It’s the moment every kid dreams of, narrates, anticipates. The moment when everything — a game, a championship, the course of the rest of your life — hinges on what you do next. You know what you have to do: Hit that homer. Swish that jumper. Sink that putt.
Make that field goal.
Every football fan over the age of 35 remembers the moment. Super Bowl XXV, 30 years ago give or take a week. The Buffalo Bills’ Super Bowl fortunes rested on the toe of Scott Norwood. One kick, just like the 30-year-old had been firing for nearly a decade in the NFL, and the Bills would be Super Bowl champions.
You know what happened next. The snap, the hold, the approach were all just fine. But the ball, set up on the right hash mark, never turned inward. Norwood didn’t get the hook he needed, and the ball sailed — sorry, Buffalo fans — wide right.
It was the most heartbreaking moment in Super Bowl history, hope to despair in one play, and it hit all the harder because it was so relatable, so understandable. We can’t necessarily imagine, say, engineering a fourth-quarter, game-winning touchdown drive, but we can imagine what it’s like to have one task between us and glory … and failing.
With the 30th anniversary of Norwood’s miss upon us, and the Super Bowl back in Tampa again, it’s worth looking back at Norwood’s moment through the eyes of those who can understand him the most: his fellow kickers.
Only four Super Bowls have ended on a field-goal attempt. Three of them involved a kick from a tie to a win: Baltimore’s Jim O’Brien in Super Bowl V and New England’s Adam Vinatieri in Super Bowls XXXVI and XXXVIII. The only all-or-nothing, victory-or-oblivion kick in Super Bowl history? Yep.
“That’s part of the speech I give to young kickers,” says Steve Christie, who kicked for Tampa Bay in 1990. “If you want to get into this line of work, you have to live with the misses.”
Like this year’s model, Super Bowl XXV took place in Tampa; unlike this year, the Bills and Giants played in now-demolished Tampa Stadium. Dubbed “the Big Sombrero” for the way its sides sloped downward, it wasn’t the prettiest stadium in the league, but it served its purpose in the pre-luxury box era.
“I always felt like that field was longer than 100 yards,” recalls Al Del Greco, who kicked for several teams, most notably the Tennessee Titans. “I don’t know whether it was the shape, or the wind, or what, but it was always harder to get touchbacks, and 40-, 50-yard field goals were harder than you would expect.”
“I liked the old Sombrero,” Christie says. “The grass was pretty nice. What was surprising to a lot of guys there was how windy it was. Well, yeah. It’s Florida. You’re in between two major bodies of water. You’re going to get wind.”
No game truly turns on a missed field goal; every last-second loss is the culmination of an entire series of events that led up to the point where the kicker determines the outcome. Norwood had several factors working against him, starting with the kick’s distance.
In 1990, Norwood was 6-of-10 on field goals between 40 and 49 yards, right in line with his career totals (37-of-61, 61 percent). Unlike the booming legs of today, Norwood was a short-yardage specialist.
The kick in Super Bowl XXV was 47 yards — not outside Norwood’s range, but edging right up to it. The ball was on the right hashmark, not straight down the middle. Norwood was kicking off natural grass, not far more predictable artificial turf. All of that was tough enough, but the stakes at play — in football, kicking for a Super Bowl win is literally the most crucial moment possible — are enough to turn even hardened kickers to jelly.
“It all starts with that first pressure kick,” says Mike Lansford, who kicked for the Rams throughout the ’80s. “If you’re successful at that first one, success breeds success.”
Norwood succeeded plenty of times — in 1988, his Pro Bowl season, he had a hand in five wins — so pressure wasn’t the defining issue.
“Knowing him as well as I did, and he was such a nice guy, such a great kicker,” Del Greco says of Norwood, “I was watching that night and thinking, ‘Scott Norwood’s going to win the Super Bowl.’ ”
As for anyone watching? Good luck handling the pressure of a field goal with the world watching. “They would s*** their pants, buddy!” former Atlanta Falcons kicker Morten Andersen told Yahoo Sports last year. “I got news for you, it would be Adult Diaper City.”
So we can only watch, and wait, and maybe thank heaven that we’re not in that position. And every one of the millions watching remembers exactly what happened next.
“When it left his foot, it had plenty of leg,” Christie says. “When you’re a right-footed kicker, the ball always slings left. In this particular case, the ball didn’t hook left like it should have.”
And then Christie delivers a rueful gut shot: “Typically, the way he hit it, that should have made it.”
“A 47-yard field goal on the right hash for a right-footed kicker is a tough kick for anybody,” Lansford says. “It’s unfortunate that he got saddled with that. Buffalo was so damn good, just a scoring machine, and Scott was great for them.”
To the everlasting credit of Bills fans, Buffalo embraced Norwood after the miss. His teammates consoled him after the game by telling him how they’d failed in smaller, less noticeable but still decisive ways. Tens of thousands of Buffalo fans greeted him warmly at the rally to welcome the Bills home.
Buffalo spent the next three Super Bowls getting blown out by an average of nearly 22 points. Until this year, its most notable postseason moment since then was being on the wrong side of the Music City Miracle. Buffalo fans have had to deal with the pain of knowing how close they were — even to the extent of seeing history digitally rewritten and the kick going through the uprights in the ESPN documentary “Four Falls of Buffalo.”
“When we went to the Super Bowl [in 2000, against the Rams] they were showing clips of old games, and they showed the Norwood game,” Del Greco says. “That was honestly the first time it hit me: that could be me. That could happen to me in this football game. I never really thought about it until that moment.” (He would end up kicking a crucial field goal to tie the game late, but the Titans came up short.)
As any kicker will tell you, the lack of an easy opportunity to make up for a mistake is what burns. “When the quarterback throws an interception, he can get back out in the next series,” says Christie, who would go on to take Norwood’s job in 1992. “A kicker might have to wait a week for another chance.” Or a lifetime.
Norwood keeps a low profile these days, signing at the occasional card show but largely living a quiet middle-class life in Northern Virginia. Like Steve Bartman, Nick Anderson or the late Bill Buckner, he goes through life knowing that most people know him only for his greatest failure. Other kickers understand that all too well.
“It lives in the mind of all kickers: this could potentially happen to you,” Christie says. “He said all the right things afterward. But I know he’s haunted. It’s just a rough part of the job.”
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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