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3:15 P.M., SUNDAY; TV: CHANNEL 4. RADIO: KNX (1070)

Super Kickers Never Really Off Scott-Free

January 24, 1998|BILL PLASCHKE

SAN DIEGO — At a strange hotel in a busy place, a small-town mother will begin her Sunday with a prayer.

Please, do not let the Super Bowl come down to the rookie kicker.

Please, do not let it fall to her son.

"I would die, I would just die," Linda Longwell said. "If this came down to the Packers' kicker, the cameras would pan the stands and the announcer would say, 'Look, there is his mother in the aisle, unconscious.' "

Linda Longwell loves her only boy, Ryan.

But she does not love what the Super Bowl might do to him.

"I can't take a game-winning attempt this year," she said. "Not this year. Let it happen later. Let it happen when he is a five-year veteran. But not this year."

Linda Longwell knows about devastation. She knows about Scott Norwood.

She knew about it as soon as it happened, seven years ago, when a Super Bowl game-winning attempt from 47 yards was wide right, when a nice man became the living symbol of every kicker's nightmare.

Longwell never dreamed of monsters, he dreamed of Norwood.

His mother doesn't want future generations dreaming of him.

"I was in high school then, watching it on TV," Ryan Longwell recalled. "The minute he missed, my mom said, 'I don't want you to be a kicker.' "

At least not in the Super Bowl.

During most of the season, kicking is football's most pleasant job.

During the final 60 minutes, it is its most horrid.

Kick a field goal to give your team a victory, and the heroes are everybody but you.

The quarterback who led the team on the drive. The running back who made the first down to put you in position. The coach who called the plays.

Miss one that could have won it, and the goat is nobody but you.

They forget the quarterback's bad third-down pass, the running back's bad cut, the coach who suddenly got conservative.

You win, everybody wins.

Your miss, your millstone.

Scott Norwood missed for the Buffalo Bills against the New York Giants, who won in 1991, 20-19. Norwood kicked for one more season for the Bills, then disappeared into Virginia, where today he sells insurance and refuses to return to Bills' games.

Some people in Buffalo, including former teammates, still blame him for the loss. This, even though a kicker's chances of making a 47-yarder are only about 50%.

"He paid a high price. It was completely unfair," said Bill Polian, then general manager of the Bills. "We all knew that 47 was a tad out of his range."

Just this week in a TV interview, Buffalo defensive end Bruce Smith ripped Norwood, even though Smith had been crushed by New York tackle Jumbo Elliott that Super Bowl day in Tampa in 1991.

For 31 years, the kicker in this game has not stood a chance.

Only one has ever actually won a Super Bowl, and look what happened to him.

After Jim O'Brien's 32-yarder with five seconds left gave the Baltimore Colts the championship in 1971, the writers were so befuddled, they gave the car to a guy from the losing team.

O'Brien won the game, yet he wasn't even voted its most valuable player.

Today he is 50, lives in Thousand Oaks, quietly running a digital-imaging business.

The effect of his heroics was typified by a recent encounter at his son's soccer game.

Another father walked up to him to tell how he had just acquired two tickets to this year's Super Bowl.

The father then asked O'Brien, "Hey, you ever been to a Super Bowl?"

O'Brien said he just shrugged. He understands the anonymity. He prefers it to the other option.

He thinks Ryan Longwell's mother is right.

"Even if you do kick a game-winning field goal, there is basically a pecking order for kudos, and it starts with the quarterback," O'Brien said. "If you mess up, they forget who the quarterback is."

O'Brien made the field goal. He has had a normal life.

But if he had missed it? He pauses. He can't imagine.

"I wouldn't be where I am today if I had missed it," he said. "Enough said."

Which brings this back to Ryan Longwell, nice 23-year-old kid from Bend, Ore. Bright eyes, sideburns, pleasant manner.

Hasn't kicked a game-winning field goal in his life.

Had one chance to win an NFL game, with 11 seconds remaining in the second week of the season in Philadelphia, a 28-yarder from the left hash mark.

Missed it, wide right.

"I get home and I see the kick being replayed 40,000 times on every channel," Longwell said. "I grew up quick."

Since that day, before every practice, he kicks a 28-yarder from the left hash mark. He hasn't missed yet.

He missed only six of 30 kicks during the season, finishing third in the NFC in scoring with 120 points.

But the resume remains the same.

Hasn't kicked a game-winning field goal in his life.

Longwell talks about his penalty-altered extra point for Cal against Oregon State, a 35-yarder that gave the Bears a 13-12 victory a couple of years ago.

"But that probably doesn't count," he said.


Meanwhile, his Bronco counterpart, Jason Elam, has four game-winning kicks in his five NFL seasons.

Longwell says he wants this one. Says he means it.

"Lot of guys are scared by it, but not me," he said. "I'm ready for it. I think about it."

He is fueled by weekly phone calls of encouragement from sister Carly, who has never failed to wish him luck on the Friday or Saturday before a game since he began college five years ago.

The one time she forgot to call him, he called her.

He is fueled by memories of kicking balls through the backyards of Bend, with his mom holding, and his sister shagging, and his dad critiquing, kicking over fences and down fairways.

Ryan Longwell wants a shot at the game-winning kick, to reward all those who have worked so hard.

But he also understands those who fear it.

"If it comes down to me taking that last kick, my dad won't be watching the ball, he'll be watching me," he said "And my mom will be receiving CPR."

And the kid laughed.

Sort of.

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