Canadian kicker Mike Vanderjagt is a household name for his All-Pro stint with the Indianapolis Colts, but none of it would have been possible if not for an unceremonious exit from the Saskatchewan Roughriders.
During an appearance on the Rod Pedersen Show this week, Vanderjagt reminisced about his rookie season in 1993 with the Riders and how it all fell apart.
“It’s a crazy story how I ended up out of there but I loved it. I had a great experience. I was excited about where I was living and before you know it, I was packing my bags and leaving town,” the Oakville, Ont. native recalled.
“I came in there as a guy who was competing for both the kicker and the punter. I was going against Brent Matich as a punter and I was going a little bit against Dave Ridgeway as a kicker but obviously, Dave was a legend so I was more focused on trying to win the punting job.”
In his first professional season out of the University of West Virginia, Vanderjagt threatened for the starting punting job and appeared in two regular-season games. He punted 17 times for an average of 39.5 yards per kick, but couldn’t last in the prairies after running afoul of legendary CFL coach Don Matthews.
“My sister was getting married, so I was given permission to go to my sister’s wedding in Toronto. I flew to Toronto, went to my sister’s wedding, got back in time for practice, and just decided not to go,” the retired kicker admitted.
“I went home and hung out, and the next day Coach Matthews called me into his office and said, ‘I’m cutting you for rookie mistakes.’ I always learned from that lesson, for sure.”
The Riders would go on to finish 11-7 that season and kicking certainly wasn’t an issue, as the future Hall of Famer Ridgeway was named a league all-star after nailing 48 of 53 field goals (90.9 percent). Matich averaged 41.1 yards per punt and would play three more seasons in Regina.
Meanwhile, Vanderjagt struggled to land on his feet and found himself out of football for several seasons after unsuccessful tryouts with the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and Toronto Argonauts. It was a connection made in Saskatchewan that eventually saved him, as Ray Jauch, the Riders’ former offensive coordinator and later head coach, took over an Arena Football League expansion franchise called the Minnesota Fighting Pikes in 1996 and remembered a plucky kicker from three years earlier.
“He brought me into Minnesota and said, ‘Listen, you’re my kicker. You don’t have to try out.’ Obviously, we knew each other just from when I was in Saskatchewan and so that was cool,” Vanderjagt explained. “Then I kept kicking off into the stands to the side and not through the net at the back. I got cut for horrible kickoffs.”
“The crazy thing is I got signed in Toronto a week later and lo and behold, Don Matthews was the head coach.”
This time the relationship between Matthews and his kicker proved incredibly fruitful, as Vanderjagt helped lead the Argos to back-to-back Grey Cup victories as a three-tool specialist, winning the game’s Most Valuable Canadian award in 1996. He was named a CFL all-star the following season, before departing for the NFL in 1998 when he signed with the Colts.
Vanderjagt would go on to play eight seasons in Indianapolis and another with the Dallas Cowboys, retiring as the most accurate kicker in NFL history at 86.5 percent. His career mark now ranks seventh all-time, as he connected on 230 of 266 attempted kicks and amassed 1,067 points. He was the NFL’s scoring leader in 1999 and earned second-team All-Pro honours, before taking home first-team honours and a Pro Bowl selection in 2003.
The Riders’ eighth-round pick in the 1992 CFL Draft returned for one final CFL season with the Argos in 2008. In four seasons north of the border, he connected on 112 of 150 field goal attempts (74.7 percent) and collected 533 career points, while averaging 44 yards per punt.
None of that illustrious career would have been possible without the lessons learned through his early slip-up in Saskatchewan, though that won’t stop Rider Nation from mourning the loss of Robokicker’s heir apparent.