Bucchianeri left the chapel and hiked in the cold rain across Tecumseh Court, then up the steps and into Memorial Hall, a vast, ornate room on whose far wall hangs the historic flag from the USS Lawrence. The flag bears the legend DON'T GIVE UP THE SHIP. Outside, beyond the Yard, people seemed to be dying everywhere. Bucchianeri stared at the motto as though leaning on it for support. "It was perfectly silent," he says. "I wanted to be alone to dismiss the kick once and for all. I dismissed it: O.K., it's over. Move on with your life!"
He did an about-face and left. Outside, on Tecumseh Court, he started back to his room. He noticed that the sun had broken through. "I looked up, and a huge rainbow had formed over Bancroft Hall, with a couple of seagulls flying across the sky," he says. "I almost cried. I thought, It's over. I can get on with my life."
Back in Mother B, he climbed the steps to his company deck and strode down the hall. A disquieting stillness hung in the air. "I knew something was wrong," he says. He joined some midshipmen in one of the rooms, where they sat talking for an hour, and then two plebes walked in to give them the news. Brian Clark, Bucchianeri's squad leader, was in serious condition at University Hospital in Baltimore. He had been driving the Bronco when it crashed into the tree. The three dead midshipmen were all women, all friends of Bucchianeri's: Lisa Winslow, Autumn Pevzner and Robin Pegram. They had left the hockey game together, visited a fellow midshipman in his hotel room, then set off for Annapolis at about 1:30 a.m. Alcohol was not involved. The tree toppled onto the road either just before the Bronco approached it or the instant the car got there.
Bucchianeri did not move. He sat in silence. "I was thinking, One thing after another, when is it going to end?" he says. "That put everything in perspective. Football's a game; death is real. It had become a nightmare."
Now the grief was tinged by a vague, unwarranted guilt. "If I had made that kick, it might have meant more partying," he says. "The time continuum would have changed. Maybe just one high five would have slowed them down. It bothered me. I thought about it. But I can't place the blame on myself.
"This was a monumental moment in my life. When times get tough, I'll be able to relate back to it, to think to myself: I've been here before. I can get through it. It's all in the frame of mind. Some people have it a lot worse than this. At the very least I'm alive."
His sadness over the death of Grizzard, to whom he had never spoken, was nothing compared with his anguish over the loss of the three midshipmen. In a Naval Academy made up of more than 4,000 students, it so happened that all three women who died were in Bucchianeri's 100-member company, and that Winslow and Pegram were both in his 12-member squad. "Lisa Winslow used to dance in the halls," Bucchianeri says. "A great smile, always upbeat. Robin Pegram was funny and athletic, very energetic. Autumn Pevzner was more reserved—nice and very intelligent, an inspiration to us all. They were full of laughter."
If, as it seemed, all of life's major lights had turned green for Bucchianeri since he was a boy, then he had finally arrived at a place where he had never been, a place darkened by death and failure and grief. "This was new for me," he says, "the most adversity I'd ever faced personally."
In the days after he returned from the Meadowlands, he received hundreds of letters, including scores through the E-mail on his computer. The expressions of kindness and solace overwhelmed him. "I didn't expect to get mail," he says. "I really didn't expect to get anything."
The letters, predictably, addressed the missed kick, the public agony amid his private sorrow. They came from all places and all kinds of people—from a man who addressed the envelope "To the Young Man at the Naval Academy whose place-kick missed going through the goal by inches" and from such senior military officers as Adm. Frank B. Kelso II, then the chief of naval operations, who subsequently stepped down in the wake of the Tail-hook scandal. "When I was captain of the Naval Academy golf team many years ago," Kelso wrote to Bucchianeri, "I missed a putt on the 18th green to lose our match with Army, and I feel I haven't done too badly."