Hardly anyone is aware that a Norwegian player once signed with the Atlanta Falcons. In this article we will tell the story of a man you’ve most likely never heard about before. A man whom the NFL commissioner stopped from playing in the league. A man whose story bears a striking resemblance to that of a Norwegian that can be found in the Pro Football Hall of Fame; Jan Stenerud. At the same time it’s a story that abruptly ends, and not in the Hall of Fame, but in tragedy on a cold and icy night in a small town in Michigan.
We’re talking about Bernt Rognstad. National champion in football the NCAA Division II-level. Rognstad was somewhat known in his home country of Norway before he ever played football, but then as a skilled and promising young athlete within very different sports, such as ski jumping, biathlon and soccer. He was among the country’s best in biathlon and ski jumping, and that’s in fact the main reason why he ended up on a scholarship in the US.
Bernt Rognstad was recruited by Northern Michigan University to bolster their competitiveness and strengthen what was at the time one of the better sports programs when it came to skiing.
We’re back in 1972, which is when Rognstad got recruited by personell from Northern Michigan University who travelled to Norway and signed some of the top skiers in the country. 1973 sees the first articles pop up where Bernt Rognstad is mentioned in connection with the football program at Northern Michigan, which played in NCAA Division II just like the program still does today. In 1973 Rognstad is kicking field goals and kickoffs, and particularily excelling at the latter. Later on it is as a kickoff specialist he will make his mark, and which is the primary reason that the Atlanta Falcons come calling shortly after the 1976 draft. More about that later.
Before things get to that point, Bernt Rognstad has to be discovered by the Northern Michigan football coaches, and this is where the similarity to Jan Stenerud’s story is particularily striking. We also get some insight into Bernt Rognstad’s personality in this recollection from someone who was actually there at the time, John Benzie:
As you know, ski jumpers do a lot of cross training with soccer. Part of our training at NMU was playing soccer on the small corners of the NMU Wildcat football field which was a daily occurrence when the weather cooperated. At the end of one practice session Bernt kicked the soccer ball through the uprights just past the football coaching staff and into parking lot from about 20 yards away. The head football coach walked back to Bernt and asked him his name to which he replied ELVIS in his Norwegian accent. He was always making jokes like that. The coach then asked him to kick a football through the uprights from the 20 yard line and Bernt replied »which foot do you want me to use.» He also did this from 30 yards, and had little problem using his right foot kicking the ball thru at 50 yards. It seemed NMU had a new kicker and our ski jumping team had a dual sport athlete. Bernt’s humor was always there as when he made his first appearance on the football field with double zero »00» on his jersey and we all had a laugh. This laughing stopped as his first kick off sailed out of the end zone.
– From USASJ Story Project 16
Elvis as an alter ego, actually 🙂 Bernt Rognstad was perhaps in a better athlete than his alter ego during these years. In fact, Rognstad repeatedly ended up in the top 5 as a ski jumper (#3, #2 and #5 during 1973-75) in the NCAA, and also did well enough to earn an All-American honorable mention.
Rognstad, who was from the tiny municipality of Fenstad north of Oslo, played for the Northern Michigan football team in 1973, 1975 og 1976. How could he then be signed by an NFL-team in the spring of 1976 when he played college football in the fall of that same year? Well…that’s kind of the issue.
Bernt Rognstad was signed as an underclassman. In those days, that was a no-go. Once NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle and his staff got word of the signing, they investigated the issue and quickly came to the conclusion that the Falcons had to void the contract. The whole mess wouldn’t have been an issue nowadays, where the NFL regularily signs juniors and even sophomores in addition to seniors from college, but in 1976 being an underclassman was a show-stopper. Bernt Rognstad’s opportunity with the Atlanta Falcons and potentially playing in the NFL would have to wait. This is the reason why you won’t find Bernt Rognstad in the NFL archives despite contemporary newspaper articles undoubtedly verifying that the signing did happen:
That the NCAA allowed Rognstad to keep playing despite already having signed an NFL contract probably has to do with the fact that the contract was swiftly voided by the NFL itself. Apparently the NCAA formally never considered Bernt Rognstad as having played or been involved with a pro football team, and therefore he could continue playing for the Nothern Michigan Wildcats. The team had won the national championship the previous season, and 1976 saw them mount a campaign to repeat as champions. Bernt Rognstad was fortunate enough to be part of that effort, even though it probably was fairly disappointing for him to not start earning money as a kicker in the NFL that same fall.
Bernt Rognstad’s role for Northern Michigan in 1975 and 1976 was primarily as a kicker on kickoffs, and from time to time field goals from 30+ yards out. In other words: He was splitting the kicking duties. That an NFL team nonetheless came calling says something about the qualities Rognstad possessed. It probably also says something about the interest in soccer-style (and then often European..) kickers during the years shortly after players such as Pete Gogolak and Jan Stenerud paved the way for the new style of kicking that revolutionized the position.
The future looked bright for Bernt Rognstad. Although the Northern Michigan Wildcats ended their 1976 season without a second national championship in two years, the team still did well. A team that was 0-10 as late as 1974 ended up losing in the semifinal by 29-26 to Akron in overtime. The loss was tough, but a crowd of local fans still greeted the team when they came back to Marquette, where Northern Michigan University is located, after the flight from Akron. The mood was festive enough for several of the players to celebrate their season out on town, Rognstad among them on a cold night with snow and ice on the ground outside the taverns and bars of Marquette.
The semifinal game had it’s own special tie to Bernt Rognstad and his nationality. We don’t know whether it was something he pondered, but ironically enough his last ever game would be in a Bowl game named after another Norwegian: It was called Knute Rockne Bowl, named after one of the greatest football coaches of all time, Norwegian-born Knute Rockne.
The game was one of the two semifinals during the NCAA Division II-playoffs in 1976, with the winner moving on to the National Championship, just like Northern Michigan had done in 1975. Saturday December 5th 1976 would not end that way, as the Wildcats lost. That day would also prove to be Bernt Rognstad’s last day alive.
At 02:01AM Sunday the 6th of December Bernt Rognstad was crossing the street on his way back to the NMU campus where he lived. His teammates Jeff Reinbold and Jack Guenthner were following in his footsteps only a few yards behind him. Right in front of what was then named the North End Tavern, Bernt Rognstad entered the street between two parked cars. He never saw the car that came driving. Reinbold and Guenthner saw the car and yelled out, but it was too late.
Five and a half hours later the life of Bernt Rognstad faded away for good at the Marquette General North Hospital. Serious head injuries proved fatal, and there was nothing the doctors could do to bring him back to life. Bernt Rognstad passed away at 24 years old.
Northern Michigan University, the football team and in fact the entire school, was in shock. According to teammate and the team’s star player, QB Steve Mariucci, the whole campus was in a daze. Mariucci, who most people probably know better as the head coach for the San Francisco 49ers and the Detroit Lions for a number of years, had a rough time in the wake of the tragic death of Bernt Rognstad. Rognstad was engaged, and his fiancée Paula Constantini was a classmate (and from what we can understand they remain close friends to this day) of Mariucci from high school in nearby Iron Mountain, Michigan. Mariucci was among the people who spent the coming days consoling her in what must have been a devastating and trying time. Bernt and Paula had planned a trip to Norway scheduled for a few weeks later, visiting his parents among other things on the agenda. They had their lives together ahead of them. It was not to be.
Bernt Rognstad was buried in Norway.
— Steve Mariucci (@SteveMariucci) February 1, 2017
It’s worth mentioning that the driver who hit Rognstad never was charged with any crime. The current situation at the time with slippery conditions in combination with parked cars led to the conclusion from the local police that there was nothing the driver could have done to avoid the situation. It was concluded that this was a tragic accident with the worst possible outcome.