FOXBOROUGH — For more than half of the Patriots’ 54 football-playing seasons, one of three men has held the placekicking job. Gino Cappelletti had it for 11 seasons, Adam Vinatieri for 10, and Stephen Gostkowski is completing his eighth.
That’s 29 years, divided pretty evenly among three players. Not surprisingly, considering their longevity, they rank 1, 2, and 3 on the Patriots’ all-time points list. In fact, when it comes to all things kicking, those three dominate the franchise statistics, save for a Matt Bahr or a Jason Staurovsky sprinkled in there every now and then.
Based on their similarities and consistent success, there is a mutual respect among the three, since they’ve all walked in the same shoes. Those shoes have walked in every stadium the Patriots have called home: Cappelletti was with the team from 1960-70, when the Patriots played at Boston University, Boston College, Fenway Park, and Harvard Stadium; Vinatieri (1996-2005) was on teams that played at Foxboro Stadium and also Gillette Stadium, where Gostkowski (2006-present) has kicked.
As a member of the Patriots’ radio broadcast team for 32 years, Cappelletti got to know Vinatieri and Gostkowski, calling big moments for each, including three Super Bowl victories when Vinatieri was here. But since Cappelletti retired before the 2012 season, he won’t be in the booth Saturday night when Vinatieri and the Indianapolis Colts look to beat Gostkowski and the Patriots in an AFC divisional-round playoff game at Gillette.
But the 79-year-old Cappelletti will be watching closely.
“In my mind, and from what I’ve seen, they’re the two best kickers in the game,” Cappelletti said in a phone interview. “They’ve proven themselves, and that’s what you’ve got to do, you’ve got to prove yourself to be a kicker that can kick in the clutch. They’ve already done that, there’s no question.
“I can relate to those guys lining up for a kick. The only thing that was different was I was already on the field. I had maybe just caught a pass, but that’s the way the game was played at that time. It was no big deal.”
In Cappelletti’s era, rosters were much smaller and the need for two- or even three-way players was much greater; that is reflected in their scoring numbers. Unlike Vinatieri and Gostkowski, Cappelletti scored touchdowns — 42 of them in his Patriots career, to be exact.
When Cappelletti finished playing, he held every team kicking record — and remains the AFL points leader. Admired already for his on-field achievements, Cappelletti then became beloved by Patriots fans for his work in the booth, and he remains high on the short list of greatest contributors the franchise has known.
Without knowing much, if anything, about Cappelletti when they arrived in Foxborough, Gostkowski and Vinatieri soon learned plenty about the man who held their job long before they were even born.
“It’s remarkable how good of an athlete he was,” said Gostkowski. “I don’t think there’s many kickers that can go out and play a real position today, but I think it does take an athletic person to be able to kick.
“He kind of proves a point — guys that were doing it back in the day, you had to have a lot of skill. For someone that has done it all, played offense, defense, and kicked, to still have such a high regard for kicking and special teams . . .
“The things I’ve heard him say that are nice about me, it’s definitely touching, because you don’t have to go out of your way to do that.
“The times I’ve been able to interact with him, when we’re traveling, he’s always been very nice and complimentary. Any time you see a guy who’s been so established and accomplished and is a Patriots Hall of Famer, it’s an honor just to be able to talk to him.”
Said Vinatieri: “Great receiver, great kicker, great human being, just a wonderful guy. I had the fortunate opportunity to spend some time with him in the summers, met the family and that kind of stuff.”
A matter of style
It’s fair to point out that, despite the similarities, there are major differences due to the passage of time, trends, and technology.
In addition to playing receiver, Cappelletti also used the favored kicking style from the 1960s: coming at the ball straight on, using the toe of the shoe to kick. Vinatieri and Gostkowski, like every other current kicker, utilize the soccer-style method.
With the change, accuracy percentages have skyrocketed. Cappelletti converted just 176 of 333 field goal attempts, a success rate of 52.8 percent. That’s far lower than Vinatieri (83.0 percent) and Gostkowski (85.6 percent), who also have benefited from having the time to work exclusively with the other single-task specialists of long snapper and holder.
Vinatieri and Gostkowski have both taken records from Cappelletti. In his final season with the team, Vinatieri became the scoring leader, breaking a record Cappelletti had held for 26 years. Gostkowski added his name to the record book this season. His 158 points (38 for 41 on field goals, 44 for 44 on extra points) gave him the team’s single-season record, a mark Cappelletti had held since 1964.
“Records are certainly made to be broken,” Cappelletti said. “Adam broke a record of mine for total points, and I applauded him, and now Stephen has broken the record I had for a season, and I’m just delighted that they’re two great guys.
“You couldn’t ask for a better representation on a football team.”
Pressure is no problem
Vinatieri and Gostkowski will be on different teams Saturday, on opposite sidelines for the ninth time. The Patriots and Colts have met at least once every season since Vinatieri left following the 2005 campaign, with each team winning four games.
This playoff game could come down to either kicker. Two of last weekend’s four wild-card games were won with last-second field goals. It’s a situation Vinatieri has been in before, and while Gostkowski hasn’t been tested that way yet, he has mentally prepared himself for when the time comes.
Actually, he mentally prepares himself the same way no matter the game, or how much time is left in it.
“I’ll watch a five-minute cut-up of some big kicks that I’ve made to a song that I like,” said Gostkowski. “Just, like, little visual things, and then when I’m on the sideline, I’ll sing that song, and then in my head, I see the ball going through the uprights.
“I always just try to visualize myself doing well and not getting overexcited or too hyped up in the moment. The worst thing you can do in situations 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.”
It was that way for Cappelletti a generation ago. It’s been that way for Vinatieri and Gostkowski, too.
“Stephen looks as cool as any kicker I’ve seen, and he seems to relish the skill part of kicking,” said Cappelletti. “I’ve got to believe that he believes he’s very confident in his kicking, and it shows.
“For the Patriots to wind up with a guy like that, right after getting rid of probably the best kicker in the game in Adam Vinatieri, that was a great pick for the Patriots, I thought.
“After the fact, of course, it’s proving it to be a great pick.”