Over the weekend a number of football games were essentially lost because a player failed to make what should have been a routine play. The Buffalo Bills (the only team named after a historical figure with the first name William) saw a game-winning catch dropped by receiver Stevie Johnson in the endzone during overtime; USC had a similar drop as they drove down late in the game against Notre Dame; and perhaps most notable was two missed "chip shot" field goals by the Boise State kicker, which allowed Nevada to thwart the Broncos hopes of competing for a national title.
Granted, had the Bills, Trojans, and Broncos played better earlier in their games and not had to rely on coming back late or pulling out the game in overtime, none of these three individuals would have been in the position to fail, but when there's that opportunity for making what would be called the "game-winning" score the failure to make the play must be considered what cost the team victory.
The Bills' receiver noted in a post-game interview that he'd never forgive himself the drop in the endzone. Certainly he would need to put it behind him and not dwell on it when the team plays next week, but he specifically noted that he'd never really get over that blown play. And this is on a Buffalo team that should have been ecstatic just to have made it to overtime against the Steelers.
The competitive spirit leaves deep scars.
I was never going to be a professional athlete. Heck, I wasn't even good enough to make any teams in my high school. I did play informally with friends after school, and thus had a reasonable grasp of strategy and rules as well as experience with how to throw and catch and whatnot, but that's as close as I ever came to having a sports "heyday."
There was one Easter Sunday many years ago (in the early '90s) when the bookstore where I worked held what was essentially a company picnic. At some point in the afternoon we divided up into teams for a game of touch football. There were a number of employees who were not terribly experienced with the game (which, not to be sexist, did include most of the females) but everyone was included. And when picking teams, one captain tried to be inclusive; the other went cutthroat. So the teams ended up hideously unbalanced regarding actual competition. And of course I was on the former team, and it became clear pretty early on that we were going to get clobbered. So the only sort of victory we could hope to achieve was proving that we could score at least once.
There was a play where I was a receiver and went deep. I pulled a couple moves and got open and the quarterback hurled it my way (probably throwing it as far as he could). It was not the best thrown pass ever, but again, I was open and it was coming toward me. And at the moment it sailed over my outreached hands and hit the ground I knew we'd blown the best chance we had all game to score, as had I been able to catch it the field was clear to the endzone.
I remember that feeling to this day, approaching two decades later. And it's not like it hit me in the hands; the ball was overthrown and I never really had a chance, but in my mind I fancy the notion that had I only been a little faster I could have run under it and pulled it in. And that would merely have been to avoid getting shutout.
I can only imagine how it would feel had the ball hit me in the hands in stride and I dropped it. With millions of people watching.
Maybe that lack of heyday I mentioned is the reason why ultimately innocuous moments such as this one stick in my memory—even more so (at times) than the ones where there was actual success.
The agony of defeat leaves scars deeper than the thrill of victory can fill. (And that probably suits our insecurities better anyway. We are a screwed-up society.)