Thursday, January 23, 2003

Janikowski trying to put arrests, wild nights, behind him

By Greg Beacham
The Associated Press

SAN DIEGO - When Sebastian Janikowski pulled his blue cap down to his eyebrows and walked through a crowded hotel lobby, not many people noticed. For once during his controversial football career, the Oakland Raiders' powerful kicker isn't attracting much attention.

That all might change if Janikowski gets the same chance that was seized by New England's Adam Vinatieri last January: winning a Super Bowl with one perfect kick.

"I think about it before I go to sleep in bed," Janikowski said Wednesday. "It's everybody's dream. I would love to kick a field goal to win a Super Bowl, but I'd rather we score a touchdown, and I kick the extra point."

Everything is coming together for Janikowski in San Diego, where the good weather and mild breezes make Qualcomm Stadium his favorite venue outside of his home Coliseum. A native of Poland, he rarely speaks to reporters or makes public appearances in Oakland, but he has had a smile above his scruffy goatee all week at the Super Bowl.

Teammates and coaches say he doesn't seem to be the same wild man who got into repeated scrapes with the law at Florida State and again in Oakland over the previous five years.

Of course, many Raiders said the same thing before Janikowski was charged with drunken driving last Oct. 1. Janikowski pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge last month and received three years' probation and a $1,292 fine.

In 2001, Janikowski was acquitted on charges of possessing GHB, the "date-rape" drug. In 2000, he was acquitted on a charge he offered a Tallahassee, Fla., police officer $300 to release his roommate after an argument with a nightclub bouncer.

"I think that's all in the past," said his holder, punter Shane Lechler. "I think he's getting smarter around people now, and he's definitely a great kicker who's getting better."

After fixing a few hiccups in his kicking approach and improving his conditioning during the past two seasons, Janikowski appears to be better than ever just when the Raiders might need him most. He has made five of his six field goal attempts in the postseason, missing only a sharp-angled kick against the Jets.

"I think Jano's very confident," coach Bill Callahan said. "His maturity has really taken another step. I think he finally understands what preparation means. He understands what performance means, not only on the field, but off the field as well. I sense some major strides in his disposition and demeanor."

Both kickers in the Super Bowl are foreign-born. Janikowski's counterpart is Martin Gramatica, the Buccaneers' excitable Argentinean kicker.

After a wild career at Florida State, Raiders owner Al Davis took a big risk in selecting Janikowski in the first round of the 2000 draft. Janikowski was inconsistent in his first two seasons, dazzling with his long kickoffs, frustrating the Raiders with placekicking struggles.

Janikowski made 26 of 33 field goal attempts this season, missing just twice from inside 40 yards and making both of his tries longer than 50. For once in his career, most of his press clippings have been positive - particularly in Poland, where Janikowski's trip to the Super Bowl is national news.

"It means a lot for Poland," Janikowski said. "I think people are excited. I think they're going to come out with a football team in the next couple of years in the Europe league."

When Janikowski kicked in high school and college, he didn't lift weights. His only conditioning came from practice and pickup soccer games.

These days, Janikowski is devoted to the weight room. Early in his career, he generated most of his power from his flexibility; these days, his leg workouts give him both power and stamina.

"Last year after 15 games, my leg was falling off," Janikowski said. "I can tell from my body I'm getting stronger every year. I've got no problems kicking from any distance. I can't wait for next year, either."

Janikowski seems aware he's received plenty of second chances. He knows the saga of teammate Darrell Russell, whose once-promising career is in limbo after a one-year suspension for violating the NFL's substance abuse policy.

He's determined to make the most of his situation on a team and in a city that supports him despite his transgressions.

"I want to jump into the Black Hole one day," he said. "I think it's going to be after a winning kick, a field goal or something. I always dream about that."

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