If anything, it's
Vanderjagt's modesty, not his immodesty, that's gotten him into trouble. Time
and again he has been asked a question and has answered candidly, forgetting
that he's not just Mike from Ontario--he's a prominent athlete whose words
travel fast. For all his unsurpassed kicking, many still know him as the
"idiot kicker," the term memorably coined by Peyton Manning in February
2003 after Vanderjagt questioned Manning's mettle. "I know the public
perception: He speaks too much, his teammates don't like him," Vanderjagt
says. Does it bother him? "Who doesn't generally want to be liked?"
athletes who fail
to execute the Big Play tend to go through their own permutations of the stages
of grief. Vanderjagt immediately took ownership of the botched kick. "I'm a
professional, not some nimrod who can't handle adversity," he says. "I
should have made that kick. It felt good, I wasn't nervous. I just didn't do
it." Next, he tried to leaven his failure with self-deprecating humor. The
Thursday after the game he appeared on the show of a suffering Colts fan, David
Letterman. With Letterman holding, Vanderjagt attempted a 46-yarder on a street
in midtown Manhattan. This time, naturally, he struck it dead perfect.
multiple sources, the appearance enraged Indianapolis president Bill Polian, an
old-school executive who'd never been fond of Vanderjagt's extra-football
antics. (Polian declined comment.) This was the last straw. Polian informed
Vanderjagt that the team would not pick up his option, then went out and signed
the New England Patriots' Adam Vinatieri, effectively trading the league's most
accurate kicker for its most clutch. The Colts' message was clear: It's not
just how many you make, it's when you make them. "I think [Polian] took me
for granted," Vanderjagt says. Then the humility kicks in. "But look,
Vinatieri is money. They probably won't miss me with a guy like Adam."
It's funny, but
since his divorce from the Colts, everything--mirroring the trajectory of that
wretched kick--has broken right for Vanderjagt. The Indianapolis teammates the
world was led to believe despised their idiot kicker called to wish him well.
"We loved Vandy," says running back Edgerrin James, now with the
Arizona Cardinals, who co-owns a Florida sports bar with Vanderjagt. "One
bad kick doesn't wipe out all the ones he made. People say, 'He cost us that
game.' We all lost it. It's not like we were winning when he went out
Then the Dallas
Cowboys called, offering a three-year, $5.5 million deal. Desperate to upgrade
their kicking game (last season three kickers combined to miss eight of 28
field goals), the Cowboys hit the right note when they made Vanderjagt feel
wanted. "We have a chance to have a better field goal situation," says
Dallas coach Bill Parcells. "That would be an understatement."
Vanderjagt claims he and Parcells have a "great relationship" and his
new teammates have been "unbelievably great." As Vanderjagt speaks, his
feet are sprawled on a coffee table, the maximum distance from his mouth. But
later his bravado returns: "I'm the best kicker in the history of the game
regardless of whether I missed my last kick or not," he says, "and
that's the way I look at it."
months after the fact, Vanderjagt still hasn't completely shooed away the
memory of that kick. He spent the off-season mostly at his home in Kilbride. He
played basketball on his indoor court and worked out in his basement gym. At
night he and his wife, Janalyn, watched their seven-year-old son, Jay, play
soccer. Vanderjagt was a world removed from NFL Sundays in the States. Still,
the reminders of his last kick were abundant. Some weeks ago he was playing
golf with his buddies and dogged a putt. "Another wide right," one
quipped. Vanderjagt wasn't laughing.
You could say
that after an unmistakable failure, the NFL's most successful kicker
has--finally--been humbled. But maybe the guy's just acting naturally.