Ben Agajanian, who played nearly two decades of professional football despite losing four toes in an accident, has died at the age of 98.
Teams would promote the fact that Agajanian had a disability and urged fans to buy tickets to see “Bootin’ Ben the Toeless Wonder,” who kicked field goals with the right foot that he severely injured while he was working in a factory in college. Agajanian wore a shoe with a hard, square block where the toes would have been on his kicking foot, and some suggested that gave him an unfair advantage — to which Agajanian would reply they were free to cut off their own toes if they wanted the same advantage.
“Lots of guys said I was cheating because I had the hard square toe,” Agajanian told the Los Angeles Times. “I said, ‘Well, you can do it too. If it helps you, why not?'”
Agajanian was twice the league leader in field goal percentage, in 1947 with the Los Angeles Dons in the All-America Football Conference and in 1949 in the NFL with the New York Giants. Overall he played 13 seasons for 10 teams over 20 years in three different leagues: The NFL, AAFC and AFL.
He did that despite not beginning to play pro football until 1945, when he was 26 years old, having first served in World War II — a duty that he wouldn’t allow his injured foot to keep him from serving. In his last season, 1964, he went 2-for-4 on field goals and 8-for-8 on extra points at the age of 45. Agajanian is one of just eight men to play pro football after his 45th birthday.
Early in his career Agajanian played both offense and defense in addition to playing kicker, and when he broke his arm while making a tackle he continued to kick with his arm in a sling.
When he retired from playing, Agajanian became an assistant coach for the Cowboys, where he was one of the first people in the football world to realize that soccer players kicked balls farther by approaching from an angle than football players like himself could kick with a straight-on approach. He studied that style of kicking well enough that he could teach it to young players even though it was never the way he kicked a football. “When I saw these little fellas kick 50 and 60 yards, I decided that’s the way to do it,” he said of the soccer-style kickers.
Agajanian was so influential in teaching proper kicking technique that Cowboys coach Tom Landry recommended he be enshrined in the Hall of Fame, saying that Agajanian had “done more for the kicking game in both college and the pros in the past 50 years than anybody I know.”
Remaining mentally sharp into his 90s, Agajanian was told recently by the New York Daily News that he was the oldest living person ever to have played for the Giants. “I’ll be damned,” he replied. “You know what I attribute it to? I don’t drink, except for a beer once in awhile. I don’t smoke. I played handball two or three times a week and that keeps your legs in shape, your body in shape.”
Agajanian’s football career saw him play at New Mexico and Compton Junior College, and for the Philadelphia Eagles, Pittsburgh Steelers, Los Angeles Dons, New York Giants, Los Angeles Rams, Los Angeles Chargers, Dallas Texans, Green Bay Packers, Oakland Raiders and San Diego Chargers. Agajanian’s shoes — the size 11 he wore on his plant foot and the size 7 he wore on his injured right kicking foot — are on display in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.