'The Kicking Mule' Challenges The Odds

Posted: July 20, 1986

Gary Bolden is a 275-pound placekicker who grew up in a family of 16 children, hasn't played football in four years and harbors a lifelong ambition to be a professional wrestler.

Other than that, he's pretty much just another round, rugged face in the crowd of free agents trying to win a place on the Eagles.

Sure he is.

In truth, Gary Bolden is living a three-dimensional, technicolor fantasy, the kind you stop conjuring when you're around 10 years old because it's too far removed from real life.

But this is real life, isn't it? Even now, Bolden doesn't sound like he's entirely positive.

The story of Bolden's implausible odyssey from the kitchen of a steak house in Clinton, Okla., to the Eagles' training camp in West Chester began five years ago, when coach Buddy Ryan - then an assistant in Chicago - was scouring some game films.

The object of his scrutiny at the time was a linebacker from Southwestern Oklahoma State, but the sight of a round, mobile defensive lineman stole his attention.

"This kid kept showing up as a defensive tackle, making plays all over the field," the coach recalled. "The linebacker wasn't worth a damn.

"So we started watching (Bolden), and we noticed that he was also kicking off, both ways, out of the end zone. I remembered that over the years, and ran him down and found him."

Since Ryan's two sons, Rex and Rob, had been classmates of Bolden's, that proved an easy enough endeavor, but Bolden was understandably surprised by the sudden interest. He hadn't played college ball since 1982, and he hadn't kicked a football in two years.

In the interim, athletic pursuits had largely given way to jobs in construction and as a cook at a steak house, with his only tangible plan a rather sketchy notion of pursuing a pro-wrestling career.

"As a good guy," he interjected.

Anyway, his first reaction to the overture from Ryan's sons was, why?

His second was, why not?

So about a week ago, Bolden packed his gear, flew to Philadelphia and marched out onto the Veterans Stadium turf with worn shoes and a disbelieving expression. Then he boomed a few kickoffs through the end zone, and it was Ryan who looked surprised.

"He's already got a nickname," the coach announced when the signing became official Tuesday. "Gus, The Kicking Mule."

Bolden said that's what people called him in college, and that's probably what people will call him in West Chester. He doesn't mind - as long as people call him something.

When you've grown up in a family with 15 brothers and sisters, you'll take whatever attention you can get. They slept five in a room back then, and

somehow managed to squeeze all 18 people around the dining-room table every night.

Bolden found some football renown in high school and won a state wrestling championship there, too, but his legend as a kicker didn't really begin until the day in college when his coach posed a very important question to the team.

"I was on scholarship as a defensive tackle," he recounted, "and one day the coach just asked, 'Can anybody kick?' I said, 'Yeah, I kick the ball.'

"I surprised everybody. They didn't think I could kick it. They said, 'You can't even get your leg off the ground.' "

But that was the day he put his best foot forward and won the job with his pulverizing straight-ahead style. As he recalled it, one game he kicked off seven times without allowing a return, and in practice he once hit nine field goals in 10 tries from 60 yards out.

His was a game of power and precision - at least the way he remembers it. After all, this was four long years ago. His foot was so powerful, in fact, that the coach wouldn't allow him to try extra points in practice because it was getting too expensive.

"We had a brick wall behind the (end zone), and I'd kick them over that wall," he said. "After that, the balls would go in the street and cars would run over them."

As for the precision, Bolden recalled the last game of his college career, when Southwestern Oklahoma State was trailing, 24-0, at halftime and he was called upon to kick off.

"The coach said we needed the ball back real bad," Bolden said, "so I aimed it at the corner of the end zone, about the half-inch line. The guys on the other team would get anxious, catch the ball and then run clean out of bounds. I did that about three times in a row, and we won the game."

Alas, apparently no one from the professional game noticed these heroic exploits because he was ignored in the draft and didn't even win an invitation as a free agent. The fact is, if his unusual work hadn't been preserved on film, he never would have been discovered.

Of course, no one knows how long the dream will last - usually a week is the most anyone can expect - but Ryan said he was in no hurry to end it.

"I'm only paying him the minimum salary," noted the coach, whose interest in Bolden is mostly as a kickoff man and a backup defensive end. "We don't mind giving him $400 a week for all his food. For him, it's a great opportunity, and if he can't do it, it's been a great experience for him and for us."

But, now that he's here, Bolden said he had no plans to go back to grilling steaks or pounding nails.

"I'm going to make it," he declared. "I'm staying."

The odds against him are ridiculous, but who knows? The way he figures it, his life hasn't been governed by the law of averages lately, anyway.

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