Early in the Week 2 game against San Francisco last season, the Cowboys lined up for what should have been an easy, chip-shot field goal. The ball was snapped. Rookie kicker Dan Bailey made his run, swung his leg and...Pffft. Shanked it. I belched out my favorite expletive and tossed a Pizza Roll at the television. The dog bolted from the room with a yelp. The wife sighed, mumbled a prayer for my soul and went back to her book. And the cat, well, he blinked his indifference and licked himself. Here we go again. Another new kicker for the Cowboys and another mild stroke for me. Not a fair trade, the way I see it.
Was my reaction uncalled for? Over the top? Or perfectly acceptable given recent history? I don't know. I never do when it comes to the little guys in the spotless uniforms. Normally, I'm an even-tempered, level-headed optimist. Nothing ever seems to bother me. But when a Dallas Cowboys' kicker trots onto the field, I break into flop-sweats and am reduced to a quivering mass---a whimpering, twitching glob of puss-filled boils. It's a remarkable phenomenon.
But why just kickers? Why don't other players trigger the change? I think, more than anything else, it has to do with my reverance for the game. Like most everyone at BTB, football is in my blood. The sport pulls at me from every direction. It gets down to the core of who I am. It's a blue-collar sport played by, for the most part, blue-collar guys. These are the types of men who, if not for an athletic scholarship out of high school, would be swinging a hammer or laying bricks like the rest of us. There are exceptions to the analogy, of course, but for the majority of NFL players, it rings true. They were blessed with the skills to endeavor for athletic excellence and fulfilled that dream. They push throught the pain of horrible injuries. Suffer through the crippling heat of training camp and the numbing cold of a late December run at the playoffs. Sleepless nights. Exhaustive, never-ending days. They endure. They do this, I would like to think, for the love of the game. They do it for the opportunity to take the field on Sunday with their brothers and scratch their way into football immortality. They do it to win.
Then, on Sunday afternoon, after three-plus hours of getting punched in the face, getting bit, getting spit on and getting kicked in the toolbag, they sit on the bench drenched in sweat and covered in dirt and blood, waiting. They're waiting for the little guy in the spotless uniform to casually stroll onto the field. In all likelihood, the 52 other players on the team haven't said two words to this guy all day. Yet, in an ironic twist of fate, all of their hard work and suffering now rests on his tiny, hunched shoulders. They eye each other nervously. Some of the more optomistic players are shouting words of encouragement and slapping helmets. Some have their weary heads lowered in silent prayer. Still others sit quietly, staring off into space, knowing, one way or another, their day is done. They're thinking about a warm shower. They're thinking about the flight home and the looks on their kids' faces when Daddy walks throught he door. They're thinking about the clogged drain in the kitchen sink or that damn raccoon that keeps knocking over the garbage cans. They're thinking about anything other than the little man in the spotless uniform.
Each player handles the situation differently. As does each fan. My way may be on the extreme side of fanatical, but it's my way. It gets me through.
Follow the bouncing ball back to San Francisco...
After sending me into convulsions with his early miss, Dan Bailey gathered himself on the sidelines. I can only imagine what was going through his head. Hopefully he was itching to get back out there and redeem himself to his teammates. Mr. Bailey didn't have to wait long. He took advantage of the opportunity and sent the game into overtime at the buzzer. Then, as luck would have it, won the memorable contest from nearly the same spot on the field where he had missed earlier. In fact, he continued to make field goals for the rest of the season.
Dan Bailey connected on a rookie record of 26 straight and ended the season making 32 of his 37 attempts. He had a game-winning field goal against Arizona taken off the board when Cowboys' head coach Jason Garrett inexplicably called a timeout at the snap. He had a game-tying field goal against the Giants the following week taken off the board when New York head coach Tom Coughlin did the same. Both re-attempts were unsuccessful---the one against the Giants was blocked. Bailey also kicked six field goals in a Monday Night victory over Washington, accounting for all of Dallas' points. It was only the third time in league history a rookie kicker reached that mark in a single game. He also kicked the Cowboys to victory over the Redskins in their second meeting of the season, a 27-24 overtime win. Bailey was elected to virtually every all-rookie team in the books at the end of the 2011 season. An honor he richly deserved.
I'm not going to sit here and say Dan Bailey is the cure for my condition. My pain runs too deep for that. But I will say this, as the season wore on and the games kept piling up, my symptoms lessened slightly. Whatever that young man brings to the table every Sunday is loaded with medicinal qualities. The change was subtle, but it was present. Everyone noticed an improvement. The dog was more relaxed. My wife's prayers were fewer and less urgent. And the cat, well, he still blinked his indifference and licked himself.
I'm more concerned than ever about the 2012 season and what the future holds for our 'Boys. Will the new blood along the offensive line gel with the improving youngsters from last year? Will the addition of pro-bowl quality talent at defensive back make life easier for our pass rushers? Will we get a full season of contributions from Austin, Murray and Jones? Like every fan, I have worries. But oddly enough, for the first time in recent memory, those worries won't include the little man in the spotless uniform.
The ball is snapped. Dan Bailey makes his run, swings his leg and...