It had alreadybeen a bizarre game, filled with everything that addicts us to sports. Therewas drama and controversy and a spirited comeback by the home team. In thewaning moments there was an improbable fumble by a veteran star running back.The ball was scooped up by a cornerback, but he allegedly had been stabbed inthe knee by his wife hours earlier--who the hell writes this stuff?--and,perhaps as a result, was tackled in the open field by ... the opposingquarterback. ¬∂ But the kicker came when the kicker came. The Indianapolis Coltswere trailing the Pittsburgh Steelers 21--18 in the passion play masqueradingas an NFL playoff game when the Colts summoned Mike Vanderjagt to tie thescore. Vanderjagt was no mere placekicker; he was the most accuratepractitioner in NFL history. For his career he had cleaved the uprights on 217of 248 field goal tries. And from his famously calling out the team's starquarterback to his old habit of tucking a dollar bill under his wristband, ahandy reminder that he was money, Vanderjagt had never been shy aboutprojecting his success.
Here was theultimate chance to justify all that bravado and boldness. The attempt was a46-yarder--no chip shot, but well within his range. Vanderjagt strolled ontothe field, radiating calm. Then, in what would be his last official act as aColt, he missed spectacularly. The kick, a Charlie Brown special, boundedwiiiide right, alighting somewhere near Terre Haute.
the nfl kickerleads a schizoid existence. Technically, he's a football player, but his dutiesare thoroughly unlike everybody else's. Free from the violent choreography thatdefines the sport, he can go weeks without even being touched. He performs anessential skill, yet has virtually no job security. He gets to wear a jerseybut is less a member of a team than a member of a three-man assembly line. Eventhe design of his helmet suggests otherness.
Kickers, notsurprisingly, tend to be a conflicted bunch, perhaps none more than Vanderjagt.At first blush he is all bluster and attitude. He sports a glistening diamondstud in his left ear, streaks his hair and had the brass ones to ask out--andeventually marry--a Colts cheerleader. Never having gotten the memo thatkickers are to be seen and not heard, he befriends (and confronts) positionplayers. Want attitude? Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy was once debating whetherto call on Vanderjagt for a late-game field goal. "Do you want to winnow?" the kicker barked to his boss, "or do you want to keepplaying?"
August 27, 2006
Downgrade thecharge of cocky to hyperconfident, and Vanderjagt pleads guilty. "I'mtrying to convince my teammates that I have their back, that it's O.K., I canhandle it," he says. "It's such a better environment than, Oh, jeez,here comes Vanderjagt. You always want seven points, but I want everyone tothink, Here's Mike--at least we're getting three."
But look a littlecloser at Vanderjagt, and his humility is almost as conspicuous as his swagger.Even now, at 36, with a Pro Bowl selection to his name, he's not quite surewhat he's doing in the NFL. "People introduce me as a football player,"he says, "and I say, 'You're using the term very loosely.'"
Vanderjagt grewup outside Toronto, and if he had any ambition to play football, it was as aquarterback. He didn't kick in college until his senior year at West Virginia.After graduating in 1993, he spent three years getting cut, ritually, byCanadian League teams. His first full-time job was kicking for the MinnesotaFighting Pike of the Arena League. Finally, in 1996, Vanderjagt hooked on asboth a punter and a placekicker with the Toronto Argonauts, who won the GreyCup, the CFL's Super Bowl, that season. His divorced parents sat together inthe stands during that game, united by their son's success. He figured the daywould be the highlight of his career; soon he would join his father in themeatpacking business.
In 1998, though,the Colts invited him to a tryout. He didn't just win the job; he startedmaking kicks with uncanny accuracy. Long or short, indoors or outdoors, hisballs were plumb-line straight. He missed only four of his 31 field goal triesthat season. The following year he was even better, making 34 of 38. Then 25 of27. At the end of last season Vanderjagt had converted an astounding 87.5% ofhis career attempts, including an NFL-record 42 straight from December 2002 toSeptember 2004. It is the highest rate of accuracy ever.
At 6'5" and211 pounds, Vanderjagt puts plenty of leg into his kicks. And coaches tell himhis mechanics--that up-down pendulum--are virtually flawless. But askVanderjagt to explain his success and he is, uncharacteristically, short ofwords. "I just happen to be a guy who knows how to kick a football betweentwo poles," he says, almost guiltily. "I don't know. I'm not atechnical guy, I'm not superstitious. I just kick."
Nine years intothe gig, Vanderjagt still has a Walter Mitty complex. His off-season home inKilbride, Ont., an idyllic spread on the shores of Lake Ontario, doubles as ashrine to famous NFL players he's met along his improbable journey. WhenIndianapolis receiver Marvin Harrison caught his 100th career touchdown passlast October, Vanderjagt asked if he could have Harrison's gloves. "Uh,sure, Mike," Harrison said, dumbfounded. They're now framed in Vanderjagt'sbasement. "I still see myself as just Mike from Ontario," he says.
If anything, it'sVanderjagt's modesty, not his immodesty, that's gotten him into trouble. Timeand again he has been asked a question and has answered candidly, forgettingthat he's not just Mike from Ontario--he's a prominent athlete whose wordstravel fast. For all his unsurpassed kicking, many still know him as the"idiot kicker," the term memorably coined by Peyton Manning in February2003 after Vanderjagt questioned Manning's mettle. "I know the publicperception: He speaks too much, his teammates don't like him," Vanderjagtsays. Does it bother him? "Who doesn't generally want to be liked?"
athletes who failto execute the Big Play tend to go through their own permutations of the stagesof grief. Vanderjagt immediately took ownership of the botched kick. "I'm aprofessional, not some nimrod who can't handle adversity," he says. "Ishould have made that kick. It felt good, I wasn't nervous. I just didn't doit." Next, he tried to leaven his failure with self-deprecating humor. TheThursday after the game he appeared on the show of a suffering Colts fan, DavidLetterman. With Letterman holding, Vanderjagt attempted a 46-yarder on a streetin midtown Manhattan. This time, naturally, he struck it dead perfect.
According tomultiple sources, the appearance enraged Indianapolis president Bill Polian, anold-school executive who'd never been fond of Vanderjagt's extra-footballantics. (Polian declined comment.) This was the last straw. Polian informedVanderjagt that the team would not pick up his option, then went out and signedthe New England Patriots' Adam Vinatieri, effectively trading the league's mostaccurate kicker for its most clutch. The Colts' message was clear: It's notjust how many you make, it's when you make them. "I think [Polian] took mefor granted," Vanderjagt says. Then the humility kicks in. "But look,Vinatieri is money. They probably won't miss me with a guy like Adam."
It's funny, butsince his divorce from the Colts, everything--mirroring the trajectory of thatwretched kick--has broken right for Vanderjagt. The Indianapolis teammates theworld was led to believe despised their idiot kicker called to wish him well."We loved Vandy," says running back Edgerrin James, now with theArizona Cardinals, who co-owns a Florida sports bar with Vanderjagt. "Onebad kick doesn't wipe out all the ones he made. People say, 'He cost us thatgame.' We all lost it. It's not like we were winning when he went outthere."
Then the DallasCowboys called, offering a three-year, $5.5 million deal. Desperate to upgradetheir kicking game (last season three kickers combined to miss eight of 28field goals), the Cowboys hit the right note when they made Vanderjagt feelwanted. "We have a chance to have a better field goal situation," saysDallas coach Bill Parcells. "That would be an understatement."Vanderjagt claims he and Parcells have a "great relationship" and hisnew teammates have been "unbelievably great." As Vanderjagt speaks, hisfeet are sprawled on a coffee table, the maximum distance from his mouth. Butlater his bravado returns: "I'm the best kicker in the history of the gameregardless of whether I missed my last kick or not," he says, "andthat's the way I look at it."
Truthfully, sevenmonths after the fact, Vanderjagt still hasn't completely shooed away thememory of that kick. He spent the off-season mostly at his home in Kilbride. Heplayed basketball on his indoor court and worked out in his basement gym. Atnight he and his wife, Janalyn, watched their seven-year-old son, Jay, playsoccer. Vanderjagt was a world removed from NFL Sundays in the States. Still,the reminders of his last kick were abundant. Some weeks ago he was playinggolf with his buddies and dogged a putt. "Another wide right," onequipped. Vanderjagt wasn't laughing.
You could saythat after an unmistakable failure, the NFL's most successful kickerhas--finally--been humbled. But maybe the guy's just acting naturally.
For an inside look at players and teams around theleague, read Michael Silver's Open Mike every Thursday at SI.com/nfl.
"I should have made that kick," Vanderjagtsays of his miss against the Steelers. "It felt good, I wasn't nervous. IJUST DIDN'T DO IT."