Once in my sister Terri’s storied athletic career, she made what she deemed a giant error. I don’t recall what it was, and being away in college I wasn’t on hand to witness it. I think she perhaps missed a free throw or two in the final stretch of what became the last basketball game of the season.
Now, there were plenty of other opportunities for this game to be lost. It’s just that none of them become as noticeable as the moment where all play comes to a stop and winning now hinges on the action you alone can provide.
Terri, who lettered in track four years, volleyball three and basketball eight (including college), let this one miss linger far, far longer than anything else she did. She came home and, using white athletic tape, made letters spelling out “The Goat” on her bedroom door.
In today’s Tom Brady world, “goat” has morphed into the complete opposite of what it was during Terri’s athletic tenure. Now it’s an acronym, standing for Greatest Of All Time, but when some of us hear this term used by sportscasters, even in the rarified air breathed by Mr. Brady, we take it to mean the person who let the team down.
Which Terri did not do, I would like to emphatically note. Sure, she probably would have been praised as the hero of the game had she sunk the free throw(s) for the win that would have allowed the season to go on, but we could easily point to every free throw missed by everyone else on the team that took place earlier in the game, or the lay-up that was surely missed, or the foul that gave the opposing team two points on free throws . . . while we like to encapsulate our sports in pictures that play well against the “thrill of victory and the agony of defeat,” success or loss comes as a sum of all the parts that happened.
But try telling that to my tiny baby sister, who left those athletic-tape letters up on her bedroom door for probably an entire year. Never did she tout any of her many successes the way she forced herself to acknowledge her miss every time she passed through her doorway.
Today, somewhere here in Gunnison, there is a young man who likely feels much like Terri did in that aftermath. But had he not made his mistake, there would have been no G.O.A.T. accolades, because we really wouldn’t have noticed him at all.
Saturday, for the first time since the ’90s, Western Not State hosted a football playoff. Going into the game the Mountaineers had a 10-1 record and tied for the conference championship, good enough to gain home-field advantage in the first round of the NCAA-II playoffs, hosting the University of Nebraska-Kearney, which for some reason is pronounced “carney.”
First, we should all understand the rarity of this: Western has played at home four consecutive weeks in late October through November — without a single crappy weather day. Saturday was a glorious day for a football game. That I didn’t go to.
I haven’t made it to a game since leaving the chain crew a few years back, but earlier this year I discovered one can now watch these games on the computer, the video paired with the local radio broadcast featuring retired banker Steve Williams as the ever-calm, ever-accurate voice of the Mountaineers.
It is hard for me to watch sports as a spectator after so many years of photographing, keeping stats, keeping score, working the chains, officiating. Especially football, where if you’re just watching you start realizing how little time is spent in play action and how much is spent running up to the play: huddles, time-outs, penalty enforcement, halftime.
So I have been following the Mountaineers’ success this season via computer and radio, which lets me multi-task, even on a perfect football afternoon during playoffs.
The game never rolled Western’s way. As I was catching up on my local newspapers, including Crested Butte High School’s celebration of its third state title in boys’ soccer and Gunnison High School’s celebration of making the soccer playoffs in its first varsity season, UNK was always one score ahead of the Mountaineers.
Maybe Western led 3-0, but then UNK tied, and every score after was led by the Lopers, matched by the Mountaineers. As we reached the fourth quarter, where actual play slows to a crawl in a close game (time-out, out of bounds, flag, time-out) and I was dividing my attention between the game inside and watering trees outside (perfect football weather means the ground has yet to freeze), Western scored and opted for the safe kick to tie rather than a two-point attempt to win.
And then UNK promptly scored once more, handing the ball back with about a minute for the Mountaineers to go the length of the field. Which they did, aided by a penalty. Then the quarterback threw two eminently catchable passes good for touchdowns that were dropped, but neither of those receivers will be perceived as the “goat” of the game.
No, the young man who is going to personally take responsibility for the loss, even though it was a team effort against an opposing team that was Western’s match, is a member of the offensive line, recognized all season long as a key component in the quarterback’s ability to move the football.
A receiver finally managed to hang onto one of those long passes, but he was brought down at the three — and the Mountaineers were almost out of time, and completely out of time-outs. They had just enough to get to the line of scrimmage, snap the ball and spike it, stopping the clock for one final effort to tie the game and put it into overtime (or score and succeed at two for the win).
Except. One of the linemen was called for illegal procedure. Most of us waited for the ball to be backed up five yards, which would still give the Mountaineers one more try at the end zone. But in the weirdness of the NCAA, the official declared a 10-second run-off of the clock, ending the game.
Mr. Williams, on the radio, seemed familiar with the call, and said the NCAA has mandated that any offensive penalty in the final minute also ticks 10 seconds off the clock. I have no idea the purpose behind the rule, and as a fan of the losing side I think it’s a stupid one, but we were all introduced to it because a lineman probably didn’t find the line of scrimmage in that last-second scramble.
Thus the game ended not with the flash of a home-field win, or the crash of an effort well-tried, but because a rule moved the clock forward more seconds than were left. It was kind of a whimper to a game well-played, UNK 34, Western 27, in the best year we may have ever had for November football.
Somewhere in town is a young man won’t remember the 10-1 run-up to the playoff game, nor the first 59.9 minutes of game time, nor the passes dropped and not the defensive glitches that allowed the Lopers to score so many times. He is going to remember his mistake, a mistake that could have been remedied with a five-yard penalty, had the NCAA not decided to add a time penalty as well.
I’m going to wish he wouldn’t do that to himself, but after watching Terri torment herself for so long all those years ago, I’m afraid he’s going to revert to that old-school meaning of “goat” and apply it to himself. Poor kid.