INDIANAPOLIS — Other than the gray hair sneaking its way into his sideburns, Adam Vinatieri doesn't look the part of the National Football League's oldest player.
His performance on the field, meanwhile, certainly doesn't reflect that of a 44-year-old just hanging around to pad his stats and his future Hall of Fame résumé.
In fact, Vinatieri remains just as valuable to his team now as he was to the New England Patriots in 1996, when he was a 23-year-old rookie simply grateful for the opportunity after spending his first year out of college kicking and punting for the Amsterdam Admirals of the now-defunct World League of American Football.
The proof is in the pudding: last Sunday, Vinatieri connected on all four of his field goal attempts — two of which came from 50-plus yards — including his 51-yard attempt in overtime to propel his Indianapolis Colts to their 26-23 victory over the San Francisco 49ers at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Amazingly, it was the 27th game-winning kick in Vinatieri's great career — the 10th of which he hit in overtime, the most in NFL history. For his efforts, Vinatieri was also named AFC Special Teams Player of the Week for an NFL record 17th time.
Does that feeling ever get old, now 22 years into his illustrious career? Vinatieri certainly can't remember all of his game-winners off the top of his head — his very first one, and, of course, his two kicks to win Super Bowl titles with the Patriots are easy to draw from memory — but, oftentimes, it's more about the battle leading up to the attempt than the kick itself that stands out.
"Any time that you can go out there and help your team win a game, it's an awesome experience, an awesome feeling," Vinatieri said of the game-winner against the 49ers. "It was one of those games that we're winning, we're doing well and then all of a sudden they come roaring back and it makes it a game again. So you never know how they're going to end up. You hope that you can help the team gain momentum early and put points on in the end that make a difference and thank goodness it did."
Perhaps the most amazing aspect about Vinatieri's career is how he's gotten notably better with age.
The South Dakota State product spent the first 10 seasons of his career with the Patriots, where he connected on 263 out of his 321 field goal attempts, or 81.9 percent, but hit just 47 percent of his tries from 50-plus yards.
He signed with the Colts as a free agent before the 2006 season, and, entering Monday night's game against the Tennessee Titans, Vinatieri has connected on 276-of-318 field goal attempts (86.8 percent) in Indy, including 28-of-40 attempts (70 percent) from 50-plus yards.
Since he began his age 40 season in 2012, however, Vinatieri has hit 88.4 percent of his field goal attempts (152-of-172), including 24-of-32 (75 percent) from beyond 50 yards.
Simply put, while the Colts, like most other teams, have seen plenty of turnover on offense, defense and even on special teams in recent seasons, they know they never have to worry when they send No. 4 out there to do his job.
"The ball is still popping off the foot," Colts head coach Chuck Pagano said. "He's getting the ball up and you don't see any signs of that age or wear and tear. He does a great job in the offseason and takes care of himself. He's still hitting the heck out of it. So, like I said, I like where he's at.
"He's going to kick until he's 50."
Vinatieri, meanwhile, is careful not to even guess how many years he has left. As long as his body's up to it — as long as he can put in the work in the offseason and is effective on the field come Week 1 each year — he says he'll be happy to keep at it.
And then, of course, there's the record book.
His game-winner against the 49ers moved Vinatieri into second place all-time in NFL history in field goals made with 539 — just 26 field goals shy of trying Hall of Famer Morten Andersen's all-time mark of 565.
Vinatieri is on pace to hit about 28 field goals this season, which means that by Week 10 or 11 of next season, he could very well be the league's top field goal kicker of all-time.
Despite that fact, it's not the records or the accolades that keep Vinatieri coming back year after year.
"There is nothing like playing professional football. Going out when there are 70,000 people screaming and going crazy. It's hard to emulate that same feeling anywhere else," he said. "I think at the end of the day that the locker room stuff, the relationships and what you build with the guys in the locker room is probably the thing that keeps me coming back. Even more than the game, your brotherhood and the guys that you play for. There is something about that, that it's hard to think about anything else than playing football."
The NFL today announced that Indianapolis Colts kicker Adam Vinatieri has been named the AFC Special Teams Player of the Month for October.