TEMPE, Ariz. -- When Phil Dawson arrived in New England two weeks before the 1998 regular season began, he was an inexperienced, wide-eyed 23-year-old who had never been to the Northeast.
It was cold. The wind swirled in the winter. The grass was long. It was like nothing Dawson had ever kicked in.
“My head was swimming,” Dawson told ESPN, 19 years later.
He wasn’t there to win a job -- or even really compete for one, for that matter. The Patriots already had a kicker on their roster. His name? Adam Vinatieri.
That was Vinatieri’s third season in New England and he had yet to become the household name responsible for some of the most memorable kicks in Super Bowl history. Dawson, who was on the Patriots' practice squad, didn’t know much about Vinatieri when they met, but he instantly respected him for kicking in those conditions.
Over the next 20 weeks, Dawson watched everything Vinatieri did. By the time the year was over, Dawson had learned how to be a kicker in the NFL from Vinatieri.
“Adam was a great influence,” Dawson said. “I’ve told him every time I’ve played him since all those years ago, ‘I can’t tell you how much I appreciate the role you played and you probably don’t even realize the role you played.’
“But he was a pro. He was a competitor. He took his job seriously and as a young guy in the league, for me to have that modeled for me was a tremendous asset.”
This Sunday, almost two decades after they were teammates, Dawson, 42, and Vinatieri, 44, will share a field in Indianapolis when the Arizona Cardinals visit the Indianapolis Colts at Lucas Oil Stadium.
A game that’ll be missing two of its biggest stars in Cardinals running back David Johnson and Colts quarterback Andrew Luck will be a matchup of two of the best kickers of all time. Vinatieri is ranked third in NFL history with 521 field goals. Dawson is 10th with 405. But Dawson, who is in his first season with Arizona, is barely more accurate. He’s ranked 13th all time with a field goal percentage of 84.375. Vinatieri is 15th at 84.152 percent.
“He’s a Hall of Famer,” Dawson said. “There’s no doubt. With Morten [Andersen] making it this year, I think that really opens the door. But even if Morten hadn’t, how can you keep Adam Vinatieri out of the Hall of Fame? Obviously, someone who has the respect for the position and the demands of the position that are so unknown to the general public, I could not have more respect for what he’s done in the league.”
This Sunday also will feature one of the oldest kicking duels in recent league history. Dawson and Vinatieri are a combined 86 years old. In 2006, 42-year-old John Carney and the 46-year-old Andersen played twice, combining for 88 years. Carney also kicked as a 47-year-old against 40-year-old John Kasay in 2010. George Blanda kicked for 27 years in the NFL until he was 48 years old, so he may have been part of some old pairings, as well.
Looking back on that 1998 season, Dawson admits it “wasn’t a very enjoyable year.”
“Practice squad kicker is about the bottom of the totem pole,” Dawson said. “But I learned a tremendous amount. So to still be going now and for him to still be going, that’s pretty neat.”
Years after Dawson established himself in the NFL -- he spent 14 seasons with the Browns before playing the past four with the 49ers -- he still says Vinatieri’s competitiveness rubbed off on him the most.
He would watch Vinatieri stick his nose in the play on kickoffs. The more he was around Vinatieri, the more he noticed Vinatieri wasn’t going to be the diva kicker who would show up, kick, tell everyone he did his job, then leave.
“He was a going to be a football player,” Dawson said. “He loves the bigger moment and obviously he’s proven that through his career. You don’t perform in those moments if you’re not a competitor. I can remember sitting in the Northeast, in the cold, the tall grass, the swirling winds, all that, and he almost fed off of that.
“I took that with me and little did I know how much I would need it when I wind up in Cleveland and I’m facing the same type of deal.”
Playing alongside Vinatieri was also a lesson in how to be a cold-blooded, steely kicker.
“He might miss one here and there, and we all do,” Dawson said. “[But in] those big moments he never did, so that just showed me his drive and determination.”
But Vinatieri wasn’t the type of player to take a younger teammate under his wing.
He was just 26 and in his third season, just a few years older than Dawson.
“He doesn’t need to take anybody under his wing,” Dawson said. “He needs to do his job, right? I think he never lost focus why he was there. He did his job. He did what he needed to do to perform, to help his team, but he was cool with me.”
That was something else Dawson learned from Vinatieri.
As Dawson has evolved into a veteran in the NFL, he has helped younger kickers, especially during training camp when they’re brought in to either try to take his job or give him time to rest. He'll help them navigate life in the NFL, but only after he gets his job done first.
“Everybody’s a pro at this level,” Dawson said. “They don’t need another player telling them what to do.”