The other night, more than 25 million people watched the NFL AFC championship game end in infamy as the New England Patriots narrowly defeated the Baltimore Ravens.
Did the game end with a triumph of sporting brilliance? A testament to human willpower? A staggering display of athletic prowess?
No. Sadly, it was mostly decided because one guy made a lousy kick.
It was the kind of kick we’ve all screwed up much more badly at some point. In recess. In 3rd grade. But this kick was screwed up by a guy whose sole job, unfortunately, it is to make great kicks in clutch situations. And despite the relatively easy field goal length of 32 yards, he just plum missed it. And instead of tying the game up, his team lost, and they missed out on going to the Super Bowl.
This man is Billy Cundiff.
And he’s probably got a tough few months ahead of him. Maybe longer.
And it must be said, I’m a Patriots fan. I grew up in New England, and after not seeing much success out of them in my youth, I’m ecstatic that this will be their 5th time in the Super Bowl in 11 years.
But I didn’t want to see them win like that. Neither did most Pats fans. Hell, I swear I could even see some Pats players wincing in empathy themselves for the man who arguably cost his team a chance at a ring.
And yes, surely the Ravens and their fans didn’t want to see it end that way, either.
But most of all, Billy Cundiff probably sure would have preferred a different ending, too.
There’s no shortage of stories in NFL history about kickers failing to make the clutch kick. It’s the stuff of folklore, even spoofed in movies like Ace Ventura. The kind of “whoops” you hope never happens to you. The kind that perhaps Buffalo Bills kicker Scott Norwood knows all too well. The kind that most of us commit at least once a week. But when there aren’t 25 million people watching.
The phrase “manning up” usually refers to facing a challenge in life, being bold, not backing down from a fight.
But there’s another kind of “manning up” entirely: the subtle art of recovering from a mistake, accepting responsibility and rebuilding oneself to try again.
We saw the beginnings of that kind of “manning up” in Billy’s post-game conference, as he acknowledged his blunder with calm humility. “I think we can keep things simple: It’s a kick I’ve made a thousand times in my career. I just went out there and didn’t convert. There’s really no excuse for it.”
He knew it was a horrible lapse in skill, and he owned it. The coaches and other team members like Ray Lewis all said the things that should be said, the things that are actually even true, that no one person can lose a game. That the real reason is that the whole team didn’t do enough. That you could point to other moments where someone else screwed up, but it simply didn’t happen in the final 10 seconds of the game.
But Billy knows most of the world won’t see it that way. A lot of people will blame him. Even if they shouldn’t. The competition might trash-talk him about it for years. Hell, he might trash talk himself about it for years.
As someone who was a competitive ski racer for 10 years, I could relate. I know all about the sting of a momentary lapse in concentration. You can train all season long, for years on end, developing your strength and power, honing your reflexes, refining your technique, tuning your gear, and even put yourself in a first place after the first run. But in the second run, if you start thinking of victory too soon and hook a tip on the third gate from the finish and crash out? None of it matters at all. Some other guy wins and you go home with nothing.
You’ll think about it all season long, how you could have possibly let such a moment slip away. It takes a well-balanced mind to keep those demons at bay, to not beat yourself up, to forgive yourself. Because it’s easy to be a paragon of virtue when everything’s going your way. The true test of a man is when he finds himself face down in the mud.
Billy’s still got a good chunk of his career ahead of him. And it doesn’t have to end this way. This doesn’t have to be the moment he’s remembered for.
So while he’s clearly got a lot of experience “manning up” in the traditional sense in his life (he was voted a Pro Bowl kicker just last year), this one might be his biggest test yet of the other kind.
And based on his most recent post-game comments, I’d say it’s one I say he’s gonna pass. “It’s something that is going to be tough for a while,” he said. “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.”
There are a lot of things a man could be concerned with after failing to deliver the goods in such a crucial moment: his team, his team’s fans, his PR image, perhaps his future contract negotiations. But instead, what’s on his mind most?
His kids. And that he’s got a responsibility to use this as a teaching moment for them, to show them how to get up off the ground and try again.
I can’t wait to see how those kids turn out, Billy. I’ll be rooting for you.
(Just as long as you’re not playing against the Pats.)