It’s the biggest night of my life, October 10, 1992. Tonight Pitt will play the most storied team in college football, the University of Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish had 11 National Championships, seven Heisman Trophy winners, and their own television contract with NBC. Games can be lost or won by a point. My job is to make extra points and field goals. I’m the kicker.
I rush into the trainers’ room to be sure I get my favorite trainer, Rick. Seven long tables are already occupied with players receiving their last- minute treatments, massages, oral painkillers. Players getting their ankles taped stare at the ribbons of tape circling their ankles. Taping’s an art. It has to be done just right. My guy, Rick, waits by the empty table with one hand on his hip and the other holding a heating device.
I take my shirt off and climb up on my belly, bracing myself for elec- trical stimulation. Rick unscrews the cap of something that looks like a giant tube of toothpaste. He squirts some gel on white pads and places them on my lower back. After countless sessions, the gooey sensation still makes me squirm. Rick sticks two white electrode squares on each side of my spine right above my tailbone. “Are they in the right spot?” he asks.
“Perfect.” As usual. Somehow he remembers every inch of every play- er’s injury.
Barely audible hip-hop thumps from the locker room on the other side of the blue door. The cross-chatter in the trainers’ room drowns it out. “We got over 40 guys that need treatment before the game tonight,” Rick tells me. It’s been two months since the first day of training camp and injuries are piling up.
He turns the dial in slow motion.
“Enough?” he asks.
My lower back feels like hundreds of ants are biting it.
“A little more.”
I want it to work. I need it to work.
“Did you take your muscle relaxant yet?” Rick asks me.
“Just half. The whole pill makes me drowsy.”
While the timer is on, I try to relax and picture myself kicking the
ball. The self-talk began the night before in my hotel bed and will not subside. I can’t miss any kicks tonight. Don’t choke. I imagine being successful and picture myself kicking the ball through the uprights. My battle with confidence and fear goes back and forth. Confidence wins. I haven’t missed a field goal in a month. I’m in the zone. I’m more excited than nervous.
Being a kicker is a lonely job. In the NFL, each team carries just one. One kicker. No backup. You’re it. I can be a hero or the goat of the game. To keep from going crazy, I talk to myself. Like I’m living on a deserted island. And very often, the self-talk makes me crazy. My opponents are the wind, the cold, and the 10-foot-high and 18 1/2-foot-wide crossbar, and 30-foot-high metal posts that I have to kick the ball through, but also anxiety, fear, and worry. My allies are confidence and hitting the ball just right. Not too hard, not too soft, and in the right spot. The sweet spot. A tiny spot about the size of a nickel near the tip of the ball. Missing it by a sliver can send the ball careening outside the uprights and my mood into the pits of despair.
I remind myself to think positive. I picture my kicks flying through the middle of the uprights. I recollect specific kicks I’ve made in the past. Rutgers—dead center from 44 yards. Minnesota—from the left hash, 42 yards.
I tell myself to relax. Don’t change anything. Nice and easy.
As a kicker, there’s not much upside. You’re expected to make every kick.
There’s no coasting when you’re a kicker, no resting on your laurels. It’s always, What if I miss the next kick? Then what?
Just one kick can change a kicker’s career. Make one, and you ride a wave of confidence for days. Miss one and you may fall into depression. The feeling of letting your whole team down can make you a head case. How a kicker responds to adversity can shape his entire career. You have to be resilient and bounce back after a miss.
The kick is either good or no good. There are no points for how far it goes or if it hits the upright. It’s hard not to translate this into I’m either good or no good.
As I relax on the table, almost to the point of napping, a gorgeous brunette with an infectious smile pops in my mind. I hope she will be watching the game tonight. And then, the stim machine beeps and jolts me back to reality.
Rob, our head trainer, stops by my table and says, “You’re going to have a great game tonight. I can feel it.” He is one part athletic trainer, one part Zen master.
I make a quick visit to see the ball boy. I can’t control the wind tonight, but I can control the balls I’ll kick. I examine the balls marked with a black K. I squeeze them and rub my hands all over them. With both hands, I press the ends in to soften the points. Every little detail counts. They feel perfect.
I tell him, I like these two best.
He will make sure the refs use them for my field goals.
At my locker, I stretch my black nylon ankle brace over my left foot. I
sprained my ankle in high school playing basketball and it has never been the same since. I pull my socks up right beneath my calf muscles, then put my Nike turf shoe on my left foot and tug the laces as tight as possible. I’m on my second pair of laces this season due to pulling them too hard. I pop my right foot into my Adidas soccer shoe. I filed down the cleats on the bottom to reduce friction on the artificial turf. Everything needs to be perfect.
I stretch my blue and yellow jersey with the large #2 over my shoulder pads, then contort and slither my chest and arms to get all the way in. I stare for a moment at my helmet hanging on the inside of my locker and feel adrenaline surging inside my veins. I grab it by the facemask and head toward the tunnel to go onto the field for pregame warmups. I feel like I have to go to the bathroom. It’s the nerves.
When I return to the locker room, the stereo is off.
“Get yourselves ready, guys,” the linebacker coach says.
I pull my Discman out of my backpack and cue up my traditional
pregame warmup song: Guns N’ Roses, “Welcome to the Jungle.” About a hundred other guys look just like me, quiet and expressionless. The room is focused, on edge. Once the song ends, I toss my Discman back in the bag and begin my personal meditation. I visualize myself making the big kick. Everyone else is imagining similar success stories. Our star quarter- back, Alex Van Pelt, is making the big pass. Dietrich Jells, our standout wide receiver, is grabbing the pivotal catch.
I have dreamed of a day like today since the day I finished in third place at the Punt, Pass, and Kick competition that my dad took me to when I was eight. A little kid with a bowl cut, a smile, and freckles, I’d told my dad, “I’m going to play in the NFL someday.” I’ll never know if he believed me, but he never pushed me. But he didn’t have to. Grow- ing up, I kicked for hours at a nearby dirt field in my hometown of Erie, Pennsylvania, until the sun went down. It felt more like play than practice.
Football was everything to me. I watched it every weekend with my dad: college football on Saturdays, the NFL on Sundays. I wanted so badly to be on a team, to be part of something bigger than myself. I wanted to win the ultimate team championship, the Super Bowl. Fourteen years later and 120 miles from home, I’m closer to that dream coming true than almost any one of the millions of kids who’d fantasized about it.
The guy next to me says, “There are scouts from every NFL team here tonight. I saw ones from the Detroit Lions and the Dallas Cowboys.”
“Are you shitting me?” someone says.
I scan the room and catch nervous glances.
Each one of us knows that to win, we need every yard, every inch.
Scrap and claw. Play above ourselves. We are a struggling team. Three losses already. We can erase all the disappointment with a win tonight. The entire country is watching.
A calm voice interrupts the tension. “Gentlemen, bring it in.”
Paul Hackett, our head coach, wears a crisp white oxford shirt and blue-striped tie, and as he walks he puts his Pitt hat on over his curly hair, giving it a small adjustment. We gather in the center of the room and take a knee on the floor, keeping a little opening for Coach Hackett to get into the center of our circle. In the distance we hear a buzz. We are in the belly of the old concrete Pitt Stadium. There are 52,000 people in the stands. We can’t see the fans yet, but we can feel them.
“Gentlemen, this is why you came to Pitt.” He looks us in our eyes, one by one. “To play on the biggest stage in college football.”
The head referee comes in and interrupts the moment: “Coach, we need your captains on the field now.” I grab my helmet and walk over to him at the locker room exit. Cornerback Vernon Lewis, #42, the captain of the defense, joins us. And then Alex Van Pelt, our quarterback, #10, the captain for the offense. I’m the captain of the special teams.
The referee takes a look at his oversized wristwatch. “Let’s go, guys,” he says, and walks down the tunnel. I’ve walked through this cold tunnel dozens of times, but tonight it feels warm from the excitement in the air. We grab each other’s hands and walk out side by side. As we start down the tunnel, we can hear cleats on the cement, but as we approach the field, the vibration from the drums of the Pitt band and the cheers from the crowd swallow us, and my blood is flowing full throttle.
We slow our pace for a moment to take it in. We emerge into the hazy October night. As I step out of the tunnel, I feel like a gladiator walking into the Coliseum. The sky is shades of orange and purple. The stadium lights are on full blast. Over my left shoulder the Pitt student section waves their yellow pompoms in unison with the band. The air is buzzing. Over my right shoulder, in the corner of the end zone, it’s a sea of green. It’s the Notre Dame section. Their mascot, a leprechaun, dances for the crowd.
Men in red ESPN jackets walk around with cameras on their shoul- ders. A couple dozen photographers with zoom lenses larger than their arms congregate by the goalposts behind the end zone.
I wonder what my parents are thinking right now. They traveled two- and-a-half hours. They are now somewhere in the sea of blue and yellow. When I was a kid, my dad would call me into the TV room on crisp Saturday afternoons. “Notre Dame is on.” This was the equivalent of his saying, “It’s time for church.”
My father didn’t attend Notre Dame or live near South Bend, Indiana. I once asked him, “Why do we root for Notre Dame?”
“Because we are Irish and Catholic.”
When I kicked those field goals until the sun set behind the trees, I
imagined I was playing for Notre Dame.
The rest of the referees stand at midfield. Approaching from the far
right sideline are two extraordinary Notre Dame players: #6, Jerome Bet- tis, nicknamed “The Bus” because of his ability to carry would-be tacklers on his back as if they were passengers along for a ride, then #3, quarter- back Rick Mirer. Both were preseason candidates for the Heisman Trophy, the award given to the most outstanding player in college football and potential NFL first-round draft choices. I glance over to the sideline and see legendary coach Lou Holtz in his blue windbreaker, pacing the sidelines like a nervous squirrel before the game has even begun. He had led Notre Dame to become national champions just three years earlier.
The Notre Dame players come charging out of the tunnel on the northern end of the stadium. Their seating section erupts in euphoria as the rest of the stadium boos. The boos shift again to cheers as the rest of our team comes rushing out of the opposite end. The stadium is now in controlled chaos.
“Shake hands, gentlemen,” the head referee says.
I stand across from Bettis, surprised that I’m taller. But his extra 50 pounds of muscle still manage to make me feel small. He sways back and forth with a grin like a boxer getting ready for a title match. Rick Mirer is cool and calm. At 6'3" he has the preppy looks of a fraternity brother.
My back feels good. Adrenaline and drugs are masking the pain.
My butterflies are gone. I’m laser focused.
Our team comes out strong. About five minutes in, I line up for a
20-yard field goal. Kickers don’t believe in the term “chip shot.” Each kick packs pressure. They are expected to make almost every kick, especially the short ones. I don’t change my mechanics. I use the same leg swing. I make the field goal for a 3–0 Pitt lead. I breathe out. The kick boosts my confidence and builds rhythm.
After the Irish respond with a touchdown to make it 7–3, we head toward another score. As our offense crosses the 50 yard line, I begin warming up on the sidelines. It’s been almost a month since I’ve missed a field goal, but I’m starting to feel the pressure. The face of the girl that I’m hoping to impress enters my mind, and I wonder if she is watching right now in a crowded bar. I offered her a ticket, but she was stuck waitressing. We have been dating for just a month, and this would be her first time seeing me play.
Our drive stalls on their 31 yard line after an incomplete pass. It will be a 48-yard field goal attempt. “Field goal team!” shouts Amos Jones, the special teams coach.
We line up on the field. I take my customary three steps back and one-and-a-half steps over. Every seat in the stadium is filled, but I can’t hear the crowd over the beating of my own heart. I glance at the Notre Dame players getting ready to try to block my kick and time stops. It’s just me, the green turf, and my holder and snapper.
My holder, J. R., is on his knee ready to receive the snap. He looks back at me to see if I am ready. I nod. The ball zips into his hand. A second later I strike it clean. I complete my follow-through, look into the illuminated sky, and see the ball floating high through the air end over end toward the white goalposts.