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Tim Graham: Stephen Hauschka empathizes with inspiration Adam Vinatieri on tough day for kickers

Tim Graham

Still hanging on a wall in Stephen Hauschka's childhood bedroom in Needham, Mass., is a faded photo autographed by Adam Vinatieri.

Hauschka was 16 years old when the moment was etched in New England sports history: Vinatieri's 23-yard field goal that beat the Oakland Raiders in sudden death, sent the Patriots to the next playoff round and propelled them to their first Super Bowl title.

In the image, Vinatieri's right foot has just struck the ball out of Ken Walter's hold. Raiders defensive tackles Grady Jackson and Josh Taves, cornerback Anthony Dorsett and safety Johnnie Harris are airborne and reaching desperately toward the night sky to block the kick. Defensive end Tony Bryant is shoving Patriots lineman Grant Williams backward.

And if you didn't know the kick was good, then you would have figured it out by Vinatieri's large silver signature, underlined by the crossbar.

"The defensive linemen are at their maximum leap," said Hauschka's father, Peter, "and it looks like the ball is never going to clear their hands.

"Vinatieri looks very small with that wall of defenders in front of him. It shows the obstacles a kicker is facing when he's trying to make a kick. That one had every obstacle you can think of, but he just made the kick."

In a treacherous whiteout Sunday afternoon, with the visibility nil and the footing worse, Stephen Hauschka steeled himself for the likelihood he would need to outperform Vinatieri on New Era Field's arctic turf.

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Hauschka and Vinatieri are among the best kickers this year. Hauschka might be the Buffalo Bills' most valuable player. Vinatieri, in his 22nd NFL season and 12th with the Indianapolis Colts, could be a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

Three days earlier, Hauschka savored a matchup that would give a lesser competitor the jimmy leg.

"What better place to play against probably the best of all-time, one of the great clutch players this game has known," Hauschka said at his locker stall, "than here in the snow?"

Hauschka was a freshman at Division III Middlebury College in Vermont when his dad bought the Vinatieri photo online and had it framed as a Christmas gift. At the time, Stephen never had been on a football team in his life.

But he took the photo to his dorm room after the holiday break, and, while struggling to make Middlebury's soccer team, his gridiron buddies convinced him to switch sports.

Hauschka finished his neuroscience degree while showing he was a quick study at kicking footballs. An NCAA rule allowed him to transfer for his remaining season of eligibility. North Carolina State gave him a shot, and he led the Atlantic Coast Conference with an 88.9 percent field-goal rate.

Hauschka considered becoming a dentist, his mother's and brother's profession, before pursuing pro football in earnest.

Peter, who once earned a kicking and punting contract out of a Dallas Cowboys open tryout, is a retired orthopedic surgery researcher at the Children's Hospital in Boston and Harvard University professor. He graduated from Amherst High in 1960, while his father, Theodore, was head of experimental biology at Roswell Park Cancer Institute.

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Instead, Stephen Hauschka finds himself involved in psychology, a science successful kickers must master.

There were plenty of head games for Hauschka and Vinatieri to fend off Sunday.

One of Hauschka's instructors was Hall of Fame kicker Morten Andersen. The NFL's all-time scoring leader (Vinatieri is second) worked with Hauschka in 2010, when the Atlanta Falcons signed him.

"One of the big things is to be patient and let the game come to you and not try to force situations," Andersen said by phone Friday afternoon. "I would get a little overanxious and force issues in my younger days. I would think, 'Man, I hope I get a kick on the first drive and get off to a good start and have a good game.'

"Not letting these thoughts dictate how you're going to play the game are important because you're playing for three hours and might get situations in the second half you need to be prepared for and not wishing and forcing situations that are not realistic, that are made up in your mind."

Hauschka's duel with Vinatieri never came to be, although there was a clear winner.

Vinatieri couldn't replicate his Patriots snow-globe magic from 16 years ago -- a 45-yard field goal to force sudden death and the 23-yard winner -- in conditions he claimed were worse Sunday because of the winds.

He missed two field goals, a 33-yard attempt that went wide right in the first quarter and a 43-yard try that drifted left with one second left in regulation.

Had Vinatieri's final kick been good, the Bills would've been all but eliminated from the postseason race. Vinatieri and Arizona Cardinals kicker Phil Dawson are the NFL's last two players who were active when the Bills last made the playoffs.

On each miss, the Colts didn't call a timeout to let the field-goal unit help Vinatieri scrape a bald patch to kick from. Sunday was the first time in a decade Vinatieri missed multiple field goals without a conversion.

"You were going to slip no matter what," Hauschka said. "You weren't going to be able to take your full steps. Timing was going to be slow. So it was just finding a way to hit it through the uprights.

"The normal cadence of the game was gone. All thinking had to go out the window. You just had to kick the ball and hope."

Vinatieri did, however, make a dramatic 43-yard extra point to force overtime. Offensive pass interference wiped out a two-point conversion and pushed the spot back too far for Colts coach Chuck Pagano to try again. Vinatieri's kick started wide right -- on purpose because of the gusting winds -- and swerved inside the upright.

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Hauschka set the NFL record this year for making the most consecutive attempts from 50-plus yards. But the Bills needed to get him much closer than that Sunday.

Hauschka thought he would get his chance to win the game in overtime. The Bills appeared willing to position the ball for a field goal on the Colts' 18-yard line with 1:46 to go.

"There's no such thing as a gimme on a day like that," Vinatieri said in the visitors' locker room. "I don't care how close it is."

Bills running back LeSean McCoy ripped off a 21-yard inside run for a touchdown, leaving Hauschka on the sideline.

"That's the hard part of it," Hauschka said. "I was locked in. I was ready to go. I wanted to kick. That's just part of the game. Even a game that doesn't come down to the end, it still takes a day or two mentally to let it go.

"On a personal level, I would love to have that opportunity, but I'm thankful our team got the job done. That's more important."

Not a signature win, but Hauschka will take it.

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