The Patriots: Adam Vinatieri, Daredevil

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Cousin Evel would have smiled. Back in 1996, his rookie year, New England Patriots kicker Adam Vinatieri proved he was a daredevil: he knocked down Dallas Cowboys kick returner Herschel Walker, saving a touchdown. Before a returner starts prancing towards the end zone, he usually sprints past the poor little kicker, making him crumble to the ground like a cheap cookie. But Vinatieri wasn’t scared to pound one of the NFL’s strongest players, and his coach, Bill Parcells, singled him out in the locker room after the game. “That day he told everybody that I was a football player, more than just a kicker,” Vinatieri says. “That meant the world to me.”

  Hitting Herschel, nailing a 45-yard field goal in five inches of snow to send a playoff game into overtime, ending Super Bowl XXXVI two weeks later with 48-yard game-winner as time expired — he’s not jumping over cars and rivers on a rocket-powered motorcycle, but like his third cousin, Evel Knievel, Adam Vinatieri doesn’t melt under fire. Despite a sub-par regular season, when he converted a career-low 73.5% of his field goal tries, Vinatieri has kept a clutch foot in the playoffs. He hit a 46-yard knuckleball in the Arctic cold to give the Pats a 17-14 home win over the Tennessee Titans, and converted all five tries in New England’s 24-14 AFC Championship victory over Indianapolis two weeks ago. With little scoring expected as the NFL’s two best defenses square off in Super Bowl XXXVIII on Sunday, don’t be shocked if the ex-high school wrestler from South Dakota determines the title once again. Says New England head coach Bill Belichick: “He’s just the ultimate luxury.”

  Vinatieri is also indulging these days, having signed a 3-year, $4.5 million contract extension after his Super Bowl heroics two years ago. Foxboro sits a long way from his rustic birthplace, Yanktown, S.D., where another distant relative, great-great grandfather Felix Vinatieri, also put ice water in Adam’s blood. Felix served as George Custer’s band leader, but the 5-foot-2 Italian immigrant missed out on Little Big Horn after Custer, sensing danger, left Vinatieri and his 16-member brass band on a Powder River supply boat before succumbing to Crazy Horse. “That was very fortunate for me and my family,” Vinatieri says. “It was an amazing thing how overwhelmed they were and how outnumbered they were. But honestly it came down to a judgment error.” Adam has studied Felix more closely in recent years — he brags about the CD of Felix’s compositions, called Custer’s Last Band, that a South Dakota orchestra released in 2001. But he admits that he played favorites with family as a youngster. “Obviously, I thought watching a guy jump off cliffs was the cool thing,” says Vinatieri of Knievel, to whom he has spoken on the phone a few times since his Super Bowl kick, but has never met. “All that history stuff was kind of secondary.”  

The 48-yarder that beat the heavily-favored St. Louis Rams two years ago has secured Vinatieri’s own legacy. A work ethic that’s rare for a specialist has also given Vinatieri an indelible stamp in the Patriots locker room. “Guys don’t just respect him because of what’s he’s done on the field,” says New England special teams coach Brad Seely. “They respect him because he’s in there lifting weights every day with the running backs and tight ends.”

  For inspiration this week, Vinatieri conjures up Hoosiers, the 1986 sports classic where the coach of a small high school basketball team, played by Gene Hackman, pulls out a tape measure before the state championship game and shows his players that the basket’s height is the same in both the spacious arena and the barnyard gym. “The goalposts are still 18-feet wide,” says Vinatieri, smiling. “Once we move the ball past the 50-yard line, I’ll just step over to the side and start booting a couple of balls into the net. It’s been easy for me to block everything out.” What might be harder is for the Panthers to block another Vinatieri family moment.