It was around 12:30 a.m. that I finally got home to my apartment last night and for the first time on what had been an exhausting Sunday of football, I got a pit in my stomach. It was an odd time for it considering that I, a Giants fan, had just finished watching my team win the most mentally exhausting game I've seen in nearly 20 years of following the team -- and yes that includes Super Bowl XLII -- and I was bouncing off walls knowing that my team was going to its second Super Bowl in five years.
But of the things I've learned over the years, one of the big ones is that athletes are not super human, nor are they emotionless icons to be pilloried or praised at our convenience. They're people. Just regular people like you or I. Some people don't quite realize this, and one of whom, apparently, is a random San Francisco 49ers fan named Javier Pasquel. I don't know him. I don't particularly care to meet him. I do not care to ever be involved with him in any way and that is because while trolling through my twitter feed, I came across this gem that @javpasquel put out there after having his heart broken by his Niners:
"@KyleWilliams_10. I hope you, youre wife, kids and family die, you deserve it"
His awful grammar aside, Pasquel's point is that he, as a fan, is upset. I once made these mistakes, notably rooting for Emmitt Smith to get injured as a child, something that, considering his track record against the Giants with injuries probably would have been poor strategy. Despite Pasquel's anger however, his outlet was completely unacceptable because not only is it cruel and inhumane, but Williams is a person, too, and as the obvious goat of the Niners' 20-17 loss in overtime in the NFC Championship Game last night he is probably feeling about as awful as any person could.
Those implications of goatdom come as a result of not one, but two stunning fumbles while returning punts at pivotal times for the Niners yesterday. The first, a fluke-ish bounce that grazed his knee, was more unforgivable than the second, a clean strip by Giants linebacker and special teamer Jacquian Williams in overtime, but it is cruel, excessive and somewhat misleading to blame Williams for these two moments -- the second of which clearly led to New York's winning field goal that sent the Giants to Super Bowl XLVI. There were multiple factors leading to New York's win last night, among them the Giants consistently improving defense, the unflappable willingness to stand in the pocket by Eli Manning and perhaps most importantly, the stellar all-around job by punter Steve Weatherford. But factor into that the almost complete nonexistence of San Francisco's wide receivers throughout the game -- Michael Crabtree, whose name might not have been mentioned once during the broadcast chief among them -- as well as Alex Smith's wilting performance in the fourth quarter and overtime and you have numerous places on which to cast blame.
But beyond that, there are dozens of reasons to ache for Williams. The biggest might be that he wasn't even supposed to start this game as a punt returner, but was unexpectedly thrust into action when Ted Ginn Jr. suffered a knee injury a week earlier against New Orleans. Williams' inexperience showed throughout the game, not just in his fumbles but in several curious decisions, including a diving grab of a punt that he probably should have let go and a fair catch at the 12-yardline when he had room to run. Williams was not ready for the moment, as much of that falls not just on his youth -- he's only 23 -- but also on his coaches who are supposed to prepare him to make decisions like those rote second nature by the time the game is played.
Further lost in the drama is that Williams attempted his own mea culpa through his play. On the next kick return he had after his first fumble, Williams was an arm tackle away from breaking into open field and giving San Francisco a 21-17 lead. Shockingly that video is not available on YouTube. On the return in overtime in which he surrendered what was eventually the game-winning turnover, he once again looked like his legs would be moving for a strong return. Clearly a phenomenal athlete -- Williams was drafted by the Chicago White Sox in 2006, a team for which his father, Kenny, is the general manager -- his speed was beginning to show as the game wore on and he became more comfortable. While I will make no bones about it -- as a Giants fan I am over the moon that he lost the ball -- it is impossible for one's heart not to go out to someone who just may have had the most brutal night of his life on the biggest stage possible.
Perhaps more than anything else, the backlash Williams has faced through social media proves just how short a fan's memory can be. One week before it was Williams laying a block on Saints defensive end Will Smith that sprung Alex Smith on his dramatic fourth-quarter touchdown run for the Niners. The good must be taken with the bad.
The same was true of the first game Sunday, when the Ravens lost a shot at overtime as Billy Cundiff stunningly shanked a game-tying 32-yard field goal in the closing seconds. This was a kick that Cundiff had made in his sleep thousands of times in seasons past when he was so good as to earn a Pro Bowl nod. He, too, is bearing the brunt, but his miss was the culmination of several flubs that cost Baltimore a trip to the Super Bowl it had almost certainly earned. One such flub was an incomplete pass in the end zone two plays earlier to Lee Evans, who had secured the ball for what would have been a game-winning touchdown -- and probably should have been reviewed regardless -- before Sterling Moore knocked it out of his hand. The biggest fault of all, however, likely falls with Ravens head coach John Harbaugh, who inexplicably didn't call time out before the kick despite having one left, an inexcusable moment of brain freeze that probably caused the kick to be rushed and Cundiff's hip rotation to be off as was brilliantly detailed on Deadspin hours later by journalist and one-time training camp kicker for the Broncos Stefan Fatsis.
The point is that football games are not a collection of random events that we hope turn out how we want them to. They are a series of chain reactions with a logical end result that is the conclusion of everything happening before it, and these moments that cost Cundiff and Williams their happiness, peace of mind and more than a little privacy are ones the brunt of the blame of which should not be born by those two sole individuals. There is an extensive, complex ballet at play that put each man in that spot and to blame them and them alone is harsh, shows an ignorance of the intricacies of how mentally engaging football can be and, well, utterly stupid.
Men like Pasquel don't understand the gravity of the game, nor have the decency to comprehend the human element and how the players are affected. People could argue that the outsized salaries these players earn opens them to criticism, but that argument is deeply flawed for numerous reasons, the primary ones being a misunderstanding of market value, economies of scale and the imperfection of humanity in general. Sunday, for Kyle Williams, was simply a bad day at the office.
They happen. To all of us.
Some of you reading this will have bad days at the office today. Some of you will screw up a report and get yelled at by your boss. You will be frustrated, you will be annoyed, and at the end of the day you will go home and try to take your mind off of it. You are human, and so is Williams, who just had a bad day of work like all of us do from time to time.
The only difference between you and Williams is your bad day did not happen in front of 50 million people. You ought to be grateful for it.