(Editor’s note: This story was originally published on Oct. 9, 2019. Vinatieri retired on Wednesday.)
Vinatieri earned all the praise because it was his right foot that put the ball through the uprights. The forgotten player in those situations is the holder. About the only time they were talked about is when they didn’t get the ball down in time, or when the laces weren’t facing outward.
Vinatieri has attempted 701 field goals, 882 extra points and scored 2,633 points during his 24-year NFL career that will end with him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame after beginning his professional career playing in NFL Europe. And he has had only eight holders — all of whom were punters — during that span. One of those holders — Jeremy Kapinos — held for Vinatieri in one game during the 2010 season when Pat McAfee served a one-game suspension.
ESPN caught up with the other seven holders to get their stories on what it was like to work closely for the NFL’s all-time leading scorer, kicking for the Patriots and Colts.
Tom Tupa (1996-98)
Vinatieri’s rookie season with the Patriots in 1996 almost didn’t reach a second season in New England after then-coach Bill Parcells told him he was “week-to-week” because of his inconsistent play.
“Adam had a tough battle because the history Parcells had. We didn’t know a kid coming from such a small school (South Dakota State) would be able to handle that. That’s some serious pressure, especially when dealing with Parcells. Coach Parcells enjoyed putting pressure on you. He would stand right next to you, right behind you all the time while you were kicking. He wanted to see how you reacted with that sort of pressure being on you. Like every kick mattered. That was Bill; he’d do things that you wouldn’t be too happy about. But it was all about getting the best out of you. Adam came in and did his job. He took it serious and won out.”
Lee Johnson (1999-2000)
Part of the reason why Vinatieri has been so good throughout his career is due to how competitive he is. He takes it personally every time kickers are brought in, even if it’s during training camp or offseason workouts.
“The amazing thing about Adam during my era was how he could do so good on terrible turf. I was a kicker all through my years in college and partially in the NFL but, man, that guy was masterful at his ability on ground that wasn’t steady. Being a kicker, I would put my finger down and see where I’d have to put the ball and I was always telling myself I don’t know how this guy is going to make this kick based off how bad the turf was. The ball would go through the uprights and I’d be like, ‘Holy s—, how did this guy do that?’ It was spectacular. I always felt horrible because one of the last holds I had for him was a 45-yarder and I could not get the laces around and I kind of spun it right in the middle of the kick and he missed the kick. I felt like I screwed up one of the greatest kickers of all time. He said nothing at all about it. I was more pissed than him.”
Ken Walter (2001-03)
Vinatieri’s career took off during his time with Walter as his holder, including nailing two kicks in a blizzard in the same playoff game and making two game-winning Super Bowl kicks to start the Patriots dynasty. Vinatieri’s work ethic impressed Walter.
“Adam was a tough son of a b—- in the weight room. He was putting up over 350 pounds on the bench. That mentality of loving the weights, that transferred to the field and longevity.
2001 AFC divisional playoff game, Jan. 19, 2002
“With the Raiders game, the rule of thumb when weather is like that, leave the laces where it’s at. If I jack around with the ball in that weather it’s too difficult and it slows the process down. In the snow that day, you couldn’t see anything, we’re guessing where 8 yards was, and we needed every yard possible with it being a 45-yard attempt. When we get to the game winner on the chip shot, the snow was piling up. I love [Oakland coach] Jon Gruden to death, but he made the biggest mistake of his career in my opinion by calling a timeout to allow us to clear the snow. Adam already made one in the snow from a further distance. Then he calls a timeout to give us time to clear a spot. That was too easy.”
Super Bowl XXXVI
The Patriots weren’t supposed to be competitive against the Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI. They entered the game as a 14-point underdog. But there they were with the opportunity to win the title if Vinatieri could make the 12th winning kick — including the second in the playoffs that season — of his career. Quarterback Tom Brady led the Patriots on a seven-play, 53-yard drive to the Rams’ 30 with 7 seconds left.
“We’re in a dome, so there’s not much to worry about when it comes to lining up. I didn’t have to open or close him. Once we got set, it was like, boom. That ball was down lightning quick and Adam puts it right down the middle. He starts to run a little bit forward, then I run up to him, grab him from behind and rip him forward. Face mask to face mask, guys are starting to jump on us and I just kept screaming in his face, ‘We’re world f—ing champs, we’re world f—ing champs.”
Super Bowl XXXVIII
With 4 seconds left in the game, Vinatieri needed to make a 41-yard field goal to break a 29-29 tie.
“We’re both jogging out for the game winner. We look at each other and give each other a fist bump and we’re thinking this is like déjà vu. Is this really happening again? It wasn’t that long ago that we were in position to have a game-winning kick in the Super Bowl. We get out there and to be honest with you, we were in a bad spot. The field [in Houston] was pretty ripped up. They used to bring the field in on pallets and there was a lot of seams. It was a mess. Just like you see the Patriots today, there’s sign language, there’s winking. That’s how we all operated there. It was in those tense moments, everybody had awareness of body language and what to do, what to change without yelling stuff. We had horrible footing, there was nowhere to put the ball and get a good spot. It was kind of like a hole. Carolina called a timeout to ice us, so we were happy. I had a nice little valley, nice little hump. Adam gave me the head nod to roll. Kick goes through. It was cool.”
Josh Miller (2004-05)
Miller was the Patriots’ version of Pat McAfee, a punter with a sense of humor. He tried to keep things loose with Vinatieri.
“The truest fact, mentally I like to think I’m like a Navy Seal who can pick up any skill. I’ve never seen another human being, whether you’re a pitcher, a golfer at the driving range, every swing, he wants to do well on. But every kick Adam took, he took personally. Even warming up, even one-stepping. Every kick had to be good. He was 100-percent laser-focused. Preseason, practice, games. Adam would watch every ball until it landed. He’s the guy who remembers his misses more than his makes. I live in a cartoon; I would always try to mess with him. He takes a step back, I’d hold his foot in practice or warm-ups. You can’t rattle this guy. It’s like golfing with a billionaire. He’s going to take your money. It was insane. The coolest thing other than never wasting a kick, he never ever blamed his holder. If there was a holder’s Hall of Fame, I’m not in the running. But he never, ever looked at me like, ‘What the hell are you doing?’ It was wet out, he pushed it, he pulled it and it was clearly my fault on the hold, he would never put the blame on me. I can take the title of the worst holder that he’s ever had. But not once did he blame or throw me under the bus.”
Hunter Smith (2006-08)
Vinatieri left New England after 10 seasons when the Patriots didn’t use the franchise tag on him. He told his agent at the time not to “screw around” after the Colts expressed interest in him.
“He was so good, and one of the things Adam did well as a kicker was that he allowed himself to be friends with his holder. You connect on a deeper level and have a better chemistry when a kicker allows himself to be like that. One of the things I really appreciated about Adam was there was a tremendous amount of trust he had in me. He wanted me to pick the spot always for him to have the ball on, which is a big deal because every other kicker I was with chose the spot themselves. He knew I would pick a good spot, so he let me do all the measuring and picking. Then he would take his spots from there. Adam, he pretty much made everything. The ones he missed, they weren’t really funny. I remember the very first game that I played with Adam, I held a game winner for him in Minnesota, it was early on. I remember being so little drama. We walked out on the field, he made it and we kind of just walked off. It was interesting because most kickers throw their hands in the air, freak out. Adam was like, this is what I do, I win games. It was cool because there was quite a bit of confidence from our specialists throughout our team that exuded from him. When you’ve done it so many times, done it at high levels, going out and kicking a game winner in the season opener isn’t that big of a deal for a guy like that.”
Pat McAfee (2009-16)
McAfee was Vinatieri’s holder the longest. He also replaced Vinatieri on kickoffs, which has allowed Vinatieri to extend his playing career. McAfee’s first time holding for Vinatieri on a winning kick happened Jan. 2, 2011 against the Titans. Vinatieri was attempting to make his 23rd game winner, a 43-yard kick with seconds remaining that would send the Colts to the playoffs.
“Before every kick, I viewed it as my job being his caddie to kind of keep it light no matter the situation is, I’m going to crack a joke. We’d talk about how bad the conditions were or how beautiful the day was or which drunk guy we’re aiming for in the crowd behind the uprights. I started to crack a joke on that day by saying, ‘OK baby, here we go.’ He says nothing back. Straight crickets. I felt like I was talking to a stone-cold crowd. I said another thing. Nothing. Then finally I just shut up. Normally right before a kick when he takes his steps back, I’ll look down to see if the snapper was ready. Then I would look back at Vinnie and say, ‘You ready, old man?’ I said that before every single kick. He would respond out loud, ‘Yep’ with a head nod. There was not a word said on this one. He’s just staring through me. It was that moment in time when I said, ‘This is why he’s the most clutch human in the history of sports.’ That moment was such a huge kick and he got so locked in to a zone that I don’t think a lot of humans can get to.”
Sanchez beat out Jeff Locke to be McAfee’s replacement in 2017. The only issue with that was Sanchez had never been a holder at any level. And to earn Vinatieri’s trust, he picked McAfee’s brain. There was no bigger hold than on the afternoon of Oct. 28, 2018, in Oakland when Vinatieri broke Morten Andersen’s record of 2,544 points to become the NFL’s all-time leading scorer.
“I didn’t have to tell him anything. He knew, we knew, the whole sideline knew. It was amazing just to know I was going on the field to get that special moment for Adam. It was all him, obviously. He’s been doing it so long. But to be the holder, I can’t lie, was something special. It was crazy to go out on the field. Inside I was like, ‘Yes, let’s go,’ after the ball went through. This is awesome. I had some family members because the game was in California and I’m from there. I told them after, ‘You guys understand what you got to witness history.’ It was a big, big deal. Adam is definitely a real humble guy. Really down to earth. It was really just another kick to him even though he knew what was about to happen when — not if — he made it. It was a crazy moment.”