First, can you let us know a bit about what you’re doing with yourself these days?
My dream as a player was always to retire out West. I am a passionate fly fisherman and I love the mountains, My wife and I near the end of my career went on a number of trips to Montana, Idaho…those great Midwestern states. By accident we went on a vacation a year before I retied to a town West of Calgary near the Rocky Mountains. It was one of the most beautiful places on the planet. By the end of the week all four of us agreed it was the most beautiful place we’d ever seen.
We flew back to Minneapolis but went back a few weeks later to go back to a little town there we didn’t get to spend much time at the first time we went. The town was called Canmore – near Bampf. We had found it by accident. We fell in love with it and knew immediately it was the place we wanted to retire too. It had all of the things we were looking for – it checked all the boxes on the list.
My two sons were finishing elementary and middle school. We decided it was the best time to move rather than waiting right years before my youngest son was out of high school. It was a great move. The boys adjusted well.
How hard was the post-NFL adjustment for you?
I have to say, a couple of nights ago I was watching ESPN 360 and they had two former Titans – Eddie George and Steve McNair on. I didn’t know that Eddie George had such a struggle after he retired, a great player like that. At least he finally found an interest in acting.
For me, I was always ok. Football was never my identity. I was grateful for the experience, but my story was unique. I didn’t even know about football until I was eighteen when I immigrated to the United States from South Africa. My first game I ever played was for Syracuse, then four years later I’m a Steeler.
I couldn’t believe I was getting paid to do what I always wanted to do as a kid. Kick a ball.
I enjoyed my experience in the NFL but playing football was never close to my identity as a person. I always had a strong faith as a Christian and a great family. The NFL afforded me the unique opportunity to enjoy my career but to also do what most never get to do – hand pick my retirement.
Tell me a bit about your path to the NFL. You wanted to play soccer most of your childhood right?
Extremely so yes. My dad was Irish and played professional soccer in England. He moved us to South Africa and played soccer for two years there as well. I grew up in South Africa and wanted to play professional soccer like my dad. In fact, I was the last member of my family left in the kitchen when my dad talked to us about moving to the United States.
Were you happy about the idea?
I was not excited. I knew soccer wasn’t big in America. I just got lucky when a coach saw me kicking some balls for fun to get the chance to go to Syracuse, It’s funny. I played for Philadelphia after the Steelers and Jeffrey Lurie was the owner there and he was also involved in Hollywood movies. He told me that someday they should do a movie about my life. The first football game I ever saw was the one I played in at Syracuse!
How did you end up in Pittsburgh?
I remember it vividly. It was in my senior year at Syracuse and my head coach called me at home in my apartment on campus. He said he wasn’t sure if I heard, but that there were a lot of scouts coming to campus. It was right before the draft. He told me the Steelers were coming tomorrow and it was supposedly to look at the quarterback, but he was actually informed it was to see me. Noll was flying in on Rooney’s private jet to have me kick for him.
I remember it vividly, being out on the field with the great Chuck Noll. In his mild-mannered way, he said to me “Gary. Do you mind if I hold for you?” I couldn’t tell him no! So he asked me how I liked him to hold the ball. So he proceeded for the next thirty minutes to hold the ball for every kick. I kicked about 60-to-70 balls for him and I think I made every one. He said to me “Gary, it will be a pleasure to have you as a Steeler.”
But the Bills drafted you?
Yes, it turned out that when the draft took place the Bills traded up to take me. They I think expected that the Steelers wanted to draft me.
But training camp didn’t go so well and I was released. The Steelers minutes later picked me up and I went there. I remember walking into the locker room with all of those Hall of Fame players. My locker was in between Terry Bradshaw and Franco Harris. I was near Craig Colquitt. I asked Craig who we played that Sunday. He told me we didn’t play Sunday. We played Dallas on Monday Night Football!
It was amazing. I remember being with my family for Christmas before the draft. My dad asked me which team I wanted to draft me, and I told him the Steelers, It was my dream to play there.
How did you adjust as a rookie – anyone mentor you as a new guy?
No one really did that. I remember one thing that came to mind that rookie season. It was disappointing. That Monday night game versus Dallas I kicked four field goals and we won that game late. Then at home I kicked a field goal versus Cincinnati late to send it to overtime and we won in overtime.
The next day the players went on strike. It was disappointing as a young player. I didn’t understand the full context and had no idea how long it would last. I remember going back to the locker room to get my cleats so I could practice kicking during the strike and Mr. Rooney happened to walk in when I was there. He said “Hey Gary. I know the strike is supposed to be about the players versus the owners.” He put his arm around me and told me “Here is my phone number. If you need anything let me know and I’ll be sure to get you what you need.” You hear stories about him all the time and this is another one of those. For me, that was when I knew I was on the right team.
Any good stories from your time there?
I started to feel comfortable as a rookie after I made some kicks. But the only guy that didn’t say a word to me was Jack Lambert. Frankly, I think I was petrified of him.
After the Bengals game at Three Rivers, as we left the locker room we walked through the training room. Jack was probably pretty banged up – he was at the end of his career then. He was sitting on a table and said as I walked by “Yo!” and beckoned me with his hand to go over to him. I did and he shook my hand and said “Great kicking.” That was the moment I knew I was welcomed to the team!
Also, I’m sure you may have heard this story before. The Steelers players used to tell the rookies every Thanksgiving they had a free turkey for them at a grocery across town. All the rookies would then drive out there to get their turkey. The manager at the store was in on the joke. He’d tell them there must have been some misinformation, that the turkeys were really at a different store across town in North Hills, so they’d go across town again to get it there. Of course, there was never any turkeys for them!
I think that’s one f the reasons the team was so successful. It really was a family.
Tell me about your thoughts on the new kicking rules/approach of the NFL – the changes sine you kicked. Any thoughts on them?
I have to say I have mixed feelings about it. The part some people don’t understand is the reason for why some of these things happened. When I played, I made 80% of my kicks and that was a Pro Bowl kicker. This aspect of football has improved so much now that 80% is just good enough to keep your job.
Prior to when I was with the Steelers, Noll was the special teams coach too. Teams didn’t have special teams coaches and long snappers and specialists. Mike Webster snapped on every kick for me. I remember once he had a high snap. The holder got it down and I made the kick, but he asked me if I should tell Mike the snap was high. I told him no, I wasn’t going to do that. He could, but I wasn’t about to do it!
The whole special teams thing – it became bigger. With meetings all week. I think me and Morten Andersen, the only two kickers then really kicking in the 80%’s, well the big brass in the NFL started to worry that kickers were becoming too important in the NFL.
Tony Parisi, the great old Italian equipment manager of the Steelers at the time, used to whisper to me every day that three field goals beat a touchdown every time. Dungy used to tell me he needed ten points from me tomorrow when we did the walk-throughs the day before a game. That meant we scored sixteen points, all he felt he needed when he was the defensive coordinator.
The changes to the kicking rules happened over time. The NFL was worried field goal kickers were have too much of an affect on the game. They were grumbling that they needed to change things. So they changed the rule on missed field goals so they’d go to the line of scrimmage instead of the twenty to reduce long field goal attempts. Recently they moved the extra point back which I think was a good idea as it was a joke before.
At Three Rivers, when we scored and I jogged on to the field to kick an extra point, that’s when everyone went to the bathroom! It had no meaning. At least now there’s some interest. That was a huge improvement from my point of view.
But the kickoff thing is ridiculous in my view. When I played they moved the kickoff back because there were too many touchbacks. Now they moved it up. Its more ridiculous. I guess the rationale was that too many people got hurt, but now kickers kick the ball into the stands. On a serious note, I think they should do what the Canadian Football League does. When a team scores, the other team just gets it on the twenty-five. It’s a complete waste of time as it is now.
Oh and lastly, tell us about your Dreams for Teams program!
Where we live is like the Jackson Hole or Aspen of the states. It has both good and bad. it’s the most expensive town in Canada. We are right next to a national park so they can’t build there. So prices are high and it’s a very popular town.
Lots of families are struggling to have their kids be able to afford to play basic sports like basketball or football. They are struggling just to pay their housing costs. I’m not sure if people in the states are aware but in Canada you pay to be able to play sports in school. It can cost hundreds of dollars and if you have man y kids it’s too expensive.
Young people I think learn great lessons from being on the athletic field. teamwork, hard work, integrity. Things employers look for. Well we started a charity golf event here that has raised a lot of money that we donate to the schools to help kids play sports. We’re trying to make a difference.
Outside of that, I also have been coaching the high school soccer team by the way. We’ve had great success. We’ve won the league and provincial championship a number of times. We have the best high school team in Alberta!
Read more by former Steelers via the book Steelers Takeaways: Player Memories Through the Decades. To order, just click on the book: