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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.
Kickers, not 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 playing?"
Downgrade the 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.'"
Vanderjagt grew 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 meatpacking business.
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.