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A TIME OF TRIAL
William Nack
August 29, 1994
For Navy kicker Ryan Bucchianeri, last fall was a season of testing on the field and of tragedy off it—a time that helped turn a talented boy into an exemplary young man
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August 29, 1994

A Time Of Trial

For Navy kicker Ryan Bucchianeri, last fall was a season of testing on the field and of tragedy off it—a time that helped turn a talented boy into an exemplary young man

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Five-thirty, the sunlight fills my room. First thing I dunk is, I'm at the United States Naval Academy. It's still sinking in. I'm still amazed and pleased that I'm a midshipman. I roll over and look out the window and see the sunrise over the water. I see the clouds, their outline in dark red or different shades of purple, and I see the seagulls come right up to the window. Every day it's different. At nighttime there's the orange sunset and the blue water and the sailing boats at dusk. That's my favorite time of day: the earth, the setting sun, the clouds—and when I'm kicking I see the silhouette of the goalposts against the sky, and the black ball....
—Ryan Bucchianeri

In all the years he had played and replayed this moment in his mind—from spring and summer nights to restless autumn afternoons, from his Pennsylvania boyhood to his first months at the U.S. Naval Academy—Ryan Bucchianeri had always made the kick, the one he had to nail to beat Army. Not once, in all his youthful reveries, had he ever missed. Ever hooked it left, floated it right. Ever failed. Ever imagined anything but the kick that sailed end over end through the uprights, the boot that lifted the Middies over the Cadets and raised the boy onto the swarming shoulders of his teammates.

"Literally thousands of times I'd been in that situation in my dreams and made the kick against Army," Bucchianeri says. "I always made it. I had been visualizing it for years. For years!"

And now there he was, at age 18, only six months out of high school, looking like some downy-cheeked waif who had wandered out of a Dickens novel into Giants Stadium in New Jersey. It was almost 10 past three on the afternoon of Dec. 4, 1993, and for Ryan Joseph Bucchianeri—placekicker, poet, pianist, plebe—the Army-Navy game was just one play away from being his to decide. Army was leading 16-14, but the Midshipmen had driven 79 yards in 12 plays in the game's final 4½ minutes, from their own 20-yard line to Army's one, and now it was third-and-goal with 12 seconds left to play, and Bucchianeri (pronounced Boo-chee-ah-nary) was reciting his mantra on the sidelines: "I'm going in to kick the game-winner.... Get me in position!"

It was very strange, the way it was all happening. "You start thinking about fate," Bucchianeri says. "Was this meant to be?"

George Chaump grimaced at the thought. That the most important game of the year should turn on so young a toe was a fate the Navy coach wanted much to avoid. Bucchianeri had kicked erratically most of the season—he had never really recovered from the physical rigors of Plebe Summer, the Naval Academy's seven-week boot camp in the blazing heat of July and August—and Chaump feared exposing the struggling freshman to all the pressures that bore hard on the moment.

Besides the game itself, there was the coveted Commander-in-Chief's Trophy, which goes to the service academy that beats the other two in football. Navy had already defeated Air Force 28-24 on Oct. 9, and all the Middies needed now was a victory over West Point to take home the trophy for the first time in 12 years. And beyond the trophy was the powerful, dramatic subtext that ran between the lines of the football field that gray afternoon at the Meadowlands.

Three days earlier, in a bizarre murder-suicide that led news reports and commanded front-page headlines across the country, two of the most capable athletes in the history of the Naval Academy—former quarterback Alton Grizzard and long-distance runner Kerryn O'Neill—had been shot to death by O'Neill's estranged fiancé, former midshipman George Smith, in her room at the U.S. Naval Amphibious Base in Coronado, Calif. Grizzard had been the Academy's alltime leader in total offense, with 5,566 yards rushing and passing from 1987 to '90, and O'Neill had earned 12 varsity letters in cross-country and track by the time she graduated last spring. Rear Adm. Thomas C. Lynch, the superintendent of the Academy, described the brilliant and beautiful O'Neill as "the darling of the brigade."

Smith, deranged over O'Neill's decision to break off their engagement and armed with two pistols, went to her room for a final confrontation at 1:45 a.m. on Dec. 1. Grizzard happened to be there. He and O'Neill were not romantically involved, according to friends; he was there only to console and counsel the young ensign on her troubles with Smith. When Grizzard answered the door, according to police, he and Smith exchanged words. Smith opened fire with a 9-mm Ruger pistol, killing Grizzard instantly. Then he strode across the room and shot O'Neill as she cowered in terror behind a chair. Turning the gun to his head, Smith fired a last salute to his unbridled fury.

When Chaump broke the news to the football team before Wednesday's practice, there was a pall as palpable as the fog that rolls in ewer the seawall at Annapolis. Chaump had been coaching football for 35 years, including 11 under Woody Hayes at Ohio State and three more under John McKay with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and he remembered the handsome, ebullient Grizzard as "the toughest kid, mentally, I ever coached." The enormously popular former quarterback was an icon to all the seniors on the team, who had played with him as plebes, as well as to the players Grizzard had met on his return visits to the Academy. The fact that he had joined the SEALs, the Navy's elite special forces, merely embellished his warrior legend at Annapolis.

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