- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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HOUSTON -- Tedy Bruschi didn't used to talk to kickers. As a linebacker and former defensive lineman, Bruschi preferred dealing with football players. Kickers, in Bruschi's eyes, need not apply.
Adam Vinatieri made Bruschi eat those words. They were rookies for the Patriots on Bill Parcells' team in 1996. Herschel Walker broke down the sidelines and appeared to be heading for a touchdown on a kickoff return. Bruschi trailed the play. Out of nowhere comes Vinatieri, using a burst of speed no one knew he had to make the touchdown-saving tackle.
"Because I was trailing the play, I had a birds-eye view," Bruschi said of his 6-foot, 202-pound teammate. "I turned my head, and I was amazed about it. I thought it was fluke that a kicker can make a tackle. I realized that this guy is for real. Now, he's one of my better friends on the team."
Vinatieri is more than just a kicker. To New England Patriots fans, he's Mr. Clutch. His 48-yard field goal as time expired won Super Bowl XXXVI, beating the Rams. That one kick made him a New England icon for life. More important to him, Vinatieri won over his teammates as being a football player who just happens to kick.
Vinatieri was so important to the Patriots that they designated him the franchise player in 2002 so they didn't lose him to free agency. That's right, a kicker as a franchise player.
"To his teammates, he's just another athlete out there," special teams coach Brad Seely. "He lifts with the linebackers and running backs during the offseason. I think he's a very good tackler. Unfortunately he's had to make more tackles than we want him to."
Though he's not a 300-pound lifter, Vinatieri can handle most of the drill work done by the linebackers and running backs during the offseason. When those players strap bands on their shoulders to strengthen the resistance when they train, Vinatieri ties those straps to his legs and plows forward.
"His lifting may not be something to write home about, but he's putting it up there," Bruschi said.
Even though Vinatieri was born to be a clutch kicker, heredity made him different. Name another kicker who is a cousin to Evel Knievel, the daredevil, and his great, great grandfather was Felix Vinatieri, a bandmaster for General Custer. Adam Vinatieri knows the importance of last stands.
As a kicker, Vinatieri is fearless. Clearly, he's the best clutch kicker of his era. Jan Stenerud is the only kicker in the NFL Hall of Fame, an electing body that finds it difficult to recognize specialists. But Vinatieri is only 31 in a sport that could allow him to kick for more than a decade.
"I've been fortunate enough to go to three Super Bowls," Vinatieri said. "We lost in one Super Bowl when I was a rookie. The difference between winning and losing in a game like that is amazing. It's different from every aspect. Winning, you get a lot more recognition, a lot more media attention and a lot more commercials."
Vinatieri's clutch Super Bowl kick earned him trips to The Letterman Show. But where does that rank him all time among kickers?
For accuracy, Vinatieri currently ranks 10th at 80.6 on his field goals. Mike Vanderjagt's perfect 2003 season gives him the all-time record at 87.9. It's been the era in which Morten Andersen has probably been considered the kickers' kicker for doing it so well for two decades. Jason Elam has been to three Pro Bowls, two more than Vinatieri. And it's hard to say that Gary Anderson's long body of work takes a backseat to Vinatieri.
Where Vinatieri has no peers is his ability to make clutch kicks. He's nailed 15 game-winning kicks during his career. He's made nine in overtime.
"When he goes out there, it doesn't matter really if it's the first quarter or the fourth quarter, he's going to make the kick," Seely said. "I think that's the big part of it. A lot of it is mental. I know he thinks and our players think he's going to make the kick."
What people tend to forget is Vinatieri kicks in one of the toughest conditions in football. The old stadium at Foxboro had gusting north-south winds that intimidated visiting kickers. The Patriots new stadium has swirling winds made tricky by an end zone tunnel. The winds at Candlestick Park have chased many a kicker through the years. The winds and the cold in Foxboro have only made Vinatieri mentally tougher.
"Kicking in bad weather every day prepares you," Vinatieri said. "It makes you mentally focused enough where you block out distractions when you need to."
This season might have been his toughest. Not only was he kicking balls that were like rocks during the final weeks of the season and in the playoffs, but he's had to go through three different snappers because of injuries and adjust to two holders. Vinatieri didn't complain, but his accuracy suffered. He made 25 of 34 field goal, resulting in his worst percentage (73.5) as a professional.
"It's been a strange year but the only thing that is important is winning and losing games, and I'm happy we are winning," Vinatieri said. "The way I look at it, every kick is important, whether it's the first quarter or the fourth quarter. That kick you miss in the first quarter could be the difference in a 21-20 game."
Things have settled down in the three-man mechanics of the Patriots kicking game. After losing snappers Lonnie Paxton and Sean McDermott with season-ending injuries, the Patriots pulled Brian Kinchen out of retirement to handle the snapping. Punter Ken Walter held for Vinatieri until he was cut for bad punting, but after a week, Walter was re-signed and returns as his holder.
"I think it's a situation where you just try to go out there and do what you do every time," he said. "I do enjoy going out there and trying to do my role. You take them all the same."
To Vinatieri, clutch is clutch.
John Clayton is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com.
Even though Adam Vinatieri missed nine FGs this season, he was still a sure thing in crucial situations.