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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – The fire still burns deep, but that might not be enough to extend one of the longest and most prolific, impactful careers in NFL history.

The thoughts rattle around, pestering and motivating, in that 47-year old head.

That’s not the way I want it to end.

That’s not how it’s going to end.

Not with one of the worst seasons in a 24-year career that undoubtedly will deliver Adam Vinatieri to Canton, Ohio.

Not with every kicker’s worst nightmare – that thump-thump sound – which was Tennessee’s Dane Cruikshank blocking Vinatieri’s 46-yard field goal attempt and Tye Smith scooping it up and returning it 63 yards for a touchdown in what would be a crushing 31-17 Indianapolis Colts loss in week 13.

Not with an injury-shortened season.

“After that Tennessee game, you sit there and think, ‘Man, it can’t get any worse,’’’ Vinatieri told FOX59.

Well, yes it could.

Eight days later, the Colts placed Vinatieri on the injured reserve list. He had battled injuries to his left knee all season, but enough was enough.

Shortly thereafter, noted orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews performed surgery on that left knee that addressed damages to the meniscus and patellar tendon.

Vinatieri has been in serious rehab mode – the road back is roughly a six-month journey – and while he still yearns to have an opportunity to atone for that maddeningly frustrating 2019, it’s fair to wonder if the Colts and NFL have seen the last of him.

He doesn’t allow his mind to spend too much time considering that possibility, but he also is a realist.

“After 24 years in the league and 47 years old, I don’t have many regrets,’’ he said. “I didn’t like the way the last year ended, but I’m not disappointed in my career at all.’’

A quick refresher: he’s been on four Super Bowl-winning teams, including one with the Colts; established himself as the greatest clutch kicker in NFL history with 29 game-winning kicks, including two that delivered world championships to the New England Patriots; piled up an all-time record 2,673 points; and been part of 231 regular-season victories, most in league history.

“If I can’t make it back, it is what it is,’’ Vinatieri said. “I’d like to play again, but if not, that’s part of the deal.

“If after 24 years you’re not at peace with what you’ve done in your career, then you’re a jackass. What more? I always wanted to be a good father and a good husband. Football is what I do, it doesn’t define me.

“Saying that, my definition of Adam Vinatieri the football player is he’s had a pretty good run. If it’s not in the cards and I’m not coming back – and I’m not saying that – then, yes, I’ll be at peace.’’

Again, the internal fire that was so important to Vinatieri kicking at a high level – a Hall of Fame level – year after year after year still is there. How could it not be? That’s not something easily extinguished.

But this has not been a normal offseason and a difficult-but-routine rehab for Vinatieri.

It’s the type of perfect storm that could very well send him into retirement, his competitive nature be damned.

His rehab at the Colts’ Farm Bureau Sports Center was progressing without incident until the COVID-19 pandemic forced the NFL to close all team facilities in mid-March. That left Vinatieri to fend for himself at his Carmel residence. He has occasionally checked in with Erin Barill, the Colts’ director of sports medicine.

“I talk to Erin and he’s like, ‘This is a six-month minimum recovery time, which is in June,’’ Vinatieri said. “He said, ‘I think you’re on pace, but without me putting my hands on you I really don’t know where you are.’

“I knew with a six-month, June (timetable), it was going to be tight anyway. If anything, this is going to prolong my recovery.’’

At one point he considered approaching one of the Colts’ medical interns with a proposition: quarantine yourself for 14 days, take a salary two or three times your normal salary, stay in my guest house and be my personal trainer.

“In hindsight, probably would have been the right thing to do,’’ Vinatieri said.

Vinatieri has intermixed his rehab regimen with quality time in his backyard with A.J., Gabriel and Allison, but it doesn’t take long for his body to tell him it’s not ready for him to resume kicking.

“I can tell my strength is pretty good, but when I go out and run and do some of stuff in the backyard with the boys, it bothers me,’’ he said. “It doesn’t feel great, and I know it’s not supposed to yet.’’

Vinatieri and his family are in the process of moving to Zionsville, and he’s made certain to include a workout room.

“I’ve a lot of exercise equipment … TRX machine, a half-rack (of weights), as much machinery and equipment as I could to do it myself,’’ he said. “I’m getting about 50 percent in that I would be at the Colts facility.

“You really don’t know what’s going to happen.’’

On one hand he wants to return, although it’s unlikely it will be for a 15th season with the Colts. The team signed Chase McLaughlin when Vinatieri went on IR in December, and re-signed him to a one-year contract in January. This week, it added Georgia free agent Rodrigo Blankenship, arguably the nation’s premier kicker last season.

“Life goes on without Adam Vinatieri, that’s for sure,’’ he said.

As of Tuesday evening, Vinatieri and Chris Ballard had yet to hook up, although not for a lack of trying.

During the draft, Ballard called Vinatieri, who was turkey hunting with his son, and indisposed.

“I told my son who was next to me, ‘Watch, they’re going to draft a kicker,’’’ Vinatieri said. “Chris normally wouldn’t call me during the draft. They didn’t draft one, but they signed that kicker out of Georgia. He’s a pretty good kicker.’’

There was no guarantee Vinatieri would return for a 25th year before the COVID-19 issue. Not only was he coming off what he described as a “(crappy) season,’’ but he was rehabbing from significant knee surgery. And he’s 47.

Now, no one even knows when or if the NFL is going to play this year.

“Because of this quarantine thing, I can’t get the work I’d love to have to see if I can get back,’’ Vinatieri said. “Before all of this, my thought was get back and get healthy and if I can kick well, shoot, I figured I could earn a job.

“With the virus, it’s out of my control. All you can do is what you can do and let’s see how it goes. If it’s not in the cards, it’s not in the cards.’’

If there’s more to come – and we came away from our talk with Vinatieri believing retirement is a very real possibility – it won’t be because he’s interested in padding his all-time points record.

“I’d love to have another ring,’’ he said. “That’s the only reason I would come back. I’m not coming back mid-season on a team that’s 0-8, I promise you that. No chance of that.

“If it’s not a team that has a chance to win the Super Bowl, I’ve got no interest in that.’’

If his career is over, Vinatieri has put out feelers for post-NFL. He’s had discussions with FOX and TBS for some type of role.

“I don’t want to not get back and not have options,’’ he said. “I did the interviews. I told them, ‘I’m still rehabbing, trying to get back. If I can’t make it, let’s talk.’

“We both are just slow-playing this because no one knows what’s going to happen. If I don’t play, maybe I have other options.’’

You can follow Mike Chappell on Twitter at @mchappell51.

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