It had already
been a bizarre game, filled with everything that addicts us to sports. There
was drama and controversy and a spirited comeback by the home team. In the
waning moments there was an improbable fumble by a veteran star running back.
The ball was scooped up by a cornerback, but he allegedly had been stabbed in
the knee by his wife hours earlier--who the hell writes this stuff?--and,
perhaps as a result, was tackled in the open field by ... the opposing
quarterback. � But the kicker came when the kicker came. The Indianapolis Colts
were trailing the Pittsburgh Steelers 21--18 in the passion play masquerading
as an NFL playoff game when the Colts summoned Mike Vanderjagt to tie the
score. Vanderjagt was no mere placekicker; he was the most accurate
practitioner in NFL history. For his career he had cleaved the uprights on 217
of 248 field goal tries. And from his famously calling out the team's star
quarterback to his old habit of tucking a dollar bill under his wristband, a
handy reminder that he was money, Vanderjagt had never been shy about
projecting his success.
Here was the
ultimate chance to justify all that bravado and boldness. The attempt was a
46-yarder--no chip shot, but well within his range. Vanderjagt strolled onto
the field, radiating calm. Then, in what would be his last official act as a
Colt, he missed spectacularly. The kick, a Charlie Brown special, bounded
wiiiide right, alighting somewhere near Terre Haute.
the nfl kicker
leads a schizoid existence. Technically, he's a football player, but his duties
are thoroughly unlike everybody else's. Free from the violent choreography that
defines the sport, he can go weeks without even being touched. He performs an
essential skill, yet has virtually no job security. He gets to wear a jersey
but is less a member of a team than a member of a three-man assembly line. Even
the design of his helmet suggests otherness.
surprisingly, tend to be a conflicted bunch, perhaps none more than Vanderjagt.
At first blush he is all bluster and attitude. He sports a glistening diamond
stud in his left ear, streaks his hair and had the brass ones to ask out--and
eventually marry--a Colts cheerleader. Never having gotten the memo that
kickers are to be seen and not heard, he befriends (and confronts) position
players. Want attitude? Indianapolis coach Tony Dungy was once debating whether
to call on Vanderjagt for a late-game field goal. "Do you want to win
now?" the kicker barked to his boss, "or do you want to keep
charge of cocky to hyperconfident, and Vanderjagt pleads guilty. "I'm
trying to convince my teammates that I have their back, that it's O.K., I can
handle it," he says. "It's such a better environment than, Oh, jeez,
here comes Vanderjagt. You always want seven points, but I want everyone to
think, Here's Mike--at least we're getting three."
But look a little
closer at Vanderjagt, and his humility is almost as conspicuous as his swagger.
Even now, at 36, with a Pro Bowl selection to his name, he's not quite sure
what he's doing in the NFL. "People introduce me as a football player,"
he says, "and I say, 'You're using the term very loosely.'"
up outside Toronto, and if he had any ambition to play football, it was as a
quarterback. He didn't kick in college until his senior year at West Virginia.
After graduating in 1993, he spent three years getting cut, ritually, by
Canadian League teams. His first full-time job was kicking for the Minnesota
Fighting Pike of the Arena League. Finally, in 1996, Vanderjagt hooked on as
both a punter and a placekicker with the Toronto Argonauts, who won the Grey
Cup, the CFL's Super Bowl, that season. His divorced parents sat together in
the stands during that game, united by their son's success. He figured the day
would be the highlight of his career; soon he would join his father in the
In 1998, though,
the Colts invited him to a tryout. He didn't just win the job; he started
making kicks with uncanny accuracy. Long or short, indoors or outdoors, his
balls were plumb-line straight. He missed only four of his 31 field goal tries
that season. The following year he was even better, making 34 of 38. Then 25 of
27. At the end of last season Vanderjagt had converted an astounding 87.5% of
his career attempts, including an NFL-record 42 straight from December 2002 to
September 2004. It is the highest rate of accuracy ever.
At 6'5" and
211 pounds, Vanderjagt puts plenty of leg into his kicks. And coaches tell him
his mechanics--that up-down pendulum--are virtually flawless. But ask
Vanderjagt to explain his success and he is, uncharacteristically, short of
words. "I just happen to be a guy who knows how to kick a football between
two poles," he says, almost guiltily. "I don't know. I'm not a
technical guy, I'm not superstitious. I just kick."
Nine years into
the gig, Vanderjagt still has a Walter Mitty complex. His off-season home in
Kilbride, Ont., an idyllic spread on the shores of Lake Ontario, doubles as a
shrine to famous NFL players he's met along his improbable journey. When
Indianapolis receiver Marvin Harrison caught his 100th career touchdown pass
last October, Vanderjagt asked if he could have Harrison's gloves. "Uh,
sure, Mike," Harrison said, dumbfounded. They're now framed in Vanderjagt's
basement. "I still see myself as just Mike from Ontario," he says.