The man who kicked the world’s longest field goal had never so much as seen an American football game six weeks before.
On Abilene Christian University’s Homecoming weekend in 1976, Ove Johansson (’77) booted a 69-yarder through Shotwell Stadium’s south end zone uprights, eclipsing the record set earlier in the day and establishing one that may never be broken.
But what Johansson did that October would’ve never happened without April.
Born in Gothenburg, Sweden, Johansson grew up playing music and soccer with equal skill. At age 15, his father began telling him he needed to take his talents to the United States.
“I used to watch the merchant marine ships sailing in and out of port,” Johansson remembers in his still thick Swedish brogue, “and I would think, ‘One day, I will be on a boat to the U.S.’ ”
His ship came in, so to speak, when he joined the Swedish navy at age 20. A teammate on the crew’s soccer team had played professionally for the Dallas Tornado and invited Johansson to join him in the Metroplex to help him begin an area league. He accepted and soon was coaching and playing for an amateur team in Irving. While there, the course of his life would be recharted by one person whose eye he caught and another who caught his.
It was after a road game in Colorado that a coach from Davis & Elkins College recruited Johansson to play for the small Presbyterian school in West Virginia but with no guarantee of a scholarship. He went back to Texas to consider the possibility but was soon distracted by a young woman he spotted in the bleachers at one of his games, April Bankes (’77).
“I knew about 24 words of English at the time,” Johansson says with his mother tongue partially in cheek. “But five of them were, ‘What is your phone number?’ She gave it to me and I called her. ‘Don’t you remember me? The Swedish soccer stud?’ And she didn’t, which was very disappointing.”
But she agreed to see a movie with him anyway, and they dated for the next several months until his visa expired and he had to return to Sweden. Shortly thereafter, Johansson received both a visit from April and a most welcome piece of mail from the Davis & Elkins coach. April informed him her family was moving to West Virginia so her father, R.H. Bankes (’50), could take a preaching job. The coach’s letter included a scholarship offer. West Virginia’s country roads took him away from home.
Johansson played one season at Davis & Elkins, earning all-conference honors and helping the Senators reach the NAIA national championship game. But when April had the opportunity to enroll at ACU in 1975, Johansson encouraged her to go and followed her to Abilene.
He didn’t miss a single home football game that year but never saw a play. (“I couldn’t understand why grown up people would lie around in the mud,” Johansson recalls.) He would arrive in time to see April play clarinet in the Big Purple Band at halftime then leave when it was over.
But by January 1976, Johansson was short of green. With money running out, he was facing a return to Sweden when he noticed someone kicking field goals on the practice football field and decided to give it a try. April was his holder, his tee was the cap of a can of shaving cream. It wasn’t long before he had ACU players in a lather. When tight end Greg Stirman (’75) saw Johansson practicing, he told head coach Wally Bullington (’53), who agreed to an audition.
“The very first kick went all the way into the parking lot,” Johansson remembers. “From that point, I was on the team.”
To strengthen his leg, Johansson made the footballs heavier by soaking them in water. It also strengthened his confidence. He asked a fellow student in The Bean what the longest field goal ever kicked was. At the time, Tom Dempsey of the NFL’s New Orleans Saints held the record at 63 yards.
Heading into Homecoming, there was another record that had ACU fans buzzing. Superstar running back Wilbert Montgomery (’77) was sitting on 66 career touchdowns, tied with former Jackson State University superstar Walter Payton for the most at any level of college football.
“The day before the game, Wilbert told me he would be setting a record,” Johansson says. “I told him, ‘Wilbert, we’re going to set two records.’ ”
Montgomery’s task was a touch easier if only because by 1976 Payton had moved on to the NFL’s Chicago Bears. Johansson, meanwhile, was trying to hit a moving target. Tony Franklin of Texas A&M University set a new NCAA mark of 65 yards that very Saturday, Oct. 16, in a game against Baylor University that began before ACU took on East Texas State University (now Texas A&M University-Commerce).
Late in the first quarter with ACU ahead 7-0 and the Wildcats facing fourth down at their own 48-yard line, Bullington, having seen Johansson make a pair of 70-yard attempts before the game, sent him onto the field with a 15-20 mile per hour breeze at his back. The snap from center Mark McCurley (’77) was high but catchable, the hold from Dean Low (’78) was perfect and the attempt – spotted at the 41 and kicked by a player wearing that same number – cleared the crossbar and landed in the record books where it remains all these years later.
Montgomery would get his record in the second quarter, a 1-yard touchdown plunge, making that game still one of the most memorable in ACU’s 95-year football history.
Just for kicks, Johansson returned to ACU on the 25th anniversary of his world record to boot (at the age of 53) a 53-yard field goal at halftime of the 2001 Homecoming game.
Johansson’s one and only season as the ACU placekicker ended with all-America honors. Montgomery went on to score nine more touchdowns and finish with 76. Incredibly, the two were reunited the following year as teammates with the Philadelphia Eagles, for whom Montgomery played eight seasons (leaving as the franchise’s all-time leading rusher) and Johansson one before retiring to begin a successful career as a financial advisor in Amarillo where April and he raised their two children, Stefan and Annika (Johansson ’06) Spalding.
From the Swedish navy soccer team to a patch of West Texas turf and a piece of college football history, in the United States’ bicentennial year, no less.
“It’s amazing,” Johansson says. “I really am the poster child for the American dream.”
Johansson and Montgomery will be honored Saturday at a noon event during Homecoming, the 40th anniversary of their record-setting game in 1976. Purchase tickets here to the ACU Football Legends Luncheon.