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A Privilege

January 27, 1991. Super Bowl XXV. A jam packed Tampa stadium and a worldwide television audience of millions watch with bated breath.

Eight seconds remain in the NFL championship game. The Buffalo Bills, trailing the New York Giants by a single point, line up for a 47 yard field goal.

Scott Norwood is to be entrusted with the kick. An accomplished veteran performer, he knows that success will secure a 22-20 victory. Will bring a major trophy home to Buffalo, so ending decades of sporting futility for the city.

Eyes focused intently behind the single bar of his helmet, he prepares for a career defining moment. A snap, a clean hold on the right hash mark, a solid thunk as his foot connects with the ball.

The tension palpable, the ball climbs into the night sky. Tumbles end over end. Appears to be on target. Along the sideline, Bills players and coaches link hands, hoping and willing the ball through. But then, nearing the goal posts, it fades ever so slightly. Leaving commentator Al Michaels to make a famous call.

“No good. Wide right,” he announces.

Absolute heartache and despair for the Bills and their fans. Furthermore, a bad omen of sorts. Indeed, the miss proves to be a precursor to a jinxed franchise that also drops the next three Super Bowls in succession.

Sport can be so cruel. Given the failure, the Bills immediately begin a search for a replacement kicker. Norwood lasts one more season, before his career comes to an end.

My own Scott Norwood moment occurs a few years earlier.

My rugby club, Cowichan, visits bitter rival James Bay for a local semi-final. A backlog of fixtures necessitates the game be played on a Wednesday evening in mid-April. Though light may become an issue, conditions are otherwise perfect. Never more than a few points separate the two teams. Both are stacked with Canada national squad players, happy to smash into one another with reckless abandon. The winner will be favoured to move through the ensuing playoff rounds to capture a coveted provincial title. While hardly a Super Bowl, with the crowd numbering in the hundreds and no television coverage provided, for the players and coaches there is still plenty at stake.

I play reasonably well. Help the team control territory. Drop a goal, knock over three penalties. Yet, as the clock ticks into the red, as dusk descends on the pitch, we find ourselves three points in arrears.

Near midfield a James Bay forward wanders offside. The whistle blows. Out on the right, 47 yards away, less than a minute to play, I receive a chance to level the scores. A chance to keep our season alive.

I go through my routine. Carefully line up the ball. Four steps back. Reminders, as I try to clear my mind. Deep breath. Head down, smooth swing of the leg. Rhythm and balance crucial.

Nonetheless, gremlins swirl about my brain. Irritation for a start, as I ponder several grade A scoring opportunities undone by our lack of precision and execution. We should be in the lead. The game should not hinge on my upcoming kick. Yet it will.

Add in a creeping sense of doubt, of the fear of failure. I have made countless kicks throughout the season, even if this one has a real sense of finality about it. Perhaps I imagine what may occur if the desired result is not achieved.

I am desperate to succeed, to meet my expectations as well as those of my teammates. Hours of practice should remove any duress, yet I feel the strain. Without question, the situation manifests itself physically. I can literally feel the increased adrenaline and a pounding heart. Emotion features as well, anxiety, excitement, anticipation all rolled into one.

Of course, I should realize that a sporting event contains no pressure in and of itself. While I can dismantle any trepidation by focusing on process, not outcome.

If only it is that easy.

I snap back from my reverie. The posts seem miles away, a tiny target in the developing gloom. A deathly hush surrounds. Everyone and everything absolutely still.

I steady myself. Three steps forward. Make solid contact. Know immediately that distance will not be an issue. Alas, that direction might be. The ball heads towards the poles, doggedly holding its line, me willing it to cut back just a smidgeon. But it doesn’t, and I watch it slip agonizingly by the left hand post.

Seconds later comes the final whistle. A narrow defeat, in a tight, hard fought match, confirmed. It is a bitter pill to swallow. Tears well up, as I rue a missed opportunity to perform when it matters most.

Thankfully, as so often is the case, my father comes to the rescue. A kicker himself in his playing days, he understands well the highs and lows that come with the job. He acknowledges my extreme disappointment, offers the proverbial shoulder on which to cry. Yet also reminds me of all the benefits of sport, of why people start playing in the first place. Of important lessons learned along the way. That a game is to be enjoyed, even when and if the consequences hurt.

Most of all, he suggests I view pressure as a privilege. As, in all facets of life, it means that things are expected of you.

Editor's note

Spare a thought for France flyhalf Caroline Drouin, who, in the recent Women's Rugby World Cup semi-final, drags just wide a last-gasp penalty from a handy position in front of the posts. The missed kick allows New Zealand to make a great escape, advancing to the championship game via a 25-24 victory.

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