When most people think of the New England Patriots’ championship dynasty, the name that first comes to find is obviously Tom Brady. When other names come to mind, they’re likely men such as Julian Edelman, Rob Gronkowski and coach Bill Belichick.
Placekicker Adam Vinatieri was not considered by most to be one of the leading men in the Patriots’ success. However, they probably wouldn’t have established the foundation for their dominance without his contributions.
Football is the epitome of a team sport, and Vinatieri had a hand in some of their most important wins.
But his success came only after he had to travel a long and winding road with many treacherous detours.
Early Years In The Black Hills
Adam Matthew Vinatieri was born on Dec. 28, 1972 to Judy M. (Goeken) and Paul Vinatieri in Yankton, S.D., a small town located just north of the state’s southern border with Nebraska. When he was five, his family moved to Rapid City, a medium-sized town in western South Dakota that is situated on the eastern slope of the Black Hills.
He has Italian ancestry, and one of his great-great-grandfathers was Felix Vinatieri, who was a bandmaster for Lt Col George Armstrong Custer, a key Army commander for the United States during the Civil War.
According to Vinatieri, his bandmaster ancestor was ordered by Custer to go back to camp instead of joining him with the regiment at Little Big Horn in 1876 during the Indian Wars. Custer, of course, was killed there in what became known as “Custer’s Last Stand.”
Vinatieri also has a famous third cousin: Robert Craig Knievel, known to the public as Evil Knievel.
Like plenty of future pro athletes, young Vinatieri was greatly tested by the cosmos in the form of substantial life obstacles. He had serious problems reading and spelling, and he was therefore forced to attend special education classes at his school for children with learning disabilities.
When a child has a learning disability, it can cause him or her to feel “different” or even “defective” and cause serious self-esteem issues. Vinatieri was heading down that type of path, a path that can threaten to lead to self-sabotage.
However, Marcy Farrand, one of his special-ed teachers, rescued him from this potential fate and helped him foster a positive attitude, not just towards school, but also life in general.
“She made me understand, ‘This is going to be a challenge for you,'” Vinatieri said. “At that point it was like I can accept this, and I’m never going to amount to anything, and I’m just going to get a B.S. job, and you’re going to be unhappy. Or, hey, you know what, you’re going to work twice as hard, and you’re going to overcome this.”
Thanks in part to Farrand’s encouragement and teaching style, Vinatieri started to discover that he did have some talents. She remembers him asserting his leadership skills and learning how to win friends and influence people in her class.
Vinatieri also developed the willingness to work hard and to outwork others, which helped him eventually excel in the classroom, despite his so-called disability.
At Central High School, he even became an honor student, and he really started to find himself by lettering not just in football, but also in wrestling, soccer, basketball and track. Although he was a standout in several sports, it was clear that he really belonged on the gridiron, where he not only was a kicker, but also a quarterback and linebacker.
Although he had promise as a mobile quarterback while running option sets, he simply wasn’t big enough or a good enough passer to entice college recruiters.
However, he was a big fan of the hit 1986 movie “Top Gun,” and it inspired him to make going to a military academy his goal. He ended up attending West Point, the same military academy that Custer had famously attended.
From Cadet To Prospect
After arriving at West Point in 1991, General Norman Schwarzkopf, fresh off leading the United States to achieve its objective during Operation Desert Storm, gave a speech in which he asked Vinatieri and all the other cadets in the auditorium to look to their left, then to their right, and told them that two of every three of them wouldn’t graduate.
Vinatieri would be one of those who didn’t make it. After not being able to finish his academic work fast enough to meet deadlines, he returned home to South Dakota after just a couple of weeks.
His older brother Chad gave him a tongue-thrashing for blowing his opportunity to serve his country, but he was determined to still make something big of his life.
Vinatieri remembered that South Dakota State University had offered him a scholarship that would cover 80 percent of his education costs. He got into contact with them and asked if the offer was still there, and football coach Mike Daly said it was, with one major caveat – they could now only offer a 50 percent scholarship.
Even though South Dakota State was only a Division II school, Vinatieri decided to accept their offer.
As a kicker and punter for the Jackrabbits, he did very well, but when Daly only increased his scholarship amount to 55 percent, Vinatieri wanted to head for greener pastures.
He seriously considered transferring to Wyoming, a Division I school, in order to gain a full scholarship and face better competition, but Daly managed to talk him out of it.
Later on in his time at South Dakota State, Vinatieri went through a slump that caused him to lose his starting job to – of all people – a lineman. But when he proved he was not up to the task, Vinatieri was back as the Jackrabbits’ main kicker.
An Unlikely Path To The NFL
Once he was done playing at South Dakota State, Daly and assistant coach Trent Baalke, who would later go on to be the general manager for the San Francisco 49ers and Jacksonville Jaguars, called up people across the NFL, asking them to select Vinatieri in the upcoming draft.
But none of the league’s teams were interested in Vinatieri, so once again he was forced to regroup and call on his “never say die” attitude.
Brian Hansen, an NFL punter who originally hailed from South Dakota like Vinatieri, advised him to call Doug Blevins, a kicking coach in Virginia who had just joined the NFL World League, which would later become known as NFL Europe, a now-defunct league that aimed to spread the American version of football to the Eastern Hemisphere.
Blevins felt that the 22-year-old had some things he needed to refine and work on, but that he had the physical gifts to be a kicker at the pro level.
Vinatieri decided to make the move to the East Coast to train with Blevins. Although the coach was confined to a wheelchair due to cerebral palsy, he proved to be a worthy coach for the former Jackrabbit.
Blevins got Vinatieri a spot with the Amsterdam Admirals of the World League, and he did well enough there to push assistant coach Al Tanara to call Bill Parcells, his old colleague at Texas Tech who was now the head coach of the New England Patriots, and tell him to take a flyer on Vinatieri.
Parcells did just that, making him a backup to Matt Bahr, who had helped Parcell’s 1990 New York Giants defeat the mighty San Francisco 49ers in the NFC Championship Game and go on to win the Super Bowl.
But Parcells gave Vinatieri enough of a fair shake during the preseason, and he impressed so much that the coach ended up cutting Bahr, who was now 40 years old, and promoting Vinatieri to starting kicker and punter.
He wasn’t terribly impressive as a rookie, making just 77.1 percent of his field-goal attempts, but it was a non-kicking play where he proved that he belonged among the big boys.
In Week 16, the Pats faced the Dallas Cowboys, winners of three of the last four Super Bowls, in Texas. After he kicked the ball off following a score, Herschel Walker, the veteran Dallas running back, attempted to run the ball back – only to be tackled by Vinatieri of all people.
Adam Vinatieri taking down Hershel Walker. 🐐 stuff. pic.twitter.com/qzYzv0tVoA
— Pats Pulpit (@patspulpit) May 26, 2021
Walker was 6-foot-1 and 225 pounds, but Vinatieri wasn’t afraid of him, and that one tackle earned him loads of respect within the Patriots locker room.
“I don’t how it was God gave me 10 seconds of speed at that point because I’m not nearly as fast as I was on that one play,” Vinatieri said. “I remember Coach Parcells saying to me there shortly after, ‘You’re more than just a kicker to this team, now you’re a football player.'”
Led by Pro Bowl quarterback Drew Bledsoe, New England went 11-5 in ’96. After easy playoff wins against the Pittsburgh Steelers and Jacksonville Jaguars, the Patriots advanced to Super Bowl XXXI against the Green Bay Packers.
Trailing 27-14 at halftime, New England got a touchdown from running back Curtis Martin in the third quarter to make it a one-possession game with plenty of time left. But on Vinatieri’s ensuing kickoff, the Packers’ Desmond Howard returned the ball 99-yards to seal the world championship for Brett Favre and company.
It was an early failure for Vinatieri, but true to his nature and past, it would not define him.
It is often said that football is a game of inches, and while it is a true statement, the inches that decide a game aren’t just on the ground, but also in the air.
A good number of games come down to field goals, and their ramifications can last for a very long time. They can even define or destroy the legacies of many players, not just the ones who kick those field goals.
At one end of the spectrum was Scott Norwood, who missed the last-second field goal that would’ve won Super Bowl XXV for the Buffalo Bills and was relegated to the all-time sports hall of shame.
Eventually, Vinatieri would place himself on the positive end of that same spectrum.
Although Bledsoe wasn’t a truly elite QB, he would keep the Patriots in the playoffs for the rest of the decade. However, the team wasn’t strong enough to return to the Super Bowl, even though Vinatieri’s accuracy as a kicker was slowly improving.
In the sixth round of the 2000 NFL Draft, the team drafted a solid but modestly regarded Michigan State quarterback named Thomas Brady. He would become Bledsoe’s main backup that season, but the Pats struggled under new head coach Bill Belichick, winning just five games and missing the playoffs.
In Week 2 of the 2001 season, Bledsoe suffered internal bleeding from a fierce hit, forcing Brady to replace him in the starting lineup. Once he started to play well, the team followed suit, and America had just been introduced to its newest sports hero.
After finishing with an 11-5 record, the Pats played the Oakland Raiders in the divisional round, and Brady would find a sidekick of sorts in Vinatieri.
The game was played at Foxboro Stadium in Massachusetts during an oppressive New England snowstorm. Heading into the fourth quarter, the Pats’ season was on the line as they trailed 13-3 and were struggling mightily to put anything together offensively.
After Brady ran in for a touchdown with 7:57 left to cut his team’s deficit to one, New England got the ball back with just over two minutes left. It barely got into field goal range, and with 27 seconds left, Vinatieri faced a 45-yard field goal attempt to save New England’s season – while dealing with a blizzard so heavy it almost somewhat blinded him.
With no timeout left, Vinatieri kicked the ball. It barely got high enough in the air to not be blocked by Raiders players, and he couldn’t really tell if it was headed in the right direction.
But it was good, and the Patriots headed to overtime. Many feel it was the greatest, and perhaps the toughest field goal ever.
20 years ago today Adam Vinatieri made a field goal that kicked off an incredible dynasty. Legendary.🔥❄️pic.twitter.com/9OyXEqy8RG
— Pats Buzz (@PatsBuzz) January 19, 2022
“The conditions were very difficult,” said Belichick. “There were probably three to four inches of snow on the ground. It was a soft snow that kind of didn’t go away. I mean, there was no way to get around it.”
Once in the extra period, Brady again got New England into field-goal range to set up Vinatieri for another shot, this time to win the game. From 23 yards out, he got it through the uprights to send the team to the AFC Championship Game.
There, they defeated the Steelers to advance to Super Bowl XXXVI against the mighty St. Louis Rams, who had won it all just two years ago.
The Rams boasted superstars such as quarterback Kurt Warner and running back Marshall Faulk, and as arguably the greatest offensive team ever, they were nicknamed the “Greatest Show on Turf.”
The Patriots were big underdogs, and some felt they didn’t have a chance. But they took a 17-3 lead, only to lose it with 1:30 left in the fourth quarter when wideout Ricky Proehl scored a touchdown to tie the game.
With seven seconds left, Vinatieri again had a chance to win a big game for his team. From 48 yards out, he made the field goal that won the Super Bowl for New England, fulfilling the dream that just about every young placekicker has ever had.
20 Years Ago Today
Super Bowl XXXVI
Adam Vinatieri hits a 48-yard field goal as time expires to give the #Patriots their first Super Bowl title — the only Super Bowl decided on the final play of regulation.
The final play ever called by the iconic Pat Summerall-John Madden duo pic.twitter.com/zWvw5ZpAFw
— Kevin Gallagher (@KevG163) February 3, 2022
His key playoff field goals must’ve emboldened him because in 2002 he led the NFL by making 90.0 percent of his field goals. He was named to both the Pro Bowl and the All-Pro First-Team as a result.
However, the Patriots regressed after the Cinderella season, winning only nine games and missing the playoffs.
But they bounced back in 2003, despite Vinatieri’s field-goal accuracy dropping to a career-low 73.5 percent. New England won 14 games and started the playoffs against the Tennessee Titans, who featured star running back Eddie George and co-MVP quarterback Steve McNair.
Once again, a key playoff game would be decided by Vinatieri’s foot. He nailed a 46-yard field goal with just over four minutes left in the fourth quarter, and New England then held Tennessee scoreless to secure a 17-14 win.
In the AFC Championship Game against the Indianapolis Colts, Brady struggled with his passing accuracy and threw just one touchdown, but Vinatieri hit five field goals to give his squad a 24-14 win.
In Super Bowl XXXVIII against the Carolina Panthers, a scoreless contest through the first one and a half quarters turned into an offensive explosion the rest of the way. A wild, back-and-forth game turned into a tied affair down the stretch, and yet again, the fate of the Patriots would be up to Vinatieri.
With four seconds left in the fourth quarter, he converted a 41-yard field goal, and New England had won its second Super Bowl in three years. While Brady was starting to make his legend, Vinatieri was becoming an indispensable part of it.
On this date in 2004, Adam Vinatieri added to his legend with the kick that won Super Bowl XXXVIII 😤
— ESPN (@espn) February 1, 2019
In 2004, he had a banner season, making a league-leading 93.9 percent of his field goals. His 31 total made field goals was also an NFL high that year, and he earned Pro Bowl and All-Pro First-Team honors.
In a Week 9 win over the Rams, Vinatieri even got to expand his game (sort of), as he threw a touchdown pass to wide receiver Tony Brown after faking a field goal attempt.
The Patriots again won 14 games, and in the playoffs, he was perfect on all of his field goal and extra-point attempts, as they went on to win yet another world championship, this time against the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl XXXIX.
In 2005, New England’s bid for a three-peat failed, as it lost in the divisional round to the Denver Broncos.
Moving To Indy
Vinatieri was a free agent after the 2005 season, and he decided to sign with the Indianapolis Colts, a team that had legendary QB Peyton Manning and star wideout Marvin Harrison, but had not made it to the big game.
The 2006 season would be a different story though. The Colts went 12-4 and advanced to Super Bowl XLI against the Chicago Bears by beating Vinatieri’s former team, the Patriots, in the AFC Championship.
In the big game, Vinatieri missed a field goal in the first quarter and Bears wideout Muhsin Muhammad then scored a touchdown to put the Colts down 14-6, and it was nervous time in Indy.
But the Colts recovered, and Vinatieri made each of his next three field goals to give Manning his first world title, 29-17.
Over the next two seasons, even though the Colts did not win another title, Vinatieri went from clutch to legendary. The 2008 season was his 13th consecutive with at least 100 points scored, and in late November he hit his 22nd game-winning field goal with a 51-yarder against the San Diego Chargers.
Hip surgery limited him to just six games in 2009, and he did not play in Super Bowl XLIV, where the Colts lost to the New Orleans Saints. But he bounced back strong in 2010, making 92.9 percent of his field goals and all 51 of his extra-point attempts, which led the league.
In Week 17 against Tennessee, Vinatieri made a field goal at the end of regulation to give Indy a 23-20 win and the AFC South title. Although he made a 50-yard field goal with 53 seconds left in their wild card playoff game against the New York Jets, they ended up losing 17-16.
Manning missed the entire 2011 season with a herniated disc, and the Colts won just two games as a result. It allowed them to draft QB Andrew Luck the following April, just after the team released Manning due to his age and health.
Luck quickly became a solid QB, and the Colts returned to the playoffs in each of the next three seasons. Even though Vinatieri was now in his early 40s, he continued to do his thing at a high level, leading the NFL with a 96.8 percent field goal accuracy in 2014 and being named to both the Pro Bowl and All-Pro First-Team that year.
In 2016, he broke Mike Vanderjagt’s record of 42 consecutive made field goals, ultimately making 44 in a row before his own streak ended.
The 2018 season saw Vinatieri become the oldest player to make a field goal of at least 50 yards, while becoming the all-time leader in made field goals, surpassing Morten Andersen.
Finally, after having season-ending knee surgery late in the 2019 season, Vinatieri announced his retirement in May 2021 following 24 seasons of play. He was 47 when he played his last game, narrowly missing out on becoming the oldest player in league history.
Legacy and Off The Field Activities
Vinatieri is considered by some to be the greatest kicker in NFL history, especially when it comes to field goals and extra point attempts.
He retired holding numerous league records, including most points scored (2,673), most postseason points (238), most field goals made (599) and attempted (715) and the most field goals in a single postseason (14). He was also named to the NFL’s All-Decade Team for the 2000s.
But Vinatieri’s contributions also extended off the field. While playing with the Patriots, he was active in the community, taking part as a spokesperson in an attempt to persuade kids to avoid tobacco and illegal drugs, while also appearing in commercials for Papa Gino’s, a pizza chain in New England.
The former kicker and his wife Valerie have three children. One of them, AJ, plays high school football in Indiana and could possibly have a little bit of his father’s talent and skill.
Legendary NFL kicker Adam Vinatieri’s son AJ @ajvinatieri is booming punts for Zionsville High in Indiana.
This one went 53 yards.
— Rivals (@Rivals) August 22, 2020
One has to wonder what would’ve happened if he hadn’t made that key field goal to force OT in that playoff game against the Raiders in January of 2002, or the one that won the Super Bowl a few weeks later. It’s very possible that Tom Brady wouldn’t be viewed as the winner and consensus greatest player ever that he’s seen as today.
Not all heroes wear capes, and not all heroes are leading men like Brady. Adam Vinatieri is living proof of that.