Washington kicker Travis Coons can only wait for his next chance
Huskies kicker Travis Coons' last kick was a 35-yard field-goal attempt that he missed in Washington's Apple Cup loss to Washington State. It's a feeling another former UW kicker, Chuck Nelson, knows all about.
Times staff columnist
Last month, after Washington kicker Travis Coons pushed to the right his 35-yard, would-be, Apple Cup-winning field goal in Pullman, former Huskies kicker Chuck Nelson felt a little flutter in his stomach and immediately understood the anguish Coons was feeling.
Only fellow kickers truly can feel such empathy. They've all been through it. They've all missed a late kick that lost a game. Recovering from those kicks is part of the job description.
And kickers understand that no matter how many game-winners you make, no matter how high your percentage of conversions is, the misses linger in the minds of sports fans much longer than the makes.
"I don't root for any kicker to make a kick to beat the Huskies," Nelson said in a phone interview late last week, "but in virtually every other situation I want to see the guy make it. I never want to see anybody miss. I root for the guys really hard. Obviously I felt bad for him (Coons) when he missed it. I know the moment."
In 1982 in that same Martin Stadium, with a Rose Bowl invitation riding on the outcome, Nelson missed a 33-yarder with 4:35 left in the Apple Cup that would have given Washington the lead. The Huskies eventually lost 24-20.
"If I had one kick to do over, that would certainly be it," Nelson said.
Kicker probably is a unique position in sports. Kickers sit on the sideline or pace for long periods of the game and are called on at specific moments to decide the outcome on one swing with a powerful leg.
Imagine, Nelson said, if basketball had designated free-throw shooters, or golfers had a guy they could call on, late in a round, to make a 5-foot putt to win a tournament.
"It's a hard job, but it's also a ton of fun," Nelson said.
"I love football and I love kicking," said Coons, who doubles as the Washington punter. "It's a tough thing to do. Not too many people can do it. And if you can get over the pressure and do what you're taught to do, you're going to have great success.
"It (the Apple Cup miss) was a solid hit. It just came off my toe a little bit. I swung through it as much as I wanted to. It just didn't go the right way. That's going to happen."
After the Apple Cup, Coons' phone blew up with encouraging messages from fellow kickers, including former Huskies Jeff Jaeger and Ryan Perkins.
"They all told me to keep my head up. It's just one bad kick and to keep doing what I'm doing," he said. "You've just got to forget it. After that game I felt like I'd let my team down a little bit.
"But I know what I'm doing. I thought I had a pretty solid season and with that one kick I can't let it determine who I'm going to become or what's going to happen next year. I've got to bounce back, have a better mindset, just forget all about that kick and keep doing what I'm doing."
The miss was only junior Coons' 11th attempt of the season. Entering Saturday's Las Vegas Bowl, he is 7 for 11.
"He hasn't kicked a lot," Nelson said. "It's not like he has 150 big-time field goals under his belt. He hasn't been out there that much, so he didn't have this reservoir of success to really draw upon. I think that was a factor. It's a lot easier to perform in a pressure situation when you have a lot of positives that you can pull out of your mental database."
The best kickers are literal thinkers. When they enter the game they're thinking about the mechanics, not the consequences, of the kick.
"You're not out there thinking, 'If I make this we win,' " Nelson said. "You're out there counting back 7 or 8 yards, finding your spot, going through your rhythm and getting your routine. The circumstances really aren't a part of that. The kickers who are successful, the bigger the moment, the more focused they become."
That senior season, Nelson was a consensus All-American. He had made 30 field-goal attempts in a row before the Apple Cup miss. A Husky Hall of Famer, Nelson was drafted by the Los Angeles Rams in the fourth round of the 1983 draft and kicked for five years with the Rams, Buffalo Bills and Minnesota Vikings.
"It (the Apple Cup kick) is way down the list of what I look at when I think about my kicking experience in total," said Nelson, the CEO of the Washington Athletic Club. "It's certainly not a defining moment when I think about my life as a kicker.
"But it is, far and away, the one kick that comes up in conversation more than any other. It comes up in conversations very early in the conversations."
Nelson said he looks at his career as "a whole tapestry and not just a few snapshots." But among his highlights are a 5-for-5 playoff game in 1987 when the Vikings beat San Francisco, a short last-second game-winner as a sophomore against Stanford and a 46-yard, game-deciding field goal in his junior season, on a stormy Saturday against USC.
"If Travis asked me for advice, I'd tell him you have to fight your way through it," Nelson said. "You have to go forward and have some successes to push that miss away a little bit. Don't let the tyranny of what others think define who you are as a kicker. Focus on what's important to you and not what people are bringing up all the time.
"It's going to come up a lot. It's going to linger a while. If people wouldn't bring it up it would be a lot easier for kickers or players who miss a free throw or drop a pass. The athletes move on a lot quicker than fans."
Fans should be reminded that it takes a certain level of courage to accept the lonely challenge of kicking, to put yourself on that island, to go through the camps and the tryouts, the hits and misses. To push a kick wide, then return under enormous pressure, in front of 40,000 ... 80,000 fans, and try it again.
"It's an interesting moment in sport. It is probably the most isolated moment in what is the ultimate team sport," Nelson said. "The old joke is that everybody wants to be a kicker until it's Saturday afternoon.
"Everybody wants to kick for a half-hour and then play catch for the rest of the practice during the week. But nobody wants to go out with three seconds to go and everybody's looking at you and the game is on the line."
Coons' next moment could come Saturday against Boise State in front of another national-television audience in the Las Vegas Bowl. Last seconds, maybe a 40-yarder to win the game.
"If I get another chance to kick a game-winner," Coons said, "that would be awesome."
Spoken like a true kicker.
Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or email@example.com
About Steve Kelley
Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
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