“A Life After Wide Right” (31 Longreads in 31 Days, Day 24)

I’ve always felt in awe of field goal kickers at any level, when the game comes down to a final kick, the hopes of both teams hanging on the outcome of the swing of their leg. It’s hard to imagine the pressure they face, knowing that a thousands of fans are watching in the stadium, and, in college or the pros, millions more on television. One foot to the left or right… one yard longer… and everything is different. Hero or goat, decided in the smallest details: the wind, the angle of the ball, a tiny difference in the point of contact with the ball.

Scott Norwood misses a potential game-winning field goal at the end of Superbowl XXV

Photo by Phil Sandlin / Associated Press

Perhaps no one knows this better than former Buffalo Bills kicker Scott Norwood, who missed the potential game-winning field goal in Superbowl XXV. His miss from 47 yards out is legendary. An article on NFL.com called it “the greatest choke in NFL history.” A Life After Wide Right by Karl Taro Greenfeld in the July 12, 2004 issue of Sports Illustrated, examines Norwood’s life before and after that infamous miss.

The first thing that jumped out at me with this story is that it is mostly written in the present tense, which give everything a sense of immediacy. Each step in Norwood’s career feels invested with a urgency.

Structurally, the story starts at the end, showing the reader where Norwood is now, what he does for a living, and the notoriety he still carries with him. But then the narrative jumps back to the start, and we get to understand what it took for Norwood to make it to the Superbowl at all. Just to make an NFL team once seemed like the long-shot dream:

Every off-season, Scott comes home to Annandale. After every year at James Madison University, where he earns a football scholarship. And then, after he graduates with a degree in business in 1982, and Del and Scott blanket the NFL with videotape, and after he signs with the Atlanta Falcons—and is cut. After an upstart league called the USFL is formed and he wins a job with the Birmingham Stallions and kicks 25 field goals in ’83. After he tears some cartilage in his knee in his second season with the Stallions and is released. After successes and after failures, he comes back to work out with his father at the same old high school field. They never speak of what it feels like to be cut by an NFL team. Or how it feels to drive from Atlanta back to Fairfax County in the light-blue Riviera and move back in with your folks. Or what it is like to be a guy a few years out of college still practicing field goals with your dad. They never talk about how life isn’t fair, or how, no matter what happens, you keep showing up. Del will occasionally express displeasure with, the Falcons for cutting his son, or with the NFL or USFL for not appreciating what a good kicker they passed up. And then Del and Scott will jog down the field to retrieve the half-dozen balls and stuff them into the sack and drag them back upfield and set ’em up again, five yards deeper. And when Scott’s knee heels, they don’t talk about how excited they are when the Bills invite him to camp. He is one of 10 kickers they’re bringing in. That doesn’t matter, Del tells him. You just keep showing up.

The weather in Buffalo drives other kickers mad, but it suits Norwood. The wind, the cold, the rain, the spartan practice facilities. But Norwood has been through worse. He’s been cut, injured and overlooked, and compared with that, kicking in rain or a harsh wind blowing from the north is almost a pleasant diversion. He’s comfortable with the elements, and from his career as a soccer player he knows how to control the ball in inclement weather, to keep it down in the wind, to improvise. The other kickers are cut, one by one, and finally Scott shows up and looks around the locker room one morning and he’s the last kicker left.

All of this backstory isn’t just there to flesh out the narrative; it shows the reader what shaped Norwood, the adversity he overcame, and why that all of that would help him cope with the experience of being viewed by millions as a Superbowl choker.

The story shows us how his wife felt the moment the kick sailed right, what his coach said to him, and how his teammates tries to console him, and what it was like when members of the media mobbed him in the locker room:

Then the reporters are let into the locker room. They’ve rarely bothered to speak with Norwood. But today, of course, he is trapped in the incandescent TV lights and on the business end of three dozen microphones. His special teams coach, Bruce DeHaven, stands by him as he answers every single question from every single reporter. He will stay in the locker room a full hour after most of his teammates have gone. How does it feel, Scott? Were you nervous? Did you feel like you hit it good? What are you going to do now? What do your teammates think? How does it feel to miss that kick and lose the Super Bowl?

DeHaven asks him every few minutes, “Have you had enough? Do you want me to get rid of these guys?” And Scott shakes his head and replies, “I think I owe it to the fans to answer some questions.”

Sports psychologists will tell you that openness is the first step to healing from this sort of loss. They use words like process and grieving and cleansing, but Scott just sees it as his duty. His father would simply call it showing up.

Greenfield then shows us Norwood’s life after football and how that miss haunted him for a long time. The reporting here is excellent, because it’s not Norwood saying much about how it affected him, but the the observations of his brother Steve and his wife, Kelly:

Scott seeks to put his business degree to work selling insurance, mortgages, annuities and trusts. It’s hard work, especially the cold-calling, having to dial his way through a list of phone numbers every day and say, “Hi, I’m Scott Norwood, and I have a great opportunity today for you to take care of your family.” It takes weeks and months of cajoling to get a prospective policy buyer or annuity purchaser to write that check. For the first time in his life, he finds that just showing up isn’t enough.

Everywhere they go, to movie theaters, to doctor’s offices, to restaurants, Scott knows what everyone is thinking: He’s the guy who missed. “I would try to talk to him about other things,” Steve says, “but you just knew it was on his mind.”

“I saw him working through it,” says Sandra. “He would come and tell me, ‘This is real tough for me, but I’ll get through it.’ And we would all tell him, ‘Scott, it’s football. There are other things out there in life.’ “

In sports movies, the hero often has a second chance, an opportunity at redemption on the big stage. Real life isn’t often as tidy. Norwood’s life after that famous missed kick is less cinematic, but Greenfield provides a satisfying epilogue.

For many sports fans, Scott Norwood exists mostly as a trivia answer. But Greenfield’s profile reveals the a rich personal story behind the man and helps us understand what he learned after missing the biggest kick of his life.

Read A Life After Wide Right →

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