With 4:46 to go in the third quarter last Sunday, Patriots long-snapper Danny Aiken took the field with the rest of the kicking unit.
He lined up at Miami’s 18-yard-line and snapped the ball to Ryan Allen, who deftly set it for Stephen Gostkowski’s 35-yard field goal.
It wasn’t until minutes later, when the announcement rang out over stadium PA, that Aiken knew what he’d just been part of: The points were Gostkowski’s 1,158th, 1,159th and 1,160th — two more than Adam Vinatieri had scored in his illustrious career, and the most by anyone in team history.
Gostkowski knew going in he was just a few points shy of breaking the record, but in that moment, he said, it was the furthest thing from his mind. Because to achieve the success he has, you have to learn to tune things out, whether those things are the roar of the crowd, an angry rusher, or history.
“If you really just worry about what it takes to make a kick, and not worry about the scenarios and everything going on around it, the better off you are,’’ he said. “I think the less things I think about while I’m out there, the better I fare.’’
Gostkowski would kick two more extra points that quarter and another field goal in the fourth, padding his team record to 1,165 points, and counting.
That game was the latest in what’s been a brilliant season for the kicker. He’s 31 for 33 on field goals and a perfect 49 of 49 on extra points; at this point, Gostkowski is as close as it gets to automatic. But making it look so easy is really, really hard.
The current unit of Gostkowski, Allen and Aiken has been together since last season, when Allen was signed as an unrestricted free agent and won the punting job in the preseason over the incumbent Zoltan Mesko. Aiken has been on the team for four seasons, and Gostkowski for eight.
The trio have developed a rapport from their time on the field and in the locker room, where their lockers are side-by-side. They tease and joke, but the mutual respect is clear.
For Gostkowski, the job is equal parts repetition and mental clarity. It’s a mindset his juniors in the kicking unit have adopted.
“I have a progression for both [punting and placeholding,] and I stick to that,’’ he said. “Really, it’s just the three of us out there working in unison, and me and Danny need to be as smooth and perfect as possible for Steve every single time.’’
Adds Aiken, “We go out there, and we try to work on that so much, and perfect our positions, each player. We just try and go out and focus on the task at hand and try to get the job done.’’
But there is no such thing as perfection, on the football field or anywhere else. Gostkowski knows this well: he hit just 20 of 26 attempts as a rookie in 2006. He made a marked improvement the following season, and aside from his injury-hampered 2010, has been lights-out since.
At this point, a missed kick is an event. It stings less when you win, as the Patriots did against the Bills on Oct. 12. But if you miss and lose, as Gostkowski and the Patriots did Nov. 23 in Green Bay, it weighs heavily.
Such misses hurt, but you can’t dwell.
“I can make a thousand kicks in a row and if I miss one there’s going to be some people who are calling me a bum and telling me I stink,’’ he said. “That’s just the nature of the job and the sport. I’ve missed plenty of kicks (but) I’ve made way more than I’ve missed, and that’s what I hold my hat on.’’
When Gostkowski gets back his record-setting ball, he’ll give it to Allen and Aiken and the other guys who have held or snapped for him to sign. And when all the signatures are assembled, maybe he’ll find a spot in his locker or on his mantle.
But that’s a decision for another day; Gostkowski has more work to do.
“That’s something that I’ll look back at after the season, when I’m done with my career and I can look back and really be proud of it,’’ he said. “It was a cool moment for my family and all that stuff but honestly I’m focused on the next step, the next kick, the next game.’’