Star-crossed kickers are now both Pro Bowl stars

West Virginia has a pair of alums that top the NFL in kicking and punting, but their paths to those spots were anything but a straight line.

Back in 1991, West Virginia University recruited a pair of kickers.

That year, head coach Don Nehlen and his staff went to Allan Hancock Junior College in California to snag Mike Vanderjagt, a native of Ontario, Canada, with the expectation that he would quickly assume the job as West Virginia's punter.

That same year, the Mountaineers attracted Todd Sauerbrun, a highly regarded placekicker from Melville High on Long Island in Setauket, N.Y. The thought was that Todd would handle West Virginia's field goals and extra points for the next four years.

But sometimes the stars are crossed. Sauerbrun had trouble adjusting to the fact that, unlike high schools, college kickers couldn't use a tee for placements. His strong leg and low kicks proved hazardous to WVU's offensive linemen, as more than a few of his attempts drilled his own teammates in their backs, or lower.

But Sauerbrun's powerful leg proved to be a wonderful weapon on punts, just not right away. Vanderjagt actually handled most of the punting duties in 1991, when he was a junior and Todd was a freshman. Sauerbrun's strong leg was used almost exclusively for kickoffs that season, but by the next season, Sauerbrun was handling the punting, and Vanderjagt was doing the placekicking. They've flourished in those jobs ever since.

Over the course of his career, Sauerbrun averaged 46.3 yards per punt, setting an NCAA career record that still stands. Vanderjagt proved to be a fairly steady placekicker, though his efforts started on the shaky side. In his first game as WVU placekicker, Mike missed an extra point in the fourth quarter against Miami (Ohio) and then pulled a potential gamewinning 45-yard field goal with 32 seconds to leave West Virginia with a disappointing 29-29 tie against the Redskins.

Mike didn't miss much else that season, hitting 15 of 20 field goals in all, as well as 27 of 32 extra points.

Now those two star-crossed stars are both headed to Hawaii as representatives in the NFL's Pro Bowl.

A second round draft choice of the Chicago Bears in 1995, Sauerbrun currently leads the NFC with a 45.4-yard gross punting average and ranks first in the NFL with a 38.0 net average. Now in his third season with Carolina, Sauerbrun has found his niche in Charlotte, having been selected to the Pro Bowl each season he has been there.

Ever the perfectionist, though, Todd didn't think he has actually performed that well in 2003. "I've not been nearly as good as I wanted it to be," said Sauerbrun, who is winding up his ninth season in the NFL. "I think I'm capable of doing much better than I did."

Vanderjagt's road to the Pro Bowl is a little more circuitous than Sauerburn's, but he's become an NFL star nonetheless, putting up staggering numbers.

He spent time in the Arena League and also the Canadian Football League, being released several times along the way, before finally finding a home in Indianapolis six years ago. Since landing with the Colts, his kicking has been phenomenal. This will be Vanderjagt's first Pro Bowl appearance.

Mike, who has yet to miss a field goal or extra point this season, said he was pleased to be going to the game, but added that he believed there were seasons in the past in which he kicked well enough to be selected.

"It's pretty cool," Vanderjagt said of going to the Pro Bowl. "It's about time, but I'm not going to bring up past stuff. I guess I deserved it. When you don't miss a field goal all season, it's kind of inevitable that you're going to go, but until you definitely get voted in, you don't really realize the importance of it."

Vanderjagt, in his sixth NFL season, has made 34-of-34 field-goal attempts and 42-of-42 extra-point attempts. He has currently made 38 consecutive field goals, which is two short of the NFL record held by Gary Anderson.

Vanderjagt leads the AFC in scoring with 144 points, 12 ahead of Kansas City Chiefs' running back Priest Holmes and 22 ahead of Baltimore Ravens' kicker Matt Stover. Vanderjagt is two points behind St. Louis Rams' kicker Jeff Wilkins for the NFL scoring lead.

With Vanderjagt's Pro Bowl appearance, there will now have been 15 former Mountaineers who have earned 35 different spots on Pro Bowl teams. Chuck Howley was selected to the Pro Bowl six times (1966-70 & '72) during his days with the Dallas Cowboys, while another former WVU linebacker, Sam Huff, was named to five Pro Bowl squads (1959-62 with the Giants and 1965 with the Redskins).

Interestingly, though Jeff Hostetler (1995), Todd Sauerbrun (2002-03), Darryl Talley (1991-92), Renaldo Turnbull (1993) and Ron Wolfley (1987-90) all have been Pro Bowl selections in the past 15 years, you have to go all the way back to 1967 to find the last time the Mountaineers had more than one player at a time in the Pro Bowl, which dates back to 1938.

In 1966 and '67, both Bruce Bosley and Chuck Howley were in the Pro Bowl. There were also two Mountaineers on the team in 1941 (Albert Basisi and Joe Stydahar), and there were three on the squad in 1939 (Baisi, Stydahar and Harry Clarke).

This article appeared in the latest print edition of the Blue & Gold News. It's just one of the many indepth articles on the Mountaineers that you can't find anywhere else!


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