EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

August 24, 2006

Belichick leaves kicking to 'Beaver' Athletic Gostkowski is Pats' man

On Pro Football

FOXBORO - At 5-foot-7 and a very soft 175 pounds, Martin Gramatica never really had a chance.

Be it place-kicker or defensive tackle, Bill Belichick looks for athletes first.

And Gramatica, a former Argentinian-bred soccer player, can't match the youth, physical nature and athleticism of rookie Stephen Gostkowski.

Just hours after the coach's an announcement - "We haven't set our plans for this week yet. We'll take a look at that a little bit later as we get closer to game time. I don't have anything on that one now." - Gramatica cleaned out his locker, told his services here were no longer needed.

Chances are Gramatica will get another NFL call.

Anyone who watched training camp or the opening exhibition could see he was healthy again, missing nary a kick through the last three weeks.

"He's been very competitive in camp," said Belichick, before announcing the cut. "He's accurate. He handles the elements well. He's kicked in wind. I think that's a strength for him. He gets the ball off quickly. I thought he kicked off pretty well against Atlanta. I think we all know the guy was a pretty good kicker and he's had a good camp."

As for the Pats, all pressure now lands on the shoulders of the 22-year-old from Mississippi, drafted in the fourth round out of Memphis in April.

"I'm not surprised. He's just a kid who loves to be in the thick of things," said Derek Topik, Gostkowski's baseball coach at Madison Central High. "The kid was tough as nails coming up. Just a very gritty kid, determined to be successful. Whatever it is, he wants to beat you."

The 6-foot-1, 210-pounder, nicknamed "Beaver" after losing his two front teeth in a hockey game as a child in Buffalo, might has well have been a candidate for the final table at the World Series of Poker, staring blankly at the media gathered at his locker before the announcement.

Have you been told what this week's going to be like?

"Nope," said the rookie, who had to know what was about to transpire publicly the way Gramatica spent the media time dodging and juking the assembled crews.

Gramatica's task was monumental. Not only did the Pats invest a middle-round pick on the former baseball pitcher, they did some serious checking on his past.

Gostkowski, on the big side for place-kickers, has always enjoyed a cannon for a leg. His junior season at Madison (Miss.) Central High School, he simply had no idea where the ball was going. It was a mental hurdle.

In his junior season, he went from one of the South's top kicking recruits to the bench.

"I was on the chain gang and I can tell you only one or two of his kicks were run back all year. The rest were in the end zone," said Topik. "But he was just a little inconsistent. Believe me, it wasn't for a lack of work."

Gostkowski didn't wilt then, rebounding at Memphis, where he hit 42 of 49 career field goal attempts. Not bad for his second sport.

"I always thought his future was in baseball," said Topik. "It got him into Memphis on a scholarship. I mean, here's a guy who threw in the low 90s, with good movement, a guy who really competed."

Belichick is counting on the fact that Gostkowski won't wilt now, either.

At a salary-cap figure of under a half-million, compared to the $2 million to $3 million commanded by departed Adam Vinatieri in Indianapolis, a rookie kicker like Gostkowski is a gigantic bargain.

So far, at three for three in the preseason, he's come through for Belichick.

"I don't like to grade myself," said Gostkowski. "I'm just going out there, working hard and doing my best. Even in practice, it's been exciting."

Exciting is just the beginning.

The weight of the New England football world now rests on his right leg.

The Gostkowski File

NAME: Stephen Gostkowski

JOB TITLE: New England Patriots rookie place-kicker.

AGE: 22

HOMETOWN: Madison, Miss.

NICKNAME: Beaver. After losing two front teeth in a youth hockey game as a child in Buffalo, the other kids called him Beaver because the replacements appeared so big.

HT./WT.: 6-foot-1, 210 pounds

COLLEGE: Earned baseball scholarship to pitch at Memphis, went on to make football team as well, hitting 42 of 49 career field goals.

HIGH SCHOOL: State champion baseball pitcher, also played football and soccer.

TALKING GOSTKOWSKI: "Whatever it is, he wants to beat you," said his high school baseball coach Derek Topik.