Fall was upon them in Abilene, Texas. Overcast skies and the crisp 58-degree air resembled the breath of a peppermint. The wind? Seventeen miles per hour with a 12 miles per hour tailwind. Sixty-nine yards was all that stood in the way of Ove Johansson and history.
Forty-three years ago, Johansson kicked a 69-yard field goal against East Texas State, becoming the record-holder for longest field goal in college football history.
Homecoming weekend brought the crowd on Oct. 16, 1976 to Abilene Christian University and Shotwell Stadium. The stands were brimming with students, faculty, staff, parents, alumni. They knew one record would be broken that day. Wilbert Montgomery was a touchdown shy of surpassing fellow Mississippi native Walter Payton's career collegiate touchdown record (63). What they didn't know of was the dialogue that preceded the game between ACU teammates Johansson and Montgomery. Both agreed to set records that day.
Two of Johansson's pregame warmup kicks were good from 70 yards.
"The leg was working," Johansson told NCAA.com, 43 years later.
Wilbert scored his long-anticipated touchdown. That didn't pressurize Johansson, but something peculiar peaked his adrenaline. Ten minutes before he and the Wildcats' special teams unit gathered at their own 41-yard line, Tony Franklin of Texas A&M kicked a 65-yard field goal (and a 64-yarder later in the game) against Baylor to take full ownership of the longest field goal in college football history.
"It was exciting to get on that field knowing if I make this field goal then I will do something that no one has ever done in the sport," Johansson said.
The kicking gods traveled 270 miles up the road from College Station to sprinkle magic kicking dust onto Johansson's right foot in Abilene. He was on target from 69 yards out, so much that the officials said it would've been good from 75 yards.
Some people like to view the kick as a fluke, that mystical powers were at work that day, that the wind gave the ball an extra life — anything to sell Johansson's achievement short.
Even the officiating crew was the least bit amused.
"One of the refs got kind of upset because he had to walk all the way down there (to retrieve the ball)," Johansson laughed through his Swedish-Texan accent.
He didn't know that he would make it, but he knew he was capable.
Many say the point at which his foot met the football sounded like a shotgun. Those same people believed the huddle at Abilene's 41-yard line was a fake. Johansson could hear laughter as he took formation. "But my wife April said, '10-15 seconds before you kicked, you could hear a needle fall in the stadium."
Here's actual footage of the video:
Ron Hadfield, Abilene's former editor of the student newspaper The Optimist and current editor of the school's alumni magazine, remembers covering the game from the sidelines that day. He recalls people asking coach Wally Bullington why he tried to kick a field goal from that spot on the field.
Bullington responded, "Well, we needed three points."
Johansson had only kicked four collegiate field goals before that game. Growing up in Sweden, the majority of his life was spent on a soccer pitch. Ironically, his dream of playing soccer moved him to Irving, Texas, in 1972 and to Dallas where he played for a European team.
Each stop led to another significant point in his life. A girl in the stands caught his eye during a game, and he spent halftime using the 24 words of English he knew to acquire her phone number. He succeeded, and the pair dated for five to six months until he got a call.
While taking on a team in Colorado Springs, Davis and Elkins College's soccer coach witnessed Johansson's play, and shortly after, offered him a soccer scholarship. He moved to West Virginia and became an All-American.
The childhood game he adored and moved across an ocean for could not compare, however, to the girl in Texas. April was enrolled at Abilene Christian and Johansson sacrificed his athletic scholarship to follow suit. The Wildcats did not have a men's soccer team, so in order to stay in Abilene, he had to try out for the football team. Two kickers already held a spot on the team, and Bullington gave Johansson a pity tryout.
In hindsight, there was nothing pitiful about it. "I said, 'This little baby's going to fly,' and I kicked off and it went through the uprights and over the chain length fence of the athletic dorm."
Coach Bullington replied, "Ove, you just made the team."
At the conclusion of the season, he was picked in the 12th round of the 1977 NFL Draft by the Houston Oilers, becoming the oldest player drafted in NFL history at 28 years, 281 days old and the first Swedish-born player in the NFL.
He spent three years bouncing around three different teams.
Today, Saturdays are for soccer. At 6 a.m. Johansson channels his childhood self and turns on the television. Viewing the 110-yard field with goal posts on opposite ends through the LED lit box, he remembers the 1958 FIFA World Cup. He was supposed to attend the every-four-year event in his hometown of Gothenburg, Sweden that year. Vicariously, he lives through the Premier League now, and any other televised soccer events.
The Swede continues on the football field helping mentor local high school kickers. He's still married to April, the woman he fell in love at the soccer game, the same woman he sacrificed his soccer dream for. It has led him onto a path of many successes personally and professionally.
And people still ask him to speak about that miraculous day in 1976.