O’Brien: Who is Stephen Gostkowski?

The Daily’s Colin O’Brien shares his thoughts on resilience in NFL kicking

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The first weekend of NFL football culminated on Sept. 14 with a low-scoring slugfest between the Tennessee Titans and Denver Broncos on Monday Night Football — a game that became the scene of an intense private drama played out on one of the most public stages. Sports at its best is theater — and as I sat at my desk, readings for the next day piled high before me, game on in the background, I became increasingly engrossed as the Titan’s placekicker, Stephen Gostkowski, found himself thrust into a leading role, with the outcome of the game and the future of his football career hanging in the balance.

Stephen Gostkowski’s night went wrong from the start. Let me set the scene: It’s the latter part of the first quarter, and the Titans face fourth-and-seven at the Broncos’ 29-yard line. Gostkowski trots onto the field to attempt a 47-yard field goal. He places his right toe on the spot where the ball will be held, takes three steps back, aims his right arm at the uprights, takes two sideways steps to his left, looks up at the uprights, and then looks at the holder. The ball is snapped. Gostkowski takes two fluid steps, swings his leg and sends the ball, end-over-end, toward the uprights. The kick looks good at first, but then it slices to the right, just missing. He mutters to himself as he walks off the field.

Missing a kick is unusual for Gostkowski. He is one of the most prolific kickers in NFL history. A 15-year veteran, he has led the league in scoring five times and has converted over 1,000 field-goal and extra-point attempts. He is a three-time Super Bowl champion, a two-time First Team All-Pro selection and the seventh most accurate placekicker ever.

Before his NFL career, Gostkowski kicked for the University of Memphis, where he set the school record for scoring; before that, he kicked at Madison Central High School in Mississippi, where he still holds the record for the longest field goal made.

This all is to say that Stephen Gostkowski has spent a considerable portion of his adolescence and adulthood kicking footballs, and he is better at it than most people will ever be at anything in their lives. According to his standards, a single missed kick is a poor performance. Being an elite football kicker is just who he is.

***

Fast forward to the waning moments of the first half. There are eight seconds left, and the score is tied 7-7. The Titans look to pull ahead before halftime, and they send Gostkowski out to attempt a 44-yard field goal. He goes through his normal pre-kick routine. The ball is snapped and Gostkowski kicks. But before the ball can cross the line of scrimmage, a Bronco player partially blocks the ball. The kick is no good. As the Broncos defense celebrates, Gostkowski looks to his teammates beside him, but no one seems to say anything.

Gostkowski is off to a rocky start, and it’s not the way he planned on introducing himself to his new teammates. Before this year, he spent the last 14 seasons playing for the New England Patriots, where he captured virtually all team kicking records. But after missing a critical extra point in the 2016 AFC Championship Game and field goals in the 2018 and 2019 Super Bowls, fans started to doubt whether he could come through in the clutch. He seemed inconsistent even though his statistics held steady. Nevertheless, the Patriots unceremoniously released him after he missed most of last season with an injury. The Patriots apparently thought that Gostkowski was no longer the player he once was.

***

The teams return from halftime, and midway through the third quarter, a Titans drive stalls on the Broncos’ 24-yard line. The score is still tied, 7-7, and Gostkowski attempts to break the deadlock with a field goal. The kick hooks badly to the left, and the usually self-effacing kicker is visibly upset with himself. He doubles over, slaps the ground and cusses himself out.

You cannot be a field goal kicker if you cannot kick field goals. Identity is performative: We derive our sense of self from what we do. Every action we take reveals who we are to the world. We know ourselves, and are known by others, to the extent that we succeed in performing some notion of ourselves.

In other words, if you consider yourself to be honest, you must time and again tell hard truths. If you want to be decent, you have to demonstrate compassion. If you fancy yourself to be humorous, you must make others laugh. If you aspire to intelligence, you need to generate original, noteworthy ideas. We must prove ourselves every day, and past successes do not shield us from our future failures. 

We intuitively know this. But what happens when we inexplicably keep failing at our core competencies? What happens when we keep missing those easy kicks we’ve been making our entire lives?  

I look at the books before me and I have a horrible premonition that I might never again correctly answer a cold call question in class. Then I wonder at how frustrating and puzzling our failures can be, how contingent our successes.

***

In the opening minutes of the fourth quarter, the Titans score a touchdown to pull ahead of the Broncos, 13-7. Gostkowski goes out to attempt the extra point. During one stretch of his career, Gostkowski converted an NFL record 523 consecutive extra-point attempts. He fails to convert this one. He has no reaction; he simply looks at the ground and walks off the field.

At this point, the gobsmacked announcers on television say that the probability of Gostkowski missing four kicks in a single game is 1 in 1,804. The announcers are not clear on how the sports analytics nerds cooked up those odds, nor would I understand the math if it were explained to me, but I shake my head and wonder how we all got stuck in this utterly improbable, upside-down world where Stephen Gostkowski is shanking kicks in a crowd-less stadium on the NFL’s opening weekend of the COVID football season.

And now the game is no longer simply a contest between two teams. Rather, it serves as the backdrop for an existential interrogation — who is Stephen Gostkowski? The television commentators claim that Gostkowski’s career statistics and accomplishments make him a candidate for the Hall of Fame. They imply that this night is an unbelievable aberration. Meanwhile, the consensus on football Twitter is that he’s a washed-up bum who is playing his final game.

After the missed extra point, the Broncos drive the field, score a touchdown and convert their extra point attempt, giving the Broncos a 13-14 advantage.

***

In the final moments of the game, the Titans drive into Bronco territory once more, needing only a field goal to take the lead. The Broncos’ head coach declines to use his remaining time outs, which would save time for a final offensive possession. He instead bets the game on a final Gostkowski kick. Apparently, the Broncos’ coach agrees with the Twitter trolls.

All the while, Gostkowski stands alone and kicks footballs into a practice net on the sideline. He continues to go through the motions, swinging his leg, kicking imaginary field goals. But I see in his face that tonight is not a problem that practice can fix. It’s not his kicking form that’s off, nor his focus. There is nothing discernibly wrong with how he’s been kicking the football. Yet, he keeps on practicing because that is what people expect you to do when you’ve missed four kicks in a single game. He goes through the motions for the benefit of those watching. And as the final moment of truth arrives, the hyperbole of the pundits and trolls intensifies.

If identity is a kind of performance, then it requires an audience. We define ourselves through the perceptions of others. Much of the affirmation we seek — the esteem of colleagues, the approval of mentors, the loyalty of friends, the love of those close to us — depends on others seeing in us something true and valuable. But what happens when they don’t see us as we are? How can we retain a coherent sense of self when others no longer know whom they’re looking at? When our self-confidence gives way beneath our feet like quicksand?

Stephen Gostkowski keeps on kicking.

With 17 seconds remaining, he takes the field to attempt a 25-yard field goal to win the game. Just like he’s done thousands of times before, he takes three steps backward and two sideways steps to the left. He looks at the uprights and then at the holder. The center snaps the ball, the holder places it and Gostkowski kicks it right down the middle for the win.

Gostkowski is grateful for but clearly a little embarrassed by the celebratory congratulations of his teammates. He professionally shakes hands with a few of the opposing players, and then he quickly jogs off the field.

Epilogue

Over the following two weeks, I’ve made a point of checking the box score for the Titans’ games to see how Gostkowski has fared since his opening night debacle. As it happens, he’s now kicked game-winning field goals in all three games, re-establishing himself as a player that can be counted on under pressure. He’s back to his old self. At least that’s the prevailing narrative.

Whatever the truth may be, I’ll know that whenever Gostkowski kicks this season, there will be more at stake than just points on a scoreboard.

Contact Colin O’Brien at cjobrien ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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