Scott Norwood attends several autograph shows per year. They’re usually fun events because they give him a chance to mingle with Buffalo Bills fans, especially those who remember the glory years of the late 1980s, early 1990s. People will plop down No. 11 jerseys, shiny helmets, footballs, programs and all sorts of cards, including ones showing Norwood following through on successful kicks.
Occasionally, he will be asked to sign a photograph of the field goal attempt for which he’s most remembered — the one from 47 yards out with time winding down in Super Bowl XXV; the one that sailed wide right. And, although it’s a memory Norwood prefers not reliving, he dutifully puts Sharpie to photo, even adding the words “Wide Right” if that’s what the autograph-seeker prefers.
“I’d be lying if I said that’s an enjoyable experience, but it’s part of the history of my career, and it’s clearly a historic moment in Bills history, so I’ve learned to cope with it as best I can,’’ he said while signing a pile of jerseys at the Legends & Stars Winter Sports Exposition in Batavia last Sunday. “I can’t deny that kick happened. And most people are good about it, not confrontational. So, I sign the photo and keep moving on.”
On the streets, driveways, backyards and playgrounds of our youth, we daydream of being the hero. The whiffle ball we smack over the bushes wins a World Series. The jump shot we swish as an imaginary clock winds down results in a national championship. The football we rifle through the tire our dad suspended from that tree makes us Super Bowl champs. The puck we wrist into the taped-off square on the garage door enables us to hoist Lord Stanley’s cup. The trash can we hurdle produces Olympic gold. We experience only shining moments. Our Mighty Casey never strikes out.
And, so, it was with Norwood when he was growing up in Virginia. In his dreams, that kick always sails through the uprights. In his dreams, he wins a Super Bowl. And that’s what he was visualizing when he walked onto the grass in Tampa Stadium 29 Januarys ago. He was going to make good on that childhood dream. He was going to bring a Lombardi Trophy to Buffalo.
The reality is that even the greatest athletes fail more than they succeed. Michael Jordan missed as many last-second jumpers as he made. Wayne Gretzky fired scores of pucks high and wide. Not every header by soccer superstar Abby Wambach sailed past the goaltender and into the net. First-ballot Baseball Hall of Famer Derek Jeter struck out 1,840 times.
Norwood’s dream turned into a nightmare. There was no joy in Billsville that late January night. Mighty Scott pushed his kick wide right. Many cruelly defined him by that one attempt, conveniently forgetting all the big kicks he made while helping the Bills rise from the ashes of consecutive 2-14 seasons. In 1988, when he earned Pro Bowl honors, he had a foot in five victories. And although Super Bowl XXV came down to a 47-yarder — hardly a chip-shot — Norwood wasn’t the only Bill to fail that day. Hall of Famers Jim Kelly, Andre Reed and Bruce Smith played poorly against the New York Giants. Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick out-coached Marv Levy and his staff.
But it’s a fan’s nature to remember a missed field goal with seconds remaining rather than the missed tackles earlier in the game that enabled Giants running back Ottis Anderson to keep the chains moving and the clock running. And, so, Norwood became the goat, and would be forced to bear the greatest burden from that Super Bowl era, even though he wasn’t around for two of their unprecedented four consecutive defeats.
“President Kennedy said that life isn’t fair, and it hasn’t been to Scott Norwood, in that regard,’’ said Bills Hall of Fame General Manager Bill Polian, who also participated in Sunday’s card show. “But Scott will be the first to tell you there are harder things that people have to deal with. That said, it’s been a rough go, but he’s handled it better than anybody could have ever imagined. He is what he’s always been: a great person, a level-headed, empathetic guy.”
Norwood, who turns 60 on July 17, is enjoying life. He and wife, Kimberly, continue to live in Northern Virginia, where they raised their three children, now all adults. He helps run a friend’s upscale landscaping business, and this year he started teaching physical education three days a week at a Catholic elementary school. Most of his students are aware of his past occupation. “There are a lot of transplanted Buffalonians down here, and I teach a few of their kids, so the word’s kinda spread like wildfire,’’ Norwood said, smiling. “Occasionally, they’ll bring me cards to sign and ask me what it was like to play in the NFL.”
His favorite moments are spent imparting life lessons he learned from sports. These include handling defeat. One of my most vivid memories from Super Bowl XXV was the way he comported himself in the locker room after the game. Many would have run and hid or been terse. But Norwood stood at his locker for nearly an hour, answering question after question after question about the worst moment of his career. His classy response to adversity resonated with coaches, teachers and athletes across America. That offseason Norwood received thousands of letters and cards, mostly from total strangers, lauding him for his grace, and encouraging him to soldier on.
“I guess it was just the way I was raised,’’ he said, when asked about facing the music. “It’s very easy to stand there and answer questions when things go great, but how do you react when things don’t go as planned? I believe you have an obligation to stand in there, good times or bad. The reporters had a job to do. The fans wanted to know what happened. It’s not always fun, but you can’t just soak up the sunshine in life. Sometimes, you got to soak up a little rain, too.”
There are still occasions when Norwood runs into someone who is nasty and rude. “I do my best to be empathetic; I try not to judge people,’’ he said. “I don’t know what someone like that is going through at the time. It could be a projection of other things that are bothering them. As long as it’s not too injurious, I try to approach it with understanding and empathy.”
And, in doing so, he continues to show us how to be champions even in defeat.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist.