AMARILLO, Texas — Ove Johansson’s life has been a little bit like Forrest Gump’s and a little bit like George Bailey’s from “It’s A Wonderful Life.” The experiences and friends he’s had, the places he’s been. And all with a Swedish accent.
“Swinglish,” said April, his wife of 41 years.
For a young Swede who originally wanted to experience the U.S. to one day be standing next to Ronald Reagan and discover they were wearing matching ties, well, that’s quite a ride.
April has had a front-row seat to Ove’s antics ever since she was sitting in the top row watching an indoor soccer match in Dallas in 1972 at age 17. That’s when this enthusiastically polite Swede from a touring European team came bouncing up the steps at intermission to introduce himself and ask for her phone number. Too stunned to say no, she gave it to him.
In many ways, that’s the way Johansson has operated his entire life — like the Steve Winwood song, “While you see a chance, take it .” For the last 36 years, that’s been in Amarillo, stepping out to become self-employed as a successful financial planner along with his wife’s own advertising business.
But Johansson’s biggest grab — at least the one that’s made him the answer to a sports trivia question — came 41 years ago on an overcast fall afternoon in Abilene’s Shotwell Stadium. Here he was, on Oct. 16, 1976, this native of Sweden who at the time spoke broken English, poised to do what no one had ever done before.
Preposterously, he was going to attempt a 69-yard field goal. Dean Low, the holder, would put the ball down at ACU’s own 41-yard line. It had been a fairytale ride to get to that point. Not the game, but Ove’s life.
Ove’s father, who came to the United States twice while in Sweden’s Merchant Marines, told his son that when the opportunity arose, he needed to visit the country.
“He planted the seed,” Johansson told the Amarillo Globe-News , “to find a way to get over here.”
While in the Swedish Navy, a fellow sailor who had played for the Dallas Tornado soccer club invited Ove to come to the Dallas area for three weeks to start some youth soccer programs in 1971. He jumped at the chance.
He returned to the U.S. again the next year, playing for a semi-pro European team in the Dallas area when he somehow spied April Bankes way up in the stands. He told himself he was going to marry that woman, but first needed her phone number.
And from there came these serendipitous moments that had no explanation. Ove’s visa was about up, and he was returning to Sweden. A coach from Davis & Elkins College, a small soccer powerhouse in West Virginia, was interested in him and offered him a small stipend to play.
“I told the coach I was very appreciative,” he said, “but my family didn’t have $5. If I didn’t have a scholarship, I couldn’t make it work.”
April visited Ove and family that summer of 1974 in Sweden where, unaware of the West Virginia’s school’s interest, she informed him of their family’s impending move from Dallas to, believe it or not, West Virginia. Three hours later in the mail, Ove got a $16,000 scholarship to come to Davis & Elkins.
Ove was there a year, helping D&E to the national NAIA tournament. But April was starting school at ACU, and his heart was where she was. He forsook the scholarship and went to Abilene to join his future wife. He got some aid, but not enough.
“I had no money, nothing,” he said. “I mean it was Panic City for me. There was no soccer to play. In January 1976, I told April that I didn’t know how I can handle this. Then I saw a guy kicking a football, and I thought, ‘Wait a minute, if I can kick a football, I might get a scholarship.'”
Ove worked out for more than six months, kicking water-logged footballs for hours. When the 1976 season approached, he went to head coach Wally Bullington and said, in effect, his kicking problems were solved. Bullington told him thanks, but they already had two kickers. Come back next year.
But Ove talked Bullington into at least watching him kick a couple of times. So, more to get rid of him than anything, Bullington relented, gave him some dry footballs and told him to go kick a few, and be quick about it.
“He said, ‘Kick off,’ and I thought, ‘This baby is going to fly,'” Ove said. “Well, I hit it past the goal post, over the chain-link fence and into the parking lot. Coach Bullington looked at me and said, ‘Swede, you made the team.'”
Now, three months later, he was attempting a ridiculous 69-yarder against East Texas State. Maybe not so ridiculous, because Ove had kicked two from 70 yards in warmups.
“We are kicking where East Texas is doing calisthenics, and they just stopped,” Ove said. “This one guy, massive guy, comes over and says, ‘What are you doing?’ I said, ‘Oh, we’re just warming up.'”
A penalty had backed up ACU to its own 48 in the first quarter. There was a 12 mph crosswind. That same day, Texas A&M’s Tony Franklin would boom a 65-yarder against Baylor, just hours before Johansson’s attempt.
Now Ove was attempting the longest field goal in American football history. The snap from Mark McCurley was perfect. Low, the holder, said later when Ove hit the ball it sounded like a shotgun.
On a YouTube video of the kick, it sailed like Herman Munster had kicked it. When the referees raised their hands, and did so with authority, it was a mob scene on the field.
“I knew it had the distance, and when it went through, I mean it was complete turmoil,” he said. “Everyone landed on the little Swede.”
That was nearly a lifetime ago, back in the last days of the Gerald Ford presidency. So much has happened since, including Ove kicking a 53-yarder on the 25th anniversary in 2001 at age 53.
“Oh, it’s way down there,” said Ove, 69, of the field goal on his list of accomplishments. “It was a sporting event. It was exciting, but you talk about my marriage, my life, my children, my home, and it’s way down there.
“The field goal thing was fun, and I don’t want to take anything away from it, but it can’t compare with everyday people and relationships.”
Ove got a physical education degree at ACU, but a lifelong friend, Ron Willingham, talked him into coming to Amarillo and giving financial planning a try. He got his security license, and he and April have carved a comfortable living from that.
“He has always been looking for purpose in his life,” April said. “That really defines him. He has such a heart for people. He wants people to say that he made life better, not just for himself, but for others around him.”
Daughter Annika Spalding, 33, is an actress living in Amarillo. Ove and April followed her across the country watching her perform off-Broadway in “The Phantom of the Opera.” Stefan, 30, after graduating from Pepperdine University, is policy administrator for Wyoming Gov. Matt Mead. As a family, they’ve been to Europe 25 times.
“I’ve been unbelievably fortunate and lucky,” Ove said. “I’m eating up with the word ‘thanksgiving.’ It starts there. I am the certified bona fide poster child of the American Dream.”
For Ove Johansson, life has indeed been a kick. And not just from 69 yards.
Information from: Amarillo Globe-News, http://www.amarillo.com
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