LEWISTON – He may be best known for booming kickoffs and clutch field goals, but Stephen Gostkowski is, at heart, a baseball player.

Last year at this time, the New England Patriots kicker was twirling on the mound for the University of Memphis, and while the 23-year-old’s stats indicated he chose the right sport to make a living in (he went 1-4 with a 6.00 ERA in 11 games as a senior), Gostkowski still has the urge to toss around the ol’ horeshide occasionally.

“I watched one of my college buddies play in a spring training game, so I started missing it a little bit,” he said. “I’m used to playing this time of year, but it’s my job now to kick. Definitely baseball is my first love.”

The football off-season is in full swing, but Gostkowski was able to get away from the Patriots’ regimented strength and conditioning program long enough to meet fans and sign autographs for a couple of hours at the Maine Motor Sports Festival at the Colisee Saturday.

“We’re working out four times a week,” he said. “It’s pretty tough. As the weeks go on, it gets harder and harder. I won’t start kicking for another two weeks.”

He is seeing a lot of new faces in the weight room because the Patriots have been busy this off-season, signing top free agents such as Adalius Thomas and Donte Stallworth. Gostkowski said he’s excited that the team is adding so much talent to a team that came up just one win short of the Super Bowl last year.

He said he’s especially happy to see that the new additions include reinforcements for the special teams. Former foes Wes Welker and Sammy Morris, who both played for the Miami Dolphins last year, are expected to bolster the unit.

“We played the Dolphins twice, and we heard all about them all week leading up to those games. It’s exciting to have them on our side. We take a lot of pride in our special teams.”

The fourth-round draft choice entered his rookie year under intense scrutiny, having to follow in the footsteps of Super Bowl hero Adam Vinatieri. He got off to a shaky start but improved down the stretch, converting 20 of 26 field goal attempts and 43 of 44 extra points.

The biggest test, though, came in the playoffs, which is how all Patriot kickers after Vinatieri will be judged. Gostkowski answered a lot of the questions about his ability to kick in the clutch by nailing the game-winning 31-yard field goal in Pats’ thrilling 24-21 win over San Diego in the divisional round, then converting a pressure-packed 43-yarder with 3:49 left in the AFC Championship game against Indianapolis.

“I can’t grade last year because it was my first year. But the reaction I get from people and stuff, I feel like it went pretty good. Especially the playoffs. The way I ended, I was really encouraged,” he said.

Gostkowski thinks having that first year under his belt will help him prepare for his second.

“My head won’t be spinning as much now that I’m not a rookie anymore. But I can’t sit back on my heels like the job is mine. I’ve still got to work hard to keep it,” he said.

“I’m just approaching the off-season trying to get better, trying to get stronger,” he added. “You always want to improve on anything, whether it’s your kickoffs or field goals or (conversion) percentage. There’s always room for improvement. You’re never good enough. I’ve never really seen a guy never miss in a year, so that’s your goal.”

Gostkowski’s presence helped organizers of the two-day event top last year’s show. About 3,500 spectators passed through the Colisee to meet the kicker, check out the cars of Oxford Plains Speedway, watch the arm wrestling and pit crew competitions or talk motor sports with the 50 vendors on the floor.

“Attendance is way up over last year,” said Joe Palmieri, the festival’s organizer. The arm wrestling and Stephen Gostkowski brought in a lot of people, plus the cars. It’s been great. We’re hoping to make a long-term commitment here.”


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