Adam Vinatieri is growing a beard in a playoff tribute to Ray Bourque, but even Bourque in his prime may not have been as much of a cult figure for New England sports fans as Vinatieri is now.

It was Vinatieri's right foot that launched the football through weather more suited for a dogsled race in the Patriots' playoff game against the Oakland Raiders in Foxboro, Mass., on Jan. 19.

Vinatieri said he thought only of trying to get good footing and getting the ball into the air when, off a bed of snow, he kicked a low, line-drive 45-yarder with 27 seconds left in regulation to push the Patriots into overtime with the Raiders. In overtime, he hit a 23-yarder that won the game.

Since then his quirky life story -- Vinatieri is a great-great-grandson of Gen. George Custer's bandmaster, his mother a second cousin of Evel Knievel -- has taken on the patina of legend.

''I've dreamed a lot of times about kicking game-winners in playoff games and Super Bowls,'' Vinatieri said. ''But in all of my dreams, I'm sure there wasn't three or four inches of snow on the ground.''

Vinatieri's path to local hero is as unusual as his lineage. For years he was in learning-disabled classes because of a reading problem. But there he found a teacher who inspired him, Marsha Farrand.

''She was the first teacher that actually motivated me to do good things,'' Vinatieri said.

After high school, Vinatieri went to the United States Military Academy, where he lasted two weeks. He then went to South Dakota State and made his professional debut with the Amsterdam Admirals of the World League in 1996. Later that year, Bill Parcells, then the Patriots' coach, signed him, mostly to light a fire under his kicker, Matt Bahr. Vinatieri beat out Bahr for the job.

Coaches never tire of motivational tricks.

This year, Bill Belichick drafted a kicker in the seventh round, surprising Vinatieri. Vinatieri made 24 of 30 field goals this season, missing only one from inside the 40.

After the Super Bowl, Vinatieri will be an unrestricted free agent who is one of two kickers in National Football League history to score more than 100 points for six straight seasons. And he has earned perhaps the highest accolade a coach can bestow on a kicker.

''He kicks the ball for us, but when I look at him as a coach, you don't really see a kicker,'' Belichick said. ''You see a football player.''

And he said that the week before the Snow Bowl against Oakland.

''That's probably one of the biggest compliments I could get,'' Vinatieri said. ''For him to say he's not just a kicker, he's an athlete, that's big.

''We want to be able to make tackles and to help the team.''

Vinatieri did not attempt a field goal in the 1997 Super Bowl, which was also played in the Superdome. But, given the month he has had, Vinatieri has given some thought to how one kick can change his life.

''Every kicker knows the Scott Norwood situation,'' he said of the Buffalo kicker who missed a potential game-winning 47-yarder against the Giants in Super Bowl XXV. ''But every kicker dreams of kicking the game-winner in the Super Bowl. I'm sure the last few nights before the game, I'll wake up sweating because I kicked it so many times.''

Photo: Adam Vinatieri (4) kicking the winning field goal in the Patriots' overtime victory over the Raiders on Jan. 19. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)