Danny Villanueva's greatest kicks, then and now

Posted Friday, Jun. 06, 2008  comments  Print Reprints
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One kick stands out in Danny Villanueva's memory.

Game-winning field goal.

Nov. 13, 1966, at DC Stadium.

Cowboys 31, Redskins 30.

He has total recall of that game, right down to the fan who walked into the visitors’ locker room and handed him the ball.

“I think his name was Pete Richert,” Villanueva said. “He pitched for the Washington Senators.” Huh?

Richert — a left-hander who spent 13 seasons in the major leagues (1962-74), most notably with the Dodgers, Senators and Orioles — suddenly appeared at

Villanueva’s locker after the game.

He was joined by a young boy carrying a football.

(Note: In 1966, the NFL didn’t employ gigantic nets to gobble up FGs and PATs.)

“I caught the ball you kicked,” Richert told Villanueva. “Here ... just give my son any ball, and you can have this one. I’m an athlete. I know what these things mean.”

That 42-year-old football is on display at New Mexico State University — Danny’s alma mater — inside the posh Villanueva Victory Club, a restaurant-bar-luxury suite atop the school’s three-story athletic building.

(VVC cost Villanueva $300,000 to have built. It represents only a fraction of what he has donated to New Mexico State over the years.) Villanueva, now 70, hasn’t been bashful about decorating VVC in Cowboys memorabilia.

Most items not framed are displayed inside glass cases, including the shoes and parka he wore in his last NFL game — the ’67 Ice Bowl.

Nov. 13, 1966

The Star-Telegram on Nov. 14, 1966, didn’t mention Richert. Or the football. Or much about the kick itself, for that matter.

Wrote S-T beat writer Frank Luksa: “[The Cowboys] beat Washington 31-30 on a 20-yard field goal by Danny Villanueva in the final 15 seconds, but that scarcely tells the story.”

Villanueva was merely the exclamation point on a Don Meredith-led TD drive that began at the Dallas 3 with 73 seconds left.

Meredith’s arm, “Bullet” Bob Hayes’ world-class speed and the Cowboys’ overall cool got most of the coverage. And rightly so.

Meredith (21 of 29, 406 yards) outdueled Sonny Jurgensen (26 of 46, 347 yards).

Hayes caught nine passes for 246 yards, including a third-quarter TD that broke for 95 yards.

The victory showed character. It also triggered a four-game winning streak and would lead to the franchise’s first championship of any kind (Eastern Conference).

As Luksa wrote: “The pressure along the way almost choked a record-crowd of 50,927 into silence, but not the Cowboys.”

Villanueva spent eight NFL seasons with two teams — ’60-64 Rams and ’65-67 Cowboys.

He put his foot into 889 total kicks (FGs, PATs and punts combined). But when asked about Nov. 13, 1966, Danny recalled in amazing detail the sights and sounds of the final 1:13 of that game.

“Nobody thought much [about staging a comeback] when Pat Richter of the Redskins punted the ball inside the 5,” Villanueva began.

“But suddenly Meredith completes a few passes, then takes a late hit from linebacker John Reger. The ref throws his rag [15-yard penalty to the Redskins 12].....and now I’m like a leper. Everybody moves away.

“Meredith comes to the sideline. He stands there with a stem of grass in his mouth. He’s chewing on it, then he starts singing, ‘Yesterday’s dead and tomorrow’s blind, and I just live one day at a time.’ I’d never heard that song before — or since.

“Dan Reeves was my holder. We run onto the field, and we get a low snap. Unbelievable. My life flashes in front of me. But [Reeves] does a masterful job of putting that ball down. The ball goes up. The ball goes through. We go in.”

Villanueva next recalls being awarded a game ball by his teammates and coaches. The locker room is buzzing. The doors are open to the media.

Pete Richert, a pitcher for the Senators, walks up and introduces himself.

A dying breed

Villanueva was one of the earliest kickers of Mexican descent to play in the NFL. There has been a long line of successors, including Efren Herrera, Rafael Septien and Luis Zendejas on the Cowboys alone.

Villanueva was one of the last straight-away kickers.

A square-toed guy. A Lou Groza wannabe.

Because he also punted — actually considering himself a better finesse punter than a field-goal kicker — Danny kept two pairs shoes on the bench.

That got him in trouble only once. But once was enough with steely-eyed Tom Landry on the sideline.

“It was the last game of the ’65 season, and we were beating the Giants [32-20] in New York,” Villanueva recalled. “It was real cold. I guess I had a brain cramp. Anyway, on an extra point, I wore my punting shoe onto the field.

“I’m thinking, ‘If I call time out, Landry is going to kill me. If I try to kick it with these sharp-pointed shoes....’ It was just horrible. I had no choice. I kicked it. It barely cleared the bar, but it got through.”

Landry never let on that he knew anything about the shoe error.

And although it wasn’t pretty, the kick came during Villanueva’s streak of 100 consecutive PATs. That remains a team record.

A lucky break

Villanueva grew up No. 9 of 12 children. His parents became Mexican immigrants as teenagers in the ’20s. His father was an itinerate Methodist minister.

Young Danny ditched the notion of soccer for American football, and quickly developed a skill for placement punting.

“We never heard the words ‘hang time’ in those days,” he said. “I was a strategic punter. I’d punt balls into garbage cans ... anything to make it more fun in practice.”

He studied the angles. He played the rolls. He loved the coffin-corner punt, which is a lost art today.

But as a 22-year-old student-teacher at Las Cruces (N.M.) High School in the spring of 1960, he never dreamed of playing professional football. He figured the ’59 Sun Bowl was his last game.

Until one day ... Danny heard: “Mr. Elroy Hirsch is on the phone for you.”

The message was delivered by a young female student. He just figured somebody had put her up to pranking him, so he didn’t budge.

Growing up in Southern California, he knew all about Elroy “Crazylegs” Hirsch and the LA Rams. They were “Showtime” to the Hollywood crowd long before the Kareem-Magic-Worthy Lakers existed.

By 1960, Hirsch was long retired and now serving the team as assistant to the president. His former quarterback, Bob Waterfield, was the Rams head coach.

“I mean, I had seen all the Elroy Hirsch movies,” said Villanueva, referring to Crazylegs (1953), Unchained (1955) and Zero Hour! (1957) — featuring the popular NFL star-turned-actor. “I grew up in the valley, a little town called Calexico. I knew all about Elroy Hirsch.”

Finally, it took a firm directive from the vice principal who told Villanueva, “Mr. Hirsch insists on speaking to you. I’ll take over your class.....now go talk to him.”

The phone call was legit.

The Rams apparently were in desperate need of a kicker. Waterfield called a meeting to ask scout Chuck Benedict for a suggestion.

Benedict had been at a recent New Mexico-New Mexico State game for the purpose of scouting New Mexico State running back Purvis Atkins. In that game, Villanueva booted a 49-yard field.

Benedict peeled opened his little black book. He read his notes.

And as Danny likes to tell the story, Benedict announced to Waterfield and Hirsch: “I love this little, fat Mexican kicker. I saw him over in Albuquerque.”

A fruitful life

Villanueva signed with the Rams for $5,500. No signing bonus.

He asked for a $200 signing bonus “to pay off some debts” and “well, primarily, to be able to tell the guys that I got a bonus.”

He got the money. But it turned out to be a $200 advance.

Danny and his wife now of 50 years, Myrna, purchased their first LA home two years later for $13,000.

He borrowed the $1,100 down payment from benevolent Rams’ team owner Dan Reeves (no relation to Villanueva’s holder in Dallas).

Today, Villanueva is a self-made multimillionaire who gained his wealth mostly through Mexican television enterprise and equity capital management. He and his eldest son, Danny Jr., partially own and operate RC/Fontis Partners in Pasadena, Calif., a 10-year equity fund with a focus on the Hispanic market.

“This will be my swan song,” the former NFL kicker/punter said. “My son can keep it going.”

Villanueva rolls out of bed every morning at 5, then makes the one-hour commute from Ventura, Calif. (near the Cowboys’ 2008 training camp in Oxnard), to Pasadena.

He subscribes to the theory that good deeds are rewarded. Some of his best business contacts, resulting in some of his biggest windfalls, have come through volunteerism, philanthropy and aid to education.

“Those are my passions,” Danny said. “I tell young people all the time: If you give, you get.”

As usual, right down the middle.

Marcia Melton of the Star-Telegram library contributed to the research of this story.

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