TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — I placed the football on the grass and held it upright with one finger. The goalpost was 34 yards away. I asked Gerry Thomas whether he could make it now, and he said, “Oh, yeah.”
He measured off the steps. He looked at his toes and exhaled. Then he rushed into the ball and thudded his foot against the leather.
It was a good kick, the ball soaring end over end, high and straight between the uprights into the empty bleachers. It landed on a concrete step and bounced into the air. You could picture the referees holding up their hands. Good! Three points!
A breeze blew. Thomas shook his head.
“I wish I had done that Saturday,” he said.
Saturday was different, of course. There were 60,000 people screaming and all those Miami players coming after him with blood in their eyes. There were TV cameras in every corner, millions watching at home, Thomas’ Florida State teammates on their knees, saying a prayer, his coach glaring intently. “Come on, hit it! Hit it and we win, we win, we can win the national championship! .
. . ”
They didn’t win. They lost. By one point. That final field goal, from this very left harsh mark on the Doak Campbell Stadium field, missed by the length a textbook, and Gerry Thomas suffered one of those terrible sports moments when you want to grab the air of the immediate past and strangle it, punch its
stomach, make it to spit up the moment so you can do it over.
But you never get it over. You have to go on.
And that’s even harder than missing.
“It’s still in the paper every day,” sighed Thomas, a 20- year-old walk-on kicker who doesn’t even have a scholarship at FSU — but certainly has a slice of immortality. “People have been pretty nice, but they’re not going to forget. I’m sure I won’t forget it either, not for the rest of my life.” A little respect, please
You wonder about college football, the pressure, the hype. It’s fun for winners. But defeat can make losers feel like bugs squashed against a windshield. One minute you’re flying, next minute . . .
When the game between the two best teams in college football ended Saturday — Miami 17, Florida State 16, ruining the Seminoles’ perfect season, wiping out their No. 1 ranking — Thomas, who had made three field goals earlier in the game, trudged to the locker room and sat with his head hung. It was not his fault — not alone, his teammates and coaches make plenty of mistakes. But suddenly, the door burst open and reporters came charging in.
“They were on top of Gerry before he had a chance,” recalled Dan Mowrey, the former starting placekicker whose erratic performance had led coach Bobby Bowden to replace him with Thomas just last month. “He wasn’t ready to talk. He had just missed the biggest kick of his life.
“So me and some of my teammates formed a wall around him to try and protect him. We said a few things, shoved some of the reporters. It was nasty.”
Eventually, Thomas was snuck into the bathroom, where he cried for a minute. Should any college kid have to endure this? Thomas is a thin young man with a Billy Bathgate innocence and a smile that seems both happy and sad. He was raised, of all places, in a town called Niceville, Fla. Niceville? No doubt he felt like going home Saturday night.
“You know, I’d make that kick nine out of 10 times,” he said now, staring at the bright yellow goalposts in the empty stadium. And then, because words are never enough in sports, he began to show me. He kicked the ball when I held it. He kicked with the automatic holder. He kicked over and over, the same way every time, his head down, his leg coming through the ball and booming it into the air. Two, three, four, five times. Seven, eight, nine times. Each time, the ball rose and spun through the uprights, a game-winner, a kick of dreams, good! It was good! It should have been good! . . .
“What have you learned about the difference between a hero and a goat?” I asked.
“It’s inches,” he said. “Inches.”
Dream dies; media move on
Not too many came around Florida State this week. The Seminoles have no game scheduled Saturday, and the national swarm of media has moved across the state, to Miami, the new No. 1.
“This campus is dead,” Mowery said. “It’s completely different than it was last week. It was like all year we had this man called Dream and he was with us, and then Saturday, he was killed.”
No one feels his loss more than Gerry Thomas. You understand that in order to have the glory of big-time college sports, you must have a flip side, if someone wins, someone must lose with equal intensity. Such is the arithmetic of heroism. But it doesn’t seem fair. Thomas is a humble kid, a sophomore computer major with only a vague idea of what he wants to be when he grows up, yet his moniker has already been decided. In the sports world, he is “the guy who missed the kick.”
“It’s not the end of the world; I know that,” he said softly, standing on that field, tossing a football from one hand to another. “I have more things in my life than just making a kick. . . . But I should have made it. I can make that kick . . . “
Nine out of 10 times. I saw him do it.
He only wishes everyone else did, too.