In the entryway of a small Italian restaurant in the back of a shopping plaza, the leading scorer in Colts history paces. He looks out through the front door and checks his BlackBerry. It's 7 p.m. on a fall Monday. He came here tonight, to the restaurant he’s owned for five years, to teach some football to the locals. He wants to talk about everything he learned in nine years in the league. "Bring a mate!" say the flyers on the door. "First drink free!" His name is known by millions. He played with some of the best ever, and some of the best ever looked to him to win games for them. More often than not, he did. But tonight, nobody wants to learn football from him. Nobody’s coming.
So Mike Vanderjagt heads to the back of the restaurant.
When he left football, three years ago, he was the most accurate professional kicker to ever play his position. Jan Stenerud, now in the Hall of Fame, made 66.8 percent of his tries. Vanderjagt made 86.5. Stenerud missed 47 kicks from 50 yards or longer; Vanderjagt missed 36 field goals in his entire career. He's 40 now, and although that's old for pretty much any athlete, it’s not old for a kicker. John Carney is still active at 46. Morten Anderson kicked until 47. And here's Vanderjagt, in game shape, planning to go out to a high school field the next day to boot a few. "I should be the kicker for the New Orleans Saints," he says, sipping a Pepsi. Vanderjagt was always blustery, but usually he was right. And let's face it: Lots of NFL teams have kickers worse than Vanderjagt.
So why is this man sitting here alone in a pizza place?
Some might think the answer comes down to two phrases: "idiot kicker" and "liquored up."
These four words were famously uttered in one sentence at the Pro Bowl in 2003 by Colts quarterback Peyton Manning. You remember: Vanderjagt had gone on Canadian TV and said he was down on his Colts team because Manning and the head coach at the time, Tony Dungy, weren't fiery leaders. "I'm not a real big Colts fan right now, unfortunately," Vanderjagt said. "I just don't see us getting better."
In the NFL, nobody rips on a teammate -- especially if the teammate is Peyton Manning. The quarterback became quite fiery indeed when ABC reporter and NFL Hall of Famer Lynn Swann asked him about Vanderjagt in Honolulu. "I'm out at my third Pro Bowl,” he told Swann. “I’m about to go in and throw a touchdown to Jerry Rice, we're honoring the Hall of Fame, and we're talking about our idiot kicker who got liquored up and ran his mouth off."
Did that comment seal Vanderjagt’s fate in Indy? Did it seal his fate in the NFL? “When I get home, I’ll deal with it,” Manning told Swann. “If he is still a teammate, we’ll deal with it. That remains to be seen.” But Vanderjagt remained a teammate for four more seasons after that.
So no, Vanderjagt is not out of the league for being an idiot kicker.
Some could point to Vanderjagt’s playoff miss in 2006 against Pittsburgh. The Colts were down 21-18 and Vanderjagt missed a 46-yarder wide right to doom his team’s best-ever shot at a Super Bowl (at that point). Once again, Manning’s words were damning, as TV cameras clearly caught him spitting, “He missed it,” as he watched from the sideline.
The Colts replaced him with the famously clutch Adam Vinatieri, who went on to win a Super Bowl with Indianapolis. Vanderjagt went to Dallas and missed five kicks – three off uprights -- but made more than 72 percent of his attempts that season. Bill Parcells still cut him.
And that was it. Vanderjagt hasn’t attempted a kick in the NFL since.
So if it’s not the comments in Canada, or the push against Pittsburgh, then what?
“My wife says I’ve been blackballed,” Vanderjagt says. “I tell her that’s not how the NFL works.”
He’s right. That’s not how the NFL works. Mike Vick murdered dogs and he’s now an NFL MVP candidate. Ben Roethlisberger was accused of sexual assault -- twice -- and he’s getting ready for another Super Bowl. The list goes on and on. The shining truth is this: If you are great at your job -- and even if you’re only better-than-average -- you will get chance after chance in the NFL.
Unless you’re Mike Vanderjagt.
So he’s here, at a pizza place he owns with his brothers. He’s not a recluse, but he’s pretty hard to find. Vandy’s Five Brothers restaurant is in one of the more remote places in the continental U.S. – at the far southwest tip of Florida. To get here, you have to drive two hours west from Miami, then 15 miles past signs warning of “Panther Traffic,” then over a bridge to Marco Island, whose population is a quarter of that of LucasOil Stadium on a home Sunday. And even then, Vanderjagt’s restaurant is tucked behind a grocery store, facing a little-used road and an alley. For snowbirds, Marco Island is paradise. For Vanderjagt, this is Elba.
“Am I in hiding?” he says. “In a way, yes.”
He wants no attention, even though he’s still as charismatic and eloquent as any football analyst. He wants no sympathy, even though he probably deserves it. He says over and over again that he’s out of the league because he “went from outstanding to mediocre.” He’s got a nice house and a lovely former cheerleader wife and an 11-year-old son named Jay (who, by the way, recently won a Punt, Pass and Kick competition). Vanderjagt readily confesses, “I was an idiot” for saying those things about his team. He has Manning paraphernalia all over his restaurant, and he says the two are long past their dust-up. He has some powerful things to say, that's for sure, but "Peyton did me wrong" is not one of them.
Vanderjagt has moved on.
He sits at a high-top away from the bar, in front of two magazine covers. The first features Peyton, and it's signed in black Sharpie. The second features Vanderjagt himself. "They darkened my eyes to make me look evil," he says. Of course that charge sounds like paranoid psychobabble. But Vanderjagt's eyes are light blue. On the magazine cover, they are almost black. The story inside is well-told and sympathetic -- hardly an effort to portray evil – but after sitting with Vanderjagt for two hours, it's hard not to think of the old joke about how you're not paranoid if they're really out to get you.
Vanderjagt says he has a three-page legal document in his Ontario home, signed by Peyton Manning, testifying that the "liquored up" comment was not truthful. He's not holding it as leverage. He's not going to sue. He’s not even going to show it to anyone. He just needs to know, for himself, that Manning realizes he said something false. “People need to know," he says, making eye contact and keeping it, “first and foremost, I don't drink. I was 198 percent sober the night I went on TV."
Vanderjagt can live with everything else -- the blame for the missed Super Bowl, the "Vanderjerk” comments, and his place in NFL oblivion. But the "liquored up” charge kills him. “There’s no truth to it,” he says. “That’s what drives me nuts. I don’t want to be remembered for that. I was the best in the world at kicking field goals. It’s just so unfair. Nobody’s life is perfect, but I just wish the first thought would be, ‘Vanderjagt, he was spot-on.’”
He was spot-on. But now, seven years later, he still has people yelling his name and then forming a cylinder with their right hand -- Wanna drink? Type in his name on some search engines and by the time you hit the "j" in his last name, you’ll see “Mike Vanderjagt drunk."
What if Manning publicly apologized? Or at least said, "Mike's not a drunk. Lay off.” Would that help? "What does that do for Peyton's image?" Vanderjagt says. "But ... it would let me put this chapter to rest."
The Colts offered no comment.
For now, Vanderjagt still feels he has to prove himself as a person. He motions to his phone and says he just hung out with Edgerrin James the other day. "Think Edge is gonna hang out with a jerk?" he says. He points out that he's never been in trouble with the law, and he’s been happily married for years. “How come I haven't gotten a DUI?" he says. “How come I haven’t hit my wife? Because I'm not that guy."
James agrees. “He has a cool, laid-back personality,” says the former Colts All-Pro running back. “He was one of my closest friends on the team.”
That might come as a surprise to many who think Vanderjagt is, well, a punk. He always carried himself like a skill player, strutting around with his dyed hair and his trademark earring (which he still has). Vanderjagt is blunt -- maybe to a fault. He says his career percentage from 50-plus yards is "ridiculous." He admits that, about halfway through his career, he figured his current pace would get him a good shot at the Hall of Fame. “Yes I do deserve it," he says. "If it's the best players at your position, my name will be in the conversation.” All good athletes think these things. And some of them actually say them. That's somewhat acceptable if you’re Jay Cutler comparing yourself to John Elway, or if you’re Chad Ochocinco challenging the league’s DBs. But it doesn't go over well if you’re a placekicker. Kickers are supposed to make every field goal and shut up. Sure, the kicker may score more points than anyone else on the field, but the perception within football is that everyone else gets their jerseys dirty -- and risks injury -- to put the kicker in the position to score those points. It's like a marathon runner enduring the pain of 26 miles only to let someone else run 0.2 miles and break the tape. So even though Vanderjagt’s comments about Dungy and Manning were not without merit --nobody can say Dungy is Rex Ryan or Manning is Brett Favre -- the real problem is that a kicker felt entitled to judge.
And even though Vanderjagt was truly the best at his position, there’s a perception that all kickers are the same. (Just ask a fantasy football owner.) So why endure a player who says a lot and makes 86.5 percent of his field goals when you can get a less flamboyant guy (Adam Vinatieri) who makes almost the same percentage?
Vanderjagt knows this. He realizes the "idiot" move was not only to criticize, but to go on television in the first place. But the irony here -- and the real reason Vanderjagt is out of football -- is that he’s not a study in swagger.
Not even close.
"I'm not smooth," he says. “I always approached every kick with the thought that if I miss, I’m out of the league."
That’s because he lived that existence. Vanderjagt didn't make it at Michigan State and went to a California community college before landing a spot at West Virginia. He was cut by four different CFL teams in the '90s and went to the Arena League before coming back to Toronto. There, he beat out an American for the kicking job and found a groove. Colts president Bill Polian looked like a genius for plucking him from the north, as Vanderjagt led the NFL in scoring in 1999. He’d be the perfect example of the American dream -- except he’s Canadian. Yet Vanderjagt still fretted about his career, and he bragged in part to convince everyone -- and himself -- that he was as right as rain.
But when he got to camp in ’05, he started spraying his kicks all over the place. The mojo he built up over years with the Colts started to evaporate, and he felt like he was on the brink of losing his livelihood. He pored over his routine, but that only made it worse, as he became as preoccupied as the golfer who tries too hard to fix his swing. "I feel like I was David Duval," he says. Vanderjagt fought through the season, and kicked well, but he got the sense he was on borrowed time. Eventually, he feared, he’d shank a big one. He was right. And although he was still an elite kicker -- the miss against Pittsburgh was only the second of his season -- the technical difficulties nagged him until the end of his career. In fact, they likely caused the end of his career.
So that's Vanderjagt’s theory. It wasn’t Manning. It wasn’t Pittsburgh. It was a leak in confidence that triggered a lapse in fundamentals. That’s it. And maybe that’s simply the control-freak-tendency of a kicker to shoo away outside influences.
But if that’s really the reason he retired, Vanderjagt no longer has that reason.
That’s because in 2008, when he was goofing around on a Marco Island high school field, Vanderjagt tried lifting his shoulders more and keeping his head down. It was a small tweak, but immediately his kicks went exactly where he intended. The David Duval curse was lifted. He was back. Only one problem: He was out of football.
That posed a dilemma that lives to this day: Vanderjagt now truly thinks he belongs in the NFL. And on the one hand, he's still hurt by the past: "The negative perception is so widespread,” he says. “I’d rather not fight the battle.” But on the other hand: “I could kick five more years."
Vanderjagt's wife, Janalyn, wants him to give it one more try. "Your son's 11 now,” she tells him. “Do you know how cool that would be for him?" James seconds it. “Yeah, I think he should come back,” he says. "He has what it takes."
But Vanderjagt's also got his pride, and the realization that a return to the big stage will mean countless jokes about booze and the possibility that he’ll screw up again. His son has no recollection of the Pittsburgh kick and the Manning episode, but Jay Vanderjagt will surely remember anything and everything that happens if his dad goes back to the NFL now. Vanderjagt is still so conflicted about his public persona that he didn't want to pose for a photo for this story.
But time has passed. Vanderjagt's in a better place. The Colts have won a Super Bowl. And America (and Canada) loves a comeback story. So maybe ...
"I don’t want to,” he says.
Is he sure?
There's one more thing fans forgot about Vanderjagt. He even forgot it himself. Manning added a coda to his rant to Lynn Swann which got drowned in the media coverage of the famous Pro Bowl proclamation. After the quarterback uttered the famous "idiot kicker" phrase, Manning lowered his voice and said to Swann:
"The sad thing is, he's a good kicker. He's a good kicker. But he's an idiot."
Even at the height of his frustration, Manning paused to give Vanderjagt the credit he deserved and so desperately wanted.
Years later, during halftime of Monday Night Football, Vanderjagt leaves his mostly empty restaurant and walks out into the darkness of the parking lot. He’s 40 now, still proud and still wounded, still thoughtful and still honest, still caught in the purgatory between the person everyone thinks he is and the kicker only he knows he is.
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