- Greg Garber, Writer, Reporter
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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Kickers are never ones to get much respect. Most folks around the league will tell you they're not football players at all.
And so, it was a monumental breakthrough on Tuesday afternoon when Patriots place-kicker Adam Vinatieri could be seen, beaming, from his own podium at Media Day for Super Bowl XXXIX. After going 0-for-3 previously, Vinatieri was finally given an appropriate platform for Super Bowl XXXIX, his fourth appearance in the ultimate game.
"Up until this year I've been in the nosebleed seats," Vinatieri said. "But that's OK."
As a kicker, Vinatieri knows his place. His place in history, however, is another matter.
All week long there have been conversations about Bill Belichick and Tom Brady chasing the ghosts of Vince Lombardi and Joe Montana, respectively. Corey Dillon is in the midst of churning up enough yards to garner serious consideration for the Pro Football Hall of Fame. When they are healthy, cornerback Ty Law and defensive end Richard Seymour are among the best at their positions.
And yet, there is this: On this team of teams, it is quite possible that Adam Matthew Vinatieri might be the very best at what he does. He is, by most accounts, the greatest clutch kicker in the history of football.
He has already proved he belongs in the Hall of Fame, alongside the Dan Marinos and Steve Youngs of the NFL universe. Philadelphia's David Akers isn't far behind.
"Without question, I think you're looking at two guys who both have a chance to be Hall of Famers," said John Harbaugh, the Eagles' special teams coach.
Currently, Jan Stenerud and George Blanda (who also played quarterback) are the only place-kickers with a bronze bust in Canton, Ohio.
Last year, Vinatieri beat the Carolina Panthers in Super Bowl XXXVIII with a 41-yard field goal with four seconds left. Two years earlier, he defeated the St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI with a 48-yard field goal as time expired. The Patriots wouldn't even have been there if Vinatieri hadn't kicked a 45-yard field goal through the swirling snow to force overtime in the divisional playoff game against the Oakland Raiders -- viewed by many as the greatest kick in NFL history -- and then won the game with a 23-yard field goal in overtime.
Vinatieri, 32, and the Colts' Jim O'Brien (Super Bowl V) are the only kickers in league history to kick a game-winning field goal in the last minute of a Super Bowl -- and Vinatieri's done it twice. In the Patriots' six playoff victories over the last two Super Bowl seasons, four were decided by Vinatieri's marvelous right foot. He has kicked 17 game-winning field goals in his nine-year career, nine in the last three.
"Hopefully, it changes the thoughts of what kickers mean, and how they can impact a game," Vinatieri said.
Kicking a football through the uprights is not the most challenging technical feat (pun intended) in this complex game. In fact, after stripping away the pressure that comes with it, a field goal might be one of the easiest. Someone in reasonable shape can tee up a ball on, say, the 20-yard-line and, with some practice, pop a few balls over the crossbar.
A field goal, like a golf shot, is a simple matter of mechanics. The ball, if handled correctly, isn't moving. But just as the 17th island green at the nearby TPC at Sawgrass seems reachable enough in a practice round, it becomes downright daunting in the final round of The Players Championship with the title on the line. Similarly, the simple mechanics of a field goal aren't so simple when you factor variables like wind, snow, crowd, temperature -- and the inevitable pressure of the moment.
Jets place-kicker Doug Brien, who made 24 of 29 field goals during the regular season, missed two kicks that would have sent New York to the AFC championship game. Sadly, his career to this point will be seen through the prism of those failures. Buffalo's Scott Norwood was a terrific kicker, but two words -- wide right -- will dog him forever after missing the 47-yard field goal that would have beaten the Giants in Super Bowl XXV.
How does he do it? How does Vinatieri consistently succeed under such trying circumstances?
"Well, you know ." Vinatieri said, sighing. "Uh You try to take a few deep breaths and realize that it's the same kick you were trying to make back in June when no one was watching.
"We play our entire careers to get here. You expect the best to happen. The last few Super Bowl nights, I can tell you, you dream of them going through."
Clearly, it's a Zen thing.
"The more you block out the surroundings, the better off you'll be," Vinatieri said. "You hear of pitchers being in the zone, going out and not hearing anything -- that's kind of how it is."
Vinatieri did his college kicking at South Dakota State, where he learned to make field goals in all kinds of adverse situations. While he kicked two from 51 yards out, professional scouts thought he might be too short off the tee and he wasn't drafted. After a stint with the Amsterdam Admirals, then-Patriots head coach Bill Parcells invited him to training camp in 1996 to challenge 18-year veteran Matt Bahr. Parcells surprised most observers by keeping the rookie over Bahr, who passed along some wise words.
"He told me, 'You have to have a real short-term memory,' " Vinatieri said. "He said, 'You're never as good as your last kick or as bad as your last kick.' "
Lately, more often than not, they've been good. Vinatieri made 31 of 33 field-goal attempts this year and scored 141 points, both league bests. He was two-for-two against the Colts in the playoffs and he sent a message two weeks ago in Pittsburgh by kicking a 48-yard field goal on the Patriots' fifth play of the game, tying the longest previous kick at Heinz Field.
He is fifth on the league's all-time list in terms of accuracy -- behind Mike Vanderjagt of the Colts, Akers, the Ravens' Matt Stover and Ryan Longwell of the Packers -- after making 243 of 296 for a percentage of 82.1.
Vinatieri has pedigree of sorts; he is a distant cousin of motorcycle madman Evel Knievel and the great, great grandson of Felix Vinatieri, General George Custer's bandmaster.
And, unlike most kickers, he has a bit of a football player's bulging neck. Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi still talks about the time when Vinatieri, a rookie who didn't know any better, ran down the Dallas Cowboys' Herschel Walker on a kickoff. After the play, Parcells told Vinatieri he wasn't just a kicker -- he was a football player.
Vinatieri played linebacker and quarterback in high school. What position would he play other than kicker?
"Third-string quarterback, where I wouldn't get hit too hard," said Vinatieri laughing. "I watch the game and sometimes it's a train wreck out there. It would be fun if I were 40 pounds heavier and a little bit faster to get in and play some linebacker."
Most "real" players wouldn't trade places with Vinatieri at the end of the game when he's lining up the game-winning kick. Now that's a train wreck.
"In the end," Vinatieri said, "the Super Bowl is just a football game. You try to take a couple of big, deep breaths and convince yourself it's just another game.
"You try to, anyway."
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
1dEric D. Williams