OPINION — The Iceman Goeth.
Probably, that is.
The NFL kicked off the 2020 season Thursday as the Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs host the Houston Texans, but the greatest kicker ever won’t be on a roster.
For the first time in a quarter century, Adam Vinatieri will not be booting his team to victory. The 47-year-old South Dakota native is a free agent after completing a 14-year run with the Indianapolis Colts.
He was interested in playing, but no team offered him a shot as he recovered from knee surgery. Vinatieri’s amazing, record-setting career might finally be over.
He joined the Colts in 2006 after a decade, and four Super Bowls, with the New England Patriots. The Pats won three of those title games, with Vinatieri kicking game-winning field goals in the 2002 and 2004 big games.
They lost the first Super Bowl he was in after the 1996 season, as the Patriots fell to the St. Louis Rams. Vinatieri, a SDSU graduate, competed against a fellow Jackrabbit, guard Adam Timmerman, who also went on to a sterling NFL career, playing in two Super Bowls with the Rams and two more with the Green Bay Packers, being part of a championship team in both cities before he retired in 2007 and returned to Iowa to farm.
After the 1997 Super Bowl, both Adams returned to Brookings for a joint appearance at a sporting goods store. I covered it for the Argus Leader and found them friendly and appreciative of the fans’ support.
Adam Vinatieri and I compared notes on favorite stops in Brookings and discovered we both were frequent guests at Jim’s Tap. He wore a broad smile the whole time despite snow falling and fans screaming for a minute of his time.
It should have been a tipoff that he would not mind kicking in foul weather, as he proved to the Oakland Raiders with a pair of clutch kicks in a Jan. 19, 2002, snowstorm to carry the Patriots to the 2002 Super Bowl and earn him the nickname “The Iceman,” both because of the weather conditions and his cool reaction under pressure.
I watched those kicks from a bar in Montana, cheering for the South Dakota native and against the damn Raiders. When he made the kick to force overtime, and then the game-winner, he became a legend.
It turned out, the story was just starting to unfold. Vinatieri had an amazing career, becoming the most successful and famous kicker in football history.
I knew he had left New England, where he had achieved so much with coach Bill Belichick, quarterback Tom Brady and a collection of stars, when I saw the new flag on his parents’ deck.
I lived next door to Judy and Paul Vinatieri in Rapid City from 2005-09. They were fine neighbors, with Judy and I often chatting as I took my cat Angel outside so she could romp around while Judy worked on their beautiful lawn.
When I moved in during the fall of 2005, a Patriots banner hung from their deck. After the Pats failed to sign him in the offseason — much to the surprise of football fans and experts across the country — a Colts flag flew in its place.
I did a profile on Paul and Judy just before the 2007 Super Bowl for The Rapid City Weekly News and the Black Hills Pioneer. While Paul and Judy were happy to discuss their famous son, they made it clear they were proud of all four of their kids.
Oldest son Chad kicked at Rapid City Central and tried out for the football team at the University of South Dakota. He would have been relegated to back-up duties, so he quit the team, Paul said.
Adam, the second son, was a kicker, punter, quarterback and part-time linebacker for the Cobblers.
Youngest son Beau also kicked for Central and was the place-kicker for the Black Hills State University gridders.
But Paul said daughter Christine may have had the best leg of the bunch. All the kids played soccer, and the ball just seemed to come off her foot the best, he said.
Another Vinatieri, Chad’s son Chase, had a very good career as a kicker at SDSU and has NFL aspirations. Adam had to play in Europe for the Amsterdam Admirals before getting his shot with the Patriots, so don’t write off Chase yet, even though he didn’t sign with an NFL team this season. The Patriots expressed an interest in him.
There is a history of prominent people in the family. Paul’s great-grandfather was Felix Vinatieri, who served as Lt. Col. George Armstrong Custer’s bandmaster. Luckily for the Vinatieri family and NFL fans, Felix missed out on the trip to the Little Big Horn.
Daredevil motorcyclist Evel Knievel, who got his kicks in midair and was a lot less successful in the big moments, was a cousin.
Judy and Paul told me they really weren’t surprised that Adam was so reliable in the clutch.
“He’s always been confident,” his dad said. “He doesn’t lack in confidence.”
Just said she was worried what would happen when he finally missed an important kick. It was bound to happen, she said.
While Adam didn’t miss any field-goal attempts in the closing minutes last year, he did struggle at times. When he made a pair of kicks from beyond the 50-yard-line in one game, he missed six extra points and was no longer the most reliable kicker in the league.
He made just 68% of his field-goal attempts and was injured for four games. Fans and reporters both noted it, as did NFL coaches. After thousands of kicks, Vinatieri seemed to finally be done.
Barring a comeback this year or next, Adam is ready for the next chapter. An avid outdoorsman, he has hunted around the world and owns a whitetail deer hunting operation, Record Breaking Ranch, in Missouri.
He kicked for a long, long time and may be ready for a change. Adam and his wife Valeri, whom he married in 2001 on his way to his first title, have three kids, AJ, Allison and Gabriel.
All talented athletes, and in a feature story last year, Adam said he is like his own father, supportive with high expectations.
“I’m brutally honest,” Vinatieri told Fox59 reporter Mike Chappell. “(A.J.) will probably tell you, ‘My dad is way more critical than my coaches are.’
“Look, I’ll praise the heck of him when he does a good job, but I’ll also let him know, ‘Hey, you’re better than that. You can do better. I think you let yourself down. I think you let your team down.’ But it’s never condescending.”
In 2007, his parents said he was weary of all the attention. They tried to obtain a brief interview with him for me for the story, but to no avail.
Judy and Paul said when he was with the Patriots and they were riding high with three championships in four seasons, Adam found it nearly impossible to run to the store on a quick errand without being the center of attention.
He told his dad that once he retired, his dream was to buy a large ranch and build a home in the center of it, with a long, long road leading up to it that he could keep locked.
After 24 seasons in the glare of the spotlight, with five Super Bowl appearances, the leading scorer in NFL history is eager to have time to himself.
He told Chappell that football is what he does, not who he is. Being a husband and a father is his priority.
Does he still want to play? Yes. Will he get a chance if a kicker is injured or slumping? Perhaps.
Don’t write him off yet. His passion to compete, to win, still burns.
We will see him at least one more time, however, when he goes to Canton, Ohio, to be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. It will be a hot summer day when the ceremony is held, but one thing is guaranteed.
The Iceman will be cool.
South Dakota native Tom Lawrence, a former Pioneer executive editor, has written about the state, its politics and people since 1978. Read his blog Prairie Perspective at http://sdprairie.blogspot.com/ and follow him on Twitter at @TLCF26.
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