Saturday, October 1, 2011

Quiet Lives of Desperation, A Sports Analogy Featuring Famous "Chokes"

Today the Boise State football team plays the University of Nevada at Reno or UNR. Today's game will be played in Boise. BSU has been installed as a 29 point favorite. The Nevada Wolfpack as you will recall, was the only team that beat us last year and dashed any hopes of playing for the national championship. It wasn't that we lost that game that is the subject of this well written, fascinating, and thought provoking piece. It was how we lost that game.

I am going to focus specifically on our kicker, Kyle Brotzman. I was surprised to see a wiki entry for Brotzman that actually recaps the disaster in Reno last year.

Oh how I felt when Brotzman missed those two kicks, especially the first one. You can't imagine how I felt because you see- I too have choked a number of times.

My first big choke was in a baseball tournament years ago as a child. I was the last batter, we were down a run. I was determined to get a hit and keep us in the game. Determined as I was, I struck out. In fact, I was caught looking at a pitch that was pretty much down the middle of the strike zone. A youthful team always blames the last batter. They called me names, shook their heads, threw down their mitts. My father, the coach, saw that pitch too. He mentioned that I should have swung. Of course I knew that. I can't tell you how emotionally bad I felt to be the anti-hero, the goat. In fact, that failure to swing at the last pitch that day- I think cemented my emotional future in sports.

I became a sports coward. It's ok, I've had some therapy and medications since then.

I don't think a lot of people enjoy disclosing that they are chokers. I might be the only one. I played organized sports all the way through high school. I learned to avoid situations where the game rested on my shoulders. I didn't want to feel the heartache of being the last batter in a losing effort. I was not the guy that wanted the ball last. However, I did play a game where choking was always on full display and unavoidable when it happened. You could not escape responsibility. It was golf.

In golf when you choke, there is no place to hide. Twice in two city wide tournaments as a youth, I was leading the field going into the final day. Of course my mind was racing the night before and allowed me little sleep. I didn't just choke those last two days- that would have been too kind. I completely blew any chance of winning long before the 2nd nine was played. It was terrible and humiliating. My ability to choke was on display in every golf match I ever played in high school. Time and time again, although I was a pretty good golfer, I would dribble my first tee shot barely out of the tee box. Always nervous. The golf coach, a sinister man, saw this during every match we played. So it was each year in high school, I had the best overall scores of anyone on that team. Not once did I pick up a "most valuable" award at the end of the year. By the end of high school, I hated that golf coach and I hated playing organized sports. In my mind, organized sports had become some dreadful event or veil of tears to deal with. I didn't pick up a golf club for the next three years.

My favorite choke, the worst one I have ever witnessed, happened to a guy named Jean Van De Velde. Playing in the 1999 British Open, a huge unknown underdog, all Van De Velde needed to do was card a crappy double bogey on the last hole to win the tournament. What I witnessed that day on television was one of the greatest chokes of all time. I swear it took at least a half hour of broadcast television for Van De Velde to finish that hole with a triple bogey. It was agonizing. He then landed in a play off and lost the tournament. I have loved Van De Velde ever since. I suppose in some vicarious way, he took me off my emotional schnide. Here was a guy that choked while the whole world was watching. I cannot tell you how bad I felt watching that disaster over 12 years ago.

I thought that might be the worst choke I had ever witnessed. Until last year.

When Brotzman missed that chip shot field goal in the Reno game and then missed another, I was in a state of shock. My first thoughts of course- were about missing a shot at the national championship. My second thoughts were about how fucking lonely the trip back to Boise was going to be for Brotzman that night. It almost makes me sick to my stomach thinking about it. I think I am better off not knowing. I do know that the hate mail was intense when Kyle got back to town, especially in the semi anonymous internet world.

So this year, Reno is playing BSU here today. Boise St. has been installed as a 29 point favorite. Key players have graduated from UNR and this game is very anti-climactic. Boise State should throttle the shit out of the Wolfpack. There is no real "payback" here, the damage has been done.

The real lesson in all of this is I believe, is that sports tends to be like life- only more intense. We heap all kinds of adulation and praise on winners- and sometimes we are unmerciful with the losers. The vast majority of us never make it to the big leagues. We never get a chance to triple bogey the last hole in a British Open or miss some chip shot field goal in Reno. For most of us, our sports inadequacies and flaws were uncovered long before we made it to those levels. So instead- we lead quiet lives of desperation, criticizing players far superior to ourselves when they screw up. I can't imagine being Van De Velde that day. Given my history and my nervous brain, I probably would have carded a 12 on that hole- or completely whiffed that chip shot in Reno. Maybe missed the ball entirely.

Almost 33 years has passed since I was some kid blowing up a golf tournament. It took at least 20 years for me to unravel one of the greatest mysteries of my life. How to deal with adversity in a healthy way. You see it's not a matter of whether or not you will fail at something; it's simply a matter of when. You will fail. It is inevitable. The difference is how you will react to failure. Will you run away like I did or will you get better? Will you have compassion at the precise moment it is needed for someone else or will you be part of the angry mob who blames guys like Brotzman for losing that game?

The BSU football team lost that game last year, long before Brotzman ever took the field. They had the talent to be up by three touchdowns and personally, I thought they played like shit. It was a team choke. And because of that, Brotzman will be forever known as the guy who missed that kick. I am not sure who the real sports villain is. I'd sure like to talk to Brotzman about twenty years from now. It would be interesting to see what he has learned.

So today, we have a big barbecue. The stadium is packed. I will probably only watch 1/2 of this game. I don't think it will be too competitive. Not expecting any chokes today.

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