FOXBORO -- When Stephen Gostkowski arrived to Gillette Stadium as a fourth-round pick out of Memphis in 2006, he did so under the considerable shadow of Adam Vinatieri.
At the time, Vinatieri was 33 years old and already arguably the most clutch the game had ever seen. In his 10 years with the Patriots, he had kicked 18 game-winning field goals with a minute or less remaining on the clock. His 45-yarder through the wind and snow against the Raiders in the 2001 season's Divisional Round and his two Super Bowl game-winners made him an icon in New England and one of the franchise's most visible faces in the community.
Vinatieri was involved with the local D.A.R.E. program and the Governor's Highway Safety Bureau. He was a spokesperson for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Rhode Island. He was in Papa Gino's commercials, offering trips to "the big game" and autographed balls.
He was impossible to replace. But that was Gostkowski's task to bear.
How better to do it than to do what his predecessor did? No one would kick under pressure better than Vinatieri, but maybe Gostkowski could compile his own signature moments. Kicking game-winners would at the very least help guarantee the rookie his job. But it would also provide him with his own legacy, allow him to slip into the shoes vacated by the man who came before him.
"I remember my first couple years," Gostkowski said Thursday, "you’re just waiting and waiting and waiting for that moment. But you have no control over it."
Gostkowski got an opportunity to kick one game-winner in his first season, a 31-yarder in the fourth quarter against the Chargers in the Divisional Round of the playoffs. But since then, he hasn't been given a shot to take one of those monster pressure-packed walk-off kicks that seemed to arrive on an annual basis for Vinatieri.
The difference is now that Gostkowski's OK with that. He understands how it works and how rare it is to get those opportunities. He's not waiting and waiting and waiting any longer.
He's satisfied with what he's done with his own career, and with good reason.
Gostkowski has led the league in scoring three times. He's made a Pro Bowl. He's been named an All-Pro. And though he wasn't recognized with those honors this season, he was certainly deserving of them. He made big late-game kicks against the Bills, Texans, Jets, Dolphins, Broncos and Browns and finished the year 35-of-38 on his attempts to go along with 65 touchbacks.
Among kickers with five or more years of experience, Gostkowski's career field goal percentage of 85.6 percent ranks sixth all time -- a few points higher than Vinatieri (83 percent), who has had the benefit of playing his home games in a dome since he signed with the Colts in 2006.
Hoping to prove himself and help his team with late-game heroics no longer weighs on his mind. With age has come a realization that every kick matters.
"The times that I’ve gotten into situations where it’s in the fourth quarter, it’s a kick that you know if you don’t make it," Gostkowski said, "you’re not going to necessarily get another opportunity. I try to just treat it like any other kick. I’ve made kicks, I’ve missed kicks, and I’m still here."
Gostkowski was relaxed just two days before his next shot at playoff football. Hat backwards and sweats on, he spoke to a room full of reporters from the media room looking and sounding like a man comfortable in his own skin no matter what happens against Indianapolis.
He discussed at length his pregame routine, explaining that he watches his best kicks set to music the day before the game -- or sometimes the day of a game -- to give his confidence a boost. Later on the sidelines, he might be found visualizing those same kicks and singing that same tune.
Unabashed, he allowed the media a peak behind the Patriots pregame curtain to reveal a locker room mindset that sounded like something to which only a caricature of the men who play his position would subscribe.
"Most of those guys are banging heads, taking supplements before the game," Gostkowski said. "I’m trying to listen to Enya before the game to calm myself down.
"The worst thing you can do in situations where, for me personally, where the situation gets bigger, is get too excited. You have to try to slow your heart rate down, turn that nervousness and tightness into focus and if you just try to do that and do what you do on every other kick, then most of the time you’ll be successful. That’s just the approach that I take."
On Saturday night, the source of that considerable shadow, now 41 years old, will be in town and on the sideline opposite Gostkowski. But yesterday it sounded as though the Patriots kicker had never been farther from it.
Asked if he wanted to play into his forties, to do what Vinatieri has done, Gostkowski answered humbly but confidently, like a man unconcerned with judging his own career based on the achievements of another.
"I don’t know, man," he said with a smile. "I’m just trying to make it to the next game. Whatever I do is bonus. I had no idea I would even be in the NFL, let alone play eight years . . . This is all bonus."