RAPID CITY, S.D. Nobody grows up dreaming of becoming a kicker.
What makes you think Adam Vinatieri did? He had better things to do. While handling punting and kicking duties for Rapid City Central High School, he also was an option quarterback and a linebacker who delighted in slamming guys into the frozen Midwestern turf. He was an exceptional soccer player the best in the state, to hear his brother Chad tell it as well as a decorated wrestler. He was a gifted hunter with a steady hand. And did we mention he was a pole vaulter?
He was an athlete.
"Adam is a football player that kicks," said Dave Dolan, one of his former football coaches at Central. "I think he proved that early in his [NFL] career when he ran down Herschel Walker [on a kickoff return]."
In the beginning, kicking was an afterthought, a skill handed down from father to son(s). If you were a Vinatieri, it was a given that you had a strong leg. That included sister Christine, who was known to boot one 40 yards off a tee.
But when Adam fantasized about playing in the NFL, he envisioned himself as Roger Staubach or Dick Butkus, not Jan Stenerud or Ray Guy. "That's still true," said his father, Paul Vinatieri. "To be honest, Adam likes to be in there and get his nose bent. He likes it when his teammates say, `Hey, good tackle.' I think that makes him feel better than kicking a 50-yard field goal."
We can only guess how it makes coach Bill Belichick feel when he sees his redoubtable All-Pro kicker flying down the field, hunting the guy with the ball. Vinatieri knows it is no longer his job to level running backs or call audibles at the line of scrimmage. He has assumed the role of specialist superbly, but forgive him if he bristles at the characterization of kickers as flighty individuals who are fringe players in the team concept. That does not apply here.
Vinatieri lifts weights, watches films, and participates in agility drills, just like everyone else. He takes his strength and conditioning program as seriously as Willie McGinest does his. He prepares for the game as thoroughly as Tom Brady or Belichick. No wonder Belichick entrusted him with a fake field goal play that resulted in a touchdown pass to Troy Brown against St. Louis this season.
"Kickers tend to get stereotyped," Vinatieri said. "Obviously we're not as big or as strong or as fast as some of the other guys out there. But we're not all European guys who played soccer."
Kicker as competitor
He has earned the reputation as one of the best clutch kickers in NFL history. The litany of pressure deliveries includes a 48-yard field goal as time expired to beat St. Louis in the 2002 Super Bowl; a 41-yard kick with 4 seconds left to beat Carolina in the 2004 Super Bowl; the now-legendary 45-yard kick in a snowstorm against Oakland in the 2002 AFC Championship to force overtime; and a 23-yard kick to win that same game.
Ask the Philadelphia Eagles, who play New England in next Sunday's Super Bowl, and they likely will tell you they fear Vinatieri almost as much as Brady or Rodney Harrison or Tedy Bruschi.
They should. Behind the visage of this unfailingly polite, self-effacing man, who gladly plays along with the "hey-don't-mind-me-I'm-just-a-kicker" persona, lies an intensely competitive person who abhors personal failure.
"What you have to understand is, Adam does not accept mediocrity," explained Chad Vinatieri. "He never has, never will."
He did not accept it when he was benched as a college senior. He did not accept it when he went undrafted by the NFL. And he does not accept it as he attempts to cement his reputation as a bona fide Hall of Fame candidate, an honor rarely bestowed on kickers.
The pursuit of excellence was a fruitless one in Vinatieri's younger years. He yearned to be as good at sports as Chad, his idol, who was 2 1/2 years older, 2 1/2 years stronger, and 2 1/2 years faster.
Adam did his best to keep up. His father was a soccer coach who had trouble fielding a team, so he'd drive around Rapid City, identify children who looked to be the right age, then ring the doorbell and ask them to join his team. Chad was 8 1/2 at the time, Adam just 6. His father plopped Adam in front of the net as a fullback and told him not to let any of those 8-year-olds get past him.
Very few did.
"When you are always playing against kids 2 years older than you, it makes you tough," said Paul Vinatieri.
At home, everything among the Vinatieris was a contest: who could run faster, jump higher, play checkers better. Christine and the youngest, Beau, were drawn into it, too. But none of them took it as seriously or as personally as Adam.
He was inconsolable in his junior season following a wrestling match in the state semifinals when he locked his opponent into a cradle and rolled back in preparation to pin him. Instead, as he rolled across, he accidentally pinned himself.
"You should have seen his face when that kid slapped the mat," Paul Vinatieri said. "None of us could believe it."
"He took it very, very hard," said his mother, Judy Vinatieri. "That one stayed with him a while."
He had the answers
The disappointments gnawed at him. How could he have prevented it? What could he have done differently? As Vinatieri grew older and his physical limitations became apparent, he relied on preparation and mental resolve to maintain his edge.
"He just didn't accept failure," said Jerry Hirrschoff, who coached Vinatieri in wrestling and football. "He always looked to improve. We taught him how to kick to the corners of the field, to help us determine what we'd do defensively. With most high school kids, you wouldn't even think about trying something like that. But Adam was different."
Ron Nankivel discovered that when he recruited Vinatieri for the track team. Nankivel needed a pole vaulter. Vinatieri had never tried it, but he quickly became a student, learning the techniques within a matter of weeks.
"Adam said to me once, `Well, I really wasn't a very good pole vaulter,' " Nankivel said. "Are you kidding me? He only did it two years. His second year he was fourth in the state."
Vinatieri was a well-mannered boy with good grades and athletic ability, which endeared him to coaches and teachers. Yet, at the same time, he was a mischievous and loyal friend, which endeared him to classmates.
When Central played crosstown rival Stevens in basketball, the Stevens fans had an annoying habit of throwing toilet paper onto the court after their team scored the first basket. Such showmanship rankled Vinatieri so much that one night, he and his friends devised a retort. As soon as Stevens fans tossed their toilet paper, Vinatieri and friends responded by pelting the court with hot dogs and eggs.
"We were just a bunch of young kids having some fun," Vinatieri said. "Everyone laughed -- except the principal."
He loved a good prank as much as anyone, but Vinatieri put the jokes aside on the football field and expected his teammates to do the same.
"He was so dog-gone serious," said his college coach, Mike Daly. "I loved it. He set the tone."
Vinatieri had the same affect on his high school buddies. When he stepped into the huddle, he was in charge. When he stepped up to kick a field goal, he was in command.
"Once we were playing Cheyenne East," recalled former Central coach Mike Murphey. "It was miserable out. It was cold and windy and raining sideways. I bet there wasn't more than 20 people in the stands. Adam was a sophomore. We put him out there to kick what I think was around a 37-yard field goal to win it. He drove it right through. We never doubted he would.
"Then there's the year we played Sturgis. They were pretty good. We lose the coin flip, so we have to kick off. Adam kicks a perfect onsides kick. We recover the ball. He lines up at quarterback, and three plays later, we score. We kick off again, and it's another perfect onside kick. We get the ball. We line up and score again.
"Forget it. The game was over."
A false step with punting
When recruiters came calling with scholarships, they were not interested in Vinatieri as a quarterback. His options were limited to kicking opportunities. He went to South Dakota State, where he set a season record of 38 PATs and a career scoring record of 185 points. Yet something went awry in his senior season, when he converted just 4 of 12 field goal attempts, underwhelming numbers for a pro prospect. Vinatieri's punting average that season was a healthy 43.5 yards, but on draft day, nobody called his name.
"That's my fault," said Daly, his coach at South Dakota State. "I messed him up a little bit by having him do the punting and the kicking. There are some similarities to the techniques, but a lot of differences, too. When I asked him to do both, he lost some kicking ability. It hurt him as far as the NFL went. The scouts liked his leg, but they didn't like his consistency."
While Vinatieri was at South Dakota State, holders and snappers were coming and going every year. That was hard for someone like him, whose foundation is repetition and consistency. The low point of his athletic career came when Daly temporarily relieved him of his placekicking duties and replaced him with a lineman.
"His eyes narrowed quite a bit when I told him I was benching him," Daly said. "But Adam was a team guy. He knew the stats. He knew his numbers weren't where they should be.
"Anyhow, it was short-lived. The lineman couldn't do it. Adam was back kicking for us before the year was out."
Vinatieri felt that if he concentrated on placekicking, he could regain his form. Daly tried to steer scouts in his direction, and emphasized how dedicated his kicker always had been. Nobody was listening.
"I remember talking to [Patriots special teams coach] Brad Seely about Adam," Daly said. "He wasn't with New England at that time. He was with the Colts. I kept bugging him to meet Adam, to look at the film. I told him, `I guarantee you if you bring this kid to camp, he'll make the team.' But Brad wasn't interested. It was hard to blame him."
It appeared Vinatieri's dream of becoming an NFL player was over. He took a job managing a swimming pool back in Rapid City, but he kept on practicing at his old high school field for . . . what? He wasn't sure.
"He just wasn't going to accept failure," said Gregg McNabb, his childhood friend. "When it was third and 4, Adam always got 5. When he makes up his mind, it's almost impossible to change it."
Vinatieri contacted Brian Hansen, a former NFL punter, who offered some advice. He suggested that Vinatieri contact Doug Blevins, a kicking specialist who had helped Hansen refine his technique.
"Adam called Doug, packed up his truck, and off he went," Paul Vinatieri recalled. "After watching him a few times, Blevins said, `Quit your job and get down here. We've got something.' "
Blevins worked with Vinatieri on his approach. He showed him how to plant his foot properly.
"I'd never really had an expert to work with me," Vinatieri said. "Doug helped me fine-tune some things."
Mr. Clutch emerges
Through Blevins, Vinatieri landed a job with Amsterdam in NFL Europe. He kicked so well that he was invited to an NFL combine in Atlanta. It was there that members of the Patriots coaching staff under Bill Parcells discovered him. He was invited to training camp and beat out Matt Bahr for the job.
That was nine seasons ago. Since then, Vinatieri has kicked 17 game-winning field goals. He is fast approaching Gino Cappelletti's team scoring record of 1,130 points (Vinatieri has 1,058), which he will tell you publicly is insignificant, but which he undoubtedly will cherish privately, both because of his respect for Cappelletti and his obsession with being the best.
He hasn't missed a significant kick in years. The last time may have been in 1999, when he was unable to connect on a 32-yarder in the final seconds that would have beaten Kansas City. New England lost, 16-14.
The timing of the miscue was unfortunate. More than 75 family and friends had made the trek from South Dakota to Missouri to watch their native son shine.
"Adam was sick about it," said Paul Vinatieri. "He told me, `Tell everyone I'm sorry. I can't talk right now.' He said a quick hello, and then he got on the bus and left."
"I wasn't in the right kind of mood to stand around and visit," Vinatieri said. "I remember I couldn't wait for the next week so I could get out and kick again. You have to move on. You have to forget about it. But you also have to learn from it."
After the miss in Kansas City, Vinatieri connected on his next 13 attempts. Since then, he's also hit a 57-yarder against Chicago (in 2002) and a 54-yarder against Cleveland (in 2001). Last weekend, he equaled a Heinz Field record with a 48-yard field goal.
There are only two glitches that could stand in the way of Vinatieri breaking Cappelletti's record: injury and free agency. His contract is up after the Super Bowl, and he is unsigned. Many expect the Patriots to affix the franchise tag on him, meaning they will pay him the average of the top five kickers in the league.
"I really haven't thought much about that," Vinatieri said. "I know I'll be kicking next season. I hope it's here. I'm not worrying about that right now."
He knows he will miss a big kick again someday. The law of averages dictates that. So many things can go wrong: a bad snap, a hold that's slightly off, a dimple in the turf. His family holds its collective breath each time he jogs onto the field -- Judy and Paul in Rapid City, Beau in Las Vegas, Christine in Sioux Falls, and Chad in Lincoln, Neb.
"Every time he lines up to kick, my heart is jumping out of my chest," Chad confessed.
"Everyone misses once in a while," Vinatieri said. "It's how you react after you miss."
He will be not happy when he misses. He never is. It is that resolve to erase the past that sets him apart.
"Without that stubbornness and determination," his father said, "he would have given up after college."
Still in the hunt
Vinatieri's status as an NFL star has not halted any of the family competitions. The Vinatieris will assemble for their annual hunting trip in the spring, and each of them will be trying to bag the biggest pheasant, the most ferocious boar, the most elusive elk.
"Whenever I think of Adam," said Beau Vinatieri, "I think of all the fun we've had competing. I think of him waking me up and pulling me out of bed first thing in the morning to go down to the high school. I think of him kicking with me for hours, trying to help me, trying to push me."
Adam no longer wrestles. He is no longer a pole vaulter, a soccer player, a linebacker, or a quarterback (except when Belichick employs a wrinkle in his offense).
So what if he's not Roger Staubach? Adam Vinatieri's NFL dream is alive -- alive and kicking.