Thursday, March 09, 2006

The Greatest Jackrabbit...maybe

The greatest football player ever to come out of my alma mater South Dakota State is a placekicker, which you may consider pathetic if you went to a Division I-A school such as (for example) Colorado. But oh, what a kicker: Adam Vinatieri, Class of '95.

I have lived 10 miles from the New England Patriots' home in Foxboro since 1991. The first few years the Pats were awful and it didn't bother me when they got blacked out on TV because it meant a game involving better teams would be shown instead. But along about 1996, I started becoming more interested in the local team because (a) they were getting much more competitive under Coach Duane (Bill) Parcells and (b) they had an obscure kicker who happened to be from South Dakota State.

The kicker is no longer obscure. Vinatieri pulled off perhaps the most famous kick in NFL history four years ago during a blizzard. He followed it up with famous kicks #2 and #3 to win Super Bowls. He had a field goal that won a third Super Bowl but it doesn't qualify as all-time famous because it wasn't of the last-second variety. (Ho-hum.) Last season he set the team career scoring record, passing original Boston Patriot Gino Cappelletti. The South Dakota State guy is forever a New England hero even if he ends up playing for someone else this fall.

If the announcement comes that Vinatieri is leaving New England, no doubt the TV stations will play an assortment of his historic kicks again, but one play I wish they would show more often is from early in his career when he caught Herschel Walker from behind on a kickoff. Perhaps the tape shows something different, but in my mind's eye I see him coming from five yards off the pace and running down the swift former Heisman Trophy winner. Some say that's the play that convinced Parcells to keep Vinatieri on the team, and the rest is history.

The stereotype about kickers is they are little European soccer players who yell, "I keek a touchdown" after making a field goal, but Vinatieri was a real football player in high school. He played quarterback and linebacker for the Rapid City Central High School Cobblers, and kicking was just an additional chore. (Other notable Cobbler graduates include one of my brothers and my sister, 20 years before Vinatieri.)

It's inconvenient when facts don't quite fit the story line, but I should admit that Vinatieri is not a hands-down choice as the best Jackrabbit football player ever. Jim Langer, South Dakota State '70, was the starting center on the undefeated '72 Dolphins team and is in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. The annual award for the top Division II lineman is named after Langer. I'll still give the "Greatest Jackrabbit" nod to Vinatieri because Langer grew up in Minnesota and didn't go to high school with me or any of my siblings. Assuming Vinatieri gets into the Hall someday, how many other schools with a mediocre football history primarily in Division II (now I-AA) have two inductees?

In college football, North Dakota State is almost always better than South Dakota State, and it's a given that the University of Colorado is more powerful than either. But neither the Bison nor the Buffaloes have anyone in the Hall of Fame. Barring a late rush by someone such as Kordell Stewart (haha), Vinatieri's enshrinement in Canton will make it Jackrabbits 2, Native Bovines 0.

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