Once, twice, three times for Vinatieri?

Friday, February 4th 2005, 6:29 pm
By: News On 6

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) _ The first one was a childhood dream, a fantasy born on the frozen fields of South Dakota where Adam Vinatieri learned to kick.

The second? ``In my wildest imagination, I never thought about that,'' the New England Patriots kicker said as he prepared to face the Philadelphia Eagles in the Super Bowl.

``And now,'' he said, ``we're back here this week. So you have to be prepared for whatever. But if I'm standing on the sideline at the end cheering my team on, that's cool, too.''

Placekickers are often forgotten _ or worse, maligned _ in the NFL, where players are judged on their toughness and dirty uniforms, and kickers don't usually have either. But Vinatieri has transcended all that, partly because of his clutch kicking, of course, but also due to a toughness that has endeared him to fans and teammates.

``He's one of those guys that you don't consider to be a kicker,'' said Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, who won two Super Bowl MVPs after leading drives that set up Vinatieri's winning field goals. ``Once he's done some of those great things, you have to treat him with more respect. Adam is pretty much just a football player with us.''

The Patriots are in the Super Bowl for the third time in four years, and one of the main reasons is the man who won their previous two with last-second kicks. The slight, fresh-faced Vinatieri has made 94 percent of his field goal attempts this season and all of his extra points to lead the NFL with 141 points and make his second Pro Bowl.

When the pressure is on, Vinatieri has been just as good, making 17 of 18 kicks over his career with the game at stake; of the Patriots' six playoff games since 2001, four were won on Vinatieri's kicks. And he's done all that with a majority of his games outdoors in Foxboro, Mass., in weather that can make footing treacherous and blow the ball off-course in an instant.

``He kicks, probably, out of one of the worst places to kick in the NFL,'' New England special teams coach Brad Seely said. ``I don't think he's close to being done. But up to this point, it's a pretty spectacular career.

``Shoot, he's won me a couple of rings, made me some money, so I love the guy,'' Seely said. ``And I like being around him, too.''

Vinatieri's teammates value his contribution, appreciate his work ethic and just plain like the down-to-earth descendent of Gen. George Custer's bandleader and third cousin of Evel Knievel.

They remember the game-winning kicks, of course, but they also remember the time he caught thick-legged Herschel Walker from behind on a kickoff return and tackled him. ``I think that when he jumped up, he was as shocked as I was,'' Vinatieri said.

He hasn't had to hear about being ``just a kicker'' since then.

``I've seen him throw the football. I've seen him run with it. I've seen him tackle; he's a damn good tackler,'' said Gino Cappelletti, a defensive back, receiver and kicker on the original Patriots in the 1960s and the only one ahead of Vinatieri on the franchise scoring list _ by 72 points. ``When I see guys like that, I'm attracted to them because that's the way I remember football was for me.''

He's not alone.

In an informal survey during Super Bowl week, each of the 10 or so Hall of Fame voters interviewed by The Associated Press said Vinatieri is well on his way to enshrinement.

Some of the voters said Vinatieri needs to play longer than nine years; others say they would like to see Gary Anderson and Morten Andersen _ Nos. 1 and 2 in career scoring _ get in first. But in the face of an oft-repeated, though never admitted, bias against ``specialists,'' Vinatieri has credentials no other kicker can match.

``The problem with all of today's kickers is that it's hard to differentiate among them,'' said Mark Gaughan of The Buffalo News. ``His Super Bowl kicks set him apart. It's not going to be easy for any kicker to get in, but I think he has the best chance of any.''

The kicker himself, who is 32, said it was too early to talk about measuring his career. ``Hopefully, there's a lot more to come,'' he said.

``I don't think kickers get a lot of recognition, and perhaps rightfully so. But anyone who has had success over a 20-year career is worthy of consideration.''

Vinatieri's credentials are already impressive:

_He has made some of the biggest kicks ever. While his two Super Bowl-winning field goals stand out, he hasn't missed a potential game-winner since 1999.

``If you think of clutch performances and players that have really risen to the occasion on this team, Adam is at the top of the list,'' said Brady, who edged Vinatieri in the voting for the 2002 Super Bowl MVP. ``He puts everyone at ease when he's out there, and he's made some very clutch kicks. Hopefully it won't come down to a kick this game. But if it does, we feel we have a great edge.''

_He has done it in bad conditions. To Vinatieri, and many others, the most impressive kick in his resume wasn't to win a Super Bowl, but a 45-yarder in a driving snowstorm to tie a 2002 playoff game against Oakland. He also made a 23-yarder in overtime to win that one.

_He's done it in every condition. Vinatieri is fifth on the all-time list for kicking accuracy; Philadelphia's David Akers is second. Vinatieri is well behind the NFL scoring leaders, a category dominated by kickers, but with a few more years, or perhaps many more years, he will rank near the top.

``He's off to as good a start as anybody, or maybe a better start than anybody ever, and I am so proud of him,'' said Jan Stenerud, the only placekicker to make it into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and who is eager for company.

``Kickers are a fraternity, and he makes everybody who kicks a football for a living feel good. But I think this discussion is premature.''

Vinatieri is a free agent after the season, and then New England will show him how valuable a kicker can be. If the sides can't agree, the Patriots are expected to label him their franchise player for a second time; his last deal, which paid him $5.6 million over three years, was the only guaranteed contract on the team.

``Adam is one of those guys who is changing the mold,'' Akers said. ``The games are so close and the competition is so intense, you've got to find an edge somewhere.''

Unlike Vinatieri, Akers said he didn't grow up dreaming of kicking a game-winner for the championship. If the opportunity arises, he would welcome it.

So, does he envy Vinatieri?

``You envy him when he makes them,'' Akers said. ``I wouldn't envy him if he missed.''