There have not been many more remarkable careers in NFL history than Adam Vinatieri’s. The Patriot-turned-Colt placekicker needs 58 points to set the all-time NFL scoring record, which he’ll easily do in 2018 if he stays healthy at age 45. Consider this: He has been a more efficient kicker from 50 yards and beyond (.826) over the past four seasons than he was attempting all field goals in his 10-year New England tenure (.819). And he seemed well on his way to Canton after his New England decade—that’s how amazing the twilight of his second act has been.
I’m not sure we appreciate Vinatieri as much as we should. Thus a story on him in May, as he approaches history this fall.
But as great as he’s been, it’s possible the story of the first month of his career is better.
“Early on,” Vinatieri said, “I thought I was one bad game away, maybe one kick away, from the end of my football career. I was very close to going home to South Dakota, and probably going to medical school.”
“He’s probably not wrong,” said Bill Parcells, his coach with the Patriots in 1996. “You can’t live with his results at the time. You just can’t.”
After New England’s 1995 season, Parcells told his special-teams coach, Mike Sweatman, to find him a kicker. The Pats’ incumbent kicker, 39-year-old Matt Bahr, was coming off a poor year, and Parcells wanted a new guy. Sweatman found three, one of whom was Vinatieri—an unknown, undrafted kid from South Dakota State. Vinatieri was efficient in his season kicking for Amsterdam in the World League of American Football (now known as NFL Europe), where he was coached by Al Tanara, an old coaching pal of Parcells’s. Sweatman came away impressed after working Vinatieri out in South Dakota, and he came highly recommended by Tanara, so New England signed him to compete against Bahr in training camp.
Parcells always treated young kickers the way Marine drill instructors treated recruits. “I tried to create pressure situations in practice with my kickers,” Parcells, 76, recalled. “What do you think they’re going to face in games?”
“I felt the hot breath of Parcells from the first day of training camp,” Vinatieri said. “Training camp went well, but if I missed a kick, oh my goodness, I’d hear [from Parcells]. He’d say things like, ‘He’s day to day, he’s week to week.’ A couple of times at the end of practice, he’d put this kind of pressure on me: If I made the field goal, no conditioning for the entire team. If I missed the kick, we’d all get twice as much conditioning. Sometimes, he’d cast a shadow over where I was kicking, or he’d get the guys to heckle me. I remember a couple of times, he’d get so close to me or the line of my kick that I almost had to change my motion.”
Vinatieri did enough in camp to make Parcells comfortable with starting a rookie over his trusted vet Bahr, and his first game, in Miami, was without incident—the rookie made his only try, a 25-yard chippy shot. The trouble started in game two, at Buffalo. It was a raw September afternoon—rainy, with winds gusting up to 35 miles per hour. Vinatieri kicked a 42-yard field goal in the first quarter, but the wind blew his second try, from 45 yards, wide right. Just before halftime, Vinatieri lined up for a 25-yarder, a virtual extra point.
“Can you f------ CONCENTRATE?!” Parcells yelled as Vinatieri jogged off the field.
The hot breath of Parcells.
With 8:15 left in the fourth quarter, game tied at 10, wind still blowing. Vinatieri lined up for a 47-yarder.
Shtoink! The kick bounced off the left upright. No good.
The Cardinals were in Foxboro the next week, and the weather was 70 degrees with a light breeze. Vinatieri doinked a PAT off the right upright and missed a 47-yard try.
Now, entering week four, Vinatieri knew he was on borrowed time. He was three for seven in field goals, with a missed extra point.
“We were starting to consider alternatives,” Parcells said. “You know, in football, it’s not like you have a backup kicker, and you can take out the guy who’s struggling and put in somebody else. You got one guy. You just don’t know what’s gonna happen with kickers. In practice, he was really good, but you can’t keep a kicker who makes half his kicks.”
“I knew,” said Vinatieri. “I understood. It’s a results business. He wasn’t happy with me at the time, but I wasn’t happy with me at the time either. We played Jacksonville in week four, and I know what was on the line. One more miss, and you never know.”
But, he was asked, what about other teams? Kickers are itinerant employees. Get fired in New England, get hired in Green Bay or Tampa Bay. “I didn’t have much interest in me, really, after college,’’ Vinatieri said. “I got a shot in Amsterdam, and that turned into a shot in New England. But it wasn’t like I went on a bunch of tryouts. If I get cut in New England, I’m probably going home.”
On a warm and breezy Sunday afternoon, a day Vinatieri thought could be his last as an NFL kicker, the first kick of the day—a first-quarter PAT—was blocked.
But then Vinatieri hit 23-, 30- and 29-yard field-goal tries, and the rookie went into the locker room at halftime feeling confident. In the second half, he pushed a 44-yarder wide right, then hit a 41-yarder. The game went into overtime, tied at 25, and New England won the toss. Drew Bledsoe drove the Patriots to the Jaguars’ 22, and on fourth down, on trotted Vinatieri.
The rookie kicked it right down the middle. Vinatieri’s first NFL game-winner was also potentially a career-saver.
“But that’s not what really solidified him in New England,” Parcells said. “I’d say Adam was a little more of an all-around football player than some of those kickers are. And where he really won the team over was in Dallas later that year. Herschel Walker was running back a kickoff that day, and he gets through our first line of defense, and it looks like he’s going to go all the way. But Adam tackled him way downfield. He tackled him hard. And after that, we all looked at him a little different. It was like, ‘This guy can play on our team any time.’ He was in concrete after that.”
“Solid,” Parcells said.
Ten seasons in New England. Twelve in Indianapolis. With Vinatieri’s history of clutch kicks (dating back to the 45-yard snow-globe field goal to send the 2002 playoff game against Oakland into overtime the year New England won its first Super Bowl), it’s hard to imagine the modern-day NFL without Adam Vinatieri in it. One day, he’ll likely be standing on a stage in Canton with a gold jacket on.
But what would have happened had Vinatieri had a bad day in his fourth NFL game? What would have happened had he not gone five-of-six that Indian summer day in Foxboro against the Jaguars, drilling the game-winner right down the middle in overtime?
“I think I’d have gone to medical school,” Vinatieri said. “Let me tell you about the internship I had when I went to South Dakota State.
“It was an internship in cardiac rehab. Twice a week I would drive about 50 minutes to a hospital in Sioux Falls, S.D. I witnessed a quadruple-bypass surgery there. After seeing it, I thought the cardiothoracic surgeon was a superstar. This guy was the coolest dude. Amazing to see it. First, he cracked open the guy’s chest on the operating table. They sawed through the chest bone, then they put the heart into kind of icy slush to shrink it down and slow the beating hart from about 80 beats per minute to 10. A machine sucks out the majority of the blood. Then they cut into the veins of the heart that were clogged. What a scene it was, what an operation. Then when it was over, they warm the heart back and they literally bring him back to life. It was six, seven, eight hours long. It was the most unbelievable thing I ever saw.
“I saw the guy on the table a few months later. I said to him, ‘Dude! I basically saw you dead on the table!’”
In an ideal world, post-football, had it been a short career for Vinatieri, he’d have gone to medical school. His dream would have been to be that surgeon. “If I’d only played two, three years, or I’d have been cut that first year, I’d have tried to do it,’’ Vinatieri said. “But once it got to be seven, eight, nine years, I wasn’t leaving pro football.”
“Any regrets about never doing open-heart surgery?” I asked.
“Regrets, no,” he said. “I don’t know if I’d say ‘regret.’ It would have been cool. But I’ve had too much fun playing.”