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BOSTON (CBS) – On the first Sunday of his eighth season in the NFL, Stephen Gostkowski lined up just beyond the 25-yard line, about 25 minutes by car from the place he lived during the first eight years of his life.
Already, Gostkowski had kicked two field goals, the second with 10:48 remaining to draw his New England Patriots within 21-20 of the Buffalo Bills. Now, with nine seconds left, he was summoned for another.
With more than a dozen family members sitting inside Ralph Wilson Stadium, Gostkowski cued snapper Danny Aiken and holder Ryan Allen. One delivered to the next and Gostkowski hit the game-winner for a 23-21 Patriots victory.
“It’s super exciting to get to walk off the field and you put the last points on the board. It’s very humbling,” said Gostkowski, who spent his early childhood in nearby Amherst, N.Y. “Finally, I get a game where I get like 16 tickets for family, and they get to see a good ending.”
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Even before it began, as he told Patriots.com reporter Brian Lowe, Gostkowski had a good feeling during warm-ups. He then validated that confidence from 48, 33 and, lastly, 35 yards out.
“It was a fun game, fun to be involved in and have an effect on the outcome,” Gostkowski said. “We kick the ball thousands of times to get one kick in a game and when it pays off it makes it worth it.”
Only a month earlier, in New England’s preseason opener at Philadelphia, Gostkowski missed two of his three attempts. The following week at home vs. Tampa Bay, he failed again; albeit as his 50-yard try caromed off an upright. At that point, Gostkowski was 2-for-5.
Errant attempts aside, he wasn’t in danger of losing his job; because Gostkowski hadn’t lost the faith of his head coach.
“I have confidence that he’s one of the best kickers in the league,” Bill Belichick said on a mid-August conference call.
There was plenty to support such an assertion. For instance, Gostkowski entered this season with a team-record .842 field-goal accuracy rate, which also ranks seventh-highest in NFL history.
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Gostkowski’s yet to experience the kind of iconic kicks that earned predecessor Adam Vinatieri his reputation as his specialty’s greatest clutch performer. He hasn’t been called upon in a postseason snow bowl or final seconds of a Super Bowl.
But he has helped put the Patriots on the NFL’s grandest stage. Twice.
As a rookie, his late field goal was the difference in an AFC Championship win at San Diego. Two years ago, he nailed all three tries as New England beat Baltimore, 23-20, in a conference title game that ended on a miss by his counterpart.
Most recently, there was Sunday’s hat trick at Buffalo. It made those Fridays in August seem so long ago.
To borrow from another position in another sport that Gostkowski knows well, preseason for him was like baseball’s spring training for a staff ace. Numbers are far less important than building strength and stamina for an opening-day start.
Gostkowski himself was a pitcher in college; good enough to be included on Conference USA’s All-Freshman team at Memphis. He too sees a correlation between the dual roles he played for the Tigers.
“There’s a lot, a lot more probably with a starting pitcher than a relief pitcher,” Gostkowski said early in training camp. “As a starting pitcher, you play once a week, which probably correlates to football, so you get one shot a week. If you pitch a bad game or miss a kick, you’ve got to wait a whole week to get out there again.
“It’s definitely mentally taxing…sometimes if I miss a kick, I don’t get another shot. That can eat at you if you let it.”
Sunday in his season debut, in front of family and friends, Gostkowki’s quality stuff in the bullpen translated in the game. For his last offering, he delivered a strike right down the middle.
Gostkowski won’t have to wait long to get out there again. He’ll work on three days’ rest Thursday against the New York Jets. The last time they visited Gillette Stadium, his 43-yard field goal forced overtime, where his 48-yarder provided the margin of a 29-26 victory.
But looking ahead, those makes are almost as irrelevant as preseason misses. Same goes for last Sunday’s heroics.
Like a pitcher’s next pitch, a kicker’s next kick is his most important. Miss it, and it can eat at you.
The journey to the Patriots for rookie receiver Kenbrell Thompkins has been well documented since his emergence in preseason. With good reason.
He’s gone from a teenager often in trouble to an undrafted free agent starter on Kickoff Weekend. One of the stops along the way from his native South Florida to adoptive New England, was El Camino College in Torrance, Calif.
It’s where Thompkins befriended Matt Simms, a transfer from Louisville and son of ex-NFL quarterback and current television analyst Phil Simms. Initially, the two teammates intended to continue their careers together at Tennessee, but a coaching change led Thompkins to choose Cincinnati instead.
Thursday night, they’ll reunite. Like Thompkins, Simms made an NFL roster as non-drafted rookie. He’s a backup quarterback for the Jets.
“Matt Simms, that’s my boy,” a smiling Thompkins said last week. “I haven’t heard from (him) in a while, but I’m definitely looking forward to speaking with him.
“I’m humbled to know the fact that he’s still playing, still living the dream as well. I actually had a chance to watch him play (in preseason) and thought he did a real good job.”
Bob Socci is in his first season as the radio play-by-play voice of the New England Patriots. You can follow him on Twitter @BobSocci.