Ben Agajanian, a placekicker who overcame the amputation of four toes on his kicking foot to kick two field goals for the New York Giants in the 1956 NFL Championship Game, died Feb. 8 at age 98 in Cathedral City, Cal.
Agajanian, one of the NFL’s first kicking specialists, was believed to be the oldest former Giants player.
Benjamin James Agajanian was born on Aug. 28, 1919 in Santa Ana, Cal. to Armenian immigrants. His father, James, built a successful trash collecting business. Agajanian graduated from San Pedro High School in Los Angeles. He played at Compton Junior College as a defensive lineman and kicker before transferring to the University of New Mexico.
Agajanian worked for a soft-drink company to help offset his tuition at New Mexico. In 1941, he was riding in the freight elevator when his right foot was crushed by a concrete wall. Doctors were forced to remove four of Agajanian’s toes. He was told his football career was over and he would walk with a limp for the rest of his life.
Agajanian’s right foot was four sizes smaller than his left after the accident but it wasn’t the end of his football career…not by a long shot. He continued his career as a kicker thanks to a specially designed shoe with a square leather section in the front. This was not well received as opponents viewed it as cheating.
Agajanian made his professional debut with the Philadelphia Eagles in 1945. He also played for the Pittsburgh Steelers during the ’45 season. Agajanian was also a Steelers reserve defensive end until he suffered a broken arm.
After the 1945 season, he took a year off to start a sporting goods business before resuming his career with the Los Angeles Dons of the All-America Football Conference in 1947. He became a full-time kicker in his two seasons with the Dons (1947-48) before joining the Giants for the first time in the 1949 season.
Agajanian led the AAFC in field goal percentage in 1947 (62.5 percent) and the NFL in 1949 (61.5 percent). He retired for a second time after the 1949 season but returned to the NFL with the Los Angeles Rams in 1953.
Agajanian returned to the Giants in 1954. His most memorable moment came against the Chicago Bears in the 1956 NFL Championship Game on the icy turf of Yankee Stadium. Agajanian kicked two field goals in the 47-7 blowout which was the Giants’ last league championship until defeating the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XXI.
Agajanian spent a total of five seasons with the Giants, his longest tenure with any team during his professional career. He retired for a third time after the 1957 season but signed with the American Football League’s Los Angeles Chargers in their inaugural 1960 season. The Chargers lost to the Houston Oilers in the first AFL Championship Game.
He spent 1961 with the AFL’s Dallas Texans (later known as the Kansas City Chiefs) and NFL’s Green Bay Packers. Agajanian was on the Packers’ sideline during the 1961 NFL Championship Game against the Giants. The Packers shut the Giants out 37-0, the first of Vince Lombardi’s (the Giants’ offensive coordinator during Agajanian’s second tenure with the team) five league championships (including Super Bowls I and II) in a seven-year span.
Agajanian finished his professional career with the AFL’s Oakland Raiders (1962) and Chargers after their move to San Diego (1964), retiring at age 45. He kicked 104 field goals in 204 attempts (51 percent) and made 343 of 351 extra point attempts (97.7 percent).
Agajanian was tapped by Dallas Cowboys head coach Tom Landry to be the team’s kicking coach after his final retirement as a player. Landry was the Giants’ defensive coordinator during Agajanian’s second tenure.
Agajanian initially made contact with the ball with his toe. He changed his style once he saw the European soccer-style kickers of the AFL, who approached the ball on an angle and used much of the shoe surface to make contact. As a coach, Agajanian taught a kicking style that is now commonplace: three steps behind the ball, two steps to the side of it, and at a lesser angle than the one championed used by the European soccer-style kickers.
Agajanian spent 20 seasons as the Cowboys’ kicking coach and was a consultant for other NFL teams. He also taught kicking at various camps and clinics throughout southern California and Texas.
A pair of Agajanian’s special shoes have been on display at the Pro Football Hall of Fame since 1974. Landry recommended Agajanian himself for induction in 1994, saying that he had “done more for the kicking game in both college and the pros in the past 50 years than anybody I know”.
Agajanian never completely lost his hitting ability. During his season with the Raiders, he left the bench to make a tackle on a punt return at age 43.
“The guy’s going for a touchdown,” he said in a 2002 interview republished in 2012 on the website Tales from The American Football League. “As he went by the bench, I went out and tackled him and went right back to the bench.”
Many of Agajanian’s teammates weren’t aware of what transpired until watching game film.
He is survived by two daughters, Lori and Lynne; son Lewis; 10 grandchildren; and 11 great-grandchildren. His wife, Arleen, died in 2007. His brother, J.C., a race car owner and sponsor whose cars won the Indianapolis 500 in 1952 and 1963, died in 1984.