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Where are your former Giants now? K Ali Haji-Sheikh

25 questions with one of the Giants’ best kickers

1984 Topps - courtesy Barry Shuck

Kickers are such an important aspect of any NFL season. Long ago, teams rarely thought about trying for three points outside the 40-yard line and instead either punted or went for the first down. But the soccer-style kick added distance to kicks to where coaches were more inclined to try beyond the 50-yard line. Today, every NFL kicker can make a 47-yarder, and most attempt multiple 50-yarders each season.

When Ali Haji-Sheikh was at Michigan, he set multiple career school records and re-defined the kicking game for the Big Ten school. He was taken in the ninth-round of the NFL draft by the Giants and went on to an incredible rookie season in which he made the Pro Bowl and broke Denver Broncos’ kicker Jim Turner’s 1968 record of most field goals in a single season. And Haji-Sheikh did this on a very poor Giants squad that went 3-12-1 in Bill Parcells’ first year as the head coach.

He was later hampered with a nagging hamstring injury that simply would not completely heal. After three seasons in New York, he played for the Falcons and then the Redskins where he was part of their Super Bowl XXII winning season.

Haji-Sheikh is currently the general manager of the Fred Lavery Company in Birmingham, Mich., just a stone’s throw north of Detroit. The auto dealership sells Audi and Porsche vehicles.

BBV: Like most kickers, you grew up playing soccer, but in high school, you were also a receiver and played some defensive back. Were you a two-way player, which position were you better at, and did it teach you to tackle?

HAJI-SHEIKH: Growing up I played football, soccer, baseball and ran track. Everything had its seasons, not like now where everything seems to be year-round. I was good at both, but chose to focus on kicking because I wasn’t going to be a DB or receiver moving forward. I did know how to tackle, made many and only had one kickoff from fourth grade through the pros returned for a touchdown. Ron Brown from the Rams, Olympic sprinter. Huge hole, I waved at him as he ran by.

BBV: You were very successful at the University of Michigan and set the Big Ten record for consecutive extra points, and school records for career extra points and career field goals. As a kicker, does setting records like that get NFL scout’s attention?

HAJI-SHEIKH: I don’t think records do, but seeing actual games mattered then. We played Illinois my junior year and won 70-14. I kicked 10 PATs and all 11 kickoffs out of the end zone. The Giants were scouting RB Butch Woolfolk that day and I caught their attention. Also, at Michigan, we scored a lot of touchdowns back then. My senior season I was 13-15 on field goals, but was 7 of 8 over 40 yards. That got some attention.

BBV: Why did you choose Michigan when you grew up in Texas?

HAJI-SHEIKH: I was born in Ann Arbor, where my father was earning two Masters Degrees. Always watched Michigan football whenever they were on TV and always wanted to go there.

BBV: The Giants took you in the ninth round of the 1983 NFL draft. In those days it was pretty rare to actually draft a kicker or a punter. How did you find out you were drafted, and who called you from the team?

HAJI-SHEIKH: It was Day Two of the draft. No cell phones in 1983, just had to wait by the phone all day. Got a call from Parcells asking if I would like to be drafted by the Giants.

BBV: The Giants had Joe Danelo as their longtime kicker before you were drafted but he left for the Bills. Did the Giants release Danelo after they drafted you and what other competition did the team have against you in camp?

HAJI-SHEIKH: Joe and I competed during training camp. The Giants decided to go with me, they released Joe and he was picked up by the Bills.

BBV: Training camps are pretty brutal. What was your experience like as a rookie?

HAJI-SHEIKH: Camp was fine, actually kind of benign. No hazing, no issues, just a bunch of guys trying to land jobs. Training camps are always tough, the long hours, meetings, etc. As a rookie you generally knew nothing, kept your mouth shut and tried to learn from the guys who had been there before.

BBV: As a rookie, Bill Parcells was just hired as the new head coach and hired Tom Bresnahan as the new special teams coach. What sort of coach was Bresnahan and how is the emphasis on the kicking game different than what you had in college?

HAJI-SHEIKH: Bresnahan was the O-line coach, Romeo Crennel was the special teams coach, with Belichick adding to it. There was very little knowledge of coaching kickers, etc. in those days. We were mostly on our own. Special teams coaches primarily coached coverage and protection.

BBV: On a very poor team your rookie campaign with the Giants, you were one of the few bright spots on a 3-12-1 club. Do you feel part of your success was because the offense was so horrid and couldn’t score TDs so the opportunities for FGs increased?

HAJI-SHEIKH: As an offense we moved the ball very well between the 10-yard lines. We had issues punching it in. As a result, I attempted 14 field goals under 30 yards that season. As a contrast, in my four years in the league after that, I attempted eight. So that was definitely a large part of the success.

BBV: You made 35 FGs in your rookie year and set an NFL record for most FGs in a season. Getting closer to the record, how did you find out that you were close to the record, and do you think that Parcells might have sent the FG team out on the field late in the year to help you break it since the season was lost anyway?

HAJI-SHEIKH: To be completely honest, I had no idea until the last game against Washington that I broke it, and I only knew it then because punter Dave Jennings got the football, handed it to me and told me why. I had no idea. There were many times we went for it late; also we did run a couple of fakes during the year. All the field goals were in close games where points mattered. I had nine in the last two games, a 17-12 loss to Seattle and a 31-22 loss at Washington, which was a two-point game until late. So there was no padding of stats.

BBV: The last three games of the 1983 season – all losses – the Giants scored a total of 40 points. You were responsible for 34 of those points. How frustrating was it to be on an offense that was so stagnant?

HAJI-SHEIKH: You didn’t think about that, you just did your job and everyone else tried to do theirs. Quite frankly, after four preseason games and 16 regular games, I was mentally beat.

1985 Topps - courtesy Barry Shuck

BBV: You were described as a kicker to be almost too accurate to be true and won the Pro Football Weekly “Golden Toe Award.” Why didn’t they just call this award the “Golden Boot” like in soccer?

HAJI-SHEIKH: You would have to ask the Sporting News.

BBV: After your success on the field, several fans began to show up for home games in Arab headdress and cloaks to show their support for you. Did either of your parents find these costumes insulting to your Iranian heritage, or did they enjoy the attention their son was getting?

HAJI-SHEIKH: Once again, never gave it two thoughts. Fans will be fans, let them have their fun. My dad didn’t care either way and my mom was from Upper Michigan with an eastern European heritage. The only game they went to was at Dallas since they lived in Arlington.

BBV: How did you find out you had made the Pro Bowl and who was the first person you called to tell the news?

HAJI-SHEIKH: You found out after the 14th game. Ron Erhardt was the first person who told me. I called my fiancé and my parents.

BBV: The following year you were in a slump. You also had a new holder in backup QB Jeff Rutledge rather than QB Scott Brunner who was traded to the Broncos. The long snapper and holder are critical to the success of the kicking game. Why are these two positions so critical and why does it matter to keep consistency?

HAJI-SHEIKH: I had a new holder and snapper that preseason. We worked well together through camp, made 9 of 10 in preseason - or some number like that. Then they cut both on the last cuts and went into the season with two players I had never worked with before.

BBV: In the 1980s, what type of money were the star players making, and what did you make in your best-paid season?

HAJI-SHEIKH: I don’t know what the stars were making, but there was no free-agency. My highest salary was $138,000. but we went on strike and didn’t earn six weeks of pay.

BBV: The soccer-style kick was invented by Pete Gogolak, who once played for the Giants. Did you ever meet him, and if so what was he like and did he ask for a fee for you copying his style of kicking?

HAJI-SHEIKH: Never had the opportunity to meet Pete, but I did get to meet Jan Stenerud who was playing for Green Bay and was one of my icons.

BBV: In 1960, there were three kickers listed in the Top 20 of NFL stats in total scoring. Last year, there were three non-kickers listed in the Top 30 listed of NFL stats in total scoring. Why has this changed so dramatically over the years, and with these facts why aren’t kickers valued more?

HAJI-SHEIKH: There are basically a LOT of kickers out there, and unless you are a Justin Tucker, I think most coaches still think they are a dime a dozen. Look at Dallas, they just released Dan Bailey who is an 88 percent career kicker second only to Justin. I think there is less emphasis on the run game, more on passing, which makes it harder to score in the Red Zone (see 1983!)

BBV: After your NFL career was over, what did you do for immediate employment?

HAJI-SHEIKH: I was always told by the veterans to always be preparing for life after football (see the part where no one made what they are paid today, i.e. free agency). I worked for a car dealership in the off-seasons while I was playing. In the NY area, I needed a second job to survive.

BBV: What got you interested in the automobile sales industry?

HAJI-SHEIKH: I was invited to try it by a local dealership, and I liked it. Ironically, it was owned by the same person whom I work for now.

BBV: While at Michigan and then the NFL, you found out that football is a serious business instead of just a game. Did playing a sport made up of discipline, struggles, teamwork, patience, persistence and hard work prepare you for your current position as the General Manager of a major auto dealership?

HAJI-SHEIKH: It takes all of those to survive in the business world. The thing about automotive retail is every month is like a football game. It has a start, an ending and someone is keeping score.

BBV: Your dealership specializes in Porsche and Audi vehicles. Some of us here at BBV occasionally have a hot date on weekends. Any way we can borrow a Porsche 718 Boxster?

HAJI-SHEIKH: We could work out favorable lease payments……

BBV: You have been involved as a coach in traveling soccer. How many tournaments a year did this involve, and how are players different today than when you played?

HAJI-SHEIKH: I don’t think the players change, but I think coaching and training have. I also think the issue with travel sports is the year-round aspect. Youth athletes need to play different sports using different muscle groups. Otherwise I think the risk of repetitive injury is greater.

BBV: You developed Haji-Sheikh Kicking, LLC in 2011. What is this and who are your targeted clients?

HAJI-SHEIKH: I work mainly one on one with local high school kids to give them a little one-on-one training if they want it. I’ve kind of been winding it down. I also coach at the local high school.

BBV: You have also contributed as a kicking coach at Kornblue Kicking in Florida. Is this something you enjoy more so than just an extra paycheck?

HAJI-SHEIKH: I usually only help in the Michigan area when he needs it. I rarely do it anymore and it was never for the money. We used to do the University of Michigan camps, but the NCAA rules changed a couple of years ago. If an alumni works a camp it’s now improper recruiting, so that ended it. Plus I’m an old dog now and it’s a younger man’s game. Most of the kids have no idea what I did but the parents do which is always kind of funny.

BBV: What were some of your fondest memories of being a New York Football Giant?

HAJI-SHEIKH: I always enjoyed talking with Howard Cosell, Pat Summerall and John Madden. I also really liked the northern New Jersey area, made many great friends there and still vacation every summer down by Cape May. The fans were fantastic, always so loyal and always supportive (always ignored the few who were not so happy with you). Most were always wishing you the best regardless of the outcome. I would still go to games until I moved in 1992. The Mara family was top notch - always saw them at practice. Wellington would always say hello with a smile on his face. It was an honor playing in New York for one of the storied franchises in all of sports.

Barry Shuck is a pro football historical writer and a member of the Professional Football Researcher’s Association