“The lonely man, as most kickers are. He looks like the Lonely End of Army in those days gone by, who never got to come to the huddle.”
—Gary Thorne, ABC, 9/3/2005
Jad Dean had a busy night out there all alone, before the goalposts came down and the crowd spilled onto the field.
The date was September 3, 2005, and Texas A&M was in town for Clemson’s first game of the season. It was a heavy late summer night. Moisture hung in the air, beneath the stadium lights, bathing Death Valley in a fuzzy, ill-defined glow. The Hill was packed and stuffy, despite the occasional breeze. You could see sweat on head coach Tommy Bowden’s brow. He looked sickly.
It was a strange, stilted game from the start. Both teams struggled to make anything happen through the air, giving the game an uneven rhythm that didn’t make for easy viewing. Clemson’s offense was poor. The Tigers’ only touchdown came on a second quarter punt return by Chansi Stuckey.
The faltering offense forced Dean, the junior placeckicker, to carry the scoring burden throughout the game. The burden wasn’t too big for the kid with the cherubic face and the mismatched cleats. He made every field goal he attempted that night. A perfect six for six.
The last field goal, though, was Dean’s messy masterpiece.
Clemson was down 24-22, with six seconds left on the clock, when Dean stepped onto the field to take it. The kick was a 42-yarder, straight down the middle. A decent distance, nothing too crazy, but the circumstances created a challenge. The eyes of a national audience were on Dean, who, up to that point, had been perfect. The crowd seemed to hold its collective breath in anticipation of the moment in which his boot would make contact with the football. The Aggies’ head coach, Dennis Franchione, sensed the pressure, too. He took two timeouts in order to magnify it.
Dean had far too much time to think.
Time is not an asset for a kicker. It does not offer solace, or strength. It only offers loneliness, and the opportunity for panic to seep in. It is difficult, I imagine, to exist as a kicker, to have this peculiar relationship with time. Much of a kicker’s time in a stadium is spent waiting. Waiting to kick. Waiting for that moment of adrenalin, when the world is watching. When the wait is extended, it must be excruciating. And fans, coaches, and fellow players seldom seem to understand the kicker’s plight, what that kind of waiting does to a man in a moment of pressure. It can break you, if the moment is big enough and the margins are small enough.
On that night in September the waiting did not break Jad Dean. He split the uprights, with room to spare, in spite of a sloppy snap and a hurried hold. The students on the Hill let out a roar as the ball descended toward them, turning end over end. Dean trotted off the field, index fingers pointed toward the sky. The Tigers took a 25-24 lead with two seconds left.
After having far too much time on his hands, Dean suddenly had little to spare. He still had to kick off. The Tigers needed a solid line drive to limit Texas A&M’s options on the return and bring an end to the proceedings. He answered the need with a crisp roller toward one of the Aggies’ special teamers. Although Texas A&M made a scattered effort to keep the play alive via pitches, the attempt petered out after an obvious illegal forward pass. The game ended and the students stormed the field, as is tradition.
In the postgame scrum, Dean was a hero in demand. His teammates thumped him on the helmet and lifted him, briefly, before dropping him back to the ground. A young man in a purple Clemson hat grabbed him by the jersey and gave him a hearty shake, like a brother. Dean shot a wild, startled grin back at the man, who issued a playful push. Dean strode onward, toward the locker room, as students and old men ran at him from all angles, offering words of praise and slaps on the shoulder pads. It must’ve been nice to receive the acknowledgment, to be treated as someone who had accomplished more than the avoidance of failure.
The kicker didn’t look so lonely.