Big game special: The Great Dane on staying sane in retirement

Ahead of the Super Bowl this Sunday, we catch up with Morten Andersen, the all-time leading NFL points scorer, to discuss the highs and lows of one of the sport’s most enduring careers

They called him ‘The Great Dane’. Which isn’t too surprising considering the number of sporting records Morten Andersen broke during his 25-year NFL career as a kicker.

You name it, he’s done it. Not only is Andersen the all-time leading scorer in NFL history, but he also has one of the most successful field goal conversion rates.

While the 52-year-old narrowly missed out on the NFL Hall of Fame this year, it was only his first year of eligibility for a place, and he is strongly tipped to be included soon as only the fourth kicker in NFL history, and unsurprisingly the first Dane.

Nevertheless, despite his legendary status in the game, Andersen is quick to confirm he is a mere mortal. “You know,” Andersen told the Copenhagen Post from his office in Atlanta in the kind of admission you might more normally expect from a character in ‘The Office’ sitcom. “I always liked languages. For a long time I wanted to be a translator.”

Not quite the type of comment you would expect from the only man to hold a career statistical franchise record for two NFL teams (New Orleans Saints and Atlanta Falcons).

And it gets worse. According to the all-time points scorer in the NFL, who on 565 occasions held his nerve to kick a field goal, his career boiled down to one factor: luck!

According to Andersen, his American Dream was one he sleepwalked into. When he moved to the US as an exchange student to attend the Ben Davis High School in Indianapolis, he had no plans or ambitions to become an NFL success story. He hadn’t even kicked an American football before.

Andersen was raised in the rural Jutland town of Struer, where he had showed promise in athletics − particularly the long jump, gymnastics and handball.

“Of all those sports, I was by far the best at handball,” Andersen explained. “I lacked the speed and technique to really succeed at soccer but had the physique, power and jumping ability to thrive within handball.”

A handball player who knew how to kick a ball is hardly the background you would expect from a man who was two days short of becoming the oldest NFL player to play pro ball.

“It was all down to luck,” Andersen admitted. “And that’s not false modesty. I’d never kicked a pigskin until I arrived in America. It just turned out I was quite good at it.”

“Quite good” would end up being somewhat of an understatement. After joining his high school’s football team, Andersen and his team went on to win 12 out of 13 games, catching the eyes of lurking scouts.

“Had it not been for that scholarship offer from the Michigan State scout, I’d simply have gone back to Denmark,” Andersen said. “So yeah, like I said. Total luck.”

Luck may have launched Andersen’s career, but he was on his own when it came to adapting to the culture shock that lay ahead of him. Drive-thrus, TV dinners, pick-up trucks and the faster pace of life were all things that caught Andersen completely off guard.

“Everything was basically the opposite of Denmark,” Andersen explained. “I really got into trouble at my high school prom, for example. I didn’t realise you were only supposed to bring one date. So I brought several. That didn’t go down so well.”

Dating aside, there were differences within American sports that Andersen noticed immediately − ones he was not overly enthused in adopting.

“The competitive aspect of sport is on a whole other level here in the States,” Andersen said. “Here, the result is what always seems to matter at the end of the day. The process and quality of the experience is in many cases marginalised.” 

It’s a truth that seems to be as relevant today as it was when Andersen began playing professional football. Only last year, it was revealed that Andersen’s previous employers, the New Orleans Saints, who he left in 1994, had a lucrative ‘bounty system’ in place in which players could win thousands of dollars should they injure their opposition players enough to leave the pitch.

“People get so lost in winning that everything else seems to be thrown out of the window,” Andersen explained. “In Denmark, on the other hand, you play sports together to socialise and have fun. But that’s not always the case in America, and kids can suffer from that.”

While Andersen is raising his family in Georgia, he maintains strong ties with Denmark, and has given strong public support to Denmark's Højskole programs as a means for the country’s youth to mingle together while promoting a healthy lifestyle. A program that he hopes his kids may possibly participate in too some day.

And maybe Denmark is on the cards for Andersen, as well. “I’d kill for some herring and schnapps,” he confessed. “But forget the cold and dark winters. No-one wants that.”

Andersen’s departure from the Saints, where he had become surplus to requirements, was a low point in the Dane’s career. Few then would have guessed that he would go on to play for another 12 years.

Thirteen years of service to the Saints, in which he had amassed a record breaking 1,318 points including 302 field goals, and been selected for six Pro Bowls, was suddenly all forgotten. ‘Mr Automatic’ was on his way out.

“The Saints made a huge mistake letting me go,” Andersen said defiantly. “But they paid for that. After the Atlanta Falcons signed me, we went on to beat the Saints ten times in a row.”

And to really rub it in, Andersen became the first player in NFL history to kick three field goals of over 50 yards in a single game − against none other than the Saints in December 1995.

But age waits for no man, not even the Great Dane. After 25 years, it was time to hang up his kicking boots. Andersen struggled to cope.

“It felt like dealing with death,” Andersen explained. “I had to see a therapist to help me through it. I’m okay now. But there was a big void that had to be filled.”

This is a well-documented struggle for many athletes, who often suffer from depression and a sense of loss once they leave their focused and regimented lives as sportspeople. Andersen was no different.

“Structure just falls away,” he said. “Suddenly, every day is Saturday. Then boredom starts to creep in. And when you can’t satisfy that boredom, you quickly become depressed with life and very irritable, which then affects everyone else around you.”

Nowadays, Andersen has managed to fill that void by going into business and becoming a family man. We asked if he has embraced the average American way of life after all.

“Not completely,” Andersen insisted. “I try to hold on to some of my Danish values. There are no TV dinners in my house, for example."

Looking to the future, the former handball player remains open-minded and trusts in fate.

“Throughout my career I always let the game play me, not the other way around,” he said. “I may have retired from the NFL, but that won’t change my philosophy. If anything, I’ll just let life play me like the game did.”