- Tom Friend, ESPN Senior Writer
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On the night he saved the Colts, he didn't know it. He didn't know anything that night, other than to get away from his mother. She had seen his interview on Canadian TV, the one where he'd called his quarterback and his coach too stoic, the one where he'd basically begged for his release, and she'd had one thing to say to her son that night, her son the kicker:
That was so stupid.
So, Mike Vanderjagt never once watched a replay of his interview. Not on tape, not on TiVo, not on SportsCenter. He just tuned it out, hoped it would disappear, hoped it wouldn't head south for the winter, south to Indianapolis.
Well, it took a whole two days to hit the States, two whole days when it actually should've taken a New York minute. He said it on a Monday, it hit the Indy papers on a Wednesday, and, that very same day, it hit Peyton Manning upside the head.
We all know what happened next. Manning, the most politically correct quarterback on earth, went after the most politically incorrect kicker on earth. He went after him in a Pro Bowl interview, an interview that, if nothing else, showed why sideline reporters still matter.
Manning told ABC's Lynn Swann, on live TV, that he couldn't believe he had to talk about "our idiot kicker who liquored up and ran his mouth off." It was stunning, especially coming from the normally vanilla Manning. So stunning that everybody involved still remembers where they were when they heard it.
BILL POLIAN, THE COLTS G.M.: "Oh Lord, I was in Las Vegas. I had promised my wife I would take her there, so we went after the Super Bowl. I was in a restaurant with some friends of ours and could not see the television. But one of my friends came back to the table and said, 'You have a problem.' "
CELIA VANDERJAGT, THE KICKER'S MOTHER: "I was probably in tears. I know I was in tears. I couldn't believe that Peyton was saying that. It just seemed so out of character for Peyton. I have to think he was just absolutely ballistic at my son. I was stunned."
JOHN VANDERJAGT, THE KICKER'S FATHER: "I was in my living room. I was sitting there, and I was the only one who was watching at the house. And then all of a sudden, I yelled. I'm telling you, I yelled. I couldn't believe Peyton said what he said. My son doesn't drink. I'd say 9 times out of 10, he doesn't have beer in the house. When we play golf, I drink a beer, and he has [soda] pop. The last time I saw him drunk he was 14, 15 years old. That's a long time ago. So when I saw Peyton say that, I told my other son, 'You go get Mike right now. And you tell him to come home now. Now!"
MIKE VANDERJAGT, THE KICKER HIMSELF: "I was in a movie with my young son when the Pro Bowl went on. Then, my stepbrother tapped me on the shoulder 10 minutes into the movie and said, 'Come on, let's go, your dad's pissed, Peyton just called you an idiot four times on national television.' I was like, 'oh great.' Because I thought it had blown over and was dying down and was about to be the end of it.
"So I left. My wife and son stayed. It was the first movie I'd ever gone to with my son -- "Kangaroo Jack" -- and I didn't even stay for it. I got to my father's, and they all wanted to watch SportsCenter and all that stuff for the next two weeks, and I just wanted no part of it. I didn't want to hear what people had to say about me. I didn't want to see the interview, I didn't want any part of it. So I just stayed away or I changed the channel or went in the next room. I've still actually never seen his interview. I've never seen my own interview. I just don't want anything to do with either of them."
But he can't hide from it, even nine months later. Nine months later, Al Michael is still calling him a 'liquored up' kicker on Monday Night Football, and ESPN broadcasters are doing the same on Monday Night Countdown.
"Micheal Irvin called me a cancer in the locker room," he says. "Has Michael Irvin been hanging out in our locker room? I am the opposite of a cancer. It's really amazing how you watch Sebastian Janikowski kick a game winning field goal, and all the announcers say is 'Janikowski kicked a game-winning field goal.' If I kicked a game-winning field goal, I'd be 'the liquored-up kicker' winning the game. And he really is a liquored-up kicker. ... I mean, I talked to Lisa Guerrero before the Monday Night game in Tampa, and she's like, 'we're not going to bring it up.' And I'm like 'well, good.' And then, boom, Al Michaels goes and says I was liquored up during my interview about Peyton. ... Listen, I used to think Jeremy Shockey and Randy Moss were idiots, but --- after what's happened to me -- I give all players the benefit of the doubt. The lesson is: don't believe everything you here. Moss probably didn't run over that police officer."
Nine months later -- as profiled in the current issue of ESPN the Magazine -- he also may have saved the Colts from themselves. Without trying to do so, he may just have. Nine months later, his critiques of his quarterback and his coach may have woken the team up, may have made them Super Bowl-ready, may have taken the laissez faire out of Peyton Manning.
"Well, I've looked at it as maybe a no-lose situation for me," the kicker says. "If we don't do well this year, then it's, 'Vanderjagt was right -- the Colts can't do it.' And if we win and do well, it's 'Vanderjagt lit a fire under us,' and maybe it turned out for the better. At my expense, unfortunately."
In other words, whether he lit a fire or not, the kicker is still kicking himself. He's afraid to watch the two soundbites that started it all. Afraid to do one-on-one interviews without bringing his own tape recorder along. Afraid he may still be blackballed if he doesn't keep making every kick.
"Well," says Polian, "I think Mike tends to see the dark side more often than not."
Here he is, 15-for-15 on the season, including two game-winners and a heaven-sent onside kick in Tampa, and Mike Vanderjagt won't stop beating himself up. It's just his nature.
"I'm thinking 'what if, all of a sudden, one 30-second interview gets me booted out football?'" he says. "I didn't know. Because you think to yourself, 'Oh my God, am I really gonna get blackballed out here?' Do they want a guy coming into town where he's called out his quarterback or he's called out his head coach? I didn't know. But then I thought to myself, 'I'm not going to fret about it, I've had a great five years and done very well and I can leave the most accurate kicker in the history of the NFL, and 86 percent [accuracy] is pretty good, and I don't think it'll get beat any time soon. So I'll go play in Toronto and have a good 'ol time, and be back in the CFL living at home. So I tried to find some positive out of it."
But he still worries anyway.
He worries because he remembers the ruddy face of Michigan State head coach George Perles, telling him he couldn't hack it as a college quarterback/punter. "Coach Perles sat me down and said, 'You know what, you're not an athlete,'" he remembers. "So I just said, 'Okay, you don't like me, I'm in the wrong place. I'm leaving.' "
He worries because, for a while he sold shoes in a West Virginia sporting goods store at $5 an hour. "I remember Jason Williams coming in to buy some shoes," he says. "The Jason Williams who played high school ball there with Randy Moss. So, yep, I sold Jason Williams shoes."
He worries because he remembers begging into the CFL. "I'd call every week from the shoe store," he says. "Whatever team missed a kick that week, I'd call and say, 'Are you ready to make a change yet?' They never said yes."
He worries because Saskatechewan, Hamilton and Toronto all eventually brought him in and all ran him out. He worries because when he tried the Arena League in 1996 -- the Minnesota Fighting Pike -- he made 70 percent of his field goals inside 50 yards and still got axed. "Because I kicked off a couple times out of bounds into the stands," he says. "It meant the other team got the ball at midfield. That's a bit of a problem, so they cut me."
He worries even though he finally proved to the Toronto Argonauts that he could kick. He worries even though he helped them win two Grey Cups, even though his teammate and buddy Doug Flutie told him he was one of the best kickers he'd ever seen.
He worries even though he beat out a former Pro Bowl kicker named Cary Blanchard in Indy in 1998. He worries even though the RCA Dome became the only place in the NFL where fans actually showed up wearing a kicker's jersey.
He worries even though his teammates think he's got the biggest swagger on the team, even though rookie Mike Doss says, "He's kind of like Elvis," even though Doss thinks the kicker is cooler than his former teammate at Ohio State, Maurice Clarett. "Just watch the way Mike Vanderjagt walks, it's almost like he's a rock star," Doss says. "It's like he's pimp-walking or something. Like he's Nelly or something, in a Nelly interview."
He worries even though a lot of people in Indianapolis think Vanderjagt was right, and Manning was wrong. He worries even though the Colts are 5-1. He worries even though his team may just be the class of the AFC, even though he's maybe the squad's most important player outside of Manning and Marvin Harrison.
He worries because of his past, because of what he had to do to get here. He worries because he spent a lifetime talking his way into football and now he might've talked himself out of football.
But, in the words of his mother, he's so stupid. Why worry? Let it go. No one will ever cut a kicker who's 15-for-15. No one will cut the kicker who maybe woke up a team, who maybe woke up Peyton Manning.
He needs to stop, he needs to calm down, he needs to give Lynn Swann a hug.
Hate to say it, but he needs a beer.
10hDianna Russini and Adam Schefter
22hEric D. Williams
1dBy Dan Graziano