The strange tale of the snap that almost wasn’t, before the kick that won Super Bowl XXXVIII
BATON ROUGE, La. — Nine seconds left, 29-29, all eyes were on Adam Vinatieri as he took two steps back then two steps left, lining up a 41-yard attempt from the right hash.
“When it comes to big moments like this,” Phil Simms told the 90 million or so viewers watching at home, “there just cannot be any more pressure on a football player.”
His leg swing was true, the contact was solid, the kick was perfect. Vinatieri and holder Ken Walter embraced, then were engulfed in a sea of 300-pound linemen. The Patriots had their second Super Bowl title.
A while later, after the presentation of the Lombardi Trophy, as the celebration subsided on the Reliant Stadium turf, long snapper Brian Kinchen bumped into Debby Belichick. “I shouldn’t even speak to you after what you put Bill through this week,” the coach’s wife said.
Surely, you're familiar with Vinatieri's winning kick 13 years ago, the last time the Patriots played a Super Bowl in Houston. What you might not know is the bizarre drama that led up to the kick: A school teacher-turned-long snapper, countless hours spent firing a ball into hotel-room pillows, an attempted Super Bowl-week retirement, and a gameday mishap with a dinner roll and a steak knife. This is the preposterous story of Brian Kinchen and the snap before the kick.
* * *
At Parkview Baptist School in Baton Rouge, Brian Kinchen was quizzing the seventh graders in his second-period Bible class when his phone buzzed. It was an unknown number with a Massachusetts area code. Odd. He walked to a corner of the classroom to answer.
“Hey Brian, it’s Scott.”
Scott Pioli, New England’s vice president of player personnel, had an offer for the 13-year NFL veteran. The Patriots’ original long snapper, Lonie Paxton, had suffered a season-ending knee injury in Week 14. His replacement, Sean McDermott, went down for the year in his first game with the team. With the playoffs fast approaching, Pioli was desperate to find an experienced long snapper. Would Kinchen come try out?
This was all news to Kinchen. He was 38 years old, three years removed from NFL action. He’d flown out for tryouts with Dallas, Denver and Pittsburgh the year before, just to be sent home from all three without a job. He’d sworn off watching any NFL games (“Screw them! They don’t want me!”), bitter he didn’t get to end his career on his own terms. “I always found my self-worth from my performance, so that’s hard on your ego,” he says.
He told Pioli he’d consider it and then hung up the phone, heartbeat racing. He paced around his classroom while he told his students what just happened. A boy in the back of the room piped up, “Coach Kinchen, the Patriots are 12-2. They’re the best team in football right now and they are going to win the Super Bowl.”
Kinchen had played in only two postseason games in his career, so the potential to win a Super Bowl with New England was tempting. After securing the support of his wife, Lori, and the approval of the school’s principal, Kinchen scrapped the lesson plan for his third-period class and took the kids outside to the playground. He grabbed a football, rolled up his pants and started snapping to his seventh graders. “I hadn’t touched a football in three years, but I felt pretty good out there that day.”
That afternoon Kinchen boarded a flight to Boston. In his tryouts with Dallas, Denver and Pittsburgh, not one head coach had the decency to shake his hand and thank him for showing up. He’d agreed to tryout in New England, with one stipulation for Pioli: “Tell Belichick he better get his sorry butt out of his office and shake my hand or I’m not coming. I don’t care if you keep me or not—he owes me that.”
* * *
Kinchen arrived completely underdressed for December in Boston. Because of the recent rejections, he’d decided not to pack a bag at all. On the van ride to the hotel he met the three other players New England had flown in to fight for the spot, one of whom was 40-year-old veteran Harper LeBel. “He is older than I am, and the other two had never snapped a day in the NFL. I’m thinking, man they must be desperate.”
Looking at the competition, and considering that he had played under Belichick in Cleveland for five years, Kinchen was also thinking that this was his tryout to lose. The next day at the team facility he nearly did lose it when he launched a short snap over the holder’s head. “I was devastated. I had never done that in my life,” he says. “I had never thrown one that was uncatchable.”
Convinced it was all over, Kinchen waited for his handshake from Belichick with the other hopefuls in the team’s cafeteria. When the coach finally walked in, Kinchen said jokingly, “Bill, you know what’s funny? Whoever you sign today is going to have the entire season in the palm of his hand at some point.” Belichick replied matter-of-factly, “Well you know what, you better get ready because it is going to be you.”
Kinchen immediately called Lori, who had stepped in as the substitute teacher for his Bible class. “I could hear the kids yelling through the phone when she told them I made the team,” he says.
Ken Walter, the Patriots’ punter and holder, was also surprised to find out that Kinchen was the choice. “He snapped it over the holder’s head and still got the job,” Walter says. “I told him, ‘You’ve got some work to do.’”
Kinchen and Walter had played together for two seasons in Carolina. In Walter’s experience it usually takes an entire training camp before a long snapper, holder and kicker are able to work together in perfect harmony, but when Kinchen stepped in, the three found a rhythm after just a couple practices.
Kinchen played the last two games of the regular season and felt like his old self again. In the regular-season finale, New England clinched the No. 1 seed with its 12th straight win. “After the game everybody is celebrating, and I’m just looking around like, ‘Wow, I don’t know anybody, why am I here?’ Kinchen says. “It was the weirdest feeling.” Aside from the awkwardness of joining a team so late in the season, things were going well in Foxborough. He even kept in touch with his students back in Baton Rouge by sending them “video mail.” In this pre-smartphone era, Kinchen recorded video of his NFL life on his camcorder and mailed the cassette tapes back to Louisiana.
New England hosted Tennessee in the AFC divisional round on a bitterly cold day with a minus-12 degree wind chill. The ball was freezing, and on the second punt snap Kinchen bounced it. Special teams coordinator Brad Seely lit into him. “I was a little bit irritated,” Kinchen says. “Like, man, I had one mistake after three years of not playing football. You are on your third long snapper, you ought to be thankful you even have a breathing soul who can do this job.” After throwing the low ball, Kinchen overcorrected and threw higher balls that arced like rainbows. It wasn’t pretty, but he got the job done, and New England advanced. The next day offensive coordinator Charlie Weis called out to the long snapper, “Hey Kinchen, you could have timed your snap with a sun-dial the other day.”
Around this time, Kinchen began to mentally unravel. He was inconsistent in games and even worse in practice. “It all hit him,” Walter said. “Like, What am I doing? I should be teaching Sunday school. The really cool moment of re-signing is over and now I am in this thing and what I do on the field is going to be under a microscope.”
Just before the AFC title game against Indianapolis, Walter got a phone call from Kinchen. The holder could sense his snapper was feeling low, so he invited him over. “I talked to him, and he would just stare off,” Walter said. “He was lost, just gone.”
• THE BALLAD OF QUINTORRIS ‘JULIO’ JONES: Mythbusters instead of Monday Night Football, movie nights with mom, anything to avoid the spotlight. Julio Jones was always larger than life in high school, whether he liked it or not.
* * *
On the morning of the first Super Bowl practice in Foxborough, Seely stopped Kinchen at the door of the special teams room to admonish him for a high snap in the AFC Championship Game. Kinchen was furious. He called Lori. “I don’t want to be here. I want to go home. What do they expect from me?”
At practice that day he launched the first snap high over Walter’s head, just as he had a few weeks earlier. And then the third snap, high. Wrestling with self-doubt, he snapped in the bowels of the stadium until six that night, desperately trying to isolate the cause of the problem. The next day at practice was no better. “The ball literally just fell out of my hand, like a bowling ball,” Kinchen says. “I’m freaked out because I don’t know what is going on. It’s like riding a bike, and I can’t put my feet on the pedals.” An avid golfer, Kinchen now likens his meltdown to a bad case of the yips. “It was like a two-foot putt that wouldn’t go in.”
The team flew to Houston that Sunday. The yips traveled with Kinchen. During one practice Kinchen took 24 field-goal snaps; 22 of them skipped off the ground. “I was soaking wet from sweating, and my abs were killing me because I was pulling the ball up so much,” Walter says. “Bill [Belichick] went up to him and said, ‘Kinchen, you have one f---ing job!’”
When the three specialists walked off the field that day, it was Vinatieri and Walter, then Kinchen trailing about half a field behind. The van ride back to the hotel was completely silent. “Adam and I were totally speechless because we didn’t see this coming,” Walter says. “At the end of the day, you can’t do somebody else’s job. Now I had to worry: How am I going to get this snap and get it to Vinatieri?”
During the week of practice in Foxborough, Kinchen had started bringing a football back to his hotel room so he could get in some extra reps by snapping into pillows stacked against the wall. In Houston he took the habit to an extreme. First he brought his gloves and helmet back, then he started bringing his shoulder pads and practice jersey. He was in his hotel room—helmet, gloves, pads and jersey—firing 100 snaps a night into feathery pillows. A friend called his room once, and Kinchen had to take off his helmet to answer: “If you could see me right now, you would think I’m insane.”
Kinchen’s knife slid right through the roll in one swipe—and straight through to the bone on his right index finger. He’d play the Super Bowl with butterfly sutures under his glove.
A good snap was once so automatic for Kinchen. Now it was impossible. He wanted to spare the team the frustration and embarrassment. So on the Thursday before the Super Bowl, he called Pioli to tell him he was retiring and heading back home to Baton Rouge. Pioli explained that Kinchen could not quit because New England had no one else who could do the job. He refused to let Kinchen take the issue with up Belichick.
The next day at practice Kinchen looked over at the coaches and caught Belichick giving him a thumbs up—about as heartwarming as it gets from Belichick. He figured then that Pioli had briefed Belichick on their conversation. “Bill had that half-smirk on his face,” Kinchen said. “That thumbs up was his small way of encouraging me to keep playing.”
Belichick also had a message for the rest of the unit. On the night before the game, he paid a visit to Walter and Vinatieri’s adjoining hotel rooms. The coach’s exact words: “Men, you have to step the f--- up.”
* * *
Six hours before kickoff, Kinchen took a seat for pregame meal, across from special teams ace Larry Izzo and linebacker Mike Vrabel. He picked up a roll to start off. It felt cold and hard, too difficult to slice with a butter knife. He grabbed his steak knife instead.
Kinchen had misjudged. His knife slid right through the roll in one swipe—and straight through to the bone on his right index finger, his throwing hand. Vrabel and Izzo laughed out loud. Our only long snapper. And that’s the most important finger on his hand!
Further down the table, Walter was not the least bit amused. “At that point I gave up on it,” he says. “That was it, I can’t deal with this.”
Blood spilled out as Kinchen kept clutching the roll. “I was in as much disbelief as when I threw the bad snaps,” Kinchen says. “All I’m thinking is, What is Belichick going to say when he hears this? After all this crud I’ve been doing all week, how is he going to react to this?” Kinchen would eventually need three stitches to close the cut, but it had to wait until after the game. He'd play with butterfly sutures under his glove.
On the extra point after New England’s second touchdown, his snap bounced two yards in front of Walter. The holder saved it and the kick went through.
Kinchen saw Belichick bee-lining toward him as he came off the field. “I headed to opposite end of the boundary,” he says. “If Bill wanted to yell at me, I was going to make him walk the whole length down the boundary.”
With around six minutes left in fourth quarter, Carolina led 22-21. Kinchen had already skipped two balls—a punt snap and the extra-point snap. He hadn’t launched any snaps over Walter’s head, but none of his throws had been perfect. If the Patriots mounted a touchdown drive, they’d surely go for two to stretch the lead to seven. “In my entire career, I had never prayed about an outcome of a game,” he says. “But I prayed to God, please let us score a touchdown. Just a touchdown, two points, I’m out of here.”
Sure enough, the Patriots scored and went for two, taking a 29-22 lead with less than three minutes left. But Carolina came right back and got the tying score. Kinchen headed over to the kicker’s net and threw as many snaps as he could while Tom Brady worked New England into field-goal position. After he snapped his twelfth ball, Walter called over. “Brian, we’re on the field!”
* * *
“It was a perfect ball, a perfect spiral—the laces hit Kenny’s hand perfect.” Kinchen remembers, as he retells the story from his home office in Baton Rouge. “You couldn’t have thrown a better ball.”
Kinchen had lined up over the ball. Predictably, Carolina called a timeout just before the snap. New England’s field-goal unit huddled up.
“In my mind I‘m thinking, If I am going down, I am going down blazing. This is going to be a rifle shot. I am not going to be scared.”
Kinchen was supposed to face Walter in the huddle. Instead, he paced back and forth, staring at the ground, willing it to be over. “He wasn’t even in the right spot in the huddle, so how is he going to get out there and snap the game-winner in front of the world?” Walter says.
Kinchen returned to his stance over the football and thought of Trey Junkin. Junkin played 19 seasons in the NFL, yet he’s only remembered for one play, his final play. The previous season, the Giants had lured the 41-year-old long snapper out of retirement four days before their wild-card game in San Francisco. With New York trailing by one in the final seconds, Junkin botched the snap on what would have been a 40-yard game-winning attempt.
“He threw this very unsure snap, worst I had ever seen from a guy who had done it for 20 years,” Kinchen says. “In my mind I‘m thinking, If I am going down, I am going down blazing. This is going to be a rifle shot. I am not going to be scared.”
Kinchen waited for Walter’s signal.
“That was the most terrifying moment of my life,” he says. “I credit it with frying every nerve in my body. I have no more sense of competitiveness. I just have this mundane mentality. Even when I watch my son play, it’s just harder to get emotional, I am just numb to it all.”
He fired the snap. He listened for the first thud—Vinatieri’s kick—and didn’t hear a second thud; it didn’t get blocked. He looked up in time to see the ball soaring through the uprights, into the net. Then he let out a yell like he never had before.
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