This was August of 1998 and, as usual, then-Madison Central football coach Mike Justice was welcoming a multi-talented, powerhouse team to fall camp at the state’s largest high school.
There was just one problem.
“We didn’t have anybody to kick off,” Justice, now retired, remembered Wednesday morning. “We didn’t have a placekicker. We were trying to figure out how we were going to do it — pooch-kick it, squib-kick it or whatever.”
That problem is not an unusual one at Class 1A or 2A high schools, which, when kicker-less, often will go for two points after every touchdown. It was unusual for Class 6A powerhouse Madison Central.
“Our ninth grade coach, Todd Walker, came over and was watching the end of one of our practices when we were working on the kicking game,” Justice said. “Todd told me, ‘Coach, I got a kid who can kick it a lot better than this. I mean, a lot better.’”
Reluctantly, Justice told Walker to bring the 14-year-old over to the next day’s varsity practice. Walker did.
That was the day Mike Justice met Stephen “Beaver” Gostkowski.
“First kick, I mean very first kick, he hits that thing — SMACK! — and it sails to the back of the other end zone,” Justice said, chuckling. “I said to myself, ‘Geez, oh God, we got us a kicker.’ And boy, did we. We were set for the next four years.”
Gostkowski, now a 34-year-old, 12-year NFL veteran who will kick for the New England Patriots in Sunday’s Super Bowl, has become one of the most celebrated, most competent placekickers in the history of the sport. As good as he has been — and he is the third most accurate kicker of all time and the highest scorer, per game, in league history — Gostkowski was at his best this past season. He made 37 of 40 field goal tries, including a 62-yarder and five of more than 50 yards.
“He’s automatic, that’s all he is, automatic,” Justice said.
So, Justice is asked, tell us one thing about Beaver Gostkowski that most people won’t know.
“Well, if you ask me the one thing most folks wouldn’t know about the best kicker in football it would be that he is such an outstanding, multi-talented athlete,” Justice answered. “Yeah, he can kick, but he can do a lot of other stuff. For us, he was all-state in football, baseball and soccer. He could have played other positions in football, but we just didn’t want to risk it. He was too valuable as a kicker.”
So, how come he went to Memphis instead of State or Ole Miss or another SEC school?
“State and Ole Miss both had scholarshipped kickers and nobody was taking more than one,” Justice said. “Tommy West was the coach at Memphis then and he worked a deal where Beaver went on a baseball scholarship to Memphis and basically as a walk-on in football. He was a helluva pitcher, beat Ole Miss and State. I mean, he could really pitch.”
He could do more than that on a baseball diamond.
“When Stephen didn’t pitch, he played centerfield and he was one of the best high school centerfielders I’ve ever seen,” said Greg Perry, who coached Gostkowski his senior baseball season at Madison Central. “As a pitcher, he threw hard, I mean, hard.
“We played a Tennessee team one time on spring break and Stephen was matched up against Matt Cain, who went on to become a Major League all-star with the Giants,” Perry said. “I had a pro scout come up to me after the game and he said it was the hardest throwing he had ever seen in a high school game. Cain was hitting 96 miles per hour and Stephen was hitting 94 on the radar gun.”
And who won?
“Stephen won, and I think it was one to nothing,” Perry answered.
Gostkowski became the greatest kicker in Memphis history, so talented he once recovered his own onsides kick. The Patriots drafted him in the fourth round and, 1,613 points later, the rest is history.
Said Perry, “I really think, had he chosen the baseball route, he could have made it to the highest level.”
A Major League pitcher makes more money than an NFL kicker, but everything is relative. At more than $4 million per year, Gostkowski is the highest paid kicker in pro football history.
“I watch him every chance I get,” Justice said. “I still get nervous when he has to make a big kick. I don’t think he does, but I do.”
Justice takes no credit for Gostkowski’s kicking expertise.
“The only thing I did was I didn’t mess him up,” Justice said.
Did Justice ever have any kicking advice for Gostkowski?
“I told him, you see those big sticks down there? Kick it through those sticks,” Justice said, laughing.
Three years ago, Madison Central held a reunion of its 2002 State Championship football team on a football Friday night. Because of his job, Gostkowski couldn’t make the trip but he sent a video that played on the Jumbotron. It began with a serious message about his splendid memories of Madison Central and ended with this:
“These people up here think Bill Belichick is a tough football coach,” Beaver Gostkowski said. “But they never met Mike Justice.”