"You know, Dad," Scott says, swallowing a bite of chicken-fried steak, "I think I do."
Del nods and tells Scott that he will be happy to help out any way he can. That summer the father and son spend every morning at Thomas Jefferson, teeing it up and catching kickoffs. The two begin the process of charting the accuracy of Scott's field goals and the distance of his kickoffs. They don't talk much about their progress, but there is a sense that things are going well. Scott, because of his soccer background, has an intuitive feel for how to approach the ball. Del's books tell him that Scott should take three steps back and two to the left, but Scott just sort of backs up at an angle and sets up, arms swinging, and then makes the smooth run up to the ball followed by the stiff sound of the stuffing being knocked out of the Wilson, which travels 45 yards through the uprights.
"It just felt good," Scott recalls. "I was comfortable with it pretty quickly." He goes out for the football team, and the coach, of course, is grateful to have a real kicker instead of a backup quarterback who kicks because he doesn't get to play as much as he would like. For Scott—shy, reserved—the position offers an assured place in the universe. There is a simplicity to this role that appeals to him: He scores points. By increments of one and three he becomes the leading scorer on the team, in the county and, finally, in the region. The steadiness of the accretion is pleasing, like interest accumulating in a bank account, and by the time he makes the winning field goal in a game against archrival Annandale High, college scouts who have come to see other players are making notes about this kicker.
Every off-season, Scott comes home to Annandale. After every year at James Madison University, where he earns a football scholarship. And then, after he graduates with a degree in business in 1982, and Del and Scott blanket the NFL with videotape, and after he signs with the Atlanta Falcons—and is cut. After an upstart league called the USFL is formed and he wins a job with the Birmingham Stallions and kicks 25 field goals in '83. After he tears some cartilage in his knee in his second season with the Stallions and is released. After successes and after failures, he comes back to work out with his father at the same old high school field. They never speak of what it feels like to be cut by an NFL team. Or how it feels to drive from Atlanta back to Fairfax County in the light-blue Riviera and move back in with your folks. Or what it is like to be a guy a few years out of college still practicing field goals with your dad. They never talk about how life isn't fair, or how, no matter what happens, you keep showing up. Del will occasionally express displeasure with, the Falcons for cutting his son, or with the NFL or USFL for not appreciating what a good kicker they passed up. And then Del and Scott will jog down the field to retrieve the half-dozen balls and stuff them into the sack and drag them back upfield and set 'em up again, five yards deeper. And when Scott's knee heels, they don't talk about how excited they are when the Bills invite him to camp. He is one of 10 kickers they're bringing in. That doesn't matter, Del tells him. You just keep showing up.
The weather in Buffalo drives other kickers mad, but it suits Norwood. The wind, the cold, the rain, the spartan practice facilities. But Norwood has been through worse. He's been cut, injured and overlooked, and compared with that, kicking in rain or a harsh wind blowing from the north is almost a pleasant diversion. He's comfortable with the elements, and from his career as a soccer player he knows how to control the ball in inclement weather, to keep it down in the wind, to improvise. The other kickers are cut, one by one, and finally Scott shows up and looks around the locker room one morning and he's the last kicker left.
Before you belittle the placekicker or make light of him as an athlete, ask yourself: Are you among the 28 best in the world at anything? Scott Norwood is in that exclusive club. In 1988, his fourth season with the Bills, he makes the Pro Bowl. In '89 he becomes the alltime leading scorer in Bills history, taking the record from O.J. Simpson. "I felt like I fit in to that team," Norwood recalls. "That's one of the special things about sports, the camaraderie." His teammates treat him not as a kicker but as a fellow football player. "Everybody looks at kickers as being a little sissy to a certain point," says quarterback Jim Kelly. "But Scott was one of us. He had that mean face, that linebacker face. I loved that guy."
The Bills are winning games, the division title and playoff games. Coach Marv Levy and general manager Bill Polian have assembled a remarkable group of football players, starting with Kelly, Thurman Thomas, Andre Reed, Bruce Smith and Cornelius Bennett and extending all the way to Norwood. He meets Kim Burch, a salesgirl in domestics at a J.C. Penney in Buffalo. She sells him bedding. She smiles. She is slender, strawberry blonde and beautiful. They are married three years later.
And still, Scott comes home, every off-season, though now he's driving a black Ford Bronco that he gets from a dealer in Virginia in exchange for a few ads and personal appearances. Do you know how good that feels, to get something just because you are you? A pro football player, a Pro Bowler, and you make six figures a year? You're on a winning team? You've married a beautiful woman?
Of course you don't. Very few of us do. But it feels like this: You are in the flow of life, not trying to wrestle it down or beat it into submission or twist it and forge it and shape it, but you are instead riding along and each bend or turn reveals a pleasant surprise. And still, Scott keeps coming home, to kick with his dad. Some of the commuters returning from Washington along Annandale Avenue point to the kicker on the grass and the older man holding the ball and say, See that guy? He's the kicker for the Buffalo Bills. And Scott could never imagine a time when that recognition, the same recognition that wins you free automobiles, could make it hard for you to leave your own house.
As the ball goes wide right, the instant it is passing the upright, before the official has even signaled, Kim is in the stands thinking, Oh, this is going to be tough for Scott. She has come to Tampa to watch the game with Del, Sandra and Scott's aunt and uncle, and all of them at that instant think some version of that same thought. Kim winds her way down the stands and into the tunnel and then around the stadium to the players' entrance, this petite bobbed blonde in a white sweater, slacks and pumps, darting between cursing Bills fans and elated New York Giants fans, wending through dense clusters of elation and despair as palpable as parade floats. She desperately wants to be there for Scott, to hold him and tell him that it will be O.K., that it was just a kick, that it's just a game, all things he knows, but in the aftermath of the biggest miss in Super Bowl history it might be easy for him to lose perspective.