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HAPPY FEET
Tim Layden
April 21, 2003
As exuberant as they are accurate, the three Argentine-born Gramatica brothers celebrate the American dream with their every kick
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April 21, 2003

Happy Feet

As exuberant as they are accurate, the three Argentine-born Gramatica brothers celebrate the American dream with their every kick

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The super bowl was nearly over, darkness falling over San Diego, when one brother found the other on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' jubilant sideline. Bucs kicker Martin Gramatica was wearing a freshly minted championship cap, ringlets of sweaty, dark brown hair spilling out the sides. Bill Gramatica, also a kicker, for the Arizona Cardinals, but on this day a commentator for ESPN International's Spanish-speaking audience, was holding a microphone, preparing to interview his older brother. It was a wildly improbable moment, freighted with nearly two decades of family history.

Martin's journey to the pinnacle of American football had taken him—and his parents and siblings—from his native Argentina to Miami to upstate New York to a small town among the orange groves of south central Florida, where Martin (pronounced mar-TEEN), Bill and youngest brother Santiago transferred their soccer skills to the football field by kicking a bloated ball over jury-rigged goalposts in a cow pasture behind their home. All three of them went on to earn football scholarships, and now Martin had kicked two field goals in the biggest game of all. Once he found Martin on the sideline after Tampa Bay's 48-21 win over the Oakland Raiders, Bill embraced his brother and told him that the entire family loved him and was proud of him. For Martin, the rest is a blur.

"It's all so hard to describe," he says, relaxing last month at his father's ranch in Dunnellon, Fla. "We were little boys in Argentina who-wanted to be soccer players. We had dreams, but not dreams like this. I'm asking myself now, 'Why me? Why has this all happened to my family?' "

It has happened to the 5'8", 170-pound Martin, 27, not only because he is the big brother in the first family of placekickers—leading the Gramaticas where the Gogolaks (Pete and Charlie), the Bahrs (Chris and Matt) and the Zendejases (Tony and Martin and their cousins Luis, Max and Joaquin) walked before them—but also because he possesses one of the most reliable legs in the NFL. In 2002, his fourth year as a pro, he made 32 of 39 field goal attempts during the regular season and frequently bailed out the Bucs' inconsistent offense. Twice in victories he accounted for all of Tampa Bay's points. In a 12-9 road win over the Carolina Panthers on Oct. 27, he followed a 32-yard field goal with fourth-quarter boots of 52, 53 and 47 yards. "A classic Gramatica game," says Bucs coach Jon Gruden. On Dec. 29, against the Bears in Chicago, Martin was 5 for 5 in a 15-0 victory that clinched a first-round playoff bye.

Martin missed just once in six postseason tries, and both of his Super Bowl field goals—from 31 and 43 yards—came early, when the game was still close. "After that, all I did was kick extra points the rest of the night," he says. "But I always say, I'd rather kick extra points than field goals any day."

Remarkably, Martin helped the Bucs win a title while kicking with two hernias that weren't discovered until a routine team physical on the day after the Super Bowl. He had surgery four days later. "I had no idea," he says. "My groin was bothering me all year, but two hernias?"

Bill, meanwhile, had a solid season in his second year with the struggling Cardinals, converting 15 of 21 field goal attempts, including a 42-yarder in overtime against the Detroit Lions on Dec. 8 that halted Arizona's six-game free fall after a 4-2 start. Santiago, a sophomore at South Florida, made good on 16 of 21 tries, with a long of 41 yards, for a fledgling Division I-A program that went 9-2.

There are subtle differences in the brothers' styles. Bill, 24, is 5'10" and 190 pounds, with a naturally powerful leg. Of the three, he is the only left-footed kicker, the byproduct of being moved to left wing on the boys' soccer team as a youth. The smaller, more slender Martin relies on leg speed and rhythm to generate his power. "Big leg in a little body," says Joe Marciano, Tampa Bay's special teams coach in Martin's first three seasons. "He's tiny, but he hits the ball with a Morten Andersen-type boom!" Santiago, 20, nearly six feet tall yet slender (175 pounds), is a hybrid of his brothers, not as strong as Bill, not as quick as Martin.

All of them rely on instinct and feel, using techniques they started learning on the soccer field as soon as they could walk. "None of us has ever had a kicking coach," says Bill. "None of us ever will." They talk several times a day by cellphone, helping each other manage the uncommon stress of kicking footballs. "You make it or you miss it," says Martin. "It's tough. You think about it all week. On Monday and Tuesday, I'm fine. Then it builds. By Saturday, I'm feeling it."

And when the balls pass through the uprights, the Gramaticas are not merely kickers. They are performance artists behind tiny face masks, punctuating their kicks with operatic celebrations, like the Argentine soccer heroes they grew up watching. At Kansas State, where Martin set a school record with 349 points over four seasons, he celebrated every one of his 54 field goals and 187 extra points as if it were the last kick of his life. He has carried that emotion into the NFL—Tampa Tribune photographer David Kadlubowski won an award for a picture of Martin celebrating wildly during a 2001 preseason game—and Bill has done likewise. "I know there are a lot of guys who think it's ridiculous, all the celebrations they do," says Denver Broncos kicker Jason Elam, "but I like watching them. You've got to enjoy your job."

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