February 3, 2004

Panthers show Pats fan true meaning of fear

Maybe 10 years from now (or perhaps less), the kind of game that took place on Sunday will send me to the hospital with some kind of heart attack. Truth be told, I was very worried about my dad as Super Bowl XXXVIII wore on, considering that heart troubles are no stranger to the Ankeles family.

Let me put this in perspective: with all the chips, cheesy-dip, beer, and nail-biting action for four straight quarters, how many fans of the Carolina Panthers and New England Patriots didn't survive the actual game? I wouldn't be surprised if local hospitals did just a little more business than usual on Sunday.

As for my emotional state during the game, it was similar to (and by similar to I mean exactly the same as) that feeling you get when you want to defecate and throw up at the same time, but you don't know which you should take care of first.

Yeah, that about sums it up. As your stereotypical New England sports fan, I was feeling the stomach-punch of a loss before the game had even started. Aaron Boone's extra-inning home run that ended the Red Sox's drive to the World Series reminded us all how dangerous it is to put your heart and soul on the line come championship time.

The two nights before Super Sunday I had nightmares about the Pats losing the Super Bowl. Ironically, one of them was about kicker Adam Vinatieri being replaced with someone named Bradley.

"Who the hell is this Bradley guy?!" my neighbors swear I cried out in my sleep. "He missed the kick," I'm also rumored to have mumbled. Naturally, I soon flip out when it becomes clear right from the start of the actual game that I'll be thinking about the kicking game for the rest of the evening.

The other dream I had was that the Panthers had made it a two-possession game with under two minutes to play, and there was no way New England could stop the clock. Both of these vivid horror stories set the tone for Sunday, where I spent most of the first half waiting for Carolina to give the Pats the kind of gut-punch that only a rabid underdog can give (in 2002 it was that early Pats interception against Warner that was returned for a TD).

Then it happens. Late in the first half, Carolina's offensive coordinator finally figures out a way to give his quarterback, Jake Delhomme, better pass protection. Not only that, but Delhomme also starts to run the hurry-up offense. Pretty soon he's firing these 20-yard passes all over the field and completing them!

The game is so close in the second half that all I can think about are the two field goals Vinatieri missed earlier. I think about how he has had trouble kicking in Houston before. I think about the bad hold on the first kick. I think about how poetically unjust it is that our kicker should be the goat in not just a playoff game, but the Super Bowl, considering that he has done nothing to give himself bad kicking karma. I think about how the imaginary Bradley might have made those two kicks. Those are six points that we should have on the scoreboard, and yet they simply aren't there.

When Carolina briefly takes the lead with under seven minutes to play, I quickly add those six points to the score to see what could have been. And yet, there is no way Vinatieri is our latest Buckner. I think it impossible that a single New England fan is wishing he could spit in Vinatieri's face. I feel bad for the guy because I know that if I'm thinking about those six points, he's not exactly thinking about milk and cookies himself.

Thankfully, an irony is never complete until it comes full circle and turns on itself. It so happens that, with about 1:08 left to play, the Panthers tie the score at 29, setting up what New Englanders hope (and fear) will be a chance for Vinatieri to literally relive his Super Bowl-winning kick of two years ago. I'm sure I'm not alone in wondering whether he will force us to label him the goat by doing the unthinkable and missing three field goals in a row.

Enter John Kasay, the Pathers' kicker, who I had thought would deliver your average, no-nonsense kick-off, and then scramble off the field to giddily await the first-ever Super Bowl overtime. To tell the truth, I am too sick to pay attention to how he actually kicks the ball. Practically all of Mathews House, where I have my R.A. gig, is rooting against the Pats, and I can only sit there, my face getting paler by the second, wondering what the impending heart attack is going to feel like.

I glance up at the last second, not yet realizing that I had just seen the ball cross the sidelines. Then comes the flag and, along with it, the revelation that Kasay—not Vinatieri—is going to end up the goat of Super Bowl XXXVIII. I can just see the NFL Films presentation on ESPN2 now.

Then I remember the little prank that Bill Simmons, ESPN's Sports Guy columnist, pulled on Kasay during Media Day for the Jimmy Kimmel show. One of Kimmel's older relatives had gotten away with impersonating Kasay and then later made some remark to the kicker that sent him into a rage.

Simmons, a die-hard Pats fan, later wrote in his weblog that he wouldn't be that upset if the emotional fallout from the prank contributed to a Kasay mistake during the Super Bowl. If this prank did indeed have its desired effect, then we can only assume that Sports Guy won Super Bowl XXXVIII. You know Simmons is thinking about it, and he should be.

The rest of my dormßmates start to hoot and holler as Vinatieri trots onto the field after yet another "Is this really happening?" Tom Brady drive. They understand that he's missed field goals from 31 and 36 yards out, and they then conclude that a 41-yarder will inevitably have the same fate as the first two. But what they don't see is the way in which Mr. Clutch is foaming at the mouth with this third chance at glory.

Cue the Dan Ankeles annoying announcer voice: "Vinatieri may have missed his first two, but when it came down to winning a Super Bowl, he made no mistake about what he needed to do." I'm sure I am not alone. Every Pats fan in front of the TV Sunday has written that script while Carolina was using its timeouts to ice Vinatieri. As far as I am concerned, we have already won the Super Bowl. There is no way that kick isn't going through the uprights. No way at all.

Sure enough, Adam Vinatieri puts himself into the Hall of Fame with the kick that ends Super Bowl XXXVIII. I immediately call my father, and the first thing he says is that he almost had a heart attack. Thank you, football gods, for sparing my father and me.