INDIANAPOLIS -- Pat McAfee will not confirm that there were mobsters.
He only presents the facts: a late-night poker game, the basement of an Italian restaurant, $100, a 17-year-old kid.
“It was in Pittsburgh,” the Colts punter concedes. The place was sketchy, seedy. “They were all very nice to me,” he adds. “They were cordial.”
McAfee, the 17-year-old in question, should have been anywhere but there. He’d snuck in with a borrowed hundo, fairly certain he wouldn’t be able to repay the friend from whom he’d borrowed it for years. He’d snuck in with a far-fetched dream that could have easily turned into a debacle, and he walked out in the wee hours of the morning with enough money for a plane ticket.
As a senior in high school, McAfee had committed to Kent State, but he felt unsettled. The standout kicker from Plum, Penn. had heard about a football camp in Miami, and he set his sights on making the trip and garnering notice by winning the kicking competition – except his parents couldn’t pay, wouldn’t pay on account of the fact that their son already had a perfectly good offer.
So McAfee hatched his plan. He told his parents he was sleeping at a friend’s house, and he fleeced someone into letting him in that basement door. “I wanted to see just if it was possible,” he explains 10 years later. “I got very lucky. It was a long night in a very sketchy place.”
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The $1,400 McAfee netted that night on a string of lucky (and highly illegal) poker hands was enough to get him to Miami, where he kicked a 65-yard field goal and caught the attention of West Virginia assistant Tony Gibson. The Mountaineers offered McAfee on that performance alone, giving him the kind of platform Kent State could not, and after a senior season in Morgantown in which he averaged 44.7 yards per punt, the Colts picked him in the seventh round of the 2009 draft.
Twenty years after Adam Vinatieri graduated from South Dakota State, it’s hard to remember that the kicker’s story even has a beginning, that he hasn’t just been letting footballs fly since the dawn of time. At 42, Vinatieri is the NFL’s oldest player, and saying he’s a future Hall of Famer is like saying Andrew Luck has a beard. But everyone starts somewhere, and >Vinatieri’s poker game was a high school field and a bad snap.
At Rapid City Central High in South Dakota, Vinatieri was a quarterback, kicker, punter, wrestler and pole-vaulter who once smashed his toes by landing so far off the pitch that they connected with the hard gymnasium floor. Despite being a football jack-of-all-trades throughout his high school years, Vinatieri was rarely allowed to kick field goals; his coach was too stubborn, always wanting seven points. But on one Friday night Vinatieri’s senior year, the wind worked in his favor. The conditions were terrible for the team’s option offense, so coach Kim Nelson relented, and Vinatieri lined up for a 60-yarder with the breeze at his back. It could have been the kick that defined his highlight reel.
Instead, Vinatieri got a bad snap, and the field goal was off. He left high school known more for his speed at quarterback than his leg, and even after four years of kicking at South Dakota State, no NFL team bit. Vinatieri, though, wasn’t ready to chalk football up to a loss. Here’s a man who so abhors defeat that as a kid, he’d knock over the checkerboard rather than cede victory to his brother, who knew the sabotage would lead to a mess and a fistfight. Losing simply did not, does not, compute.
So with the NFL in mind, Vinatieri spent much of 1995 with kicking instructor Doug Blevins. Cerebral palsy had robbed Blevins of his ability to walk, but not of his powerful instruction, and after months of work, the tutelage earned Vinatieri a job with the Patriots. That job lasted 10 seasons and three Super Bowl wins before it was off to Indianapolis, for a chance to play with Peyton Manning and then Luck, for another ring.
It was there that Vinatieri dialed the phone in 2009. He wanted to touch base with his new punter.
It should have been the easiest call. Hi, how are you? Looking forward to working together. See you soon. Instead, McAfee had something he needed to get off his chest to the NFL’s best kicker.
“I’ve got to break the news to you,” McAfee told Vinatieri over the phone that spring day. “I’ve never held before.”
During the pre-draft interview process, McAfee had lied to then-Colts general manager Bill Polian when asked about his holding duties. He mentioned that he’d done the job before, a white lie on the future punter’s quest for a spot in the NFL. In reality, he’d held for not even one snap at West Virginia, too consumed with his kicking and punting duties, and when he got the job he hoped for in Indianapolis, he realized he might be in for a lecture.
Instead, Vinatieri took the news without pause, instructing McAfee to meet with his former holder in New England, Ken Walter, to refine the skill. McAfee did as told, and when he returned to Indianapolis, the training didn’t let up.
“I just said, ‘Hey, I'm going to wear you out, Pat, as far as I'm going to throw you a million balls until you get good at this,’” Vinatieri recalls. “He really got the form, technique, and all that stuff, and then that first year, it was just ball after ball after ball after ball until he got comfortable.”
Vinatieri was impressed. The holding mattered, but McAfee’s dedication weighed more heavily in his favor, endearing him to the older player. The rookie was relieved. “That was when I found out that [Vinatieri is]) one of the coolest guys ever,” he says.
Now in their sixth season together, Vinatieri and McAfee (who handles both punts and kickoffs) have formed an unlikely bond. The kicker isn’t quite old enough to be his punter’s father, but almost, and where Vinatieri is publicly reserved, McAfee is a cross between Seth Meyers and Buddy the Elf. But to cast the two men as foils would be simplistic. It would gloss over the moments when the cameras have left the locker room, when Vinatieri walks past McAfee and whispers in his ear. He’s just seen a video posted to the Colts website of the punter dressed up as an elf – it was an easy casting call – and he has to let McAfee know. "I thought you looked really good as an elf,” Vinatieri deadpans. “If I ever need an elf for my kids, you're the guy."
His humor is subtle, brief. McAfee’s is loud, broadcast over Twitter and radio shows. The punter is a walking sound byte, but he’s more calculated than he might appear. Just three days before 2015’s AFC Championship game, a TV reporter asks him about a sensitive topic involving a teammate. McAfee’s response is as if crafted by a speechwriter. He’s a PR professional’s dream, and having crossed the line before – Google “Broad Ripple canal” and “Vinatieri nude tweet” – he now prefers to skirt it, his mind as sharp as his wit.
“Pat can drive that humor, and he keeps it going, and he’ll stay on me forever,” Colts special teams coach Tom McMahon says. “These guys really get me with some good ones. But the thing with Vinny – people think Vinny’s that quiet guy – but he’s the gasoline. He’ll ignite it, and then he’ll walk away. They’re a great combination. Vinny’ll instigate it, and Pat’ll crush me.”
On most NFL teams, to be the kicker or punter is to be anonymous. It’s better that way; notoriety on special teams tends to come after fiascos, blocked punts, missed tackles, flubbed chip-shot field goals. But in Indianapolis, that’s anything but the case. Vinatieri and McAfee are among the stars of the Colts locker room, holding a presence as the team’s long-tenured veterans, among the tiny handful of players to have withstood the post-Manning roster reboot of 2012.
But the real reason their words carry so much weight, McMahon says, has little to do with their years in Indianapolis. Instead, it’s their performances on the field; both were named All-Pros in 2014 after McAfee averaged 46.7 yards per punt (and downed 30 of his 69 punts inside opponents’ 20-yard lines) and Vinatieri missed just one field goal. It was the first such honor of McAfee’s career and Vinatieri’s first All-Pro nod in a decade.
“They’re the best in the league, not just in terms of what they do, but in terms of men,” McMahon says. “They’re great leaders, too, and they lead by production, so that gives them that voice (in the locker room).”
McMahon admits that since he arrived in Indianapolis in 2013, he hasn't done much in the way of instruction. Instead, he’s made it his mission to know his kicker and punter better than they know themselves. He’s committed their tendencies to memory, and if he sees McAfee drop the ball inside on a punt, an alarm goes off in his head. Same thing when Vinatieri’s plant foot is even with the ball: that’s going to mean a low trajectory. Good luck getting even the tiniest tweak past McMahon; the instant he notices, all the coach must do is yell a one-word reminder to his players, and they’re conditioned to adjust. It’s Pavlovian. It works.
Twenty years some of his teammates’ senior, Vinatieri tells the baby Colts that they keep him young. Recently, though, the kicker has begun to take matters into his own hands. As his age has crept up, Vinatieri has focused more on core strength, and since last season, he’s lost about nine pounds, with the hope of shedding three or four more by training camp. There’s no mention of retirement, just season, playoffs, training camp, repeat, all Vinatieri has known since… forever.
By the time the Colts hired McMahon, the coach had been watching – and coaching against – his new kicker for years. He knew Vinatieri would have methods, secrets, and when he arrived in Indianapolis, he thought he might be privy. He was wrong.
That first season, McMahon watched as Vinatieri launched kick after kick with what he calls “a real, real straight rotation, (an) Adam Vinatieri rotation, (a) Phil Dawson rotation.” Not once did the ball tilt sideways or wobble. The coach watched Vinatieri’s leg, watched his foot, begged him for his trick. All year, the kicker refused to share. In 2014, McMahon asked again. Again, Vinatieri refused.
“I’ll tell you how to fix that someday, when you quit bringing those young guys in to replace me,” the kicker with the NFL’s best job security joked.
But three weeks ago, near the end of the Colts’ regular season, Vinatieri had what McMahon termed a good day. The coach doesn’t know why, only that the kicker decided it was time. Out of nowhere, he divulged his secret.
McMahon wouldn’t dare give it up. There are more where it came from.
With a win on Sunday, the Colts’ elder statesman would become only the second player in NFL history to make it to his sixth Super Bowl. But he might have five or so years of football left in him, plenty of time before McMahon can test his secret on someone else. In the meantime, Vinatieri will be proceed as if it’s 1995.
On Thursday, McAfee kicked field goals as the Colts prepared for New England. Back, back, back he crept, hitting most with the leg that routinely punts 60 yards in games. Vinatieri was watching, McMahon says, and the coach knows exactly where his kicker will trudge Friday: to the very spot from which his punter last launched.
He’ll kick until he beats him.