A little bit of miscommunication – and perhaps some cultural misunderstanding – helped lead Jan Stahle on a journey which resulted in one of the more fascinating sports careers in the history of our state.

The year was 1974, and Stahle was arriving in Springfield as an exchange student from Sweden. Before he set foot on the campus of Greenwood High School, Stahle, unknowingly confusing American football with his native fotboll, reached out to the  GHS football coach and asked if the sport was big in his new town. Little did he know!

What ensued in the six years following that meeting was one of the unlikeliest football journeys in American sports, all the way from Sweden to the NFL. But Stahle never lost his love for “fotboll” and his impact on the soccer scene in southwest Missouri is hard to measure. Combine it all together and it’s easy to understand why the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame is proud to induct Stahle along with the Class of 2023.

After being assured that football was big in Springfield, Stahle arrived for his first practice dressed in shorts, a tee shirt and soccer shoes. “My first practice was a complete shock to me,” Stahle said. “I was surprised to see my future teammates in shoulder pads, and helmets.  They were also tossing a funny ball around.”

“This may have been the first of many miscommunication issues.”

Stahle eventually settled in and became Greenwood’s kicker, with his personal holder Payne Stewart (MSHOF, 1994). His success led him to an opportunity to play American football at Missouri State, but not before weighing offers to play soccer elsewhere.

“Looking back, I guess my friends were surprised that I chose football over soccer,” he said. “I had offers of scholarships to many colleges, for both sports.”

At Missouri State, Stahle enjoyed a record-setting career on the gridiron. In three seasons with the Bears, he led the squad in scoring as a sophomore and junior, and finished just behind running back John Gianini in total points as a senior on the Bears’ final MIAA championship club in 1978, when MSU was 8-3 – including 6-0 in the conference.

His efforts led to not only a place on the MIAA all-conference first-team, but also garnered him a shot in the NFL with both the Houston Oilers and New Orleans Saints in 1979. A year later, he had a tryout with the Kansas City Chiefs.

In the span of six years, Stahle had gone from foreign exchange student to NFL kicker.

“I can guarantee you that I am probably the only Swede that has ever achieved that,” he said.

Stahle didn’t let his missed opportunity in the NFL slow him down. He quickly transitioned into coaching his native sport.

He eventually became the head coach at his alma mater, leading a still-fledgling program to 32 wins in three seasons, including the program’s first-ever winning season (14-8) in 1989. He next started the program at Greenwood High in 1992, leading the Blue Jays to 187 wins and five Final Four appearances in 11 seasons. In 2021, he returned to Greenwood and recently completed his second season back on the sidelines.

“It’s a beautiful game as long as the players keep it simple with the ball on the ground and a lot of one and two touch passing,” Stahle said. “There also needs to be constant change of direction by the players.  Of course, the camaraderie and lifetime bonding between players and coaches is something that I will forever treasure for the rest of my life.”

While there are no questions about Stahle’s athletic prowess or coaching acumen, one question still remains: Why did a teenager from Sweden decide to stick around the Ozarks for so long?

“I really liked the Ozarks because the area reminded me of southern Sweden,” he said. “People were very friendly and received me well. I also had an aunt and uncle living in Springfield, and soon made many friends at Greenwood High School.”

Like many others, Stahle says he wouldn’t have reached this point without the help and guidance of others.

“John Petersen was my soccer coach in Sweden,” Stahle said. “The late Frank Dinka, former soccer coach at MSU. The late Bill O’Neill, former assistant A.D. at MSU, and the late Harry Cooper, for his tremendous support for my love of the game of soccer. They all had an impact.”

After living in Springfield for so long Stahle is fully aware of what it means to be inducted into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame.

“I’ve always considered it to be the highest award a Missouri athlete would ever receive,” he said. “Reflecting back, I guess I contributed more to these sports than I had ever realized, more specifically, to the sport of soccer.”