“The kick is no good! Hooked wide left.”
—Sean McDonough, ESPN, 11/25/2006
Jad Dean stood just outside the shadow of the WestZone, in the light of mid-afternoon. He was lined up to attempt a 39-yard field goal.
The year was 2006. The leaves were turning. Dean’s Clemson Tigers were down 31-28 against rival South Carolina, with 18 seconds left in the game. I was at home, in Irmo, South Carolina, close enough to the television to pick out the pixels. I was rubbing my bare chin—a nervous habit—sending up prayers and pleas, hoping that I’d see the football tumble through the uprights.
In a sense, the kick was unfair; it carried too much weight. It was Dean’s last kick in Death Valley, with a rivalry game on the line. As a lifelong Clemson fan, he knew the meaning of the South Carolina game. He knew that a win at the end of a disappointing regular season would be a comfort to Clemson fans who had watched the implosion of a once-promising season. He understood that his college football career wouldn’t last much longer, that he was a senior who would soon exhaust his eligibility. He knew that the kick wouldn’t make him a hero; he was supposed to make kicks like this one, and even if it went through, the game would probably still go to overtime. However, the kick did have the potential to make him a scapegoat.
Dean looked nervous. His routine was more rigid then normal. His steps were heavy. He wasn’t talking, wasn’t jocular; he looked isolated. While some of the best kickers thrive in isolation, this time, Dean seemed to be struggling in it. His expression was pained and his limbs looked stiff. Whereas his overlong, untucked jersey might’ve signified cool in more relaxed circumstances, at that moment it seemed to be a telling oversight, the kind of light indiscretion that offered a peek at a chaotic mental state. He’d worn his jersey that way throughout much of his career, and it likely signified nothing, but to me, at the time, it contributed to a sense of unease.
The oddity of the game as a whole probably contributed to Dean’s scattered headspace. This game didn’t obey football logic. Although Steve Spurrier’s unheralded Gamecocks gave up four turnovers, they dominated time of possession and put up 492 yards to Clemson’s 372. A stellar 155-yard rushing performance from freshman running back C.J. Spiller should have provided enough of a spark to get the Tiger offense going, but the rest of the unit put in an uninspired performance. Watching Will Proctor was tedious. The offensive line was unsteady. In spite of what the turnovers might suggest, the Clemson defense didn’t fare much better. South Carolina racked up long, clock-eating drives that kept the Clemson offense off the field and out of rhythm for long periods of time. Dean was out of rhythm, too; after attempting and making six field goals in two games (Maryland and NC State), he didn’t rack up a single attempt against South Carolina until the late 39-yarder.
Maybe Dean didn’t think about any of that, didn’t let the odd rhythms of the game affect him. Perhaps he felt mentally prepared, and his muscle memory just let him down. Or, maybe there was some other force at play, some football trickster god who would’ve surely fed off of the energy emanating from Spurrier’s low black visor.
The truth is, I don’t really know what made that kick hook wide left, but I know how I felt when it did. I remember that disbelief, that denial, soon replaced by despair. I remember how all of the air seemed to exit my living room in that moment, how I reached for a remote as soon as I could muster the motivation; I couldn’t bear the cheers of the away crowd and the scenes of jubilation on the away sideline. I remember how I sat in silence once the television went black.
Jad Dean couldn’t cut off the noise, at least not initially. He had to live with it. He had to face his team. He had to face the media and, after that, the rest of the world. He had to face death threats from a few of his own fans. He had to face an unfamiliar form of isolation, one that extended beyond the field of play; it must’ve been loud in his mind in the weeks that followed the missed kick.
By the time he managed to truly cut off the noise, five or six years after, football was a part of his past. In the intervening years, he began to heal. He found peace in his Christian faith. He got married. As he advanced in years, Clemson football began to win more consistently. With each win, Dean’s miss became more of a memory and less of an open wound. I imagine he’s grateful for that process.
When I watch the tape of that game, years later, I still hold onto this hope that the outcome will be different, that somehow the ball will swerve rightward in midair, back toward the uprights. It’s absurd, this hope, but I find comfort in it. I like the idea that Dean’s still out there somewhere, in some version of reality, lining up to take that 39-yarder, and that this time he’ll be ready for the weight of it all. There, in that version of reality, the leaves are still turning and the shadows are out of reach.