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Sunday Conversation: Football journey 'beyond the dreams' of Jan Stenerud

Posted: 11:00 AM, Feb 02, 2020
Updated: 2020-02-05 13:52:34-05
Jan Stenerud.jpg

KANSAS CITY Mo. -- Jan Stenerud's journey from his home Norway to the Montana State University ski jumping team, to the eventual joining of the Bobcats' football program and Kansas City Chiefs was admittedly beyond his wildest dreams. But Stenerud made the most of those opportunities.

During his time in Bozeman, Stenerud garnered all-American accolades in ski jumping and football, catching the attention of the next level.

Fifty years ago, Stenerud and the Chiefs defeated the Minnesota Vikings in Super Bowl IV, and the Norwegian sensation landed in multiple Pro Bowls, was named first-team all-pro and in 1991 was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. This fall, during the 100th year celebration of the National Football League, Stenerud was named to the 100th anniversary team -- one of 100 players recognized for being the all-time best at their respective positions.

Stenerud, who lives in the Kansas City area, remains a loyal Chiefs fan and will be in attendance of Sunday's Super Bowl LIV to be honored with the other 99 members of the 100th anniversary team. MTN Sports caught Stenerud on the phone earlier in the week to discuss his unique journey, winning a Super Bowl, the excitement of fellow Montana State alum Mike Person playing in Sunday's game, and what he expects between his Kansas City Chiefs and the San Francisco 49ers on football's biggest stage.

MTN Sports: I suppose every year when the Super Bowl comes around, it’s kind of a fun moment for you to look back. What do you remember about that? It’s been a while now, but being a Super Bowl champion still has a pretty sweet ring to it.

Jan Stenerud: "It has. It’s exactly 50 years ago, well not exactly, it was Jan. 11, 1970. So that’s 50 years ago, and this is the first time the Chiefs have been in the game since that time. The Chiefs Kingdom, as they call it around here, is pretty doggone excited. It’s a heck of a football team, they’re playing a heck of a football team, should be a great Super Bowl. But you know, of course, who I hope is going to win, and I think they have an excellent chance."

MTN Sports: What has it been like around that Kansas City area over the past few years, even, when they’ve been knocking on the door? It has to be pretty sweet. Do you go to any of those games? Has it been fun to watch from home or wherever?

Stenerud: "It has been fun. Of course I came to Kansas City from Bozeman in the spring of 1967, and lived here for a long time. I went to live in Colorado for a little while, couple years in Bozeman, as well, but I’ve been back here for quite a few years. The Chiefs take care of us pretty well. We get good tickets to the game, of course the top section in some of the suites, as often as I want to go to them, good parking, so we enjoy going. Arrowhead is a fabulous football stadium and a lot of excitement, so we go to almost half of the home games."

MTN Sports: You have that Chiefs connection, flip it around — on the other team you have the Montana State connection with Mike Person. We don’t see many of our Montana State or University of Montana former players playing in a Super Bowl, and especially the ones born in the state of Montana. How cool is it to see another Bobcat playing on the big stage?

Stenerud: "It’s very exciting. I got a call from somebody the other day, I believe they said there are six of us from Montana State that played in the Super Bowl. Obviously I believe I was the first, as I was in Super Bowl IV 50 years ago. But I heard a lot of good things about Mike Person. He is from Glendive, Montana, and we had a lot of teammates from Glendive — Don Hass was from Glendive, Bob Senden was from Glendive. Of course Jerry Jamison, the mayor up there was a teammate of mine from Glendive. I think it’s pretty doggone special, pretty neat that a kid from there, then go to Montana State and now to play in the big game for the 49ers, it’s great to hear that."

MTN Sports: If you had any advice for him being a smaller school guy, being from Montana State, what would that advice be for somebody like that? Because it’s a pretty eye-opening stage.

Stenerud: "I’m sure he’s been given advice all week long. What everybody tells you is, ‘Try to keep the distractions to a minimum, try to keep to your routine,’ because you’re going to hear from friends and also people you haven’t heard from in years, and then there’s the ticket situation. There are so many things. And also the media, I think they have about 5,000 or 6,000 people in Miami with media credentials, so you get tugged in every direction. Everybody will tell you, ‘Make it as normal as possible,’ which is not easy to do, but sticking to your routine and trying not to get involved in much of the hoopla, that’s the key."

MTN Sports: Fifty years ago were people hitting you up for tickets? Was it as big of a deal then?

Stenerud: "(Laughs). Well it was a big deal. By that time, the Chiefs played in Super Bowl I, as well. The Packers beat them, and then the Packers won Super Bowl II. The third Super Bowl is when the Jets beat Baltimore, and Baltimore was favored by 18 points, and then when we got to Super Bowl IV it was finally called the Super Bowl, and the Minnesota Vikings, our opponents, were 13- or 14-point underdogs, mainly because of the NFL versus the AFL. At that time it had become the biggest sporting event in America. There were 80,000 people at the Tulane Stadium, it was in New Orleans, and of course the SuperDome was built about five years later. I know that reports after that said that 70 million people watched that game on television in America. Keep in mind that there were 225 million people living here then. Now there are 325 million people, so believe it or not, the percentage of people in this country viewing their television that game, was similar to what it is today. At that time, it had become the biggest sporting event in America. Today, with all the cable news and stuff, it is almost mind-boggling what it is, but at that time, we knew what was at stake in that particular game — it was for the championship of professional football and it was a really, really big deal."

MTN Sports: How do you take in the Super Bowl these days? Sitting at home on the couch with a nice spread of food in the kitchen? Do you go somewhere else and have a party?

Stenerud: "I didn’t go for many, many years, and then in the late 80s, I retired in 1985, I was asked by Norwegian television to make some commentary for three or four years at the game. In 1991 I was elected to the NFL Hall of Fame, and from then on I have gone quite a few times because, to be personally honest with you, you get paid for going, you get paid for attending certain lunches and dinners and autograph shows. They fly you down there, so I was pretty fortunate. This year is really the best deal ever because I was fortunate enough to be picked to the 100-year team, the NFL is 100 years old this year, and I’ll be a guest of the league. They are bringing myself and our spouses down to the game on Thursday, we’ll go to several functions — the commissioner party and the honors show party, and also be a guest and sit in the suites during the game to watch the game, and we’ll have a little bit of introductions during the game on that particular day, so this is pretty sweet. But the neatest thing about it is, the Chiefs are playing in the game, so this will be, I’m really looking forward to it."

MTN Sports: That all couldn’t be more perfect timing, could it? To have the Chiefs and this 100th-year anniversary all-time teams stuff?

Stenerud: "No it worked out, you’re exactly right. I couldn’t be more happy."

MTN Sports: Does it ever seem like a dream? You look at being a Super Bowl champion, Pro Bowls, all star games, the 100th-year anniversary, your number is retired, you’re in a couple teams’ hall of fames — does it ever seem like a dream where you have to pinch yourself?

Stenerud: "I came to Montana State from Norway on a ski scholarship, we actually had ski jumping in the NCAA competition in those days, and I did that, cross country. Of course, my summer sport had been soccer, so I started just messing around kicking the football my junior year with the kicker on the team, Dale Jackson from Great Falls, and then word got out, (former Montana State men’s basketball coach) Roger Craft saw me, and he informed football coach Jim Sweeney, and Sweeney took a chance on me. It was kind of remarkable. It was the fall of 1964. A couple years later I’m in pro football. So it was a pretty unscripted journey, totally unexpected. I guess it is pretty remarkable what has happened. I was told about the ‘Land of opportunity,’ but this goes beyond the dreams that one could possibly have.?

MTN Sports: That was going to be my next question actually, because if you’re not down there messing around, kicking the football, none of this happens. If you want to talk about being in the right place at the right time, it doesn’t get much more definitive of that.

Stenerud: "The reason, it was totally by chance. Years later, and I was the fourth kicker to kick what they call soccer style in the NFL, pro football, years later if a guy came from South America or Europe, if he was an exchange student at the high school, they were probably asking if he played soccer, maybe he could try out for kicker on the team. In my case, that happened after myself, I had gotten into the league instead of the other way around. But my story added to that, asking some of the younger kids to follow me from other parts of the world to try. But in my case, it was very fortunate. I cannot thank Jim Sweeney enough for giving me the chance and believing and doing that. He didn’t have to. It was kind of a sideshow, kind of a circus at the time, so Roger Craft talking to him, and then, of course, it was Jim that made it all possible, so I will always be very grateful and thankful for Jim Sweeney. He was one of the most dominant persons I’ve ever met, he was a great football coach, and I think about him a lot. Also, I would say too, the teammates that we had that welcomed me on the team in those days. My first year, my senior year was in 1965, and I remember most of the names, of course, we beat the Grizzlies that year, I remember, 24-7, and that was a big deal. It was just a great experience to be on an American college campus, because mostly in Europe you have club sports, you compete in your local clubs — ski club, speed skating club or soccer club — you don’t compete from school to school. So that whole experience was just phenomenal."

MTN Sports: When you sit back, do you keep in touch with any of those former teammates? You mention all their names and stuff, do you ever get a chance to shoot the breeze?

Stenerud: "Gary Richards from Billings is probably the one I stayed in closest contact with. He was a tight end, and actually played quarterback a few times that year. He was actually the starting quarterback when we beat the Grizzlies. Dennis Erickson was on the team the following year. Marv Tiller was the one that held the ball for me, he was Joe Tiller’s younger brother. Gosh, Terry Albrecht from Great Falls, we had Don Hass, we had Jerry Jamison from Glendive, the mayor of Glendive for a long time. The list goes on and on. Jim Tuss, there was Dan Duff. I hate to leave anyone out, there were so many. Ron East was on that team, played for many years in the NFL. There were so many people that did great things, and they welcomes me with open arms. There were so many, so many. I see them often when I go back up to the Bobcat games."

MTN Sports: I was going to ask, how often do you get to come back?

Stenerud: "I get back there almost once a year. Almost once a year. Bozeman is one of my favorite places in the entire world. It’s a beautiful town, it brings back great memories. It’s a pretty town with skiing, mountains, of course, as part of the skiing life. Actually, I’m going up there for the NCAA Ski Championships in the middle of March, in a month-and-a-half or so."

MTN Sports: I was just going to say, they’re hosting that out there at Bridger Bowl, so there’s another perfect tie-in to come back.

Stenerud: "Absolutely. I look forward to that."

MTN Sports: How close is skiing in Montana to skiing in Norway? I don’t feel like that must be very close?

Stenerud: "When I grew up, everybody cross country skied, and all the kids in school were ski jumping. Now that has changed. I go back there quite often, too, and the ski jumping hills, in my hometown there were 3,000-4,000 people, and we had over 20 ski jumping hills. Two or three of them we could light up in the evening after supper so we could go over there and practice. In the evening it was lit up like a well-lit football stadium here. But now, from what I hear, the masses do not ski jump anymore, they do a lot of cross country skiing. So now the ski jumpers there that developed, like professional tennis players or golfers here, they go to certain camps and develop from a young age. So the masses are not involved in jumping, but I hear cross country, and they do quite a bit of alpine skiing. They have gotten very good at that, as well. Alpine is with the slalom and downhill of course. By the way, downhill, I believe, is an even tougher sport than ski jumping was."

MTN Sports: Do you still try to serve as an ambassador for both sports? Try to make sure that the youth is coming up and learning about it, keeping both going — football and skiing?

Stenerud: "I’m living in Kansas City, so I don’t have much part in that at all. (Laughs)"

MTN Sports: It’s tough to do out there for skiing.

Stenerud: "(Laughs). It’s pretty flat, and there’s not much snow either."

MTN Sports: We know who you’re rooting for, but tell me what you think is going to happen on Sunday.

Stenerud: "My heart tells me, and even my head, the Chiefs will win, I say 31-17."

MTN Sports: 31-17, OK. It’s kind of the contrasting styles with Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs road show, but you have these 49ers that are playing that gritty, old-school style of football. Is that more the style of football you guys were playing back in the day?

Stenerud: "The game has changed quite a bit. Every rule change they’ve made in 50 years is to enhance the passing game, to make it easier to throw the ball, I suppose. It has become, very much, a quarterback’s game. But still, in the big games, defense is the key role. And you know that the defense of the 49ers is maybe the best in all of football."

MTN Sports: Final question, I have to ask — if the Chiefs have someone go down at kicker, could you step in and still boot one through in the big moment this weekend?

Stenerud: "I’ll stay warm through the game just in case."