It has been an eventful couple of days for the NFL’s oldest player, Adam Vinatieri. In the Colts’ 18-12 victory Sunday in Miami, he missed his third extra point of the season. Between 2006-2014, the 20-year veteran missed just three of such kicks (343-of-346 attempts). But in the fourth quarter, Vinatieri converted his 500th career field goal, becoming just the third kicker in league history to reach that plateau, joining Morten Andersen and Gary Anderson.
I had meant for this to be a simple birthday wish for Vinatieri, a kicker whose work I deeply admire and who turned 43 on Monday as the most decorated place-kicker in NFL history. Twenty seasons in, the Indianapolis Colts kicker is still finding joy in a game of 20-somethings and where most bid farewell while in their 20s — if they’re lucky, their 30s. Heck, Vinatieri himself is just lucky to be here.
His great-great grandfather, Felix Vinatieri, was Civil War commander George Armstrong Custer’s bandmaster. While steering his troops towards the banks of Little Big Horn, Custer told Felix to stay behind and it’s a good thing he did. Custer and his men were wiped out in what came to be known as Custer’s Last Stand. Felix was discharged six months after the battle and he settled and married in Yankton, South Dakota.
His great-great-grandson is a kicker with a beard that is graying, but a right leg that won’t age. In 2015, he has made 22 of his 24 field goals attempts, which includes a current streak of 22 straight since missing his first two attempts this season and a long from 55. In fact, he made only two 50+ yard attempts total from 2003 to 2010, but he’s made 16 from 2011 to now, including 3 for 4 on the season.
“He’s not done,” his holder and close friend, Pat McAfee told The Indianapolis Star before leaving Sun Life Stadium last weekend.
Before he won four Super Bowls and played in five, Vinatieri was a quarterback and linebacker in high school. But after a week on campus, his coach pulled him aside and said he’d be no more than a fourth-string QB. So, instead, he kicked and punted for four years. Vinatieri applied to the Air Force, the Army, the Navy and the Mariners. His father was a military man and he ended up at West Point. But he didn’t even last twenty days and he ended up at Division II South Dakota State.
In college, Vinatieri was at best mediocre, connecting on just 27-of-53 field goals – hitting 4-for-12 as senior. The NFL had passed on him and he spent the fall of 1995 training with a kicking coach who suffered from cerebral palsy and shouted instructions from his wheelchair. By graduation, the NFL appeared to be just a pipe dream – that is until the Dallas Cowboys called.
Dallas told him they weren’t drafting him, but he had a chance at a training camp invitation. Meanwhile, the Canadian Football League called and they were offering him a spot on the team. He passed on the CFL and decided to chase his NFL dream. However, the Cowboys never called. So Vinatieri called them, and they told him they were going in a different direction.
He settled on a tryout overseas from the Amsterdam Admirals of the World League of American Football (later rebranded as the now defunct NFL Europe). Most games, he kicked in front of some-30,000 fans and he ended up playing in something called the World Bowl III where his Admirals lost against Frankfurt Galaxy.
Scouts back in the states saw the young kicker and he came home to find out that two NFL teams were interested: The Colts and New England Patriots. Bill Parcells, looking to motivate 16-year veteran Matt Bahr, invited Vinatieri to training camp and it’s been history ever since.
“I’m going to give you an opportunity to show me what you’ve got,” the Hall of Fame coach told him at the time. “And either you’re going to shine, or you’re going to pack you s— and get out of here.”
He never had to pack up his s—. He made 27 of 35 field goals that season, tackled Herschel Walker and kicked off a career that should send him straight to Canton. When it comes to specialized players, excluding goalies in hockey, the greatest clutch kicker in NFL history is arguably the most significant one in sports history alongside Mariano Rivera. The iconic Yankees closer was a huge reason behind the team winning five championships and he is considered the greatest postseason weapon in sports history.
Vinatieri, may not be celebrated like Rivera, but the under appreciation of kickers extends all the way to NFL Hall of Fame, where Jan Stenerud is one of only three kickers enshrined, and is the only one who did not play another position (George Blanda, played QB, Lou Groza, was a tackle). Stenerud ended his career in 1985 with 1,699 total points, which is currently good for 13th on the all-time list. Vinatieri currently sits third on that list with 2,241 career points, however, that’s not where his legacy lies.
He kicked the Patriots to Super Bowl wins with late clutch kicks in 2001 and 2003. He’s a three-time All Pro and three-time Pro Bowler. He has booted 26 game-winners and has played in more playoff games than anyone in NFL history. He is also the only player in NFL history to record 900 points with two different teams and just one player – Charles Haley – can claim more Super Bowl rings.
He is set to become a free agent come March and it’s not like he has anything else to prove. He’s still six seasons away from catching George Blanda as the oldest player to play in the NFL, but he has shown that he still more than capable of getting the job done in his late years and sounds a lot like a man not ready to walk away.
“The locker room stuff, running out on the field in front of a bunch of fans, you never get tired of that,” Vinatieri said. “The older you get, the more of a struggle it is to stay healthy. There are more challenges. But it doesn’t diminish the joys of Sunday.”