Matt Stover was willing to walk away last spring without regret. He was willing to pack up his memories and trophy footballs and move on with life. After 19 years of kicking in the NFL - 13 with the Ravens - he could have closed the book on a distinguished career.
That he didn't walk - and now finds himself kicking for the Indianapolis Colts in Sunday's Super Bowl in South Florida - is one of this week's most compelling stories. It might also be a story of divine intervention, Stover says.
"God's footprints are all over this thing," he said. "Is it surreal? Yeah. How could it not be?"
Surreal is Stover nearly moving his family to Dallas last spring, deciding not to uproot his teenage children, then waiting for a Super Bowl contender to phone and finally getting the call in mid-October.
Surreal is receiving a guaranteed offer of $1.2 million from the New York Jets in March - but no such guarantee from the team he had steadfastly served for more than a decade.
Surreal is following the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore in 1996 to play for the Ravens - and then joining the team the Ravens replaced.
It's surreal, all right.
Stover's improbable journey began last March when his Ravens contract expired. They told him he could come back but without a guarantee or signing bonus. It quickly became clear the team wanted to move on itself and use that kickoff specialist's roster spot for a position player.
Without the commitment he sought from the Ravens, Stover declined their offer. Then he rejected the Jets' offer - which came from former Ravens assistant Rex Ryan - because it would have meant forcing out one of his best friends in football, Jay Feely. Then he wrestled with a different scenario: going back to his hometown of Dallas, where his mother had a brain tumor and his mother-in-law had breast cancer, or keeping his three children in Baltimore, where they were entrenched.
Last week, Stover revealed how close he came to leaving. He went so far as to enroll his two older kids in private schools in Dallas, and he did his share of house-hunting in the area between March and May. In the interim, he prayed, sought the advice of friends - and continued to work out.
When the decision to stay came in late May, it was a family decision.
"Just because we can [move] doesn't mean we should," Stover said. "The kids were settled in Baltimore, and it would have been a major disruption to move to Dallas. … [Besides] you just don't move a ninth-grader. And there's no way I would have been able to play in the NFL [with his family in Texas] and be an absentee dad."
So Stover worked out and waited. He declined a chance to kick against the Ravens in September on a short-term offer from the Browns. On Oct. 6, he worked out for the New York Giants. The same week, the Colts called, saying Adam Vinatieri had had surgery and would be out an extended period.
The Giants were a possibility for Stover because they were a train ride away, but they didn't offer a contract. The Colts were more problematic, but they did make an offer.
What Stover extracted from the Colts - albeit they save it reluctantly - was a prorated guarantee of $600,000 for the last 12 weeks of the regular season. That guaranteed money was the commitment the Ravens were unwilling to give. The Colts insisted on the stipulation that if they cut Stover before the season ended and he was signed by another team, they would not have to pay the rest of his contract. What Stover also got was permission to return to Baltimore after Sunday games to see his family.
It was never about the money, Stover says.
"If it was about the money, I would've taken the $1.2 million guarantee the Jets offered me," he said. "It was a business deal [with the Colts], and I wanted them to commit to me."
The Colts got a good deal in the end, too. Stover made nine of 11 field-goal tries for the AFC South champions, hitting from as far away as 43 yards and missing from 52. His 25-yard kick Nov. 22 beat the Ravens, 17-15. In two playoff games, he's 5-for-5 with a long kick of 44.
Even though Vinatieri appeared ready to return to the team late in the season, the Colts decided to retain Stover as their kicker.
"It's been huge for us," center Jeff Saturday said about the addition of Stover. "Matt's played fantastic for us. He's made some big kicks, and you've got a veteran back there. The guy's played longer than some guys have been alive, I think."
This is Stover's 20th season in the NFL, although he spent the first on injured reserve with the Giants in 1990. Having turned 42 last week, he will become the oldest player ever to participate in the Super Bowl.
"I see it as a privilege and an awesome opportunity," he said. "But I am real certain there are things a 42-year-old has to deal with physically that a 22-year-old doesn't."
One of the best things Stover has working for him in Indianapolis is that punter Pat McAfee handles kickoffs, sparing Stover's leg wear and tear. Stover had the luxury of kickoff specialists at times in Baltimore, but he split kickoffs with his eventual successor, Steve Hauschka, in 2008.
Since cutting Hauschka nine games into the regular season, Ravens coach John Harbaugh said he is not opposed to carrying a second kicker. Harbaugh also said he doesn't exclude the return of Stover to the Ravens next season. That is assuming the Colts are comfortable with Vinatieri's rehabilitation after surgery and that they release Stover.
Stover doesn't want to address the future - yet. "I want to kick well right now for this team and help this team win the Super Bowl," he said.
He does not feel the Super Bowl is his vindication for being turned loose by the Ravens, either.
"There is no animosity, no hard feelings with the Ravens," said Stover, a devout Christian. "This is where I'm supposed to be. I'm totally content with it. I'm a Ravens fan. … God did this for a reason. We call it spreading your territory. My message is a greater message than me not signing back with the Ravens."
So what would it take, Stover was asked, to see him kick one more year in the NFL, perhaps for the Ravens?
"God would have to make it real obvious," he said, "like he did this year."
Extra points Where Stover ranks in NFL history:
Most points: 4th, 2,004
Most career field goals: 3rd, 471
Most consecutive field goals: 3rd, 36
Most consecutive games with a field goal: 1st, 38
Highest career field-goal percentage: 7th, .8365
Most consecutive kicking points after touchdown: 1st, 472, current
Most seasons with at least 100 points: 4th, 12
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