Tuesday, November 14, 2006

The Best Kick in All of Football

The best kick in all of football was made by Adam Vinatieri of the Patriots in early 2002, in a snowstorm, from a wicked 45 yards to tie the game in the final seconds against the Oakland Raiders in the quarterfinals of the postseason tournament. Fittingly, it was to be the last game ever played in the old Foxboro Stadium, casting off whatever remaining ghosts of inept management--and play--that may still have lingered in the old building. Routinely, NFL announcers laud Bob Kraft, the owner of the team, for only minimally extorting the locals for stadium infrastructure. The old prick charmed ludicrous offers from the city of Hartford so that he could use them to get lesser concessions in the next state up. I dodged one tax bullet in Connecticut only to end up supporting the team in Massachusetts a few years later. Do I still love them? Do you have to ask?

I am a football fan only by nurture. The same qualities that make it remarkably well-suited for television advertising breaks made it a pretty good fit for Sunday afternoons in college, which is to say that the sparse action left most of my attention available for conversation and alcohol, with occasional interruptions for cheering. Furthermore, it felt good to pose as a foil to my buddy the annoying Giants fan, and latching on to the hometown heroes was easy a transition as could be. Too bad the Pats were a 2-14 team in those days, but futile contrarianism suited me too, and when, ten years later, they became worth rooting for, my groundless superiority complex could still hold against the fairweather fans. If my friend back then had been an irritating Yankees poseur, things would have probably been different. I never would have seen that kick for one thing.

You can probably find some geriatric gridiron purist who can cite some sped up black-and-white film of Lefty Pinwhistle--who not only kicked, but also played fullback and defensive end, back when the teams had 11-man rosters and wore only bulky sweaters for padding--kicked a then-record-breaking twenty-seven yarder with a to win the Bowl (as it was simply called in those days) with a shattered patella. It's easier to find a more recent general-purpose Brady-hater (but if you find anyone who admits being an Oakland fan, let me know) who will tell you that the Patriots miracle come-from-behind just wasn't all that. We Pats fans mumble something noncommital when the phrase, "tuck rule" is mentioned. It's never good to rest your hopes on a recalled decision, but oh hell, what a kick anyway. I know there were crowds there, but the snow swirling and the yellow goalposts are all I can see in the mental picture, contrasted against the lights and the indigo sky behind them. I know there were players on the field, but I can only see Adam, with his jersey matching the sky, hunkering down over a diminutive Ken Walter and the ball, the two alone on the expanse of white field, shoveled hash marks rapidly filling back in. The bar was hushed around me too in anticipation. 45 yards in the wind and snow. No fucking way could he pull this off.

If you dump enough snow on anything, it will turn into a lithograph. The fresh blanket of snow damps sounds, covers the defects in the landscape, and absorbs smells. Even your most tired post-industrial suburb looks newly born when it's under that mat. The snowcover also diffuses any available light, and when the crystals are still filling the air at night, it never really gets dark. The snow blows and floats around in tiny sparkles, and everything you can see is illuminated from everywhere and nowhere. It's silent music. It's romance.

It had been another tough year for these New England fans doing time in D.C., where the Redskins infect every billboard and newscast. 'Skins lovers are like the Yankees fans of the middle Atlantic, but unlike the Yankees, the overpriced Redskins sucked gloriously in the 2001 season. The Schadenfreude could only take us so far, however, we still got tired of watching them. We didn't get north until the season was ending, losing a month with my parents as we eased into the next phase of our lives. Mom and Dad hate the sport though, and even worse, no one could drive on a night like that. But defiant and bored, my wife and I crunched our boots out into the magic, hearing nothing but our own voices, smelling nothing but clean snow and the scarves moistened by our breath. Who knew if the bar would be open, and who cared? To be out in a night like that was to remember you were alive. We ran down the two miles of hill, skidded, threw snowballs, held mittened hands, giggled like kids.

I grew up in a small town. It's center is still a wall of storefronts and crappy apartments broken up by a surfeit of gas, booze, pizza, and church. Trudging down the deserted main street, there's one place with it's lights on, an air of festivity leaking out the door. Another Christmas card. I have no idea how anyone managed to get down there, but the local dive is hopping. My wife and I stand up some beers and after too many months, finally settle into some local football.

"His arm was going forward, it's an incomplete pass!" I swear I shouted this as it happened, before even the idea of a fumble sunk in to the rest of the patrons, or instant replay ridiculously drew out the moment. The woman on the other side turned to inform me again that she doesn't normally watch much football, but that would be nice if I was right. I was, and suddenly, a win was possible. Several rapid and unlikely passes--the one-minute stuff that would soon become Tom Brady's trademark--and one miracle kick later, and the game was in overtime.

The dark blue sky may have been possible because of the contrast of the game lights. I am pretty sure there actually were twenty-two players on the field, whatever my traitor memory may tell me, and that sense of isolation and of compressed time is probably some other defective trick of recall, which has templated the situation in the terms of too many bad movies and instant replays. I am sure that the bar got giddily quiet as the ball sailed through the air and the camera followed its arc. And I know I heard the cheer too. We cheered too. Awesome.

The walk back was almost as nice as the trip down, reduced, a little, because we had something to actually talk about, and because we knew the night would end as soon as we got home. The snow had settled a little and removed some of the light from the air, wrapping up the experience, the night we saw the best kick in all of football.