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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.
According to 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 there."
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."
Truthfully, seven 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.