Look toward the end of the sidelines at any National Football League game. There, behind the burly linemen gulping Gatorade from paper cups, you'll find a most unlikely huddle. It has only two men in it, who chat and carry on about the swirling wind and the soggy turf.
They're the kickers, of course, the punter and place-kicker. They're the ones with the well-developed legs, tight shoes, and perhaps too many pairs of socks (one pro kicker reportedly wore five socks on his kicking foot). They are the often-forgotten players whose specialty can profoundly change a game.
"It's a lot like a golfer's putting situation," says New England Patriots' kicker Adam Vinatieri. "Putting is where you make or break a round."
Golfers and kickers have a lot in common. Both must have steel nerves and machinelike consistency. Both live in pressure-filled, sometimes lonely worlds. The Monitor spent some time chatting and whacking footballs with Mr. Vinatieri, who showed us how he "splits the pipes" (kicks the ball through the goal post's uprights).
"It's kind of a solitary position," Vinatieri says. Ninety-five percent of the time, Vinatieri says, he, punter Lee Johnson, and long-snapper Mike Bartrum (he centers, or "snaps," the ball to the kickers) work out with each other and the special-teams coach. When the team travels, he, Johnson, and Bartrum hang out together. They even chat with opposing kickers.
"You kind of have a brotherhood of kickers," Vinatieri says.
Vinatieri walks the field before a game with his coach. He practices kicking points-after-touchdown (PATs) from either hash mark at both ends of the field. (The hash marks are 20 yards in from each sideline.) Then he and his coach discuss how long a field goal he could attempt, given weather and field conditions.
How far can he kick?
"I feel pretty confident inside of 55," he says. Fifty-five yards, that is. The NFL record is 63 yards. (See story above.)
During practices, kickers do about 20 drills to improve their leg speed and agility. They also work on timing with the snapper and the holder. They do spend a few minutes with the rest of the team, because even kickers need to know how to tackle. If a field goal or a punt is blocked and the loose ball is picked up by the other team, the kicker may be the last line of defense.
"It's not about how good a tackler you are," Vinatieri says, "it's about being in the right spot." Vinatieri's aim is just to grab the ball carrier and hang on.
No more microwaved footballs
The hot topic this year among pro kickers is footballs. Kickers used to be able to use their own soft, well-worn footballs. The more elastic the ball, the farther it will go. So regulation footballs were rubbed, squashed, soaked in milk, and (legend has it) heated in microwaves to soften them.
"Kickers were getting too good," Vinatieri says with a smile. New regulations this year state that the league will send 12 new kicking footballs to the officials before each game. The balls are in sealed boxes, and each is inscribed with a K. The new, hard footballs don't fly as far, Vinatieri says.
Vinatieri spends much of his practice time focusing on his technique. He works on where and how to plant his nonkicking foot next to the ball. Besides his special kicking shoe, Vinatieri has three different shoes to wear on his "plant" foot: one for artificial turf, one for muddy fields, and one for regular grass. He works on how to position his body, how to "lock" on the ball in order to transfer the maximum amount of force to the football.
Vinatieri must also work on his timing and speed. To avoid having the ball blocked, it must go from snapper to holder and be kicked in a hurry. A good time is 1.3 to 1.4 seconds. "Any faster than that, it's hard for the holder to get it down," he says.
How teams try to 'ice' the kicker
Meanwhile, the opposing team is using the physical pressure of their onrushing linemen to try to block Vinatieri's kick. How does it feel to have three tons of linemen running toward you at full speed? "They're coming after the ball, not me," Vinatieri says philosophically.
The opposing team also will try to "ice" a kicker by putting mental pressure on him. They may do this by calling a sudden timeout as Vinatieri is going to try a field goal. Kickers are used to dealing with pressure. To insulate himself, "You have to make sure you are never too high or too low," he says.
He recalls a time when this timeout strategy seemed to go a bit too far.
"It was my first year ..., a home game in the middle of January," Vinatieri says. Just as he was about to kick a field goal, all the lights in the stadium went out. They stayed out for 20 minutes or more because of a blown transformer.
"I've heard of guys calling timeouts to ice you," he says jokingly, "but I've never heard of anyone turning the lights out...."
At press time, Vinatieri, in his fourth year as a pro, was No. 7 in the American Football Conference with 59 points. The NFL leader is Miami Dolphin Olindo Mare, with 91.
Vinatieri became a kicker in fifth grade. He was playing Pop Warner football in his native South Dakota, and his team needed a new kicker. The coach chose a group of kids to try out, and "I happened to be the best one that day," he says.
In high school he played quarterback, linebacker, punter, and kicker. "I figured I wasn't going to be tall enough or big enough to be a quarterback or linebacker." He went on to kick at South Dakota State.
Now Beau Vinatieri may be following in his older brother's footsteps. The younger Vinatieri, a college junior, is a kicker at Black Hills (S.D.) State University.
Getting their kicks
The 1970 New Orleans Saints will be long remembered, not for their 2-11-1 record, but for kicker Tom Dempsey. On Nov. 8, trailing the Detroit Lions by one point, 16-17, Dempsey was sent onto the field for a 63-yard desperation attempt. He nailed it. His kick is tied for the longest in NFL history with the Denver Broncos' Jason Elam.
Another Saints kicker, Morten Anderson, had an elaborate custom shoe crafted in 1991. The completed shoe was hand-carried from a factory in South Korea. It cost him well over $5,000. "I don't even have a pair," Anderson commented, just one left shoe.
Kickers can thank Ben Agajanian for turning kicking into a specialty. In the early days of the NFL, kickers played other positions as well. Agajanian was the first to face the laces forward and the first to take three steps back and two to the side.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society