The Sports Butterfly Effect

Today, Kyle Williams is learning the hard way that the Internet is an ugly, ugly place. Williams is getting death threats on Twitter due to his fumble during overtime in last night’s NFC Championship Game between his San Francisco 49ers and the New York Giants. The Giants recovered the fumble, putting them in ideal field goal range, and three plays later, the Giants’ Lawrence Tynes kicked the game-winning field goal to win the game and send them to Super Bowl XXXXIIIIII 46.

I say “ideal field goal range” because those aren’t always guaranteed shots. Billy Cundiff and Baltimore Ravens fans know this first-hand, as Cundiff missed a 32-yard field goal – one yard longer than Tynes’ kick – that would have tied their game with the New England Patriots and almost certainly put the AFC Championship game into overtime. Cundiff doesn’t use Twitter (to our knowledge) so he at least doesn’t get to see the threats from people who talk without fear of repercussion, hiding behind an alias behind a computer keyboard or smartphone.

Or worse, maybe they’re not showing false bravado. Maybe they would physically attack Williams or Cundiff because of those plays. “Fan” is short for “fanatic” for a reason.

Both mistakes are excusable – Cundiff’s kick was rushed despite the Ravens having a time out to allow the kicker to set up. Cundiff and the kicking team were running onto the field as seconds ticked away, and the ball was snapped with barely a second left on the play clock.. Williams had the ball stripped from him, carrying the ball during a rainstorm. This wasn’t a muffed punt or his running and dropping the ball; Williams was hit, and a slick football popped out as a result. Had it happened midway through the third quarter, it gets forgotten. Since it happened at the end of the game, it suddenly becomes THE PLAY that ended the season for the 49ers, when in reality it’s not; it’s just the last play of the game for the 49ers offense.

Think Williams and Cundiff feel like crap? Of course they do. Think their teammates are blaming them for losing the game? Probably not, and if they are, they’re wrong.

A story: back in ancient times when I was maybe 11 or 12 years old, I was a pretty good bowler. I was on a very good bowling team, and we would win league trophies and all that kind of thing. I started bowling when I was eight, partly because it looked like fun, and partly because the bowling alley was the only thing that resembled an arcade within 15 miles of my house.

One year, while we were putting together a pretty good bowling season, my teammate’s mom signed us up for some bigger tournaments. We would do this every so often – bowl at a nicer alley with gobs of other people, eat lunch at the Ground Round, and see what kind of video games the other alleys (and the Ground Round for that matter) had. But this season she signed us up for a team event, and we did pretty good. In fact, before we left, we were told that we had the best score in the tournament. This was a major score for us – it meant a trip upstate and staying in a hotel and all that kind of stuff that seems really cool when you’re 12.

Later on we learned that another team had tied our score, and that we would have to travel back to the same alley we had bowled at before (no trip upstate, no hotel) to have a tiebreaker. From there, the magic disappeared, and we had our butts handed to us. No trip, no hotel – just a cheesy plaque that read “co-champions” that may or may not be in my mom’s attic.

My point is that after we lost, I thought about the tie and how close we were to going upstate. We were five-person teams, so you’re talking about five people, three games a piece, 150 frames of bowling.

One pin.

Have you ever been bowling? Have you ever thrown a perfect ball and had one pin just not go down, or come this || close to picking up a spare, or slip a little bit and miss the 7 or 10 pin? Of course. That’s bowling. Crap like that happens every game (except the perfect ones).

But there we were, the five of us, thinking of not how we should have made a bunch more strikes, but how we should have gotten an eight instead of a seven in the sixth frame in the second game.

Because if we got that eight instead of a seven, or if we had picked up at least one of the pins in the 4-10 split in the second frame in the third game, or any other random stuff like that, we’d be going upstate, and we never would have seen a tiebreaker.

But the thing is, we didn’t turn on each other, despite the fact that I’m sure every one of us could have pointed out errors the other four of us made. No one bowled a 300 game, so we all missed something. Instead, we sat there and picked apart the most minute details of those three games, something I’m sure the Ravens and 49ers are doing right now. One play where they could have played better, where if they hadn’t done some mistake or made some minor misstep, something else might have happened and the Ravens wouldn’t have had to turn to Cundiff to tie the game, or the 49ers wouldn’t have been in overtime in the first place. Football is great for the butterfly effect; one play – one denied first down, or an extra five years, changes the approach to the game and causes different things to happen. If a defensive player makes a better tackle, the team doesn’t get closer to making a first down. Someone gets called for a holding penalty and allows a drive to continue which doesn’t directly result in a score, but causes a punt that puts the other team deeper into their own territory.

Yet it will be Billy Cundiff and Kyle Williams that will forever be linked to the Raven and 49er losses, just as I might have if I had thrown a gutter ball in the last frame of the final game. Well, and if millions of people had a fanatical interest in preteen regional team bowling.

It’s not fair to Cundiff or Williams or Scott Norwood or Gary Anderson or Earnest Byner or countless others, but it’s part of being a professional athlete, a part that isn’t often thought of when discussing giant salaries and other luxuries that are part of a pro athlete’s life.

[photo courtesy]

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