clean out of the end zone. I was just watching the linebacker. I barely kicked it to the 20-yard line."
Cosell, who was announcing that game, said Smith could be back in England if he continued to kick like that.
Smith recalled, "My wife was watching at home in Boston and was nervous when she heard Cosell. Will they really send you back?"
The answer was yes, and no. Smith was cut after the Hall of Fame Game but earned the kicking job the next year with a young and upcoming Patriots team. He held on to it for 10 years.
Smith led the NFL in scoring in 1979 and 1980. For the Patriots, this was their last chance to remove the label of "paper champions." Considered one of the most talented teams in the league, the Patriots went 50-26 from 1976 to 1980 but could not win a playoff game.
'I love American football'
Today, Smith runs his own soccer academy in Milford, Mass. From 2-year-olds learning to dribble to 18-year-olds with college and professional aspirations, Smith and his daughter Felicity guide them.
He hasn't lost the kind of enthusiasm that he brought to his first soccer camp in Massachusetts four decades ago. But a big grin appears on his face when he talks about his adopted love.
"I love American football," he said. "I never miss a game. I am the biggest Patriots supporter in the world."
And when the subject turns back to that night in Miami 30 years ago, Smith says: "It's amazing I was associated with his death, growing up a Beatles fan and being the only Englishman in pro football. It's amazing how things happen in this world."
Jeff Ausiello is a producer for ESPN.
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