Ten years after the kick that changed his life, Phil Brabbs walked onto the patio of a coffee shop last Thursday and took three steps back, two to the left. Moments earlier he'd looked like any other suntanned tourist in Emerald Isle, N.C., checking his e-mail at the Beans-N-Screens Internet Café. Now he was standing over an imaginary left hash mark, in his sandals, reciting Philippians 4:13. It was the verse he chose at Michigan Stadium on Aug. 31, 2002, with five seconds remaining and the Wolverines trailing Washington 29--28. Brabbs was a junior at Ann Arbor who took out student loans because he was not on scholarship. Until that day he had never attempted a field goal in college. Early in the first quarter he missed wide left, and late in the second he missed left again—a snap hook that barely rose more than 10 feet off the ground. At halftime Brabbs was booed by the sellout crowd as he jogged into the locker room, where he sat with his head in his hands. Before the third quarter he missed every one of his warmups, all to the left. Coaches benched Brabbs in favor of his best friend, Troy Nienberg.
With 1:24 left in the fourth quarter, Nienberg pushed a go-ahead 27-yard field goal to the right, and Brabbs told himself, Not only am I going to get lynched, my best friend is going to get lynched with me. But an unfathomable sequence ensued: a Washington three-and-out; a fourth-down pass to Michigan receiver Braylon Edwards that was dropped, ruled a fumble (in the days before replay) and recovered by another Wolverine; and, finally, a too-many-men-on-the-field penalty against the Huskies that set up a 44-yard field goal try. Lloyd Carr didn't summon Brabbs so much as shove him. "Get out there," the coach growled. As Brabbs loped onto the field, he looked at the stands and noticed that maybe 10% of the fans had gone. Still, about 100,000 remained. "I was the last guy they wanted to see," Brabbs says. Michigan receiver Ronald Bellamy grabbed him. "You've got this," he barked.
In the movie Wildcats, a 1986 football comedy, head coach Goldie Hawn approaches her kicker late in a game and tells him, "You make this ... and every girl in the free world will want you." The stakes for college kickers today are, if possible, even higher: glory or ignominy, immortality or oblivion, love letters or death threats. You can be Auburn's Wes Byrum, whose 19-yard field goal to win the BCS championship two years ago has been commemorated with a limited-edition painting ($395 for an 18 by 24), or Florida State's Gerry Thomas, whose missed 34-yarder against Miami 21 years ago still prompts jeers of "wide right." Last season the Sugar Bowl and the Fiesta Bowl were won by kickers, after they were both lost by the opposing kickers. Four teams were eliminated from national title consideration because of foot faults. Alabama could have been one of them, flubbing four field goals in a November loss to LSU, but Crimson Tide kicker Jeremy Shelley drained five to beat the Tigers in the rematch. "It's kind of unfair," says former Rutgers kicker Jeremy Ito, who hammered a game-winner from 28 yards to topple Louisville in 2006. "The good feelings you get from making one don't outweigh the bad feelings you get from missing one."
We celebrate the kicker because, in many cases, he reminds us of ourselves. He's not 300 pounds; he wasn't recruited out of elementary school; and he isn't going to declare early for the draft. We ridicule him, of course, for the same reason. "A lot of fans think they can do a better job," says former USC kicker Adam Abrams, who made the go-ahead field goal in the 1996 Rose Bowl and a game-winner a year later at Notre Dame. "That's where some of the hostility comes from."
NFL kickers are under similar stress, but they don't go to class with their critics the next day, baseball caps pulled low over their eyes as the professor takes roll. The pros have learned over the years how to reconcile jubilation and despair. The collegians are often no more seasoned in the spotlight than Brabbs. They receive little individual coaching at their schools. They practice alone before their teammates hit the field. They lean on one another, a widespread fraternity of current and former kickers, because no one else can relate. They are in action for only seconds a game, adding up to mere minutes a season. But in those throbbing moments they create memories that will forever inspire them, or haunt them, or both.
I felt like I was frozen in time," says Brabbs, "and then I saw the ball fly between the uprights, and I woke up." He didn't know what to do, so he ran, as fast as he could toward midfield until Bellamy caught him and wrestled him down. A hundred teammates leaped on top of them. Bellamy shrieked at the bottom of the dog pile. "I could have died right there," Brabbs says, "and I'd have died happy." He was the last one to the locker room, where the captains stood on their chairs and led the team in "The Victors," a Michigan tradition. Carr left one chair open for Brabbs. After the fight song and the press conference and the celebratory dinner with his family at Applebee's—"I was like a presidential candidate!" Brabbs marvels—he went to his girlfriend's apartment. He was asleep by 10:30 p.m.
Besides the Michigan hard cores, no one heard from Phil Brabbs again. He injured his quad later in the season and tore it in the summer. He made two field goals the rest of his career. He graduated with a degree in engineering, landed a job as an IT project manager and married his girlfriend, Cassie. They had a son, Ocean, and two daughters, Iris and Ruby. They bought a house six blocks from Michigan Stadium. In 2007, while Brabbs was training for a marathon, he felt a pain in his left ankle. Doctors discovered a blood clot in his left leg and, a few months later, another in his right. The day after Brabbs turned 28, he received a diagnosis of multiple myeloma, a cancer of the blood.
He chose the most aggressive treatment: two bone-marrow transplants and seven cycles of chemotherapy. "You're completely exhausted, lying on your back, and you have a lot of time to think," Brabbs says. "I'd never really savored the kick—I just sort of stowed it away in my heart—but I started to reflect on it a lot. I tapped into the hope from that game. I asked myself, Why can't you do it again?"
This spring, tests revealed that Brabbs was free of the myeloma protein, and in June he delivered the commencement address at Frankenmuth (Mich.) High. He knew what the administrators were expecting, a speech about his victories, over Washington and cancer. But if they wanted him to gloat, they should have invited a receiver. Brabbs looked at the students and told them, "Be a failure. It's the misses that propel you forward."
When Brabbs was a freshman, Michigan beat Alabama 35--34 in the Orange Bowl after Ryan Pflugner pushed an extra point in overtime. Most Wolverines rejoiced but not Brabbs. "It didn't feel right," he says. "That kid had to go home, and who knows what happened."