The excitement begins for Martin Gramatica as soon as the ball leaves his foot. As the kick sails toward the goal post, the 5-foot-8 rookie kicker for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers starts bouncing and waving his arms. And then, as the ball sails through the uprights, he sprints around the field, fists pumping, searching frantically for a teammate to hug, slap or congratulate.
The act is part Brandi Chastain, part Jim Valvano, but it's mostly the product of a soccer-rich childhood in Argentina. Gramatica's family moved from Buenos Aires to LaBelle, Fla., when Martin (pronounced Mar-TEEN) was only 9, but he remained an avid follower of the sport.
"Kicking a field goal is like scoring a goal," said Gramatica, wearing a T-shirt of Major League Soccer's Tampa Bay Mutiny this afternoon before the Buccaneers' practice for Saturday's NFC semifinal against the Washington Redskins. "The way I react is a natural thing for me. You work so hard all week and it's an emotional release. Every kick to me feels like a game-winner."
Gramatica converted 27 of 32 field goal attempts for the Buccaneers during the regular season and although several clinched victories, he is just as likely to go into a whirling celebration following extra point conversions. His show of emotion stands out on a team that generally takes its cue from Coach Tony Dungy's stoic sideline demeanor.
"It's refreshing to see a guy like Martin who expresses himself like that, showing pure emotion for doing something well," said punter Mark Royals, who also serves as Gramatica's holder. "It's the way he does things, and guys appreciate it. It means so much for him to do his job well and all the emotions just come out when he makes his kicks."
Gramatica had never played football until his junior year of high school when several classmates talked him into attending spring practice. He converted 8 of 10 field goal attempts as a senior and earned a scholarship to Kansas State, where he was an all-American twice and was the Lou Groza winner as the nation's top place kicker as a junior.
"When I started kicking, I figured I could get a college education out of it," Gramatica said. "I wasn't thinking NFL. Growing up, I thought maybe I could play pro soccer in Mexico."
When the Buccaneers drafted Gramatica in the third round last April with the 80th pick overall, he became the highest-drafted kicker since Jason Elam was taken 70th by Denver in 1993.
Gramatica converted his first 10 field goal opportunities and was named the NFC's special teams player of the month in November after making 9 of 10 attempts and all eight extra-point tries. He connected on four field goals against Atlanta on Nov. 21, including a game-winning 53-yarder with 58 seconds remaining.
Gramatica's kicking has been particularly important for a team that ranked 25th in the NFL in scoring, averaging 16.9 points per game. The Buccaneers won two games without scoring an offensive touchdown.
"He's saved our tails several times," guard Jorge Diaz said. "You tend to think of playmakers as running backs and receivers and quarterbacks, but this guy is a playmaker."
He also is a favorite of fans and local newspaper headline writers. (Automatica! Dramatica! Gramatically Correct!) And while he has not had a chance to return to Argentina in six years, the country has embraced its first NFL player. Each Tuesday, Gramatica speaks by phone to reporters there.
"Some people there don't understand the game, but a lot of them are avid followers," Gramatica said. "They watch on TV, collect [trading] cards and do all the things fans here do."
Gramatica set off some fan hysteria here Monday when he was taken to St. Joseph's Hospital after complaining of stomach pain. A battery of tests did not reveal any problems, and he resumed practice today.
Gramatica's younger brother, Bill, is an all-American kicker at Division I-AA University of South Florida. Another brother, Santiago, is a high school junior regarded as a college prospect. Martin says he would like to see the Gramatica name become synonymous with NFL kickers, much as Tony, Luis and Max made a name for Zendejas brothers in the early '80s.