The heartbreak train was right on schedule. Once every a decade or so, we Vikings fans can expect our hearts to receive a thorough stomping. If we’re feeling good about our team, if we are thinking, “Hey, maybe…,” well, that’s as clear a signal as a chug of smoke and a distant whistle on the prairie horizon. Vikes looking pretty good? Then the heartbreak train is coming. Right on schedule.
Blair Walsh has one of the strangest jobs in human history. His contribution to his economy, to his culture, is that on Sunday afternoons he kicks a weirdly shaped leather object between a pair of elevated yellow poles under high-pressure conditions. Because Blair Walsh has established the ability to perform this weirdly particular task under these demanding conditions exceedingly well, he is rewarded quite handsomely. Rough calculations say that he is one of the top .000001% of people in the world at this feat of feet. Remove a decimal place, so that he is only in the top .00001%, and his talent at kicking that leather object is valueless, a party trick.
Yesterday, Blair Walsh successfully performed this trick thrice (under almost comically miserable conditions), and failed to perform it once. That one failure meant his team was eliminated, and we fans added another chapter to our great Norse saga of sorrows.
As he lined up the kick, and I sat in my living room with my 11-year old son, I said “Blair has been on fire all game. I think we’re moving on!’ And then, just before, or maybe as, the ball was snapped, I thought: oh wait. He could actually miss this. A half second later, when he hooked it in exactly the manner I’m prone to hooking a five-iron, I wasn’t even surprised. It felt like the fulfillment of a dark prophecy. It felt foreordained. I should have seen it coming. It was right on schedule.
The dominant post-game narrative seems to be personal empathy for Walsh (by all accounts a stand-up guy) colored by the insistence that he failed to do that which he was required to do. In a nutshell: yeah, we feel bad for the guy, but he must make that kick. I saw this theme of requirement repeated in interviews and commentary: He must make it. He cannot miss it. Missing that kick is unacceptable. Even coach Zimmer said it: “he has to make it.”
I hear these requirements and wonder, what do we mean, has to make it? Clearly we aren’t saying it is physically impossible for him to miss it. Are we saying that if he misses it he is no longer qualified to be an NFL kicker? Because there isn’t a kicker in the history of the league (well, other than those kicking for the Patriots) who never missed a clutch kick.
Walsh’s role, his value — in fact, the role and value of all athletes — is based on his effort against the looming spectre of failure. That’s why the rules don’t give the Vikes a victory for reaching field goal range. The fact that he CAN miss that kick is why he must try it. So yeah, of course he can miss that kick.
Or is it this: in our head, in our heart, he always makes that kick. By missing, he has failed to match our mythology.
I tell you, when that kick went wide my son wailed and shrieked like I have never heard. “NO! NO NO NO! DAD HOW DID THAT HAPPEN! NO! I HATE THIS! NO!” He was inconsolable for hours.
Welcome, my boy, to the club. Now, let me tell you about Gary Anderson and Nate Poole and Darrin Nelson and twelve men on the field and 41 donut and some super bowls in the 70s that form some of my earliest memories.
I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty uncomfortable with the idea of sitting in my living room eating crackers while it’s 6 below outside and decreeing which minor failures by other humans are not acceptable to me. Saying Walsh “must” make a kick is a stark example of the strange tyranny we fans impose upon our sporting heroes: we reverse the cause and effect relationship of talent to achievement. We declare our expectations based on an imagined ideal, not on a fellow human being’s effort, talent, capacity, and shortcomings. We think: because Blair Walsh is a well-paid NFL kicker, he must make a kick. But the truth is the reverse: because Blair Walsh is much more likely than almost anyone else in the world to make that kick, he has become a well-paid NFL kicker.
We repeat this pattern all the time. Our anger at Adrian Peterson for fumbling, at Teddy Bridgewater for his arm strength, at Joe Mauer for slapping grounders to the second baseman, is because we demand these people — these flesh and blood, flawed human people — match our mythology. Holding on to a football when it’s -6 degrees and a horde of giant aggressive humans are colliding into you and pawing at that ball is just really hard. In that situation nearly any of us would fumble. So how dare we declare, “AP just can’t put it on the ground in that situation, and, hey, grab me another beer.”
This kind of thinking has the counter-effect of devaluaing these athletes’ actual talent and hard work. It makes their talents an effect of their status, rather than the reason they’ve achieved the status.
One of the things I’ve heard often in the last 24 hours: “Even I could make that kick.” It’s a weird sentiment, which suggests the speaker doesn’t quite believe he and Walsh are the same species. I hear that and think: of course you could make that kick. You also could miss it. Just like Blair Walsh. He’s still the one I’d want trying it.