Patriots

A Small, Funny Adam Vinatieri Moment Before He Became the Kicker King of the Big Moment

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Here’s my favorite Adam Vinatieri story that doesn’t involve kicking a winning last-seconds field goal in the Super Bowl, kicking a winning last-seconds field in the Super Bowl again, drilling a tying 45-yard field goal through driving snow in a seismic playoff victory, or running down Herschel Walker from behind.

Actually, call this my favorite small-moment Adam Vinatieri story, because we could stay here and riff and reminisce about big-moment Adam Vinatieri stories from now until Sunday’s kickoff. That, of course, is when the 42-year old future Hall of Famer, who won three rings during his 10 seasons as a Patriot, will join his fellow Colts in trying to prevent the franchise from winning that elusive fourth.

This particular small-moment story occurred in a different time and place in Patriots history, in ways literal and figurative. The year was 1997, the month January. The scene was set in the Patriots’ locker room at archaic Foxborough Stadium, the no-frills aluminum-and-concrete home that was retired after the aforementioned Snow Bowl.

The Patriots had, a few days previous, defeated the Jacksonville Jaguars to advance to the second Super Bowl in franchise history (first, if you somehow managed to black out the 46-10 loss to the Bears to cap the ’85 season). There was a sense of anticipation and disbelief around the Patriots during that buildup to the Super Bowl XXXI showdown with Brett Favre and the Packers.

The vast majority of fans among us don’t take the modern Patriots’ postseason success for granted — Sunday will mark their ninth AFC title game appearance of the Bill Belichick/Tom Brady era, with a sixth Super Bowl trip at stake. We know how ridiculously fortunate we are to watch this sustained success, year after year.

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But back then, we really didn’t take it for granted. There was a giddiness during that time, a burgeoning belief that Curtis Martin, Drew Bledsoe, Terry Glenn, Lawyer Milloy, Willie McGinest, Ty Law and coach Bill Parcells were up for the challenges the favored Packers brought. That giddiness, the looseness, made it’s way to the locker room.

On this day, the scene was pure chaos, the kind the NFL has for better or worse dulled through structure over the years. The media lurked and swarmed at once, with the outsiders trying to put faces with the names that were suddenly splashed all over SportsCenter. And the players reveled in it.

While a select few, such as the quiet Glenn, found solitude in the training room, most were reveling in their first real 15 minutes of NFL fame.

In the near left corner of the locker room, just inside the massive doors, a rookie kicker with a lot of white space on his résumé was clearly enjoying holding court.

Adam Vinatieri was No. 4 in the program but not yet rated nearly that high in Patriots’ fans hearts. He was a Parcells find, a West Point dropout, an alum of South Dakota State and the World League’s Amsterdam Admirals, the successor to ancient but reliable Matt Bahr.

He made an impression with his takedown of the decorated Walker during a loss to the Cowboys — “You’re not a kicker, you’re a football player,” said Parcells famously, providing him the ultimate praise. But Vinatieri was still a work in progress, making just 77.1 percent of his field goals and missing three of the 10 extra-points he’s failed to convert in his 19-year career.

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Vinatieri would someday deliver more clutch moments than any kicker in league history — probably more than any two kickers given that there’s only been one other last-minute winning field goal in Super Bowl lore. He’s won four championships — he got another ring as an ’06 Colt — and he’s made three All-Pro teams, which feels like half as many as he should have made. His feet have achieved some feats.

But in January ’97, it was all still ahead of him. He didn’t know what his future would bring, so on that day he was going to enjoy the present, and that included regaling the press on his back story to anyone who asked.

Just then, as Vinatieri was surrounded by cameras and chatting away, Drew Bledsoe walked through the doors. The Patriots quarterback, who already had a seen-it-all weariness in his fourth NFL season, stopped in his tracks to take in the scene that was spilling over to his own locker space. After watching for a few seconds, Bledsoe hooked his head, half-smiled, and mumbled in that familiar dry monotone, just loud enough for Vinatieri to hear:

“The Adam Vinatieri press conference. Now I have seen it all.”

All these years later, the recollection still makes me laugh. Not just because it’s a great example of Bledsoe’s underrated sense of humor; he had a better touch when jabbing a teammate than he did at throwing a screen pass. It’s amusing because Vinatieri became every bit the star that he played that day.

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Though that ’96 team wasn’t of this dynastic era, it did have some of the same cast members — Law, McGinest, Troy Brown, to name a few. Bill Belichick was the assistant head coach in charge of making Parcells look good. Vinatieri was the one who followed the dubious call to kick off to Desmond Howard. He might have five rings if not for that.

Yet that season feels like generations ago, and it stands as a reminder, as if we need one, of just how remarkable Vinatieri’s career has been. He spent 10 years in New England, departing as the franchise’s all-time leading scorer, and should he play out the final year of his contract next season, he will have spent an equal number with the Colts.

That is so hard to fathom, because it is still weird to see him in that blue-and-white Colts jersey, just as it never, ever looked right to see Carlton Fisk wearing the uniform of those Other Sox. Good thing we don’t have to debate what helmet Vinatieri will wear on his Hall of Fame bust.

His legacy is not complicated. Perhaps it seemed that way for a while, when some misguided and shortsighted fans at Gillette Stadium booed him during his first visit with the Colts. It became clear through the years that it was the right decision for both sides.

Successor Stephen Gostkowski has been outstanding, even surpassing Vinatieri as the franchise’s all-time leading scorer, though he doesn’t have the same big-game pelts. And Vinatieri sustained and even enhanced his career by joining the Colts, who play at least half their games indoors. He missed just one field goal attempt this season, and he’s hit more kicks from beyond 50 yards in the past three years than he did in 10 seasons here.

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Not bad for a guy who is three years older now than Matt Bahr was when Vinatieri booted him into retirement.

It really is all good. Especially since the passage of the seasons has made this abundantly clear: he could play 20 years for the Colts, and he’d never match what he accomplished here. We’ve forgotten about kicks he made as a Patriot that would be the highlight of other kickers’ careers.

His name was mentioned right there with Brady and Belichick as the chief reasons the Patriots won three Super Bowls in four years, or at least certainly the first two. Who knows what Patriots history looks like without Vinatieri doing this and so much more:

Ray Lewis probably thinks we never would have heard of him if not for that kick.

The highest compliment I can pay Vinatieri is this: every time he trots onto the field, the ice water coursing through his veins, I am certain the football will soon be soaring between the uprights. (It was downright jarring to see him miss one in the first half of the Colts’ win over Denver.) The Patriots are on a 19-year run of exceptionally trustworthy kickers — both of them. In the name of Scott Sisson, do you realize how rare and unique that is?

Vinatieri is a Colt for now and probably for a few more seasons. But his legend and legacy belong here in New England.

There is no reason to boo him Sunday. There never has been a reason to boo him. There’s no reason to fear him either — or should I say the Patriots will make sure there is no reason to fear him.

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Should Vinatieri be called upon to kick a field goal in game-deciding circumstances, well, we’ve seen enough through the years to know what the outcome would be. To borrow a phrase from Pat Summerall, it will be right … down … the middle.

Good thing the chance isn’t going to come. The Patriots will steamroll his Colts.

Vinatieri has his fourth ring. Now it’s time for the coach and quarterback with whom he is forever linked in greatness to get theirs. I suspect he will genuinely mean it when he wishes them well in the Super Bowl afterward. During the Adam Vinatieri press conference.

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