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Fred Bednarski: Amazing Life of a Holocaust Survivor, Football Innovator

Jan 26, 2011 – 3:15 PM
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Chris Harry

Chris Harry %BloggerTitle%


AUSTIN, Texas -- In the 1950s, field goals in college football were rarer sights than even facemasks, so the University of Arkansas defense immediately was suspicious that fall afternoon in Fayetteville when one of its biggest rivals, Texas, began lining up for a surprisingly long field-goal attempt in the first quarter.

Razorbacks safety Fred Akers figured something fishy was in the works as he watched Longhorns fullback Fred Bednarski move into kicking formation. Akers quickly sounded the alarm when Bednarski not only backed away from his holder, but did so at a diagonal angle.

It was an entirely different look to the single wing -- with the holder kneeling behind the center -- and thus set off all the familiar alarms.

FAKE! FAKE! FAKE!

IT'S A PASS!

WATCH FOR THE END AROUND!


And watch everybody did, as the ball was snapped, placed and Bednarski kicked the first soccer-style field goal in either college or pro football, stepping in from 45 degrees and bombing a 40-yarder that kick-started the Longhorns to a 17-0 upset of the 10th-ranked Hogs.

"Most people don't understand what it's like to live your life in constant fear. And most people don't know the feeling -- all of a sudden -- to be free."
-- Fred Bednarski on being freed from a Nazi concentration camp
The year was 1957. Before Pete Gogolak took Cornell and later the AFL and NFL by sideways storm. Before Jan Stenerud became the only designated placekicker inducted in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Bednarski, a Polish immigrant whose family settled outside Austin, didn't turn place-kicking upside-down, but he did turn it sideways by being the first more than a half-century ago.

Turns out -- even without Rex Ryan and the New York Jets to kick around -- there is a foot sidebar to Super Bowl XLV, a side-winding one that originated 200 miles north of Cowboys Stadium. Think about that if Green Bay's Mason Crosby or Pittsburgh's Shaun Suisham set up for a dramatic game-winner Feb. 6 in Arlington.

"We didn't know it at that time," recalled Akers, now 72 and retired in Horseshoe Bay, Texas, "but we were witnessing history."

Something else they didn't know. Before Bednarski made history, he lived through some: in a Nazi prison camp.

"Most people don't understand what it's like to live your life in constant fear," Bednarski told FanHouse during a visit to Austin earlier this month. "And most people don't know the feeling -- all of a sudden -- to be free."

Fred Bednarski, 74, is all too glad to tell them.

He likes to talk about the field goal, but he cherishes the chance to talk about the country that gave him an opportunity to kick it.

QUEST TO SURVIVE

Ferdynand and Wladyslawa Bednarski were living in Uscie Biskupie, Poland, with their two young children, Fred and Lucja, in 1939 when the Russians rolled in from the east barely two weeks after the Nazis invaded from the west. Fred's mother, in later years, told her children stories of the Russians storming villages and rounding up citizens -- tearing families apart -- to be sent to Siberia.

Something else she told them: "The Nazis were much worse," he said.

Fred BednarskiIn 1941, the Germans expelled the Russians from Poland and did some rounding up of their own. In one show of force, the Nazis summoned a group of native villagers and forced them to witness a mass machine-gun execution of hundreds of Jews.

"We didn't see it," Bednarski said. "But we knew about it."

Under Nazi occupation, the fortunate ones went to Siberia or were loaded into cattle cars and assigned to labor camps.

"The rest went to concentration camps and were killed," he said.

The Bednarskis, with Fred (5), Lucja (3) and Joseph (1), were sent to a camp in Salzburg, Austria. Some of Fred's earliest memories are of watching his father go to work at the nearby machinery and electrical factories before sunrise every morning. Each time he said goodbye, young Fred wondered if he'd see his father again.

They lived on rations. A half a loaf of bread and coffee made of roots in the morning. Carrot soup for lunch. "With no carrots, just hot water," Bednarski said. More bread and coffee at night. No meat, no milk and no one asked for more. Famine and tuberculous were rampant.

Temperatures often were below freezing, even in the barracks, with only a blanket each to keep warm. Many of the children had only socks to cover their feet. Weather permitting, they'd remove them, roll several pairs together, the bundle serving as a ball the kids could kick and play with.

"It's all we knew," he said.

The backdrop was the distant sound of artillery. Shellings were constant, as were dashes to bomb shelters. Women and children first. Anxious were the times when his father was the last to make it to cover. Sometimes he didn't make it, taking refuge under orders elsewhere, instead.

Ferdynand Bednarski couldn't shelter his loved ones from the horror, but he was determined they would survive it together.

"My dad believed in praying nightly as a family," Bednarski said. "We had nothing, but we had each other ... and that was everything."

Working in the factory allowed Ferdynand Bednarski a link to the outside world. He could hear radio broadcasts, so he knew how the war was going, but dared not speak to anyone for fear of retribution.

Have faith, he urged.

They did. The faith was rewarded.

The Germans had fled by the time the American jeeps rolled into the camp in the spring of '45. Soldiers brought C-rations, clothing and shoes. The Bednarskis, like all the other prisoners, rejoiced in being liberated even as they were transported to a displaced persons camp with no clue of what their future held or where they might go.

"We didn't care," Bednarski said. "We were free."

THE AMERICAN DREAM

After nearly four years in a DP camp in Poland, the Bednarskis packed for Ellis Island and the United States. They were to be relocated to North Dakota, but a job there fell through. Instead, the welfare organization charged with placing them found work on a dairy farm in Smithville, Texas, about 20 miles from Austin. Ferdynand Bednarski became a farm hand. The children, now 13, 11 and 8, went to school, and soon the family moved to Austin.

One day at Fulmore Junior High School, Fred sat and watched while the kids played football at lunch. He'd been to games before, but understood the marching band better than the game. Still, one of the boys invited him to play. Better yet, invited him to try kicking the ball.

"Went 40 or 50 yards, at least," he recalled.

The football coach happened to be on the playground that day, too.

Who is that kid?

He's that Polish boy, Coach!



Fred Bednarski talks to FanHouse TV about his journey from Nazi Germany to football history.
The next day, Bednarski was wearing a football uniform and playing the game for the first time. Bednarkski spoke six languages, but he knew nothing about the rules of the game with the funny-shaped ball. It was bunch of kids pushing, shoving and fighting. Eventually, he was put on defense and told to put the guy with the ball on the ground.

"He ran toward me, I stuck my foot out and tripped him," Bednarski laughed. "It was easy."

And illegal, which Bednarski quickly learned.

What the coaches at Fulmore and later Travis High learned was that Bednarski was a terrific athlete. While waiting assignment in the DP camp back in Poland, he'd learned to play soccer and volleyball and ran track. It didn't take long before Bednarski not only understood how to play football, but excelled at it too, becoming an all-city performer as a fullback and kicker.

A soccer-style kicker.

"That's the only way I ever kicked," he said. "You can control the ball better."

According to a 1954 story in The Austin American-Statesman that chronicled Travis High's win over Corsicana, Bednarski "rammed over right tackle from the two, standing up for the tally. Moments later Bednarski added the extra point with his peculiar side-ways kick."

His kicking might have been peculiar, but it was good enough for Texas coach Ed Price to invite Bednarski to join the Longhorns as a walk-on in the fall of 1955. Freshmen were ineligible to play during that era, so it wasn't until the '56 season, his sophomore year, that Bednarski's foot first gained fame.

His unconventional but booming end-zone kickoffs got the attention of a University of Washington scout that was sent to watch USC, the Huskies' upcoming opponent, in a game against Texas. The scout went back to Seattle raving mostly about the kicker for the Longhorns.

"But we're not playing Texas," the coach said. "What about USC?"

That coach was Darrell Royal, who the following spring came to Austin and started his legendary 20 seasons with the Longhorns -- a run that included national championships in '63, '69 and '70 -- in the fall of '57. The date with Arkansas was Oct. 19, Royal's fifth game at UT.

Football rules were different then. Substitutions were far less frequent and more controlled by officials. When a team scored, a player on the field had to attempt the point-after. There were no kicking specialists.

So the circumstances -- in this case, fourth-and-long from the Razorbacks' 33 -- made Royal decide to give his big-footed fullback a chance to kick a field goal. A long one.

"It was unheard of," said Akers, that Arkansas defensive back who 20 years later would succeed the retiring Royal as head coach at UT in 1977. "And when he lined up in that funny place in the backfield we took the rush away and absolutely knew they were going to pass it or do something tricky."

But then?

"Man, did that ball go. Would've been good from 10 more yards."

Bednarski ran to the sidelines and was mobbed by his teammates.

"I was so excited," he said.

Too much, apparently. Royal joined the mob, too.

"You gotta go kick off, son!"

'A TREASURE'

Bednarski never kicked another field goal. The Longhorns attempted only four all season, compared to none by their opponents. But a little more than two years later, he left UT as a three-year letterman, majoring in Russian and minoring in Czech before enrolling in the military and serving as a lieutenant in the very U.S. Army that made his life possible.

He will never take America for granted.


Fred Bednarski tells FanHouse TV about the first time he kicked a football.
"This country gave us the forum to work hard, express ourselves and become whatever we could dream," said Bednarski, married for 48 years, father of four and grandfather of 13. "This is a gift and the core of the greatness of America and that promise of living life to the fullest is still a force in our country."

As for football, the soccer-style kick is now a force as well. The sideways craze took off in the '60s and eventually sent straight-on kickers the way of the dodo bird. Cleveland's Mark Moseley was the NFL's last -- 25 years ago.

That would make a certain Polish immigrant in burnt orange a trend-setter.

"When I got here, someone told me he was the first soccer-style kicker in football," said current Longhorns kicker Justin Tucker. "I'm from Austin, so I guess I should have known that. I mean, the guy's a pioneer."

Akers goes one better.

"I think he's a treasure," Akers said. "He was the first. You need to revisit history every now and then. You don't want to let memories like that slip away."

Fred Bednarski couldn't agree more.

"Through faith and perseverance, you can do anything," he said. "And you can get anywhere."

Sometimes, even sideways.
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