Palm Beach Post – Oct 20, 2002 – Charles Elmore – Earnest Byner did not have to imagine. He knew something about the feeling in the gut of Florida State kicker Xavier Beitia after he missed the field goal last week that would have beaten Miami. Like stepping on rotten floorboards. Crashing into a dark hole.
“It was almost a slow death for me,” Byner said. “It’s so personal. That’s lost in the shuffle sometimes. You feel like you let everybody down. It affects everything. It affects your career.”
Byner had already scored two touchdowns against the Denver Broncos in the AFC Championship Game at Mile High Stadium on Jan. 17, 1988. Trailing 38-31 late in the fourth quarter, his Cleveland Browns were driving for a potential tying touchdown when Byner took a handoff at the Denver 8-yard line. Broncos defensive back Jeremiah Castille knocked the ball loose and recovered at the 2. Denver, which took a meaningless safety in the final seconds, won 38-33.
Byner cried on the flight home.
“That kicker at Florida State, he’s going to run into people on the street,” Byner said. “They’re going to say things. They’re going to think it’s funny and be joking. They don’t know how it feels to him.”
Byner retired in 1997 after a 14-year career that left him ranked 16th on the NFL’s all-time rushing list with 8,261 yards. But that play haunted him. When the people at NFL Films chronicled that game, they called it “The Fumble.”
“It affected my play until probably about three years later,” Byner said. “I wrote in a journal about the experience, about how it affected me. It did not lift until I had almost a spiritual awakening. I said I have to forgive myself for this.”
“Being the goat is every player’s worst nightmare,” said John F. Murray, a sports psychologist and radio host in West Palm Beach. “You often want to crawl under a rock as you missed the game-winning field goal, let your opponent win, and let your team down. The championship slipped through your fingers. All you’re left to deal with are the thoughts of what might have been.”
Byner went through all of that, but he made it out the other side. He became the director of player development for the Baltimore Ravens, the descendants of the original Browns. He and his wife Tina have four daughters, and he serves on several charitable boards. He talks to younger players about how to go on when it feels like the world is calling them a loser.
“All the experiences I had, I draw on,” Byner said. “It’s taken time for me to get comfortable sharing some of these things.”
He has watched Beitia’s saga play out in media reports over the past week. Matt Munyon, one of three previous FSU kickers to miss field goals against Miami, told Beitia in a phone call: “The challenge you thought was making the kick. But the real challenge is how (you’re) going to deal with all this.”
A former student volunteer from Miami went on the field and yelled at Beitia, for which Miami Athletic Director Paul Dee later apologized. The Florida State sophomore has since received hundreds of e-mails, many supportive, but others that say things like, “Nice choke, kicker.”
By all accounts, Beitia has handled the miss with resilience. From the awful moment he sat frozen, squatting on the turf, hands clasped under his chin, every day has been a little better, he said.
“When I kicked it, I thought it was good,” Beitia told reporters Wednesday. “So there’s nothing I can really do about it. It just wasn’t meant to be.”
Still, it is impossible to know how things will turn out for an athlete associated with one moment of failure in a career otherwise blessed with success.
– After giving up the home run that lost the 1993 World Series, Phillies reliever Mitch Williams received death threats. Eggs were thrown at his house. His 43 saves seemed forgotten. “No matter what I do, I know I’ll always be remembered for that,” Williams said.
The wife of Cowboys tight end Jackie Smith, Jerry, could not hold her anger at a reporter asking about his dropped touchdown pass nearly two decades after Super Bowl XIII: “Leave us alone. Leave Jackie alone. Leave everybody alone. We have had enough.”
– In Boston, Bill Buckner will be forever remembered for the ball that rolled through his legs in the 1986 World Series.
“I’m tired of it,” Buckner once said. “I don’t want to hear about it anymore.”
– One of the most chilling moments in modern sports history came in 1994, after Colombian soccer player Andres Escobar scored an own goal against the U.S. that knocked his team out of the World Cup. After returning home, he was shot and killed.
– Gerry Thomas, another of the FSU kickers who missed against Miami, still refuses to talk publicly about Wide Right I. Dan Mowrey, a prosecutor and volunteer coach in St. Augustine who was responsible for Wide Right II in 1992, has been quoted as saying it took some time, but he learned that kick “wasn’t the whole world.”
– Basketball star Chris Webber called an illegal timeout that cost Michigan the NCAA title against Duke in 1992. Webber said he “didn’t want to run from it,” remembering his father’s advice to be a man and stand up like one. He won rookie of the year honors in the NBA and eventually became an All-Star in Sacramento. His career has been clouded less by the timeout than by a September indictment for lying to a grand jury about receiving $280,000 from a Michigan booster. He denied the charges.
A goat cannot melt into the anonymity of his team.
The left guard who missed a block in the second quarter may have contributed just as much to the loss, but he wasn’t in the center of the picture when the final second ticked away.
So it was for Scott Norwood. The Bills kicker missed a 47-yard field-goal attempt to lose the 1991 Super Bowl to the Giants 20-19. Bills defenders such as Daryl Talley and Leonard Smith missed tackles that allowed the Giants to convert 9-of-16 third downs, savvy fans noticed. But Norwood was the goat. That remained true even after he made a playoff field goal the next year to help the Bills return to the title game.
Norwood returned to Buffalo recently for a charity event for the first time in 10 years, and fans applauded him with feeling. He said, “It made me feel very warm and appreciated for what I did do for the team over the years and not for what I couldn’t do.”
How can an athlete get over the feeling he has let everyone down? Murray and other psychologists sometimes advise athletes to praise their opponents.
“Immediately shake your opponent’s hand and say something positive,” Murray said. “No matter how obviously you gagged, credit your opponent for their ability to hang in there. This takes you out of the ‘Why me?’ syndrome, which only makes matters worse.”
An athlete may never get another chance for the heroic last-second play that, in his mind, wipes away the moment of defeat. But there are other kinds of victories. They are not often reported in the sports pages.
Earnest Byner does not have to imagine. He knows that on any given game day, a split second or a few inches can change the way the world sees a player – or the player sees himself. Last Sunday, Ravens defensive back Gary Baxter was called for interference on fourth down with a little more than a minute left against the Colts. He ran into Qadry Ismail. It opened the door for Indianapolis’ comeback win.
“The game was for all practical purposes over,” Byner said. “I’m sure he felt probably like I did. The thing I try to pass along is that there are so many things that happen in a game. You have to forgive yourself and go on. But it took me years to really learn that.”
Palm Beach Post wire services contributed to this story.