INDIANAPOLIS — Back when he was at Madison (Miss.) Central High School, Stephen Gostkowski was a pitcher. A good one, too. During his prep career, he had a 16-2 record with an ERA of 1.00, in the process earning a baseball scholarship to the University of Memphis. He wound up pitching for the Tigers as both a starter and reliever for all four seasons of his college career.
Gostkowski never played baseball professionally, but the lessons learned playing hardball in the summer have helped him in his current career as the Patriots' placekicker. Though he's using his right leg instead of his right arm, the skills developed in his youth on the mound have helped Gostkowski become one of the NFL's best kickers.
"I think playing multiple sports and having success, being able to focus mentally, how to react to different situations in different sports, you can carry it over," Gostkowski said Thursday. "Just being able to adapt with different situations in different sports. You can take the positives from past experiences and take it into account to what I do now."
Like a reliever coming out of the bullpen with the tying runs on base, kickers often enter pressure situations with no wiggle room to escape. They must find their rhythm, locate their spot and do their job effectively without any hiccups. Do that successfully and both types of players can be turned into heroes. Fail, and the game could be lost and the player will be blamed, whether it's their fault or not.
The Patriots liked Gostkowski's baseball background when they made him a fourth-round pick in 2006. Now, they are relying on him to come through when needed against the Giants in Super Bowl XLVI. The kicker made nearly 84.8 percent of his field-goal attempts this season, along with all 59 of his point-after tries. His kickoffs resulted in touchbacks almost 40 percent of the time, a key in a game that could come down to field position. And though he never even had to attempt a field goal in the final two minutes of a half in 2011, the team fully trusts its kicker to make a clutch three-pointer when needed.
"I've never questioned his ability," Patriots OT Matt Light said about Gostkowski. "He's been a huge part of a lot of our games, a lot of us winning. I got no issue with him, when he's on the field I feel pretty confident."
Similar to a pitcher aiming for his catcher's mitt, kickers aim for targets when they line up for field goals. Gostkowski spent Wednesday afternoon in Lucas Oil Stadium, preparing for Sunday night by examining all the banners hanging from the rafters, the signage around the building and the lights from the scoreboard. He kicked from various areas of the turf and figured out the routine he wants to use when called upon against the Giants.
"I don't think you can ever simulate the pressure of a Super Bowl relative to practicing. You can just go through the situations that may come up in any game," said Scott O'Brien, New England's special-teams coach. "The only thing we can do is go through it, put him in situations that might come up. So, when they do come up, they've been there before, they've practiced it, and they just have to focus on their techniques and what they got to do."
Gostkowski hasn't kicked in a dome since Jan. 3, 2010, when the Patriots finished the 2009 regular season in Houston. The kicker said he has learned that kicking in each stadium is different, so figuring out how the ball carries and the changing sight lines of every indoor building is important. Especially when the Lombardi Tophy is on the line.
"The more you've been around, it helps you out, because you've been there, done that," Gostkowski said. "Just need to get comfortable with the surroundings and let it rip."
The Patriots know something about clutch kicks, especially when it comes to Super Bowls. In all four of New England's previous Super Bowl appearances under head coach Bill Belichick, the final score has had a margin of three points. In two of them — vs. the Rams in 2002 and the Panthers in 2004 — PK Adam Vinatieri made field goals as time expired to win the game. In 2005, vs. the Eagles, Vinatieri's kick in the middle of the fourth quarter provided the eventual difference. And four years ago, when they faced the Giants in Super Bowl XLII, both teams scored a pair of touchdowns, but only New York's Lawrence Tynes made a field goal in a 17-14 upset win.
Gostkowski said he's not even thinking about having to come in with the game hanging in the balance. Instead, his only focus is on winning a ring.
"This game is a team game and it's about winning a championship. If they need me to kick five field goals and the game-winner, that's great. If they need me to kick five extra points, that's great. I'm ready, and anything can happen in each game," he said. "The toughest thing about this position is that you don't know what situations you'll be put in. You can't make your own opportunities. You have to take advantage of the ones that you get, the best that you can."
No longer a pitcher, Gostkowski has reached the big stage thanks to the strength in his leg. With millions of people watching Sunday, the Patriots' placekicker has a chance to be a hero just by doing his job. All he has to do is settle into his routine and do what he does best.
"Although the stage might be bigger," Gostkowski said, "the goal posts are the same size.
"I just want to play well and I want to win."
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