Aug. 8, 2012
By Loran Smith
SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- At his campus office at Sacramento State, where he teaches math, Dr. Robert G. Etter took time to reminisce about his former life as a college and NFL place kicker just before embarking on a nine-hour drive to Las Vegas, where he would be spending a few days playing competitive bridge.
The Chattanooga native retired recently from a career in teaching. However, upon retirement, he was rehired to teach part time, which allows him to pursue his loves of fishing and playing bridge--a circumstance of frustrating humility with the former and of overachievement with the latter. "I love fishing, but there is not a place where you have much success around here, although I fish the Sacramento River as often as I can," he said. "I have to drive down to Ventura to catch fish."
Modesty precludes any mention of his status when he enters a bridge tournament. You have to coax him into disclosure. When you prod through a layer of reluctance, you learn that he has won two national championships in bridge and has attained the status of "Grand Life Master." You can't reach a level higher than that in the world of bridge.
People pay big money to play bridge with him in competition. Here is how it works. Say you are a person of means and you have an abiding affection for bridge and deep pockets to pursue your avocation. You pay an expert like Bobby Etter to be your partner. That is akin to pairing an average golfer with one of the world's best pros, for example, Phil Mickelson. Your score and Mickleson's score both would count in the competition.
Bobby is the expert and his moneyed partner not only picks up all the checks, he pays fees to compete in tournaments and often compensates his partner as well. "I make a decent income out of playing bridge, a little money to play with," Etter says, "but what I still enjoy the most is teaching."
All the while during this two-hour conversation, there was a repeated flashback to Nov. 7, 1964, in Jacksonville's old Gator Bowl when Etter was lined up to kick what would have been the winning field goal against Florida, in a hard fought 7-7 game. A low snap ensued with holder Barry Wilson not being able to field the ball cleanly. Etter, who locked his ankle in place for place kicking with a shoestring looped around the forward cleat on his right kicking shoe and tied behind his ankle, suddenly found the ball lying at his feet. He picked up the ball, inclined to run to his right, but saw the Florida rush had the advantage and began running to his left toward the goal line.
He was hobbling along with his tied-up foot, trying to make the best of a bad situation, when he saw a Gator defensive back moving forward. Bobby faked a pass, which had the defender suddenly switching to a backpedalling mode, making the difference in whether Bobby scored or not. That and crisp blocks by Wilson and Frank Richter. Suddenly you saw No. 11 collapsing in a heap at the Florida goal line. Etter made it just past the goal line, at the pylon, with Georgia winning, 14-7, the upset of the year in the Southeastern Conference.
Those and other Bulldog memories were the topic of our conversation as Etter reflected on the past. At 5-11, 150 pounds, he was an unlikely prospect for a college scholarship. He probably could have gotten scholarship aid for his academic acumen, but he wanted to play sports. "There is no question," he smiled, "Dickie Phillips, from my high school, was the player they wanted and they gave his brother, Harry, and me a scholarship to make sure Dickie didn't change his mind and didn't get homesick."
In that era when colleges could sign up to 40 players, awarding an insurance scholarship was a common practice, but Georgia got a bonus from signing Etter. He became the regular place kicker, whose hallmark was consistent accuracy, and he was a fine baseball player who earned his keep as a solid hitting shortstop/outfielder. He kicked for the Falcons while enrolled at Rice, studying for advanced degrees, and later kicked for the Memphis Southmen.
While Etter was in high school, his family drove out West to see his brother, Gene, who was playing minor league baseball in the state of Washington. They later drove through California. Bobby decided on that trip that he wanted to live in the Golden State. "I like Georgia and I like Tennessee," he said, "but I love it out here. Always have."