Several weeks after Scott Norwood’s field goal attempt sailed wide right in Super Bowl XXV, forever guaranteeing the Buffalo Bills kicker a place in sports infamy, I contacted Ralph Branca. I figured if there was anyone on the planet who could understand the agony Norwood was experiencing, it would be Branca, who on Oct. 3, 1951, served up the climactic home run that forever will be known as “The Shot Heard ’Round the World.”
The old Brooklyn Dodgers hurler told me he had been a lifelong New York (football) Giants fan, so he had watched this game between his team and the Bills with rapt attention. When Norwood’s 47-yard kick flew a few feet wide of the right upright, thereby securing a 20-19 Giants victory, Branca leapt from his chair and let out a whoop. Then, as he watched the suddenly lifeless Norwood trudge head down toward the sidelines, Branca slowly slunk back into his seat.
The miss exhumed painful, buried memories from that fateful October day 40 years earlier when Bobby Thomson homered off him to give the New York (baseball) Giants the National League pennant. “I muttered to myself, ‘That poor SOB,’” Branca told me over the phone from his suburban New York City home. “People are going to remember him for that one kick that failed, just like people remember me for that one pitch I threw. It’s unfair, but it’s sports, I guess.”
It is sports and it is unfair. From the moment Branca delivered that fateful gopher ball to the moment he died at age 90 two Wednesdays ago, it was a heavy burden to bear.
“A lot of guys have thrown home runs in crucial situations, but who do people think of? Me,” Branca said. “A lot of guys have missed field goals, but who are they going to think of? Scott Norwood. It’s like everything you’ve accomplished in your career centers around that pitch or that kick. It’s my understanding that Norwood has made a lot more of them than he’s missed. I think he’ll pull through it. He’s shown a lot of class throughout this whole ordeal.”
Time heals all wounds, but scars remain. The footage of Branca in front of his locker, his head buried in his hands, moaning, “Why me? Why me?” became almost as memorable as film clips of Thomson’s joyous, little-boy romp around the bases, accompanied by announcer Russ Hodges’ hysterical “The Giants win the pennant!” rant.
The words of a Jesuit priest, Pat Rowley, who was the second cousin of Branca’s soon-to-be-wife, provided perspective during the ride home from the ballpark that day. Rowley reportedly turned to Branca, who was sitting with his fiancée in the back seat, and said, “It could have happened to anyone. You did your best.” But when Branca repeated his “Why me?” lament, the priest told him sternly: “The reason God picked you to throw that pitch was because He knew that your faith was strong enough to withstand the agonies that will follow.”
From that point on, Branca handled his infamy with remarkable grace and dignity. He even reached a point where he could joke about it. “The great thing,” he said a few years ago, “is that I’ve outlived most of the people who saw me give up that home run.” And he became chummy with the man who caused him a life’s worth of misery. “I may have lost a baseball game,” Branca said at Thomson’s funeral six years ago, “but I wound up gaining a good friend.”
Although virtually all of Branca’s obituary headlines focused on “The Shot,” the stories below the bold type reminded us that he had been a darn good pitcher, three times earning National League All-Star honors and once winning 21 games in a season.
Branca also was an All-Star person. He was one of the first players to publicly support Jackie Robinson’s quest to break baseball’s color barrier. During pregame introductions at Brooklyn’s Ebbets Field before the 1947 season opener, Branca made a point to stand next to Robinson, who had received numerous death threats because he was an African-American. That courageous gesture was not lost on Robinson, who often cited Branca as one of his biggest champions.
Branca also was one of the founding members of the Baseball Assistance Team, which raised millions to help indigent former major league players, managers, coaches, umpires and office personnel.
I had a chance to meet Branca at a baseball fantasy camp with former Major League players at Frontier Field in 1999. He was one of our coaches, and he perked up when I reminded him about our Norwood phone conversation eight years earlier. “How is Scott doing?” he asked. “I think about him every year around Super Bowl time when they keep showing those replays of his missed field goal. Believe me, I know what a pain that is. I have to go through the same thing every October around World Series time.” He told me to give Scott his best. “Tell him to keep moving forward,” Branca said. “I, as well as anyone, know that’s not easy because you can never forget about it completely.”
As we learned in that compelling, “Four Falls of Buffalo” documentary last year, Norwood continues to struggle with “Wide Right.” He still feels as if he let his teammates and Bills fans down, even though he has received much more love than blame through the years. Yes, there are idiots who still pin it all on Norwood, conveniently forgetting that it’s a team game and that Hall of Famers Jim Kelly, Andre Reed, Thurman Thomas and Bruce Smith also failed to make plays that could have altered the outcome of Super Bowl XXV.
Branca lived a life in which he refused to be defined by a defining moment. He was a man who was so much more than one pitch. Hopefully, Norwood will achieve a similar peace, because he’s a classy, big-hearted guy who is so much more than one kick.
Best-selling author and nationally recognized journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.