Shanahan motions the team to the middle of the field before the next drill. “In this business,” he says, “there’s a lot of pressure, and a lot pressure put on kickers. We’re going to put some pressure on our kicker, Stefan. He’s going to kick. If he makes it, meetings will end at nine instead of nine thirty.”
A war whoop rises from the team. As I record Shanahan’s words, defensive back Nick Ferguson snatches my notebook. “Quit writing!” he shouts. The special teams line up on the 12-yard linea 30-yard field goaland the fans realize what’s happening, Applause builds. “Come on, nine!” “Let’s go, nine!” “Come on, Fatsis!” Jason approaches. “Stefan, you know there’s a 25-second clock,” he says with a grin. I’m too frightened to ask whether he’s joking.
In the movies of our lives, the most meaningful moments occur in slow motion. We want to preserve them and relive them, find a way to recover the most evanescent details: the first upturn in a smile, the bounce of a bob of hair, the instant when two pairs of eyes meet, the flutter in a skirt. We want to savor the experience. We want to enjoy. Intellectually, I recognize that this should be one of those moments. I am comfortable with my teammates now, and comfortable in front of crowds. I have spoken to audiences in the hundreds, appeared dozens of times on national television, talked to millions of people on the radio, had my work critiqued in the pages of influential newspapers and magazines. I am comfortable with spotlights. I couldn’t have conceived, arranged, and carried out this extended performance with an NFL team if I wasn’t.
In sports, there is nothing quite so appealing as the split second before execution. There’s the anticipation of what will happen, for sure, but also the exquisite beauty of the pause: the moment of nothingness before the explosion of everythingness. But instead of soaking in the attention, in appreciating the most unlikely moment of nothingness in my life, I am totally freaking out. I can’t find a way to slow things down. I can’t smile. I can’t high-five the other players and skip into place. I can’t acknowledge the fans with a rock-’n’-roll finger point, the way punter Todd Sauerbrun does. I can’t pat my long snapper, Mike Leach, on the ass and my holder, Micah, on the helmet. I can’t call the field-goal team together for an impromptu huddle and a self-effacing joke. I can’t see anything around mebut I can’t shut out the fact that I’m surrounded, either. Nothing looks clear. It’s as if I’m standing a few inches from an impressionist painting, the players, the Broncos staff, the fans on the berm all dissolving in a pointillistic blur. I want to fast-forward to tomorrow. I want to disappear.
Suddenly, the offensive line is bending over. I tap the ground with my right foot and take three erratic steps back and two over. I don’t take a practice swing. I exhale hard. My body is shaking, my fingers twitching. I never come to a complete stop. Rather than nodding my head at Micah to signal that I’m ready for him to call for the ball, I say, inexplicably, “Go!” Go? Go? What was that? Then the ball is snapped and I’m racing forward. Left, right, leftI feel my plant foot slip and my body falling backward. I kick the grass first and then the ball. There is no explosive sound, no sound at all, really, no power. No chance. I hear shouts of “Get up, get up, get up!!!” and then “No, no, no!’!” And a crescendo and decrescendo wave of “Awwwwwwww!!!” as the ball shoots under the crossbar.
I grab my helmet with both hands, turn my back to the goalposts, and collapse into a question mark. A chorus of laughter surrounds me. When I lift my head, I see Nick Ferguson leaping up and down and shouting. “Offside! Offside!” He helps me up. “Five-yard penalty!” Shanahan says. “Offside! Do it again!”
“No, no, no!” I shout to Shanahan. I don’t want to go five yards closer! I can make a 30-yarder! But no one listens. Wide receiver Rod Smith cradles my helmet and whispers encouragement in an earhole. The crowd starts clapping. Nick Ferguson raises his arms to pump up the fans. “You can do it! You can do it!” someone shouts. But I feel more alone and insecure than ever. I pace and shake out my legs, daubing the turf with my right foot, then my left. A whistle blows.
Of all the hundreds upon hundreds of footballs I have booted in the prelude to this kick, of all the hooks and slices and short kicks and weak kicks and slips and mis-hitsincluding the one two minutes earliernone has been like this one. In fact, in the long history of the NFL, through the eras of dropkickers and toe kickers and never-seen-a-football European sidewinders, no oneno onehas likely kicked a ball like this one. “OOOOoooooHHHHhhhhh!!!!” the crowd and players cry as one. Amid the noise, I hear a single scream of anguish.
The ball flies high enough and far enough. But it is a line drive to the left of the goalposts. A line drive spiral to the left of the goalposts. A spiral!
I drop to the ground as if I’ve been shot and bury my helmeted forehead in the grass. The horn sounds. While the rest of the team runs past my carcass rotting on the turf, Jason Elam, a broad smile highlighting the crow’s-feet around his bright eyes, helps me up. Mike Leach pats me on the back. A defensive lineman named Demetrin Veal puts an arm around my shoulders and says it’ll be okay. I walk the slow walk of the damned to the sideline with Jason.
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©2008 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 08/25/08