Monday, January 23, 2012

A Lament for the Kicker

Turn to me, O LORD, and be gracious to me,
for I am lonely and afflicted.
Relieve the troubles of my heart,
and bring me out of my distress.
May integrity and uprightness preserve me,
for I wait for you.
Psalm 25:16-17, 21
For real football fans the two weeks between the Conference Championships and the Super Bowl are a secular version of Lent or maybe Purgatory, only worse. We enter into a wilderness of inane chatter and silly predictions. The history of every player will be presented as a morality play and the GAME will be talked about as if it had cosmic consequences. And in the end, most of the time, when we finally get to the Super Bowl it will not live up to the hype and the football will be lost in an avalanche of long (but clever!) advertisements, and a half-time show that will seem to go on for eternity.

Why can’t they just play the game?

But yesterday was wonderful.

And sad at the same time. The games were close and they were exciting. But in the end they were won on mistakes rather than accomplishments. The Giants won because of a fumbled punt return. And the Patriots won because of a missed field goal.

When he was asked about the missed field goal, Raven’s linebacker Ray Lewis said, “One play didn’t win or lose the game. There is no one man who has ever lost a game . . . It happens. Move on, move on, because life doesn’t stop.”

And it’s true. The Ravens had many chances to win. And the Patriots had many chances to put the game out of reach. But the missed field goal was the one that ended it. And that is the one that will be remembered.

Years ago there was a study of fan reactions, and one of the conclusions was that the pain felt in losing lasted longer than the joy felt in winning. I think it was a study of Pittsburgh Steeler fans. And I think it was during their great Super Bowl years in the mid-seventies. (And I could be just remembering it that way because it fits my narrative.) In any case, it rings true.

And within all of that, field goal kickers have a special place. Most of the time, we can’t see the missed assignments. We don’t know what a defensive scheme was really supposed to look like. And we don’t know how a play was supposed to be run. But we can see the kicker. And we can see whether he makes it or misses it. And it does not look as hard as it is.

So Billy Cundiff will be remembered as Scott Norwood is remembered.

A year or two ago he was in the Pro Bowl. And this year he was very accurate inside of forty yards. But none of that mattered on Sunday.

He answered the inevitable questions with class and dignity. The field goal was makeable. He just missed it. There were no excuses.

“It’s one of those situations that will strengthen me in the end,” Cundiff said. “Throughout my career, I’ve had challenging situations and I’m still standing here today. It’s something that is going to be tough for a while, but I’ve got two kids and there are some lessons I need to teach them. First and foremost is to stand up and face the music and move on.”

I would have been happier if the Patriots had just made a couple of first downs on their last drive.

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