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Kinchen needed faith on Super Sunday

Long snapper Brian Kinchen struggled in practice during Super Bowl preparation week and was nervous heading into the game.

HOUSTON -- Forgive Brian Kinchen if he had thoughts during the Super Bowl of being back in Baton Rouge, La., doing what he had done every day until December, which was teach Bible seventh-grade students at Parkview Baptist School. That sure beat the pressure of snapping a football in an NFL game.

He had been out of football since being cut by the Carolina Panthers in March, 2001, and playing again was the furthest thing from his mind since submitting his retirement papers last April.

There were some tryouts in 2002, but nothing panned out, so the 38-year-old long snapper got on with his life's work.

"I was happy," Kinchen said. "I have been a man of God since I was 14 years old and this seemed to be what He had in store for me."

At least until the call that came to the school on Dec. 15. The Patriots had just lost their second long snapper of the season to injury (Sean McDermott, who had replaced Lonie Paxton), and the person on the other end of the line was Scott Pioli, New England's vice president of player personnel, inviting Kinchen to Foxborough for a tryout. Kinchen, whose 13-year career had included stops in Miami, Cleveland, Baltimore and Carolina, had played for coach Bill Belichick with the Browns.

"I didn't leave (the Panthers) on good terms," he said, "and I wasn't sure I wanted to do it again. I didn't want to leave my four sons. I called home and discussed it with my wife. I hadn't even followed the NFL and she was the one who told me the Patriots were 12-2. I even discussed it with my class. To them it was like, 'What are you waiting for?'

"They said I'd regret it if the Patriots got to the Super Bowl and I had turned down the chance to play. I put my trust in the Lord, because he's in control."

But Kinchen's faith had been severely tested.
"I was doing things I've never done in my life," he said.
There was a high snap in the playoff game against Tennessee, and more struggles during practice last week.

"I was playing mind games with myself," he said. "I was scaring Bill half to death. I just couldn't compose myself."
Then, just hours before the game against Carolina Sunday, Kinchen sliced his finger while cutting a piece of bread. The deep wound was on the inside of the finger next to his right thumb, just the finger necessary to grip and control the ball on snaps.

He said, "I prayed consistently. I kept saying, though, 'Father, why are you doing this to me.'"
But the struggles continued. He bounced a snap that punter Ken Walter scooped off the ground. There were two extra-point snaps that skidded to Walter, the holder for kicker Adam Vinatieri.

Scott O'Brien, Carolina's special teams coach, was Kinchen's coach in Cleveland.

"He wasn't going to make it easy for me," Kinchen said. "He put me through the ringer. My old special teams coach made sure they tried to beat me up. I was knocked loopy and cross-eyed after one extra point.

"To say the least, it was a rough day. I was struggling mentally. Bill just told me to get tougher, to get it done. And I was never tentative."

So it was that Vinatieri, Walter and Kinchen came on the field with 9 seconds showing on the clock with a chance to make history. The Panthers called time out, and Kinchen acknowledged, "It may have been just as much to ice me as it was for Adam. I can tell you, God was never out of my thoughts."

He couldn't afford to have thoughts of long snapper Trey Junkin, who came out of retirement last year and cost the Giants a playoff game against San Francisco. Or the Colts' Justin Snow, who snapped one over punter Hunter Smith's head in the AFC Championship Game.

Heck, Kinchen had some encouraging words for Snow after the Patriots' victory.

"After all," Kinchen said, "in this league, at this position, you can never be a hero. You could always be a goat. All of us are brothers."

But he was alone with his thoughts Sunday. This was the Super Bowl, and the game was on the line. Being a goat was not part of his thinking.

"I just focused on doing what I always do," he said and saved his best for last.

Said Walter, "You're only as good as your last kick, or your last snap and that last snap was absolutely perfect. The laces were out, and the ball was right where my hands were. Perfect. Now he can walk off into the sunset."
It was a relieved Kinchen that asked this columnist to snap a picture with him and his four sons (Austin, 14; Hunter 11; Logan 8 and McKane 4) in front of his locker.
"It's a tough deal, coming out of retirement when there is so much pressure," he said. "Tougher than I thought it would be."

Any thoughts of playing again dissipated quickly.
"I'm done," he said. "Put that in stone, especially after everything I went through this week."

He'll savor the victory, and go back to teach again as a champion, just as his father Gus was in 1958 at LSU, the last time until last month they were national champions.
When he arrived in New England seven weeks ago, Kinchen thought, "I could see right away there was something special here."

Back in the real world, the kids of Parkview Baptist, which include his sons, know they have something special, too.

Howard Balzer is a columnist for USA Today Sports Weekly.

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