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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

A Leg Up

Buc kicker Martin Gramatica – enjoying his first Hawaii Pro Bowl week – gives the NFC a long-range threat on Sunday


The Bucs' Martin Gramatica will handle all of the NFC's placekicking duties on Sunday

Don't mention a recount to Martin Gramatica. He's afraid of how it might turn out.

Gramatica is in Hawaii, enduring a week of, uh, grueling practices for the 2001 Pro Bowl, for which he will serve as the NFC's sole placekicker. Gramatica edged an impressive NFC field to win the approval of NFL coaches, his playing peers and the game's fans, tallying more votes than Gary Anderson, the league's all-time leading scorer, Ryan Longwell, the most accurate kicker in NFL history, and Joe Nedney, the out-of-nowhere prolific threat in Carolina.

That vote count puts Gramatica, all 5-8, 170 pounds of him, smack dab in the middle of the most impressive collection of football talent in the world. He hopes he belongs there.

"I feel like I'm out of place here among all these great players," said the self-effacing second-year kicker. "I think they might have screwed up the ballot."

Of course, they did not. Gramatica impressed the league sufficiently with 28-of-34 field goal kicking, including a remarkable five successes in seven tries from 50 yards and beyond. In just two NFL seasons, he has broken the Bucs' scoring record twice and was tied for third in the NFL in points this past year with 126.

Twice he nailed two kicks of 50 or more yards in a game, all in the second half, though his most impressive shot of the season was a 46-yard game-winner at Miami in a driving rainstorm. Clearly, he belongs, but now that he's there the enormity of it has struck him head on.

"It's something I'm thankful for," said Gramatica of his Pro Bowl invite. "I thank God that I'm here and a part of it. The guys here the best at every position, then I'm just one of the kickers. It's just an amazing feeling."

Gramatica delivered all of those long-range kicks because his coaches were never afraid to put him in a clutch situation. In the Pro Bowl, his coaches will be Dennis Green and the Minnesota Vikings staff, a group that takes over for the Buccaneer coaches that led the NFC to a 51-31 victory.

The young kicker may not have his own coaching staff, but he has plenty of support in the eight other Bucs in Hawaii. The Tampa Bay contingent of nine players – Gramatica, cornerback Donnie Abraham, fullback Mike Alstott, linebacker Derrick Brooks, center Jeff Christy, running back Warrick Dunn, safety John Lynch, guard Randall McDaniel and defensive tackle Warren Sapp – is the NFL's largest.

"It's pretty nice," said Gramatica of having his Buc buddies on hand to show him the sights. "At least you know some guys. But you get to meet everybody and everyone's real nice while they're here. It's good to meet new guys but it helps to have so many teammates here."

Actually, Gramatica has two support systems in place for his first Pro Bowl. He also brought the whole Gramatica clan along for the tropical ride.

"I've got my whole family here," he said. "We're checking things out. We might go to the beach (on Thursday). I don't know...we've got plenty of time. We've got the whole week, so we'll take it easy. I came here for the Aloha Bowl in college, but this is my first time here with my family with me, so it's a lot more special."

For those envisioning 100 NFL players kicking back in the sun and surf, well ... okay, that's not far off. But the two teams do practice every day and there is a surprising amount of competitiveness when it comes to the game.

Should the AFC and NFC fight out a close battle – the last two games were blow outs but the three preceding Pro Bowls were all decided by a touchdown or less – Gramatica gives Green and his staff a weapon with a range almost to midfield. One imagines Gramatica would enjoy a chance to make an impression in his first trip to the all-star game, but he professes not to care if he's called upon for a clutch kick or not.

"I just hope we win," he said. "It doesn't matter now. I just want to win. We're here to have fun, but when the game gets started, we're here to win. I'll do whatever it takes to help us win."

And if that happens, would it perhaps take a little sting off the Bucs' surprisingly early exit from the playoffs? Does the Pro Bowl, a month after Tampa Bay's playoff loss, ease the pain of unmet expectations.

"No," said Gramatica. "I don't think you can do that. It was still pretty painful, especially when you watch two teams playing on your own field and you felt you should be there. That hurt pretty bad. There's nothing we can do now but focus and get ready for next year."

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