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The Parable of the Placekicker: A Small Gesture Can Be Grand in the Right Moment [How I learned to hate football a little less]

Posted Sep 23 2012 11:17pm

But I loved Dungeons & Dragons… 

As barista, bartender, catering waitress for all athletic functions and erstwhile resident of frat row, I had occasion to meet a lot of football players in college. I even dated a few. But I really only knew one and I didn’t even know he was on the football team until we’d been friends and coworkers for six months. On a campus where players walked around like gods (despite our dismal win-loss record) this in itself made him an anomaly. But he also happened to be one of the nicest most genuine people I ever met. Part of his low profile was due to his natural humility, part was also probably thanks to my extreme obliviousness (the only football game I attended not in a food-service capacity I brought a book to and read through the whole thing – my husband was not amused) but part of it might have had to do with his position.

He was a kicker.

Other than the fact that I thought it was really cool he could do the splits, I never realized what exactly that meant until today when I stumbled across a semi-current edition of Sports Illustrated at the gym – a magazine I never would have picked up if my only other option hadn’t been that stupid 2007 Weight Watchers mag mocking me from atop the magazine rack. And I’d already exhausted the recipe potential of that one. Flipping through SI I came across an article that I daresay may be one of the greatest athletic stories I’ve ever read. It made me cry, you guys. On the stretching mats. At the gym. Without even a friend around to shield me with their sweat towel. The article by Lee Jenkins,  05…04…you’re Not Even A Real Player…03…02…but You Will Make This Kick… , is all about placekickers in football. Whether you’re an NFL addict, only in it for the fantasy football or am alternately bored and flummoxed by it as much as I am, it’s a must read.

See, it’s all about failure. Not about triumph over failure (although there is some of that) or even learning from failure (there’s a bit of that too) but simply about the pain of failing at something really important and the beautifully human response of empathy.

It all starts with kickers who, apparently, fail a lot. I did not know this – my friend never told me – but placekickers are the most disdained players in football, often drawing even the ire of their own teammates thanks to the high-pressure, high-importance and yet highly variable nature of their job. Unlike all the other players they don’t train much with the rest of the team (the author actually called them “special” although I’m assuming he meant it in a weird football way and not a short-bus way), they’re not your stereotypical big burly football dude and – most importantly – they only play a few seconds of each game. But oh what seconds those are! I really don’t get football strategy at all (ready to drop kick me yet?) but it seems kickers are only brought in as clinchers, when a lot – the whole game even – is on the line. They get one kick to punt a tiny ball down a large field through some faraway poles and it’s either in or it’s out. Glory or ignominy. It’s the Project Runway of sports.

The article talks about one great kick but mostly highlights (in agonizing detail), game-losing, tournament-losing, dignity-losing and career-ending missed kicks. How the kicker lined up, had the whole game hanging on him and… choked. There are pictures of grown men huddled in a fetal position on the field, sobbing, as the entire stadium boos them. There are death threats left on car windows and Facebook notes advising suicide. There are stories of walking into a bar 15 years later and still being taunted by strangers. There are nightmares.

Confession: I have no idea who this guy crying is, what his position is or even what team this is. I just googled “placekicker crying” and ended up with this one. Winner winner chicken dinner?

Sure, there are the good kicks, the ones that saved the day. And those are remembered too – just not with the same intensity.  ”It’s kind of unfair,” says former Rutgers kicker Jeremy Ito in the article. “The good feelings you get from making one don’t outweigh the bad feelings you get from missing one.”

But it’s what happens next – after the missed goal – that makes this story so amazing. As Jenkins explains it:

“Two years ago, Boise State was 10–0 and riding a 24-game winning streak, with a senior kicker who was the leading scorer in the history of the Western Athletic Conference. But in Week 11, against Nevada, with the score tied in the final seconds, Kyle Brotzman missed a 26-yard field goal to the right. He tried to compensate in overtime and missed a 29-yarder to the left. Instead of playing Auburn for the BCS championship, the Broncos faced Utah in the Las Vegas Bowl—and went from a payout of $21.2 million to $1 million.

“The two field goals happened so fast, back-to-back, I didn’t have a chance to forget about the first one,” says Brotzman, now with the Utah Blaze of the Arena Football League. “It was in my head, and once that happens, you’re set up to miss again.” Social media have made kicking more hazardous than ever. “People called and left messages,” Brotzman says, “but more than that it was threats on Facebook from gamblers who lost money.”

A week after the game Jeret (Speedy) Peterson, a Boise native and three-time Olympic aerial skier, contacted Brotzman through a mutual friend and visited him. Peterson, who was sexually abused as a child and once saw a friend commit suicide in front of him, had long struggled with alcoholism and depression. “It’s hard for some of us to open up and talk about our feelings,” says Brotzman. “He wanted me to talk about what I was going through. It was a relief to get things off my back.” [Charlotte's note: I looked up Jeret Peterson and the man understood the sting of failure on a grand scale. In the 2006 Olympics he fell out of medal contention after failing to land his signature "hurricane" jump. The next night he was sent home for a drunken brawl and accused of humiliating his team.]

In July 2011, Peterson killed himself, and Brotzman thought about what he could do to honor him. “Speedy didn’t know me, but he changed my life,” Brotzman says. “I wanted to be there for someone in the same way.” “

One elite athlete giving another a shoulder to cry on is a sweet story but this becomes a great story because it wasn’t just Brotzman who reached out. The message spread and, independent of each other it seems, kickers all over the country started calling other kickers to offer support and empathy.

What I love about this story is that these men offered a service very few others could give. While many people say they want to “help” others, so often we fall short when it comes to the “how.” Learning to see a specific need and then knowing how to fill it is an incredible skill and one I wish I was better at.

I also adore that in this story it was a small thing – a call, an e-mail, a text – that made a huge difference. So often we want to do big things, make grand gestures, that we stop before we ever start; when in reality even a small gesture can be grand in the right context. And always a small gesture is better than nothing at all. Think about it: How often has someone made your day with just a smile or a compliment or a really awesome mix tape? How often have you held open a door, said hi or dropped a few coins in a cup and watched someone else’s face transform in front of you?

It’s the simple joy of being acknowledged, of feeling valued, of knowing that someone else sees us. It’s knowing that we matter for who we are, separate and apart from what we do.

All of a sudden, sitting on the stretching mats in my suburban gym on a random Saturday, I was remembering dozens of beautiful moments throughout my life where a small thing saved me. Spain, 15 years old: a packet of crackers bought for me by a stranger when I got motion sick on a boat, a million miles away from my mom.  Seattle, 22 years old: A woman painting in Pike’s Place stopping me to tell me I was an unusual beauty and she saw greatness in my eyes, not knowing I’d just lost a baby, moved a thousand miles away from my family and that day found out I didn’t get the job that I thought was my destiny. New York City, 33 years old: an elderly gentleman escorting my friend and I for over an hour through the labyrinth of subways to make sure we made our flight on time. And then there were all the moments where a big mistake almost undid me and I was caught in arms I didn’t deserve but bore me up anyhow . In moments like these, thank you isn’t nearly enough.

Even though none of us are placekickers (maybe? Are there any placekickers that read my blog?) I believe all of us were born with unique gifts that we can use to help others in a way no one else could. The trick, I think, is just being open to it. God will put you in the right place at the right time. Then all you have to do is kick – the goal is assured.

Do you have a favorite sports story to share? Have you ever done something seemingly small for someone else (or had someone do something for you) that meant so much more?

We recently had NFL dress-up day for Turbo Jennie’s Turbokick class. I grabbed the first jersey I could out of my 8-year-old’s drawer. (Lie: He was actually wearing this jersey and I made him trade me). When I got to class Jennie said “Who are you wearing?!?” I almost answered “Vera Wang.” Instead I had to turn around and read the back of my jersey in the mirror. Brady? Like the guy married to Giselle? Sweet. Later that day on Facebook there was some banter about my choice. I’m still not sure if he’s awesome or if he sucks. Or what team he plays for. Also? Jerseys are really hot. How do people workout in these?!

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