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Adam Vinatieri has scoring record in sight, not end of HOF career

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HE WORE THE NEW NFL Scouting Combine T-shirt unironically, Adam Vinatieri promised, only because he liked how it looked in a store, the shirt denoting those at the very beginning of their NFL careers in sharp contrast to the wearer, with his graying hair and ballooning records.

Vinatieri wasn't even invited to the combine when he came out of South Dakota State, he added with a smirk, but that was more than 20 years and a whole lot of kicks ago, and who knows how much combine-branded merchandise even existed then?

Just minutes before in a minicamp practice with the Indianapolis Colts, he had booted a 62-yard field goal, as straight and true as the 45-yarder launched into a New England snow globe that made him an instant legend, even among his peers, a kick Bill Belichick believes is the greatest in history. That was nearly 17 years ago. Arguably the most clutch kick in NFL history -- in a blizzard, to send an AFC Divisional Round playoff game into overtime, to begin the Patriots' dynasty -- is merely the most memorable building block in a career that has made Vinatieri perhaps the greatest kicker in football history.

Having just broken Hall of Famer Morten Andersen's career record for field goals in Week 4, Vinatieri is now on the cusp of supplanting Andersen as the league's all-time leading scorer. Andersen retired in December 2008 (after the 2007 season, he was unable to obtain another contract) with 2,544 points. Vinatieri has 2,535, has already accounted for 48 this season and shows no perceptible signs of being unable to extend the record for a few more seasons, if he chooses.

Andersen was close to the end of his career -- in his mid-40s and setting every kicking and scoring record that Vinatieri will soon hold -- when Vinatieri, still nearer to the beginning of his own tenure, approached Andersen before a game.

"I remember him at around 45, and I said, 'I can't believe you're still doing this,' " Vinatieri recalled. "I remember him telling me he wanted to make it to 50. To be able to play a couple of decades, I never thought I'd play that long."

Andersen didn't quite make it to 50 -- he was 47 in his final season with Atlanta -- but Vinatieri's incredulity at his forerunner's longevity has come full circle. At 45, Vinatieri is, quite literally, the NFL's graybeard, its oldest current player, his consistency and powerful leg belying the fact that eight of his current Colts teammates were born in the same year Vinatieri first kicked in the NFL -- 1996 -- and that locker-room conversations with Vinatieri veer toward kicker-as-life-coach, with questions about how to manage everything from marriage to finances. Even Anderson, who was motivated to stick around long enough to set the scoring record, could not find consistent employment like Vinatieri has.

Captured in a grainy video on YouTube is a handy reference point for the long arc of Vinatieri's career. After the Patriots won that snow-covered overtime game over the Oakland Raiders -- and, a few weeks later, captured their first Super Bowl with a game-winning Vinatieri field goal, in February of 2002 -- he appeared on "Late Show with David Letterman." The gag was that Vinatieri, in street clothes, would kick footballs from the dark roof of a Manhattan building, over traffic-clogged streets, to a lone businessman standing in the shadows on the top floor of a parking garage a few blocks away.

The businessman?

Donald Trump.

* * * * *

Vinatieri says kicking chose him rather than the other way around. As a kid, he liked to be at the center of the action. When he played baseball, he was the pitcher or the catcher. In soccer, he was the center midfielder. He wrestled because there was no place to hide. So, of course, he played quarterback. But when he was in fifth grade, his Pop Warner coach asked if anybody wanted to kick. Vinatieri already played soccer, so he figured he'd give it a try. He was the best of the four kids who tried out. Most important to him: It gave Vinatieri the chance to be on the field. By the time he got to college, he was 6 feet tall, 200 pounds and buried on the quarterback depth chart, too short to be a top thrower. But he was the perfect size to be a kicker.

First, though, there was a brief but telling detour. Vinatieri would have seemed to be an ideal fit for West Point. As a child, he was placed in classes for students with learning disabilities because of a reading problem. But a teacher had inspired him, and by the time he graduated from high school, he had outstanding grades, a facility for sports and the natural confidence required for leadership. "Top Gun" had recently been in theaters, and knowing that graduating as an officer from a military academy virtually guaranteed a good job, Vinatieri applied to all of them. Here was the great-great-grandson of General George Custer's bandleader who, fortuitously, did not follow the general into battle at Little Bighorn. Vinatieri would be an Army officer.

Vinatieri lasted two weeks. He concedes that he went to West Point for the wrong reasons, and that he came home for the wrong ones, too -- there was a high school girlfriend, and he was 18 -- an age, as he put it, when "you're making dumb decisions."

But there was also a streak of the strong will and the preternatural self-assuredness that would become apparent to millions a few years later.

"I've always been a very opinionated guy, an outgoing personality," Vinatieri said. "I really appreciate everybody that is there and what they stand for. But I didn't want to take who I was and get rid of it and mold it to who they want it to be. I like my smart-aleck self. I remember one officer sat us around in the courtyard, and he said, 'You know, West Point doesn't screw up. You guys are here for a reason. They only pick the best of the best; you will be successful no matter what you do.'

"I took that the wrong way: Wait a minute, I can be successful no matter where I'm at? Why am I here? Very shortly after that, I decided to leave. That's probably one thing ... I don't know if ashamed is the right word, but disappointed. I'm not a quitter. But I let that go. I let my family down. I look back at it now, and everything worked out just fine. Would I still be in the league if I went to school there?"

Perhaps not. But the path from Division II South Dakota State -- back home after he left West Point -- to NFL Europe, to being signed by Bill Parcells with the Patriots in 1996 in large part to light a fire under Parcells' incumbent kicker, to the heroics and Super Bowls in New England and Indianapolis, has had a through-line: competitiveness married with staggering consistency, in both mechanics and outcome.

"He is the most competitive human I've ever seen in my entire life," said Pat McAfee, the now-retired punter who spent eight seasons with Vinatieri in Indianapolis. "A game of chess, checkers, cards -- he feels if he doesn't win, he has completely failed, and I think is completely miserable. In the weight room, guys 20 years younger, he's competing with them. The year he didn't miss (2014, when Vinatieri missed just one field-goal try in 31 attempts and made all 50 extra points), I don't think he missed in practice, either."

Vinatieri admired the top kickers of his youth -- Andersen, Pete Stoyanovich, Gary Anderson -- but he never copied anybody's style, other than the one time in middle school when he took off his shoe in homage to Rich Karlis, who kicked barefoot for Denver, Minneapolis and Detroit over nine seasons.

"I said, 'This ain't for me,' " Vinatieri said. "It was cold."

After a mediocre college career, Vinatieri loaded up his truck and drove across the country to work with kicking guru Doug Blevins in rural Virginia. It was there, with Vinatieri waiting tables at night and lifting weights at the nearby high school, that the mechanics and the kick he repeats to this day were refined.

His kick itself is rare, according to Tom McMahon, Denver's special teams coach, who spent five seasons in Indianapolis with Vinatieri. The rise on the ball goes straight up, "like Mount Everest," McMahon said. A drill Vinatieri does religiously involves having very tall linemen hold their hands over their heads at the line of scrimmage while he tries to kick over them -- ironic, considering the impossible kick in the snow for which he is most famous was a low line drive.

In fact, the only significant change McMahon made while working with Vinatieri was speeding up the entire operation -- from the moment the holder lifts his hand to signal the snapper to deliver the ball to the hold and kick -- by fractions of a second. McMahon stood behind Vinatieri and screamed until the veteran kicker got so tired of hearing McMahon's voice that he sped up.

Although Vinatieri's success rate on field-goal tries has declined steadily over the past four seasons, his field-goal conversion rate of 85.3 percent in 2017 still ranked him 15th out of all kickers. And, perhaps surprisingly, he missed just once of 50-plus yards. This season, he's delivered on 11 of his 13 tries, including 2 of 3 from 50 yards and beyond.

"The older you get, the ball flattens out, like a receiver loses his burst," McMahon said. "He hasn't lost that. When I got there in 2013, they asked me how many years he still had. I said as many as he wanted. When [the] ball goes low, like a horse, [you] have to put them down. He isn't even close. This guy has a lot left; the ball comes straight off his foot like a young man. You can still hear it. I hope he never retires."

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VINATIERI IS INDEED TRYING TO CHEAT Father Time. He does not follow a rigorous diet like his former teammate Tom Brady, relying instead on his wife, Valeri, to cook mostly non-processed, healthy foods. He occasionally eats pizza or has a beer, and he might be spotted going through a drive-through grabbing a meal on the way to one of his kids' sporting events.

He is especially obsessive about sleep, though. He tries to go to bed by 10 p.m. to get eight and a half hours of sleep each night, sometimes to the dismay of his wife and three kids. He does not feel he has lost a lot of strength, but it takes him much longer to recover than it did when he was younger.

"I understand when you get to a certain age, it's an uphill battle the rest of my career," Vinatieri said.

After the 2008 season, Vinatieri had hip surgery, and he has not kicked off since, a decision that has taken considerable strain off his leg and eased the relentless wear and tear on his hips. When he had knee surgery later that season, Vinatieri reevaluated how he would prepare for the season.

When he played in New England, Vinatieri kicked every day in practice, including kicking off, which he said is equal to kicking three field goals because of the explosion required to kick deep. Now, he kicks every other day -- during the regular season, it is Wednesday, Friday and in Sunday's game. During a normal workout, he figures he takes 60 to 75 kicks. The goal is for every kick, no matter the distance, to look the same every single time. The only time he believes a kicker should be using extra force is when he is attempting a kick at the very outer edge of his range.

But as he ages, Vinatieri -- and everybody else, for that matter -- loses flexibility. Vinatieri takes great pains to counteract that. McAfee marveled at the extensive, hours-long stretching-and-massage routine Vinatieri undertook each time he kicked, before practice and before games.

"There's massage that happens, cracking that happens, stretching and popping, him and a guy," McAfee said. "I asked them to do it for me one day -- I hurt so bad from the stretching, the elbows in the muscles. You can't get hurt in practice; he has to treat practice as a game mentally, as well. They want to make sure everything is loose, back and hips, they work with bands, a lot of rubbing. It's a very rigorous routine. It's remarkable to watch."

It seems like an awful lot to go through for a man who enjoys coach-pitch Little League with one of his kids and goes to equestrian events with another. Setting one of football's monumental records -- most points scored -- would seem like a perfect swan song. It would allow him to finally stop being haunted by his misses. Specifically, there is the first potential game-winner he missed, in his fourth season, with nine seconds left against Kansas City, when a 32-yard attempt banged off the upright. That was 19 years ago, and Vinatieri is still mad about it.

And it would allow him time to muse about his favorite kicks. He loves the snow kick as much as everybody else does -- it is the one of which he is most proud -- plus the two Super Bowl game-winners and his very first game-winner, a 40-yard field goal to beat Jacksonville in overtime in Week 4 of his rookie season in 1996. That one finally got Parcells to stop saying his job was week to week.

There is an exit plan already in place. For years, Vinatieri thought he'd go to medical

school after his football career ended, but that was before he knew just how long said football career would last. Maybe he'll do some television. But Vinatieri, building on a passion he has had since childhood, is now the proprietor of a 750-acre Missouri ranch meant for hunting, the Record Breaking Ranch. After he retires, he'll be there sometimes with family, but the ranch is intended as a luxury resort for hunters.

As for when to make the exit? Vinatieri signed a one-year contract in February to remain with the Colts, and while he hasn't put an end on it by saying he wants to kick for a few more years, he is also comfortable with evaluating himself at the end of each season, when he is forced to ask himself how he feels and if he can still produce.

Vinatieri is already the fourth-oldest player to ever play in the NFL and, perhaps not surprisingly, the top five are all kickers, with John Carney, Morten Andersen and George Blanda ahead of him, and Gary Anderson four months behind. Blanda, the oldest, played until he was 48 years and 109 days old. Could Vinatieri possibly nab that record, too?

"Get Blanda's record?" Vinatieri said. "I won't get Blanda's record."

But as he pondered setting the scoring record, Vinatieri did not view it as a finish line.

"I don't ever want to get to a point where it's, 'I should have hung it up a year ago,' " he said. "I'm not putting a time on it. If we get through the season and we're trending up, team-wise, if we're a playoff contender ... I want another Super Bowl. If we've got a chance here [in Indianapolis] or anywhere else, I'd consider continuing. I'm not overly into moving my family, but if the Colts didn't want me back and next year's AFC or NFC champion said, 'We need you,' it would be interesting."

There is the chance, then, that there will be plenty more time to put kicks in the air, to find another moment large enough to match his legend.

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