Stanford kicker finally over Fiesta Bowl misses
(Eds: Updates with quotes, details. With AP Photos.)
STANFORD, Calif. (AP) - Jordan Williamson walks around the sunny, tree-lined Stanford campus with a smile now. He's surrounded by an extended family of friends and fans he never knew he had, willing to help him through the most trying time of his young life.
Perhaps nobody has looked forward to No. 21 Stanford's season opener Friday night against San Jose State more than the sophomore kicker. Now he can finally get past that humbling night at the Fiesta Bowl, holding nothing back about what happened or what followed.
And make no mistake: It's been a long road back.
Williamson has been reminded for nearly nine months that he missed three field goals in the Arizona desert, including a potential game-winner at the end of regulation and another in overtime. He puts more blame on himself than any of his coaches or teammates ever will for his role in sending No. 1 overall pick Andrew Luck and an elite class of seniors out with a 41-38 loss to Oklahoma State.
"It was really difficult because I had never been through anything like that before,'' Williamson said this week in a rare interview since the bowl game Jan. 2. "I would say that that's the toughest thing that I had to deal with. I got advice from a lot of other people, and a lot of people helped. It's just one of those things that heal with time. It's something you won't forget, but it's something that you have to use to motivate you.''
Williamson is willing to talk about what for so many months he couldn't.
His redshirt freshman season started strong. He made his first six field goals and 11 of 12 to start the season, including two from beyond 40 yards. He had been a Lou Groza Award semifinalist for the nation's top kicker.
Everything changed when he tore a groin muscle in practice in October and missed three games - Southern California, Oregon State and Oregon. Eric Whitaker went 4 of 5 filling in during that stretch. Williamson returned and missed 2 of 3 field goals and did not handle kickoffs in the final two games against Notre Dame and California.
Then came the Fiesta Bowl.
All three misses by the right-footed Williamson landed left. He missed from 41 yards and made from 30 yards earlier in the game. Stanford coach David Shaw ran out the clock on Luck's finale drive - a decision he has repeatedly defended - and set the stage for Williamson's 35-yard attempt with the game tied on the final play of regulation.
"To be honest, I was pretty excited,'' Williamson said. "I was feeling pretty good. I was thinking things are going to go my way, but obviously they didn't. That was a little disappointing, but I was ready for it. Unfortunately, it just didn't go my way.''
Williamson, who also missed a 43-yarder in overtime, is adamant that he was healthy enough to play. He believes the misses were due to his mechanics failing and the extended time off from handling field goals and kickoffs.
"Picked my head up a little quick, got excited and it just came across,'' he said. "I think a lot of people thought, `Oh, it was a mental deal.' But to be honest, I don't really think that's what it was. I think it was more me just trying to get back in the rhythm and the different timing.''
After the game, Williamson wept in the corner of the locker room. Teammates shielded him from reporters, patted him on the head, tried to console him and offer words of encouragement. While there were nasty Facebook messages, there were far more encouraging emails and text messages.
Williamson returned home to Austin, Texas, where he was met by a group of friends at the airport. They took him out and tried to get his mind off the misses. Alone at night, there were more emotions for the psychology major.
Williamson's mother, Laura Burton, even sent a letter to the parents of Stanford players to "express my utter sorrow for how things played out'' and thanking them for "never in my life have I seen the kindness, maturity, and love that has been displayed by this Stanford family'' for helping her son.
"Someone in an effort to console him one day said `Well Jordan - be glad you didn't hurt yourself again,''' she wrote. "And he said `are you kidding me? If I had made that kick and torn my groin again doing it I would be happy right now. I would trade anything to have made that kick for my team!'''
Williamson talked to many teammates, coaches and kickers who had also to overcome such setbacks. He declined to name specific people other than his coach at Westwood High School, Anthony Wood, who called him following the Fiesta Bowl.
"He always said, `There's going to be a time when you miss a game-winner and it's how you bounce back,''' Williamson said. "I always told him that wasn't going to happen. But it did. So I talked to him after the game and he told me, `I told you so.' I just kind of laughed and we talked about it for a little while.''
Laughter is routine again for the shaggy-haired kicker who had always flashed more smiles than sadness.
When he returned for spring practice, Williamson's work ethic wowed teammates. He said he's gained 35 pounds since he first arrived at Stanford, standing a strong 195 pounds with the same 11-12 percent body fat.
Shaw has stood behind Williamson from the start and said after the game he expected Williamson to be an NFL kicker. The two had one conversation about the Fiesta Bowl the day after the game. Shaw told him, "Scars heal, but they don't necessarily go away.' He can use it as motivation or however he wants to use it.''
"All I told him was when we go back to school, we go back to work,'' Shaw said. "Your everyday activity, your everyday work ethic, how you carry yourself, your confidence, all of those things are things I'm going to observe. And when you're dedicated and work your tail off and use the talents that you have, I said I'll never hesitate to put you back in that situation.''
Williamson said he has been thankful for the support and can't wait for a shot at redemption. He hopes he gets a chance to kick a game-winner in another major moment.
"Some people just reached out and said, `Look, it's not the end of the world. Everybody makes mistakes,'' Williamson said. "Great people who have gone far in life, they've all failed and they've all gone through hardships. It takes a great person to get through that and to become something.'
"That really stuck out to me and made me feel like I could become that much better.''
Antonio Gonzalez can be reached at: www.twitter.com/agonzalezAP