SAN DIEGO — This is just a little thing, but when you're Charger kicker Vince Abbott, and it has taken eight years and considerable sanity to find your place, you notice the little things.
Two Fridays ago, the Charger kicker and his wife, Sarah, were sitting in an ice cream parlor.
An elderly man and his 7-year-old grandson were in the next booth talking about the Chargers. Abbott's wife leaned over, pointed to her husband and asked the boy if he knew who he was. He didn't. She told him.
The little boy flipped.
"His eyes get real big. He acts like he's in shock. He can't say anything," Abbott recounted. "He's actually in awe of me or something."
On the way out, Abbott asked the boy to wait a second. He ran to his car, reached in the back, where several dirty practice footballs had been messing up the seats, and grabbed one of the balls.
He signed it, "To Adam," then handed the ball to the boy. No reason. At least, no reason that anybody other than Vince Abbott would understand.
"It was the way he looked at me," Abbott said. "My whole life, I've never gotten looks like that."
Abbott, a 28-year-old rookie who graduated from Cal State Fullerton in 1981, has won two games for the Chargers with field goals--one in overtime, one with 12 seconds left in regulation.
At one point he had kicked eight consecutive field goals, a streak that was broken only when he missed a 53-yard effort. During one stretch, he had eight field goals in three games.
Then last Sunday the true measure of his impact was felt. He failed. He missed from 42, 46 and 48 yards.
The Chargers lost to Pittsburgh, 20-16. Had he made two of them, the Chargers would have won.
But nobody said a word. Nobody scolded him. Nobody blamed him.
"I believe he will be fine," Coach Al Saunders said. "That was the exception rather than the rule. That was atypical of him. He has a good perspective on what he has to do to come back."
And what did Abbott think? A long walk on a short pier, perhaps?
"I just kick it," Abbott said. "Where it goes is where it goes. I can just do my best and hope it gets through the uprights."
After all he has been through--six National Football League training camps and one season in the United States Football League--did you expect him to say anything else?
For Vince Abbott, this new and wonderful life in the NFL remains more a matter of the little things.
"You know, seeing that little boy's face that night was the highlight of my season," said Abbott.
He acts out this new role, pro football player, as if it were any other job.
Abbott is the only Charger who commutes long distance to work because of his wife. She has a good job in Los Angeles, so they live in a condominium in Costa Mesa. Twice a week, he makes the 90-minute trip, one day leaving the house at 5:15 a.m. to make practice on time. On nights he doesn't go home, he stays in Del Mar with his parents.
"I know it's a long drive," he said. "But I miss my three cats."
Vince Abbott is probably the only Charger whose Christmas tree is decorated with Charger ornaments and little stuffed footballs.
"The money is nice, but what I really like about playing for the Chargers is the trinkets they give out," Abbott said. "I've got glasses and shirts and baseball caps. Those are what mean something."
Abbott also is the only Charger with a genuine, corny good-luck charm. Before every game, he takes a snipping of an old T-shirt and sticks it in his right shoe.
"He can't wear the T-shirt anymore, thank goodness, because it finally fell apart," Sarah said. "Now we have a bag with all the snippings in it, so as soon as one snipping wears out, he can put another one in his shoe right away. I know, people think we're crazy."
Abbott prefers a different description.
"If you step back and think about what has happened to me, it's unbelievable," he said in his soft British accent.
Born in London, he wasn't there long. He had attended 16 schools by the time he was 15 and had lived everywhere from Ireland to Australia to New Zealand to the Bahamas.
He went to the University of Washington to play rugby. There were two women suited up for the first practice. He quit the team. "I wondered, 'How can I get physical with two women?"'
He joined the football team as a soccer-style kicker. He passed the tryout by making 30 of 30 in the rain. He was rewarded with a red shirt, meaning he had to sit out a year.
He quit school because he thought a red shirt meant he could play immediately anywhere else. "That's the way it is in England," he said.
By the time he had enrolled at Cal State Fullerton, he realized that he was wrong. He had to sit out a year there, too. "I was dumb," he said.
He finally graduated from Fullerton as a good kicker lost in the shuffle of a thousand good kickers. He received no pro contract for a year. And then the fun started.
San Francisco. Miami. Chicago. Tampa. The Raiders. From 1982-86, Abbott attended each training camp once. He:
--Loved the drums of ice cream at the 49er camp.