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JACKIE MACMULLAN

Upright Gostkowski surviving

FOXBOROUGH -- In his old life, Stephen Gostkowski would be playing baseball by now, warming up with his catcher at Memphis in between starts.

"If I had a curveball," mused the Patriots kicker, "we wouldn't be standing here."

He is three-quarters through his first NFL season and his goal is as simplistic as the day he reported to training camp: survive. When he's neither mentioned in the media nor the coaches' meetings, he chalks up that week as a success. Gostkowski is "pretty much living kick to kick," and, he concedes, at times the grind has been taxing, physically and mentally.

"The toughest part has been finding a way to be part of the team," said Gostkowski. "I definitely have the biggest target on my back in here. I'm a rookie and I'm a kicker."

He forgot to add the final component of his bull's-eye: He is Not Adam.

It would have been a daunting challenge for a veteran to replace Adam Vinatieri, the best clutch kicker in the history of the NFL, never mind a first-year player who was born in Baton Rouge, La., raised in Madison, Miss., and played ball in Tennessee. Let's just say winter squalls are not a major factor in those ports of call.

Upon signing with the Patriots, Gostkowski was immediately accosted with horror stories of the wind and the sleet and, yes, the blizzards that blow through Gillette Stadium.

Vinatieri, he was told (again and again and again), was able to kick through anything. His new employer advised him to forget about the previous kicker (who became persona non grata virtually overnight after he signed with the Indianapolis Colts), and that sounded good in theory. In actuality, it was impossible.

"You can't exactly X him out," Gostkowski said. "Whenever I'd see the fans they'd tell me, 'You've got big shoes to fill.' I understand. [Vinatieri] was great here. He gives kickers a good name."

Gostkowski, who connected on all 10 of his field goal attempts from 40 yards and beyond in his senior year at Memphis and missed but one extra point in his final three seasons in college, believed he was up for the challenge.

He still felt that way after his 29-yard field goal against the Jets in Week 2 was blocked when he lost his footing at the Meadowlands. But when his 37-yard attempt was blocked the following week against Denver at Gillette Stadium, and he missed a 48-yard field goal wide right the week after that against the Bengals, the prevailing opinion that he was Not Adam merely intensified.

ESPN, NESN, and just about every other television outlet repeatedly reminded him of his shortcomings. It got so bad, Gostkowski, a hard-core sports fan, turned off the tube altogether.

In a perfect Belichickian sphere, the kicker would have stepped up to the microphone and announced, "I have to do a better job. I got outkicked in all three phases of the game." But Gostkowski is young, and he is human, and he was slightly shaken by the backlash.

"You hear things," he acknowledged. "You try not to listen. I just want to have fun with the whole thing. I don't want negative thoughts rolling around my head."

Punter Josh Miller emerged as the rookie's guardian angel. He teased him, cajoled him, scolded him, and, above all, tried to keep him on an even keel. When the kicker fretted because the coaches were jumping all over him, Miller reminded him they were doing it to get the most out of him. When the kicker sounded defensive in the newspapers, Miller suggested he stop talking for a while.

"He's helped me so much," Gostkowski said. "He's hilarious. It was tough for Josh. He didn't want to be friends with a rookie, but he was forced to hang out with me because we do so much stuff together in practice."

The young kicker tried to draw confidence from long kickoffs, successful PATs (he's yet to miss one this season), and the occasional field goal.

"It wasn't like I was begging them to send me out to kick a 65-yarder," he said. "If we have a game where all I do is kick five extra points, that makes me happy because it means we scored a lot of touchdowns, and we probably won the game."

On the night of Nov. 5, minutes before the Patriots and the Colts kicked off, Stephen Gostkowski stood under the goal post and shook Adam Vinatieri's hand. It would have been easier to dislike his predecessor had Vinatieri been aloof, gruff, or even arrogant, but he was gracious and congratulatory. He wished the rookie luck, and told him not to be distracted by the media or the fans. Then he turned and walked toward the visitors' bench.

"It was a tough night to kick," Gostkowski said. "It was cold and the grass was wet and mushy."

Gostkowski missed a 36-yard field goal, but what most people will remember is that Vinatieri failed to convert two kicks of his own -- a 46-yard field goal in the fourth quarter, and, even more stunning, a 37-yarder wide right early in the third quarter.

"I watched that and said to myself, 'Well, I guess even the best kickers do mess up,' " Gostkowski said. "It makes you look back and say, 'Maybe I overreacted a little bit when I screwed up before.' "

He has settled in these past few weeks. He has converted 11 of his last 12 field goals, with the last miss that errant kick against Indy. Many of his kicks have been from modest distances, although he did boot a 52-yarder against Chicago, which, incidentally, is longer than any kick Vinatieri made during his tenure at Gillette.

"We have a lot of confidence in Stephen," said coach Bill Belichick. "I do. I think the team does as well. He's been solid. He's been consistent. He's been here from Day 1. And we had good competition in camp, too. It wasn't like there wasn't anybody else here."

Gostkowski grows more comfortable each day. He is learning the odd New England traffic patterns and navigating a locker room loaded with no-nonsense veterans who aren't about to give any rookies -- especially a kicker -- a free pass.

"They get on me," he confirmed. "I guess it's a test of my mental strength, or something.

"I know it takes time [to be accepted]. I didn't expect to just walk in here and have everyone embrace me with open arms. I just want to be part of the team like everyone else."

Asked if he had been testing the kicker's mettle, linebacker Mike Vrabel answered, "You kind of have to. You want your kicker to be one of the main guys. You don't want him to be the lonely guy standing apart from everyone else."

There was one more snippet of wisdom Miller told Gostkowski that resonates still. Once your rookie year is over, it's in the past. Consider Vinatieri's first campaign with the Patriots. He missed three of his first seven field goals, including 25-, 45-, and 47-yard kicks against Buffalo in a game New England lost, 17-10.

No one is sure how Gostkowski will react when the game -- maybe even the season -- is on the line in the weeks ahead. The kicker says he's ready to find out.

"I had a few bumps in the beginning, but I never felt it was anything to panic about," he said.

"He's a good kid," Vrabel said. "He's trying to do the right thing."

Not Adam? Not necessary -- at least not until the playoffs.

Jackie MacMullan is a Globe columnist. Her e-mail address is macmullan@globe.com.

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