INDIANAPOLIS — Adam Vinatieri saw the fire, the work ethic and the skills right from the start.
Even then, back in 1998, Vinatieri knew Phil Dawson had the traits to make it as an NFL kicker.
Now, almost two decades after New England’s young, established placekicker welcomed his underdog understudy to the Patriots practice squad, the league’s two oldest players will show everyone they’re still alive and kicking in Sunday’s reunion game.
“We’re all old now, I guess,” the graying Vinatieri joked Thursday at the Indianapolis Colts’ complex. “If you added our ages together, we’re probably in our 80s. Upper 80s, I guess.”
The years do add up — just like their stats.
At age 44, Vinatieri isn’t just the last active link to NFL Europe or the last active player from the Colts’ Super Bowl runs.
He’s also No. 3 on the NFL’s scoring list (2,381 points), No. 3 in field goals (531) and is widely regarded as one of the best clutch kickers in league history.
In 22 seasons, Vinatieri has done everything from making Super Bowl-winning kicks to memorable moments in the snow to tackling Herschel Walker.
He’s played for two Hall of Fame coaches, Bill Parcells and Tony Dungy, as well as Bill Belichick and called both Tom Brady and Peyton Manning teammates.
Yet he can only remember having one kicker on a practice squad, and Dawson took full advantage by soaking up Vinatieri’s knowledge long before he signed with Arizona.
In fact, Dawson, 42, seems to have taken a page out of Vinatieri’s playbook when it comes to aging gracefully in football.
“I joke with people it’s the ‘mama plan’ I call it,” Dawson said. “If you eat right and go to bed when you should good things seem to happen.”
Dawson’s career path was more circuitous.
The 42-year-old got his first glimpse into the harsh reality of pro football by getting cut in Oakland in 1998. A year later, he signed with Cleveland and became a 14-year fixture on a franchise mired in turnover.
In 2013, after playing in only one postseason game with the Browns, Dawson headed to San Francisco where he made three more playoff appearances. He hasn’t been back to the playoffs since, though he’s hoping that changes in his first season with the Cardinals.
Through it all, Dawson and Vinatieri have remained mutual admirers who are more interested in winning than stats. Both teams are trying to rebound from opening-day losses.
“He’s a real good kicker,” Vinatieri said, who missed an extra point and a field goal last week. “When he got to New England, he always took it very seriously, he was very technically sound and he had a good work ethic so you could just see it.”
The results showed.
Dawson is No. 14 on the league’s career scoring list (1,703), 97 points from No. 10. He also is 10th all time in field goals (405), and, perhaps surprisingly, has been more slightly more accurate on field goals — making 84.375 percent compared with Vinatieri’s 84.152 percent.
But it’s not rankings, numbers or age that keep these two kickers going.
It’s the respect they developed during that season years ago in New England, and the fact that they are the last active NFL players who started their pro careers in the 1990s. They just don’t want it to end now.
“I just love football, and I know that’s weird for a kicker to say,” Dawson said. “Ever since I can remember I wanted to play football. To be my age now and get a chance to still do this, I mean how many guys get a chance to do that?”
NOTES: Andrew Luck watched the first part of Colts’ practice in street clothes Thursday, then disappeared into the team’s indoor practice facility where he continues to rehab from offseason shoulder surgery. Luck was activated from the physically unable to perform list on Sept. 2, but still has not worked out with his teammates and has been ruled out of Sunday’s game.
AP Sports Writer Bob Baum in Phoenix also contributed to this report.