- The Washington Times - Friday, February 4, 2005

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The dynasty bid. Two Lombardi Trophies. The lionization of Bill Belichick and the speculation Tom Brady might rewrite the Super Bowl record book and eventually stroll into the White House.

None of it would exist without New England Patriots kicker Adam Vinatieri.

It was Vinatieri’s 45-yard Snow Bowl boot that sent New England to overtime and eventually Super Bowl XXXVI three years ago. It was his 48-yard strike as time expired that won that Super Bowl. And it was his 41-yarder with four seconds left that won Super Bowl XXXVIII last year.

Perhaps no kicker in football history has been better in the clutch than Vinatieri. And as a week of hype crests in advance of tomorrow night’s Super Bowl XXXIX, perhaps only Brady, among Patriots players, qualifies as more central to New England’s quest for a third title in four years than the icy-veined South Dakotan.

“If you’re thinking of the New England Patriots, then you’re thinking of clutch performances and players who have really risen to the occasion,” said Brady, the Patriots quarterback and two-time Super Bowl MVP. “Adam’s at the top of the list.”

Kickers, of course, aren’t exactly headline performers. Just one true kicker (Jan Stenerud) is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and even Stenerud would be hard-pressed to gain mention among the top five players from the Kansas City Chiefs teams (1967 to 1979) that buoyed his candidacy.

Mark Moseley? Moseley was a clutch performer with few peers and is the only kicker to be named NFL MVP. But from his Washington Redskins era, he ranks somewhere behind Art Monk, Joe Theismann, John Riggins and Dexter Manley in the pecking order of historical significance.

With the Patriots on the brink of a dynasty, it’s arguable Vinatieri trails only Brady in his central role on this mostly blue-collar bunch. Linebackers Tedy Bruschi and Willie McGinest, cornerback Ty Law and wide receiver Troy Brown are great players all around, but none might etch himself in memory banks more indelibly than Vinatieri.

In any case, it’s not a bad topic for the NFL Network to kick around in the 7,900 or so hours of programming it has left this year. Vinatieri, meanwhile, can content himself with at least having broken from the kicker-as-sideshow-freak mold.

“We’re the punch line of some jokes,” he conceded. “Our jerseys are always clean, and we usually don’t get a lot of blood on our jerseys. It’s OK if that’s the situation. … I can’t do what Tom does, and Tom can’t do what Troy does. They can’t do what I do, and I can’t do what they do. Each one of us does our own job and has our own responsibilities.”

Amazing as it might sound, Vinatieri seems to be getting better at his job. Already a decorated postseason hero and the most accurate kicker in Patriots history entering 2004, he hit 31 of 33 field goals (93.9 percent) in the regular season and four of four attempts in the AFC playoffs.

Those postseason field goals included a 48-yarder at Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field, the longest connection to date in the 4-year-old stadium. The boot expanded Vinatieri’s legend for converting in far-fetched situations.

“He’s the ultimate professional,” defensive lineman Richard Seymour said. “He doesn’t get rattled. When you need a game-winning field goal, he’s the guy you want.”

So how did this golden foot get a paying gig in football? By securing a high draft slot and a hefty signing bonus? Try by latching on with the Amsterdam Admirals, the World League (now NFL Europe) club that signed him in 1996 after he went undrafted out of South Dakota State. He later signed with the Patriots on the eve of training camp and unseated veteran Matt Bahr.

Vinatieri missed four of his first six field goals as a rookie, but he settled down to hit about 77 percent as the Patriots advanced to Super Bowl XXXI under Bill Parcells. His defining moment of his rookie season came Dec. 15 at Dallas, when he ran down Herschel Walker on a kick return. To this day, teammates refuse to see Vinatieri as just a kicker.

“You have to treat him with more respect,” Brown said. “Adam is pretty much a football player with us.”

Vinatieri jokingly calls his winding path to Super Bowl glory “a dirt road” and modestly says a blowout win tomorrow would be just as satisfying as a squeaker that adds another bullet point to his resume. Vinatieri, in fact, credits his unique stature to a well-rounded team that has set up memorable situations.

“My name would never be mentioned unless my team was successful,” he said.

Or vice versa.

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