Sports psychology tells us that, in demanding situations, we need to shut everything out. But I should have let it inbreathed deeply, to be sure, but embraced my slow-motion moment and inhaled my surroundings: the crowd, the grass, the uniform, the taunting players, the video guys in the tower, the coaches, the scouts, the equipment staff, the fans, the media, the preteen ball boys who are beginning to feel like kids of my own. Instead of embracing my few seconds of panic, I simply panicked.
As I leave the field, I can’t look anyone in the eyes, though I know everyone’s eyes are on me. I feel as if I have let the team downat 30 minutes per player, my misses cost my teammates a total of 45 hours of freedomand I let myself down. That I had never before kicked a football from a live snap over an offensive line and a full defense is more excuse than pertinent detail. I wanted to validate my presence here. Instead, I failed publicly and spectacularly.
In the seconds after the debacle, a few Broncos try to help me recover. “Your team is going to need you again,” Jason says. “Don’t go into the tank.” Tight end Stephen Alexander whacks me on the shoulder pads and pats me on the helmet. “Shake it off,” he says. Micah reminds me that everyone wants me to succeed. “You heard the crowd. You heard the team,” he says. “They’ll be cheering for you the next time.” My favorite ball boy, Chandler Smith, the polite and adorable 13-year-old son of assistant strength coach Cedric Smith, comforts me best of all. “Close, Mr. Stefan,” he says, either too young to realize just how badly I have performed or too well raised to say anything different.
I sit on my helmet and wipe sweat from my brow while pretending to watch the rest of practice. I apologize to Micah, who tells me not to. Ronnie Bradford says that, watching me bang 35- and 40-yarders with room to spare in warm-ups, he thought, “This is going to be easy.” Then, as curtain time approached, he saw me tighten. Ted Sundquist says that, in my position, he would have spit the bit, too.
When I regain composure, I rejoin the cluster of players standing behind the yellow rope waiting their turn to play. I sneak up on quarterback Preston Parsons and hide my head in his shoulder pads. “Don’t even talk to me!” he says. Tight end Tony Scheffler says he really wanted that half hour off. ‘‘That was pathetic,” offensive tackle Matt Lepsis offers. Cornell Green, another offensive lineman, wants me to run the quarter-mile penalty he incurred for jumping offside in practice. I tell him I will. “They were going to tape you up and throw you in the cold tub,” he says. ‘‘I’ll tell them not to.”
With Jason Elam, I search for new ways to express my embarrassment and disappointment. I say that I’m dumbfounded by how I could have missed so badly.
“You play long enough in the NFL, you’ll miss some kicks,” Jason says.
“But I’m not playing long enough in the NFL,” I reply.
‘‘That’s what I’m saying. You’ve played long enough to miss some kicks.”
A posse of about 30 reporters and cameramen awaits me as I stroll off the field alone. I handle them with greater ease than I did the kicks. They ask who I am and why I’m here. They ask how it’s been going, and I in turn ask whether they saw me bagging 40-yarders. They want to know if I have any kicking experience. They want to know who’s taken me under his wing. They want to know what the stakes were for my kick. They want to know how it felt. They want to know whether it changed how I appreciate and perceive the NFL. I answer honestly, in sound bites.
From his nearby daily news-conference perch, Shanahan is kind. He tells the throng that I didn’t choke. “What was great about that, since he’s been around, he knows what a kicker has to go through,” my coach says. ‘‘When you miss a kick in a game, you’re by yourself, nobody talks to you for a week until the next game. It was a lot of fun.”
Not for me it wasn’t. But I’m grateful that Shanahan is at least charitable. At the back of the crowd, still in shoulder pads, I pretend to be another reporter. “So will you give that kicker a second chance?” I ask. Shanahan sees that it’s me, flashes one of the tight, white smiles that often cross his permanently windburned face, and says that he will.
Amid a pulsing dance beat, I do a perp walk through the locker room. The reviews are not good. Linebacker Keith Burns: “I was thoroughly disgusted.” Center Tom Nalen: “Thanks for fucking us.” Tackle Chad Mustard: “Shit the bed! Call housecleaning! We need new sheets!” Starting quarterback Jake Plummer: “Don’t fucking come near me. Get out of here.” But when the abuse subsides, the players (the more sympathetic ones, anyway) seize on my failure as a happy confirmation of reality, a big, fat I-told-you-so. My going down in an intergalactic fireball illuminates their struggles to play professional football.
Athletes complain that the reporters who smugly judge their performance and behavior can’t possibly understand what they experience. Before joining the Broncos, I was sympathetic to the Atticus Finch principle, that you can’t judge someone unless you walk around in his shoes. I’d watched and reported on enough sports, and talked to enough jocks, to conclude that fans and reporters often absurdly consider athletes as automatons who should never fail. How could that jerk have missed? (That night, when a local TV sports reporter cracks in his report that my book should be titled Worst Kicker Ever, I say to the screen: “Asshole.”) But, trite as it may sound, now I have learned the lesson because I have lived it. And my teammates love that. A half dozen tell me that I got a taste of their lives, that I should multiply the pressure I felt by 25 or 50 or 100, that I was lucky to have had just a half hour of meetings riding on my performance instead of my future employment.
I skip the ice pool out of fear one of the offensive linemen will drown me and instead walk directly to the showers. Just outside, next to the urinals, fullback Kyle Johnson is wearing a white towel and his Broncos ID, waiting to take a drug test.
“How was that for pressure?” he asks.
“More than anything I’ve felt in my life.”
“That’s what it’s like every play of every game. It’ll keep you up at nightif you let it.”
By the end of lunch, my folly seems forgotten. Either I don’t matter much to my teammates, or, I prefer to think, they understand that there but for the grace of God go they. The coaches may expect perfection. The players understand it’s an impossible standard.
Two days after my debut, FG is on the schedule again. Jake Plummer asks if I’m prepared for redemptionand says the stakes are always higher the second time. But my fellow kickers aren’t concerned with whether I’ll have an encore. It’s just another day at camp for them. Jason regales us with tales of buzzing a herd of antelopes in Colorado in his 1957 de Havilland Beaver airplane. Special teams assistant coach Thomas McGaugheyuniversally known as T-Macnotes that Jason would rather be killing antelopes than buzzing them. Todd makes the sound of propeller blades and suggests that Jason could do both at the same time.
I laser the ball from 35 yards on the turf field. T-Mac calls it my best hit yet as a Bronco and announces, “He’s full of piss and vinegar!” I hand him my tape recorder. He hits the red button and talks. “Stefan, do not shit down your leg today. Focus. Don’t be scared. Execute. Swing. If you shit down your leg today, your reps will be limited from here on out.” I line up for another from 35.
“You better get the fucking ball up. Get it up! There it is!” T-Mac shouts, not sarcastically. “Whoa ho ho! He’s on the driving range!” he says in a falsetto.
“Back him up,” Ronnie says. “He’ll hit a forty-yarder.”
“Next on the tee box, from New York City, Stefan Fatsis! Whaaaaaaa ...” I make the 40-yarder. I’m completely comfortable. Nervous, yes, but in a good way. After my flop, Jason told me that if you’re not nervous, you don’t care. He said he’s nervous kicking an extra point in a preseason game. We repair to the weight room to count down the time to FG. I pee, eat a chocolate brownie Myoplex protein bar, and read the Denver Post. With 10 minutes to go, I make two kicks from 30 on grass and patrol the sideline calmly, stretching my legs and breathing methodically. Paul writes in my notebook: “Looks much better today. More relaxed.” Instead of standing alone to await my fate, I stick close by Micah while he ingathers snaps from Mike Leach. Snapper, holder, and kicker are a unit, after all.
“Field goal and field-goal rush!” Shanahan shouts. “Let’s go!” Jason again converts all 10 kicks from the same distances and locations as the other day. The last ball skims the right upright and bounces through. I watch with stupefied awe, but no intimidation or worry. I’m not shaking or hyperventilating, and I’m not afraid.
“Offense!” Shanahan barks. “Fifty-yard line!” The horn sounds. Redemption will have to wait. “At least you were ready,” Paul says.
From A Few Seconds of Panic by Stefan Fatsis. Published by arrangement with The Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright © 2008 by Stefan Fatsis.
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©2008 The Pennsylvania Gazette
Last modified 08/25/08