WESTFIELD – On one field, rookie linebacker Darius Leonard was making plays, as he has throughout this early portion of training camp. Rookie receiver Deon Cain was high-pointing passes, doing things you wouldn't normally expect from a sixth-round pick. And then, in 1-on-1 drills, first-rounder Quenton Nelson was showing why he was chosen sixth overall, absolutely stonewalling pass-rushers, who barely took a step toward the quarterback before they ended up in Nelson's clutches like he was Human Velcro.
On another field, there was Adam Vinatieri, doing the things he's done throughout his Hall of Fame-worthy career, bisecting the goalposts from every imaginable distance.
"I just hope I'm still alive when he retires,'' offensive lineman Jack Mewhort joked. "He's ageless, timeless, all those things. The greatest of all time.''
I'm watching Vinatieri when it occurs to me: The young men I named in the first paragraph, all of them rookies, were 1-year-old (or younger) when Vinatieri went to his very first training camp with the New England Patriots in 1996. On a rebuilding team that is filled with question marks in virtually every position group, Vinatieri is the Colts' sure thing, the first homegrown free agent general manager Chris Ballard signed this offseason. Twenty three years. Forty-five years old. Someday, he will be in Canton, a place where very few kickers find themselves but that won't be for a very long time.
Vinatieri, who is taking it year by fabulous year, is going to kick until his body says he can't kick at a high level any longer.
"And this is camp number…?'' somebody jokingly asked Vinatieri.
"Nine million, I think,'' he said with a smile. "Probably.''
Give or take a millennium.
It's actually his 23rd camp but this one is a little bit special. See, his son Adam, Jr (AJ they call him) is working the early portion of this camp as a team ball boy. AJ, who kicks and plays some defensive line, is heading to Carmel High School soon as a freshman, giving his dad the rare opportunity to truly share his passion with his son. There aren't many athletes who stay in their given sport long enough to have their children watch and appreciate what they do, but Vinatieri's kids have a chance to witness and be a part of a career that is astonishing in both its longevity and enduring brilliance.
"Yeah, it is cool, having him come out and see what life is like on the sidelines of an NFL camp,'' Vinatieri said Saturday. "He's learning, hanging out with Rob (Mathis, the pass rush coach), learning some defensive line stuff, picking up some bags. But it can't be all fun. He's got to work. He's got to earn his keep. But it's fun to have him out here. I hope he learns something… I told him to go stand next to Rob the entire practice; he should probably bring a notepad and take notes. You'll probably learn more from him than you can learn in a lifetime.
"…I had kids a little later in my career, and one of my goals was to have my kids old enough to remember their dad playing. It's kind of a cool thing.''
This figures to be a special season for Vinatieri, at least individually. Currently, he is just six field goals shy of tying Indy-native Morten Andersen for the most field goals made in league history (565). He is also just 57 points shy of tying Andersen for the most points scored (2,544) in NFL history.
Barring injury, he's a dead-solid lock to tie and then exceed both numbers this season, then figures to have a number of years to pull away and hide with all the all-time marks. Let's put it simply: If Vinatieri does not reach the Hall of Fame, they should pad-lock the place. At the very least, if he doesn't get inducted, another kicker never will wear the gold jacket.
Let's just say Vinatieri isn't fixated on the record, not just yet. He's thought about it; of course, it's crossed his mind. But it's not what inspires him.
"Hopefully it's this year,'' he said with a smile. "I've sat and thought about that, and honestly, my only concern is helping us win games. If the season goes like it should, all that other stuff will take care of itself. It's not a thing I'm thinking about a whole lot but it's one of those things that should happen if we stay healthy and kick well.''
He is not just hanging on to break records, though. He's still elite, which is an amazing thing to note for a 45-year-old player in a young man's game. There's been no slowing down, no going quietly into that good night. One year ago, he made 29-of-34 field goals (85.3 percent), which was a bit higher than his career average of 84.3 percent. And as you'll no doubt remember, he likely would have made 90 percent or better if the Colts hadn't run into a blizzard in Buffalo, a situation that was made even more difficult by Chuck Pagano's game mismanagement in the final minute of regulation.
Instead of running a play that would have allowed Vinatieri to kick from a spot that had previously been cleared of snow, the Colts screwed it up completely, as was too often the case during the Pagano tenure. He missed while kicking out of a snowbank, the Bills ultimate scored a touchdown in overtime and the Colts offered up yet another interesting way to lose a winnable football game.
From the beginning of the offseason, Ballard wanted Vinatieri back in Indianapolis but Vinatieri needed to see a few things before he re-committed here. Like, um, changes. Understand, he wasn't alone there. By season's end, there were several players who rolled their eyes at some of Pagano's moves. Vinatieri wanted to see that Ballard, who ultimately hired Frank Reich, was moving the franchise in the right direction.
Once that was done, Vinatieri happily and enthusiastically returned.
"I love the excitement, I love, really love, the enthusiasm they're bringing,'' he said of the new coaching staff. "For the most part, we've got a really young coaching staff. You see guys running around and coaching – you know, physically coaching – grabbing guys and bumping guys, it helps elevate the practice. Experience is one thing, but the youthful side is really exciting.''
Now, how long will he keep kicking? Every year we ask and every year he responds in kind – When I can't kick at a high level, that's when I'll hang them up. We'll take it year by year.
Still, I wondered Saturday, will he be one of those rare athletes who knows when it's time to say goodbye? Most athletes have to be dragged kicking and screaming off the field of play, insistent they still have some good days yet to come. Vinatieri, though, thinks he'll know when it's time – and no, it's not yet time and probably won't be for a while yet.
"I just hope my physical talents last long enough for me to make the decision,'' he said. "I still feel like I can kick a decent ball right now, but at some point, your body will fail you. I hope (I know it's time to retire) just before that. But for sure, it's hard to know. I know my body has changed to the point where I know I've got to do a lot more work to kick. It's like we're out here at practice for two hours, I'm thinking, 'My back is stiff.' 'Hey, Rigo (Sanchez), is your back stiff?' 'No, not really.' 'Ahhh, you're 20.' It just means more time with trainers, doing more stretching. I spend an hour to an hour and 20 minutes getting ready to kick a football.
"I remember (Pat) McAfee, he'd do this'' – Vinatieri touched his toes – "and he'd say, 'Yep, let's go' and then start kicking. It drove me crazy."
"I don't ever want to be a liability for my team. I always want to be an asset. When I see my team getting better and making changes, it's hard to even think about being done. When you go, 'We're going to be good this year, we're going to be good next year, we're building something,' I want to be there for the end. I don't want to watch it from my couch.''