If you’re a football fan, you’ve probably seen the kick by now. With 1:16 left in the fourth quarter during Week 14's NFL game between the Indianapolis Colts and Buffalo Bills, Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri drilled a 43-yard PAT in the middle of a snow storm to force overtime.
The 44-year-old Vinatieri is one of the most accurate – and clutch – kickers in NFL history. The four-time Super Bowl champion kicked the game-winning field goal in the final seconds of two of those Super Bowls. So imagine what it’s like for Chase Vinatieri, Adam’s nephew, to kick for South Dakota State – Adam’s alma mater – while sharing the same position and last name as his talented uncle. They also wear the same jersey number – No. 4.
The Jackrabbits are one of four teams playing in the FCS semifinals this weekend, competing for a spot in the championship game in Frisco, Texas. They’ll have the unenviable task of playing No. 1 seed James Madison, the defending national champion that’s riding a 25-game winning streak.
But to Vinatieri, his future Hall-of-Fame uncle is simply a talented family member, not an unwieldy burden of comparison or expectation, and kicking against James Madison, which is admittedly a “fantastic” football team, is like facing any other team.
“I don’t really think about (the comparisons to him) too often,” Chase Vinatieri said about kicking for South Dakota State with the last name of Vinatieri. “He’s had his fantastic career in the NFL and actually in college, he was a better punter than he was a kicker. but he’s had success and so I just don’t really think about that. I’ve kind of been on my own, I go and talk to him and see him and learn things from him, but myself, I’ve just been kind of my own person.”
“He’s family so we talk about what family talks about and we have fun and whatnot, so we put a little bit of time into business but a lot of the time it’s family time.”
So was it always no-brainer for a kicker named Vinatieri to attend South Dakota State?
In high school, Vinatieri received offers from South Dakota State and North Dakota State, who the Jackrabbits beat the last two seasons in the Dakota Marker Game – and could face in the FCS national championship if both teams win this weekend. The 6-1 high school kicker and wide receiver from Sioux Falls, S.D., ultimately chose South Dakota State with the opportunity to play both positions in college.
“You gotta earn your scholarship,” SDSU coach John Stiegelmeier said, laughing, “there’s no grandfathering in because you’ve got this guy in the NFL. It was a no-brainer for us because of his ability. He was up here as a (high school) junior at our camp, and striking the ball really well. He’s speed-wise, ability-wise, he’s a college wide receiver too, so just like Adam, a great athlete as a kicker.”
Vinatieri redshirted as a freshman and pursued both positions, splitting time between special teams meetings and offensive team meetings, but when he saw an opening to be the team’s kicker the following season, he retired his wide receiver gloves and switched full-time to being the Jackrabbits’ kicker, following in the footsteps of his uncle, as well as his father, Chad, who is a former kicker.
Although, the former receiver’s athleticism has come in handy. He scored the game-winning rushing touchdown against Montana State on a fake field goal in September, when the Jackrabbits left Bozeman, Mont., with a 31-27 win. Vinatieri also kicked a 47-yard field goal in the game, which was his career-long at the time.
If there was one aspect of his kicking he needed to shore up this season, it was his accuracy from distance. Vinatieri was 11-of-17 on his field goal attempts last season, while converting all nine of his tries inside of 40 yards.
He made the Missouri Valley Football Conference All-Newcomer Team as a redshirt freshman after setting a school record by making all 56 of his extra-point attempts. (Obvious reminder: Any kicking record at SDSU also includes Adam Vinatieri’s college career, so the younger Vinatieri has earned his own a spot in the school record books.)
This year Chase has begun to look like Adam on the field. He’s 12-of-13 on his field goal attempts, tying him for the best field goal percentage in the FCS at 92.3 percent. He’s improved his accuracy from distance by making all seven of his attempts beyond 40 yards, including a 55-yarder against Northern Iowa.
Vinatieri credits his improvement between the uprights with his improvement between the ears.
“I just kind of put myself in a better mental state this year than I was last year, I think,” he said. “I’ve been able to relax and have fun, kind of release a lot of the pressure that was kind of in my freshman year. It’s been a lot of fun this year.
“I’ll still look back and the ones that always haunt you and are always on your mind are the ones that you do miss but from there, you’ve got to move on and your biggest kick is your next one.”
Vinatieri has made big kicks in his young collegiate career. A 40-yard game-winner in the waning minutes of a 10-7 win against Villanova in last year’s playoffs. A game-winning, 43-yard field goal in overtime against Illinois State this season. He’s 5-for-5 in his career against rival North Dakota State.
“That kind of confidence goes through me to the whole football team, obviously,” Stiegelmeier said. “They know that when he goes on the field, he’s in a zone right now and he’s good from a long ways away and he’s good under pressure.”
Vinatieri said he won’t put any added pressure on himself with No. 1 James Madison lining up on the opposite sideline this weekend.
“It’s just another team to me. We’ve played NDSU year in and year out and they’re always at the top of the nation, too, so they’re a great football team. Don’t get me wrong, JMU is a fantastic football team as well. They’re a very good team, but I think we are too, so our competition is going to be high and it should be a good one.”
Points come at a premium against James Madison. The Dukes lead the country in scoring defense at 10.3 points allowed per game.
Stiegelmeier said the key matchup in Saturday’s game is SDSU’s offense against JMU’s defense.
“We’ve got a very productive, explosive offense and we’ve got some really good players, some guys have been recognized nationally,” he said. “They have an unbelievable defense that is stingy and it’s fast and aggressive and so I think that is the matchup that will have a huge impact in the game.”
Luckily for the Jackrabbits, they’ll have the most accurate kicker in the FCS this season on their side.
“You’re either the hero or the villain,” Vinatieri said, “and I’m always trying to be the hero.”