INDIANAPOLIS — Rookie kicker Rodrigo Blankenship spent last weekend putting together Lego sets as the Indianapolis Colts debated his future.
First, there was a Ferrari; then, a “Star Wars” contraption.
Eventually, special teams co-ordinator Bubba Ventrone made the congratulatory phone call that set up Blankenship's next puzzle — replacing the NFL's career scoring leader.
“That was about all I could do to try and take my mind off of it," Blankenship said Tuesday. “I’m just a big kid at heart. I’ve collected Legos for a really long time. I’ve also been into ‘Star Wars’ and Marvel Comics. I’m a huge kind of superhero geek about all that stuff. Also Transformers, just all that kind of sci-fi, nerdy, geeky kind of stuff."
Blankenship's presence creates a new dynamic in the Colts' locker room, where players often sought out the gray-bearded Adam Vinatieri for advice on everything from football to family to finances.
For 23 seasons, Vinatieri's right foot was the most trustworthy in the league. But last season, Automatic Adam didn't live up to the nickname.
He missed a career-high six extra points, made a career-low 68.7% of field-goal attempts and missed the final four games with an injured left knee. With a post-surgery rehab plan stunted by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Colts elected not to bring back the 47-year-old, four-time Super Bowl champ and instead opened up a kicking competition.
Chase McLaughlin, who finished last season as Vinatieri's fill-in, started the summer as the favourite . At one point, it appeared he might win in a landslide.
Somehow, Blankenship, the undrafted rookie from Georgia, rebounded and eked out a narrow win.
“It was a tough choice, and we just decided to go with Rod," general manager Chris Ballard said Sunday. “I just think, and our staff, we just think he’s got something to him."
Blankenship, who'll make his debut Sunday at Jacksonville, comes with plenty of quirks. Just don’t mistake the horn-rimmed goggles, pink cleats, nerdy interests or unflappable attitude for frivolity.
Blankenship takes his profession every bit as seriously as Vinatieri and will use every tool in his locker to carve out his own niche.
“I’m not trying to be anybody's replacement," Blankenship said. “I have a tremendous amount of respect for Adam and everything that he’s done. I think it's safe to say he’s the best to ever do it so far. But I don’t want to have a mindset of trying to replace him."
The son of a soccer and football coach, Blankenship started his kicking career in fifth grade. He attended soccer camps in Brazil and kicking camps with the Bulldogs years before he pulled on the red and black jerseys.
Things didn't always go smoothly for the recruit dubbed “Legatron.”
After turning down scholarship offers to attend other schools, he showed up in Athens as a preferred walk-on, paying his own way for seven semesters before earning one at Georgia. He celebrated by kicking the winning field goal against Notre Dame that weekend.
On campus, his success and trademark spectacles made him one of the school's most popular players. Students called him “Hot Rod” and “Mr. Rec Specs” while starting the hashtag #respectthespecs on Twitter.
Blankenship didn't disappoint his fans, finishing his career with Georgia's career records for scoring (440 points) and field-goal conversion rate (82.5%) and last year's Lou Groza Award.
He'll begin his new chapter on familiar turf. Blankenship celebrated wins over rival Florida each of the past three seasons in Jacksonville.
And as he prepares to become the first rookie to kick in the Colts' season opener since 1998, and the first college rookie to kick in Indy's opener since Raul Allegre in 1983, Blankenship will stick to his regular prep work — Legos and all.
“I’m hoping I can just be a cool customer,” Blankenship said. “Obviously, it’s going to be a little different playing in my first NFL game, but I’m trusting the process I go through before every game is going to allow me to be at peace and calm and composed and collected. Hopefully, that will allow me to go out and help me execute at a high level.”
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Michael Marot, The Associated Press