During a time when soccer-style kickers were not the norm in the NFL, Nick Mike-Mayer gave the Falcons a rookie season to remember. For a franchise that was struggling to find itself in 1973, the soccer import from Italy hit all 34 of his extra points, 68.4 percent of his field goals and a then-franchise record five field goals in a win over the first-place Los Angeles Rams.
He was rewarded with a trip to the Pro Bowl. Even Norm Van Brocklin admitted he liked the young Mike-Mayer, who said of the grouchy head coach, “Norm once told me I missed a field goal because I was too fat. Shoot, I was always around 178.’’
Mike-Mayer was born in Bologna. His father was a star soccer player in Hungary before the country joined the Soviet bloc nation and he left for Italy. But the family wasn’t allowed to stay in Italy for long, having to choose between the United States and Sweden when Mike-Mayer was 14.
The U.S. became the choice and he ended up at Passaic (N.J.) High School, where Oakland Raiders great Jack Tatum was three classes ahead of him. Mike-Mayer excelled on the soccer field but the football team needed a kicker and he volunteered as a junior, kicking for two years and gaining the attention of Temple University.
The Owls offered him a partial scholarship and after kicking for a 5-0 freshman team, he spent three seasons kicking for the varsity beginning in 1970. At the time, Temple was an independent and finished with records of 7-3, 6-2-1 and 5-4. His two biggest kicks were game-winners his senior season against Boston University and Xavier. He attracted the attention of the Falcons, who took him in the 10th round of the 1973 draft.
Coming off a 7-7 season, the Falcons were not happy with placekicker Bill Bell, who had made just 16 of 30 field goals the season before. The Falcons trained in Greenville, S.C., then and Mike-Mayer basically made the team when he ended a practice with a 52-yard kick that he said made even Van Brocklin happy.
Mike-Mayer was key to that ’73 season. The Falcons started off 8-3 and featured a 15-13 win over the Rams in Atlanta where he put through five field goals, including the game-winner with 52 seconds left. But the Falcons stumbled, losing two of their last three and didn’t make the playoffs while Mike-Mayer headed for the Pro Bowl.
He faced off against the great Garo Yepremian of Miami, who would kick five field goals in the AFC’s 15-13 win. Mike-Mayer kicked two field goals and the game marked the last time NFL goal posts were on the goal line. They were moved back 10 yards to the back line the following season.
But the next three-plus seasons in Atlanta were not as good for Mike-Mayer, whose field goal percentage would drop under 50 percent and he was cut after seven games during the 1977 season. He was picked up by the Philadelphia Eagles where he finished the season.
The next season, he was at what is called “Miracle at the Meadowlands,” when the Giants were up 12-10 over the Eagles and all quarterback Joe Pisarcik had to do was kneel on the ball to run out the clock. But he botched a handoff to fullback Larry Csonka. He fumble was recovered by cornerback Herm Edwards who ran 26 yards for the winning score. Mike-Mayer never saw it. He had been hurt earlier in the game on a botched snap and was in the locker room.
After being released, he went to Buffalo where he regained his old form in 1979, hitting 20 of 29 field goals. He lasted there four years. In 1982 the Bills drafted Gary Anderson, who will be inducted in the Hall of Fame some day. But Mike-Mayer beat him out. Anderson was cut and would land in Pittsburgh.
However, Mike-Mayer didn’t make it through the season. After being cut, he played two seasons for the San Antonio Gunslingers of the USFL, the only team in the league to have its franchise revoked because of money problems. Mike-Mayer retired after two years in the Arena Football League with Chicago and Los Angeles.
After football, he returned to San Antonio where he was a special education teacher for 13 years before buying his brother Steve’s landscaping business which he ran for six years. Steve had kicked in the NFL from 1985-90.
Where he lives: Mike-Mayer, 66, has been married to wife Suzanne for 35 years. The couple lives in Dunedin, Fla. He has two children from a previous marriage: Nick Jr., who kicked at Rutgers, and David. He has five stepchildren and a total of 20 grand or step grandchildren.
What he does now: Mike-Mayer is retired, loves to ride his bike and is a stone’s throw from the beach. He says he still gets back out on the soccer field occasionally.
On playing soccer in high school: “When I was 18, I actually signed to play soccer with a pro team, the Washington Whips (United Soccer Association). But going to school and playing football made more sense. Back then soccer-style kickers were a novelty as most kickers kicked straight on. But Temple really liked the way I kicked. But my father always thought I could have been a really good soccer player.’’
On being drafted by the Falcons: “Back then they had a ton of rounds (17) in the draft. I thought I was going to get drafted so I stayed by the telephone. The call came and I remember then reporting to camp and a taxi came and picked me up at the airport. Coach Van Brocklin was a no-nonsense guy. He was very strict and tolerated very little. I don’t think he liked kickers but he knew he needed them.’’
On the five-field goal game against the Rams: “It was euphoria in the locker room because we had finally beaten someone. Those were the days of ‘General’ Bob Lee at quarterback and everything was clicking that season. But then we got to the games against Buffalo and St. Louis and they were at home and we were up 10-0 in both of them. We just didn’t get it done and it was a real disappointment because the whole city was behind us.’’
On going to the Pro Bowl as a rookie: “That was really special and it was a great game. It was in Kansas City so it was really cold. I made two field goals and almost had a third as it hit the crossbar. It was a great experience because I met players, like Merlin Olsen, who are now in the Hall of Fame.’’
On being released by the Falcons: “I think I went through three different head coaches and there definitely were some ups and downs. None of us knew where we stood. I wasn’t kicking well but Dick Vermeil was coaching with the Eagles and he liked me and picked me up.’’
On the Miracle at the Meadowlands: “I never saw it. We were kicking a field goal and the snap came straight to me. I rolled out and threw the ball into the end zone and some one hit me in the back. That was my day. And then the Eagles drafted Tony Franklin and I knew my days were numbered there.’’
On beating out Anderson in Buffalo: “He was great in practice and kicked everything through. But he didn’t make a kick in a preseason game and they let him go. I knew, though, he would be a good kicker.’’
On playing for San Antonio in the USFL: “Well, it seemed like every team had somebody. There were Steve Young and Herschel Walker and Reggie White and Jim Kelly. We had Rick Neuheisel at quarterback and didn’t have much money. It was a tough situation.’’
On being a special education teacher: “I got a lot of satisfaction working with the kids and helping them.’’
On keeping up with former Falcons: “I still talk to and see (punter) John James. He was my roommate and had a great career. He was having some health issues last year but now he is doing OK.’’