The entire Academy, from its ancient traditions to its smart salutes, suited the sense of discipline, order and purpose with which Bucchianeri had sculpted his life. He loved falling out in the morning, in the cool of the autumn, in the shadow of enormous Bancroft Hall, the dorm that they call Mother B. "You know you're part of something special," Bucchianeri says, "when you see the steam on the breaths and hear the click of the heels." He loved the sound of his fellow plebes running in the halls, voices shouting, "Go, Navy, beat Army!" He loved the snap of the day. "Everyone moving with direction," he says. "You study from 7:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. Every single minute and second is spent studying. I type on my computer until the very last second. And then the Blue Magnet, the blue spread over white sheets, sucks you in. You hit that bed and stop a few seconds, and you reflect on the day and what you've done with it...."
His reflections were not always untroubled. He was anguished by the problems he had at the start of the football season. He had lost 15 pounds during Plebe Summer, dropping from 150 to 135, and there were days when he looked like an impostor. "He couldn't do anything," says Chaump. "We were saying, 'Gosh, this is incredible—a high school All-America?' He couldn't get the ball up. He was kicking spirals. He was hitting linemen in the butt with the ball. I felt sorry for him. He came to me after practice one day and apologized profusely, and I said, 'Don't worry. We'll stay with you. Eat a lot of spaghetti.' "
Six games into the season, at home against Colgate on Oct. 16, Chaump threw Bucchianeri in for the first time to kick an extra point. He booted it clean for the score. That night, as he returned to his deck in Mother B, two female sophomores in his company, Autumn Pevzner and Robin Pegram, clapped politely as he approached. "Way to go, Mr. Bucchianeri," said Pegram, a member of his 12-person squad.
"No big deal," said Booch, shrugging.
Notre Dame turned out to be a vastly bigger deal. Navy's regular kicker, David Gwinn, had been having kicking troubles of his own, so Chaump told Bucchianeri to get ready for the Irish, then ranked No. 2, on Oct. 30. Bucchianeri was kicking better than he had all year. "I'm not kidding," Chaump said. "Keep up the good work. We'll see what happens."
It happened sooner, and far more dramatically, than Bucchianeri had dared imagine. With 2:22 gone in the first quarter and no score, Chaump called on Bucchianeri to try a 38-yarder. Head down, by the numbers, Bucchianeri swept through the ball. He knew instantly. "One of the greatest feelings of my life," he says. "Seeing that ball, almost in slow motion, turning end over end toward the uprights, on its unchangeable path! I hit it perfect. I just stood there and watched it. All of a sudden you hear bah-BOOM—that's the Navy cannons going off—and then you see a plume of blue smoke come across the ball. That's dramatic! You turn around and the Midshipmen are there cheering, and you look up on the scoreboard and it's 3-0, Navy over Notre Dame, and you were a part of that."
Navy collapsed in the second half and lost 58-27, but Bucchianeri kicked one more field goal, a 34-yarder, and three extra points, for nine points in all—and no misses. Even so, this would pale to transparency five weeks later if the great blue plume were to cross the flight of the ball against Army at Giants Stadium.
The kick floated to the right, missing by 18 inches, and Bucchianeri saw the referee wave his arms to the side. "No!" said the kicker.
He turned his back to the goalposts and fell to one knee. Solliday reached out for him. Bucchianeri dropped his head, closed his eyes and raised his left hand to his face mask, his right to Solliday's shoulder. "I can't believe it," he muttered. "This isn't happening...."
Bucchianeri was starting for his locker room when the Army placekicker, Rocco Wicks, put his arm around him. "Don't worry about it," Wicks told him, one toe to another. "One kick doesn't lose a game. Keep your head up."