You either handle the pressure ... or you don't
*Quarterback Tom Brady was voted the Most Valuable Player of Super Bowl XXXVI, but if you were to poll Patriots players about the MVP of the playoffs, kicker Adam Vinatieri would win in a walk.
The six-year veteran from South Dakota State provided the winning points in Super Bowl XXXVI by kicking a 48-yard field goal on the final play -- the thirteenth time in his career that he provided the winning points late in a game. He provided the winning points four other times in 2001 with last-minute field goals. That run of pressure-packed kicks doesn't include his most remarkable effort -- a game-tying 45-yard field goal that he kicked in the snow late in the fourth quarter of the Patriots' divisional playoff game against Oakland. It ranks as one of the epic kicks in NFL history.
After designating Vinatieri, 29, as the first "franchise" player in club history, the Patriots later signed him to a three-year, $5.2 million contract. They know the value of a clutch performer. *
I first learned about kicking under pressure in 1996, my rookie year with the Patriots. I was signed as a free agent by a team that already had Matt Bahr, one of the best kickers around. To win the job, I had to show coach Bill Parcells that I could make kicks when they counted. That process started in training camp.
Coach Parcells challenged me a lot in my rookie year, and not just in games. Almost every day in practice, he'd stand right beside me as he called for the field-goal team to take the field. Sometimes he'd even stand right in front of me or give me what he called a "ground whammy" to see if I'd let distractions get to me when I was kicking. It gets to the point where you either handle the pressure ... or you don't.
I learned early that it's very important to approach every single kick you attempt, even those in practice, as if it were in a game. That way when you actually get to game situations, it feels normal. You want to put yourself in as many "pressure" situations as you can, and the best way to succeed is to concentrate on the fundamentals, not the situation.
That kick I had to make against Oakland in the divisional playoffs -- not the 48-yarder that won the Super Bowl -- was the toughest kick I've ever had. There were a lot of things involved. The playoffs were at stake. There were four inches of snow on the ground, and I'd never kicked in that much snow, not even during practice.
I had to make sure I didn't slip getting to the ball, and I couldn't plant quite as hard as I usually do. That lowered the trajectory of the kick, so even when I saw it was going straight, I had to hold my breath for a few seconds to make sure it had enough distance.
The 48-yard attempt at the end of the Super Bowl gave me another opportunity. That wasn't like the Oakland kick or like the one Scott Norwood faced against the Giants (in Super Bowl XXV). The game was already tied, so it wasn't like we'd lose if I missed. I just went out there and said to myself, "You've got enough distance. Now just kick it straight."
In golf, there are times when you hit a ball so perfectly that you never feel the ball leave your club. That's the way I felt on that kick. I kicked through the ball, and I knew I'd hit it real well. When I saw it was going straight, I just started jumping even before it reached the uprights.
-- As told To Kevin Mannix
-- Reprinted from the 2002 preview issue of NFL Insider.