I’ve been a die-hard Green Bay Packers fan for almost 50 years now, starting in 1967, which was the year of Bart Starr and the “Ice Bowl,’ Vince Lombardi’s last year as the Packers’ coach, and the year they accomplished what was never done before and hasn’t been done since – winning the third of three consecutive NFL championships. I turned nine years old during that season, and became a lifetime fan, despite the fact it would be twenty nine years until their next championship.
Twenty nine years filled with mediocrity, incompetence and disappointment. Then, in the 1990s, we were treated to the Mile Holmgren and Brett Favre years, years in which we won one Super Bowl but were contenders almost every season, with the most exciting player in football leading us. Then Favre was gone and replaced by Aaron Rodgers, who unbelievably is actually better than Favre, and who, in the 2010 season, with Mike McCarthy as head coach, lead us to another Super Bowl win.
Through the years, there have been more disappointments than triumphs, and some historically bad losses. There was the game early in the 1981 season, against the Atlanta Falcons, that the Packers went into the fourth quarter with a 17-0 lead before self destructing and losing, 31-17. There was the 1997 Super Bowl, against an inferior Denver team with John Elway where the Packers couldn’t stop Terrell Davis and Holmgren abandoned the run in a frustrating 31-24 loss, there was the “4th and 26” playoff game against Philadelphia in 2003 when Donovan McNabb completed a 28 yard pass to Freddie Solomon on said down and yardage to put the game in overtime, which Favre promptly ended by lobbing up an interception to Brian Dawkins, and there was the 2007 NFC championship game at Lambeau, which again ended with Favre throwing a first possession interception in overtime that lifted the New York Giants instead of the favored Packers to the Super Bowl
But none of those compare to this year’s debacle, the incredible choke job the Packers executed to lose the NFC championship to the Seattle Seahawks. There were about ten plays that the Packers inexplicably screwed up on, any one of which having been run properly would have ensured a Packer victory. Each of these had an individual, either a player or a coach to point at. But none was as glaring as the on-side kick.
By now, you’ve seen the play. I don’t have to describe it. There was just over two minutes left in the game. All the Packers had to do was recover the kick and they’d win. Game over. So it came down to a little used, third string tight end named Brandon Bostick, who had caught two passes for three yards ALL SEASON. It was his moment, with the eyes of all the world on him, and in that moment, he tried to catch the kick, even though he had been instructed to block the Seahawk who ended up with the ball, so star receiver Jordy Nelson could do what he is one of the very best at – catch the ball. But Bostick panicked in that moment, and leaped up to catch the ball, only for it to deflect off of his helmet into the Seahawk’s hands. Put in simple terms – he screwed up.
After the play, after Bostick came back to the sideline, television cameras showed the Packers’ special teams coach in Bostick’s face, screaming at him. The Packers went on to blunder their way through the rest of regulation and overtime, losing the game and the chance to play in another Super Bowl.
After the game, Bostick, who probably didn’t talk to a single reporter all season, found himself in the eye, the center, of the press hurricane. He patiently listened to the questions and straight forwardly answered them, pulling no punches, accepting complete responsibility for the screw up, acknowledging the teammates, the coaching staff, and all the fans he’d let down for simply not doing his job. He spoke softly, and the hurt in his eyes revealed a bruised soul.
With age comes maturity. In my younger days, I’d brood about a painful packer loss for days. Now I still get disappointed, but it’s rare that I yell at the television. I find that, shortly after the game is over, I’m able to move on, and find some perspective. The sun will still rise in the morning, and the world will continue spinning, and whatever other cliches you can find for life going on. It’s only a game. This is easy for me to recognize. But for Bostick, it’s made hazier by the fact that this is his job, this is what he does for a living. Not only does he have family and fans, he has his teammates, his co-workers, depending on him to do his job. And he’s let them all down.
Looking at Bostick as he answered the reporters’ questions, I recognized the look in his eyes. It was the look of eyes that know sleep won’t come easy, that feel the weight of anxiety, that question the daily assumptions one makes about one’s self. I recognized in his eyes the same story that I’ve lived, the same pressures and self doubts and anxieties I’ve felt in times that I screwed up.
It’s hard enough to face friends, co-workers and family and admit that you’ve failed them. The most difficult thing is, in the dark of a sleepless night, to stare down your own fears and anxieties and self perceptions and admit failure to yourself. It’s the unavoidable truth that keeps you awake and exposes the lies and illusions we tell ourselves that most nights go unchallenged. We make mistakes every day, but normally they are unimportant and undetected, and by the time we close our eyes in sleep at night they are long forgotten, as is the fact that we’re all human and all capable of making that critical mistake at that critical time.
Then comes the day when we make that critical mistake at the critical time, when our fallibility is exposed. How do we get through times like these? How do we reconstruct ourselves, our self-esteem, out of the shattered pieces that lie scattered before us? How do we ever find “normal” again?
The answer is through the grace and understanding of the very people we’ve let down – our friends, family, co -workers. We gain strength through their caring and understanding. The same things that make failing them so disappointing are the things we gain strength from. It’s the bonds of love and respect and lived experience. It’s the shared and pulsating heart of humanity.
It’s not forgiveness that Brandon Bostick needs right now, it’s recognition. If we look into his sad and haunted eyes, we’ll recognize our own reflection, and we’ll understand.