Pflugner went to medical school and became an orthopedic surgeon. Thomas, who famously missed right against Miami, became a lawyer. So did Dan Mowrey, who followed Thomas at Florida State, and missed right against the Hurricanes a year later. Mowrey nailed three field goals that afternoon at the Orange Bowl and never imagined the Seminoles would need a fourth. "We were driving at the end, and I was thinking, We're going to score and beat these guys," Mowrey says. "I was a dumb, cocky kid, and I didn't realize the gravity of the situation. That's what still bothers me. I wasn't ready." At Lincoln (Fla.) High, Mowrey developed a routine he followed every time his team crossed the 50-yard line: Warm up into the net, visualize the kick, strap on the helmet. When Florida State coach Bobby Bowden turned to Mowrey with eight seconds left and the Seminoles down 19--16, his helmet was still in his hand. "Oh, s---," Mowrey said.
Players coming off the field were asking, "Why are we kicking?" Mowrey was wondering the same thing. All of a sudden the snap was down, and the 39-yard field goal was up. "You know how people talk about their life flashing in front of their eyes?" Mowrey says. "I saw a flash of every kick I'd ever hit." Mowrey belly flopped to the turf, and after he returned to Tallahassee he found notes on his car begging him to transfer. Even some of his friends claimed they could have split those uprights. He led them all inside Doak Campbell Stadium, placed the ball on the left hash at the 29 and implored them to try. Mowrey lost his starting job as a junior, but Florida State played for the national championship in Miami, and on his first day back at the Orange Bowl he walked to the left hash. He put the ball on a tee, clobbered it into the seats and spit on the spot. The Seminoles won the title with a last-minute 22-yarder by Mowrey's replacement, Scott Bentley, and a last-minute shank by Nebraska kicker Byron Bennett.
The scars did not fully heal until Mowrey was a senior, at dinner with his girlfriend, and a patron shouted, "Hey, Wide Right! What's up, Wide Right?" Mowrey rose. "I'm Dan Mowrey, and yeah, I missed wide right," he said. "If you want to put up a billboard, I'll help you pay for it. But if you're just having a bad day, come over here right now and I'll give you a hug." Mowrey regained his job and made his final kick at Doak Campbell, an extra point that sealed a tie after an unforgettable 28-point fourth-quarter comeback against Florida. Mowrey now tutors the Gators' kicker, Caleb Sturgis, and tells him, "I want you to beat everybody but FSU." And what if Florida-FSU comes down to a Sturgis field goal? "I'd rather he make it," Mowrey says. "I don't want to see a guy miss."
Two years ago, Boise State was 10--0 and riding a 24-game winning streak, with a senior kicker who was the leading scorer in the history of the Western Athletic Conference. But in Week 11, against Nevada, with the score tied in the final seconds, Kyle Brotzman missed a 26-yard field goal to the right. He tried to compensate in overtime and missed a 29-yarder to the left. Instead of playing Auburn for the BCS championship, the Broncos faced Utah in the Las Vegas Bowl—and went from a payout of $21.2 million to $1 million. Mowrey wrote Brotzman a letter. "I told him that one kick doesn't define who you are," Mowrey recalls. "And I think I also told him that sometimes, you just have to say, F--- it." Mowrey asks what Brotzman is doing today. "Give him my love," he says.
The two field goals happened so fast, back-to-back, I didn't have a chance to forget about the first one," says Brotzman, now with the Utah Blaze of the Arena Football League. "It was in my head, and once that happens, you're set up to miss again." Social media have made kicking more hazardous than ever. "People called and left messages," Brotzman says, "but more than that it was threats on Facebook from gamblers who lost money."
A week after the game Jeret (Speedy) Peterson, a Boise native and three-time Olympic aerial skier, contacted Brotzman through a mutual friend and visited him. Peterson, who was sexually abused as a child and once saw a friend commit suicide in front of him, had long struggled with alcoholism and depression. "It's hard for some of us to open up and talk about our feelings," says Brotzman. "He wanted me to talk about what I was going through. It was a relief to get things off my back."
In July 2011, Peterson killed himself, and Brotzman thought about what he could do to honor him. "Speedy didn't know me, but he changed my life," Brotzman says. "I wanted to be there for someone in the same way." When Alabama missed all those field goals against LSU, Brotzman wrote an empathetic e-mail to starting kicker Cade Foster and included his phone number. A week later he watched undefeated Boise State play TCU from his father's tailgating spot outside Broncos Stadium and recoiled when kicker Dan Goodale missed a 39-yard game-winning field goal. Again, Boise tumbled from the BCS to the Vegas Bowl. Brotzman texted Goodale immediately, went to practice the following week and sat with the despondent kicker in the film room. "It was anxiety," Brotzman says. "His mechanics fell apart in some areas, and he pushed the ball right, just like me."
Goodale had attempted only three field goals in his college career, none longer than 32 yards. But he was more experienced than Virginia Tech's Justin Myer, who had tried two heading into January's Sugar Bowl. Myer was supposed to be the third-string placekicker against Michigan, until starter Cody Journell was arrested two weeks before the game for breaking and entering (he was found guilty of a reduced charge of misdemeanor trespassing) and backup Tyler Weiss was sent home on a Greyhound bus for missing curfew in New Orleans. The Hokies are renowned for their special teams. At the beginning of every practice, coach Frank Beamer leads his kickers into Lane Stadium, then stands over their shoulders as they hold a field goal contest. The result of each boot is recorded in a notebook. The exercise is intense, but it lasts only 20 minutes, and the Virginia Tech specialists spend the rest of practice in roughly the same way as their counterparts across the country.
"We make snow cones from the ice in the medical cooler and fill them with Gatorade," says Collin Carroll, a Virginia Tech long snapper for the past five years. "Then we sit by the fan in the shade. Sometimes we play touch football with each other or have a punt-pass-kick competition because it's the only thing we know how to do. That's why we're perpetually teased and mocked and borderline scorned." The week of the Sugar Bowl, Virginia Tech spent more time than usual on field goals during the team portion of practice, and Myer missed every one. "Guys were like, Are you kidding me?" Carroll says. "This is not going to be pretty." The Hokies hid their concern. Players told Myer they believed in him. Coaches promised not to yell at him. Carroll did not admit that his legs were shaking when Myer lined up for his first attempt at the Superdome. But the most shocking thing happened. Myer made it, and then he made another one, and two more after that. He was 4 for 4 heading into overtime.
After Myer sent a 37-yarder to the right, and Virginia Tech lost 23--20, Beamer stood in the locker room and said, "What a great job Justin Myer did tonight." The team cheered. The best game of Myer's career ended with a miss. Myer and Carroll were both seniors, and on their way to the bus, the kicker told the snapper, "I feel like I did pretty well, but I really wish I made that last one." Carroll stifled a laugh. He didn't tell Myer what he was thinking: "Most obvious statement ever."