Matt Stover's ultimate kick in the teeth came 11 months ago.
On the second day of free agency, Stover received a guaranteed one-year contract offer from the New York Jets. But he had spent the past 13 years kicking for the Baltimore Ravens, 18 years with the same franchise if he included his five with the Browns starting in 1991.
So he called Ravens General Manager Ozzie Newsome, hoping Newsome would still want him at age 41, even as the distance on his kickoffs and field goals waned in the twilight of his career.
''Ozzie told me to go ahead and sign the deal,'' Stover said. ''I went 'Oh, OK, I guess I know where I stand now.' ''
Today, 20-year veteran Stover stands in a position almost unimaginable on the day of Newsome's rebuke. Having turned 42 on Jan. 27, he'll become the oldest player in Super Bowl history when he takes the field with the Indianapolis Colts, who face the New Orleans Saints in South Florida's Sun Life Stadium.
It will be quite a feat for the last man standing from the pre-1999 Browns.
''It's been a ride, to say the least,'' Stover said during a telephone interview on his birthday. ''I had a vision from the beginning. I even told the management here that my goal was to kick them into the Super Bowl. I say that with humility. I was saying, 'I hope I kick so darn good that everything's going to go great for this team and we get ourselves a Super Bowl and I had a big piece to do with that.' ''
Stover was a man without a team until Oct. 14, when he tried out with the undefeated Colts and was signed on the spot. Adam Vinatieri was undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his right knee, coming on the heels of summer surgery on his right hip and the same knee. Considered the most clutch kicker in NFL history and a winner of four Super Bowls, Vinatieri was expected to miss four to eight weeks.
''I must have had 15 or 20 people say, 'You've got a shot for a Super Bowl there,' '' Stover said. ''I felt very convicted [sic] that this was an awesome opportunity to win. You've got Peyton Manning and a team that had been there before, 25 or 26 guys, you've got a change at the head [coach], not that Tony [Dungy] wasn't the guy, but sometimes that sparks a little something. I really felt this was very possible. I was very blessed to have the opportunity. [President] Bill Polian and [coach] Jim Caldwell trusted in me enough where they wanted me to be the kicker through the playoffs.''Other opportunities Stover had other opportunities in 2009. The Browns called in late September when kicker Phil Dawson suffered a right calf injury that would cost him five games. Stover also had worked out for the New York Giants not long before he went to Indianapolis. But the circumstances weren't right for him and his family. His wife and three children, a ninth-grader, a seventh-grader and a 6-year-old, would be back in Baltimore. Stover wanted a financial commitment for the rest of the season, especially since he had to commute. He's thankful that AirTran and Southwest fly direct between Baltimore and Indianapolis twice daily, making his trips easier. ''I wasn't going to go game to game,'' Stover said. ''I was the only guy [the Colts] were looking at. I said, 'Commit to me, I'm your guy, then if Adam comes back, I understand you may have to make that decision.' '' That game-to-game scenario is why Stover turned down the offer from former Browns General Manager George Kokinis in September. Stover had worked with Browns punter Dave Zastudil in Baltimore and had tutored fellow Texan Dawson when Dawson was in high school. ''I said, 'Is this a quick fix?' and he said, 'Yeah,' '' Stover said of his conversation with Kokinis. ''I didn't want to come in for two, three, four weeks. It's not about the business, it's about the opportunity to win a championship and to be part of the team for the whole ride. George couldn't do that. I graciously said no, but not because the team may not have been good. It didn't have anything to do with that.'' Ironically, the kicker the Browns signed, Billy Cundiff, joined the Ravens after his stint in Cleveland, taking over for Steve Hauschka, and finished the season there. Last month, Ravens coach John Harbaugh did not rule out bringing Stover back, perhaps to compete with Cundiff, although the team would need a kickoff specialist if Stover won the job back. As reliable as ever Stover showed during the regular season with the Colts that he wasn't over the hill. He went 9-for-11 on field goals, with his longest 43 yards, and made all 33 extra point attempts. In the playoffs, he's 5-of-5 on field-goal tries and has hit all five extra points. Polian praised Stover's contributions in an interview on the team's Web site. ''Matt is decidedly middle-aged by anyone's standards and he is exceptionally professional, exceptionally tuned in and an exceptional leader,'' Polian said on Colts.com. ''It's rare that you find a kicker who is a leader, and we have two in Adam Vinatieri and Matt. ''[Stover] not only performs splendidly in the clutch, but he's a very positive influence on everyone around him, as is Adam. These are special guys. Both are probably bona-fide hall of fame candidates. [Stover] has been money in the bank for us.'' When the playoffs came, Stover admitted he wondered whether the Colts might go back to Vinatieri. But Vinatieri, 37, kicked in Game 15 against the Jets and wasn't 100 percent, Stover said, so the Colts elected to go with the older man. Stover joked that he doesn't feel 42 because he's never been 42 before. But he must be smart with his training, workout and practice regimen. ''The kickoff thing, can I still do it? Sure, but I have to be very smart with kickoffs during the course of the week and the off-season,'' he said. ''Kickoffs wear you out. Ask Phil Dawson. It just tears you apart.'' While the rigors of 20 years in the NFL will be put aside tonight, Stover hasn't considered whether this will be his last hurrah. ''Could I end it with a Super Bowl win? Sure,'' he said. ''But I could have said that last year, too. We went to the AFC Championship. The last kick I ever kicked as a Baltimore Raven was a game-winner against the Tennessee Titans in the divisional championship. If I had ended on that note, I might have missed out on this opportunity. So I have to be careful how I answer that. I just don't know.'' But one thing is certain: Stover is blown away by how this season worked out. ''I call it a wow moment in my life,'' he said. ''It's been amazing, but it's been tough, too. Where good things come, it's usually hard. The harder it is, it seems like it's more gratifying. ''I could write a book. It would be a neat book about faithfulness and staying true to conviction and what's right. It's been a lot of fun.''
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her Browns blog at http://www.ohiomm.com/blogs/browns/. Follow the Browns on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/ABJ_Browns.