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Gramatica's foot makes up for his butterfingers

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By HUBERT MIZELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 13, 2000


TAMPA -- His hands are in question, but Martin Gramatica's foot is working perfectly.

With a 7-0 lead, the Bucs got cute, the little Argentine masterfully executing an onside kick. Green Bay was suckered like a bumpkin at the Brooklyn Bridge.

Gramatica skidded his kickoff 11 yards. Should've been an easy recovery for him. Packers were not in the neighborhood. The ball was all Martin's. But with the fumble-fisted touch of a Keystone Kop, the placekicker muffed it.

"That ball isn't round, so it bounced funny," he tried to explain. "I maybe should've worn gloves."

Oh, sure, that wouldn't have been a tipoff to the Packers.

"I'm glad I had other chances coming to do some good," he said. Martin will not be getting a job at Allstate, having publicly demonstrated he is not among the good hands people. On his kickoff, the Packers did eventually arrive, grabbing the football. Monsters put such a nasty mash on the 5-foot-7 chap, a shoulder was injured.

Gramatica got them back.

It was a crummy Sunday for Tampa Bay's special teams. Until the end. Perhaps they were melting down from a spotlight too hot. In an alteration of tradition, Bucs offense and defense stepped back, allowing coach Joe Marciano's crews to get the grand, hurrahed Raymond James Stadium pre-game introduction.

Was it a jinx?

Gramatica messed up the trick kick. Green Bay outfoxed Joe's soldiers by scoring its only touchdown on a fake field goal. The Bucs special teams surrendered a 32-yard punt return. They got tagged with costly back-to-back penalties.

Goats were herding.

In the second half, the Bucs' problems were exacerbated. It became a massive, all-areas breakdown. The offense went limp; the defense got popped for good. There were frequent Green Bay gains on running plays.

Tampa Bay's 14-3 halftime lead evaporated. In a game they absolutely, positively should've handled, the Bucs flirted with blowing it. Dropping to a 5-5 record would've put a painful dent in playoff possibilities. The Packers jumped ahead 15-14.

But oh, that Gramatica foot.

With the Bucs having become dangerously needy, the former Kansas State kicker calmed a houseful of quivers by ripping a field goal from 54 yards. It was high, flawless, through the uprights' heart. Would've been good from 60. Gramatica, the littlest Buc, began bailing out everybody -- offense, defense, kick platoons.

Even himself.

Defensive resurgence followed. The offense regained a degree of function. Gramatica soon got another call, for a field goal from 51 yards. Bingo! It was not quite the life-saving surgery of his first three-point jolt, but Martin brought back full, bellowing joy to the Bucs' ballpark.

"I don't think about the yardage," he said. "Every time Coach (Tony) Dungy and Coach Marciano send me out, I expect to make it."

Lately, that has been every time; Gramatica has made 12 consecutive field goals.

"Martin is kicking better than I've ever seen him," said punter Mark Royals, a 12-year NFL vet who is Gramatica's holder. "Although he leaps around after making a good kick, the young guy is really well-grounded. It's just a quick little release of tensions. He settles down quickly and gets ready for our next assignment."

During the preseason, Gramatica struggled. Crowds began to boo. It carried into September when Martin missed two of his first four kicks. From there, it's been all bull's-eyes.

"Only thing I notice different is the look on Martin's face," said the savvy Royals, whose various pro football stops have seen him as holder for Steve Christie, Gary Anderson, Doug Brien and Jason Hanson.

"It wasn't his usual confident appearance when Gramatica missed a couple. Coming into his second pro season, I think Martin was going through a growing period and now has become totally comfortable with the idea of making every single kick.

"Having special teams introduced before kickoff, that was a nice little bone for us. Too often you hear talk of defense and offense, but the kick crews only get mentioned when they foul up.

"Martin is a special talent. Who knows his range? I'm not sure how the talk got started years ago about placekickers being nutty guys, but it's not the case with Gramatica. He's really normal. Really good, too."

All the kicking Gramaticas were at Ray-J. Martin's brother Bill handles field goals for the University of South Florida. A third sibling, 17-year-old Santiago, is a gifted high school placekicker from LaBelle who says he will sign with USF in February. Then there's the patriarch of footdom, father William.

"When there's a kick by Martin," Bill said, "we all huddle together. We pray for him. When the kick is good, we loudly celebrate. After the game, Mom cooks a lot of Italian food and we enjoy." USF's fellow shares a Carrollwood house with Martin. "He buys everything," Bill said, "because I am a poor college student."

Against the Packers, the 24-year-old Bucs foot specialist bought a lot of good stuff, delivering some vital, victorious happiness for Tampa Bay, keeping a playoff push in gear. Martin's kicks brought relief for Bucs special teams, offense and defense. Difficulty turned into delight.

Gramatica's hands are forgiven.

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