People will be cruel. They already have been. The advent of social media means you can get your snarky comments piping hot, right out of the oven. "I'd like to wish Billy Cundiff a very merry Kickmiss," one Twitter jokester wrote on Sunday a few hours after the Ravens' kicker shanked a 32-yard field goal against the Patriots that would have sent the AFC Championship Game into overtime. "The Giants should give Kyle Williams the game ball, but he'd probably drop it," another one tweeted right after Williams's fumble on a punt at his own 24 in overtime doomed the 49ers in the NFC title game.
People will be kind. They already have been. The Niners' pain was still fresh on Sunday evening, yet the players and coaches were already weaving a cocoon around the devastated Williams. "I feel bad for Kyle," safety Donte Whitner said in the locker room. "That's going to be the play people focus on. We're going to show him lots of love."
The Ravens supported Cundiff in much the same way. "I just told him it was going to be O.K.," said coach John Harbaugh. "We'll move on. He's a great kicker, and everybody has a tough moment."
It wasn't just teammates who rallied around Cundiff, 31, and Williams, 23. Before Sunday evening was out, more than a few fans had called for the others to stop piling on. For quite some time, maybe forever, that's the way it will be for the veteran kicker and the young return man. There will be mockery and sympathy, criticism and consolation. It is a duality that athletes in their situation—we might as well call them goats, since they'll have to get used to the label—all have to deal with. Bill Buckner felt the wrath and eventually the warmth of Red Sox Nation after his famously booted ball in the 1986 World Series. After Bills kicker Scott Norwood missed a 47-yard field goal that would have won Super Bowl XXV against the Giants, he was so hated by some fans that others wanted to hug him.
The past few months have given us other players who have committed crucial late-game miscues, including Stanford kicker Jordan Williamson, who missed a 35-yard field goal that would have won the Fiesta Bowl, and Boise State kicker Dan Goodale, who was wide right on a 39-yarder that cost the Broncos an undefeated season and a berth in a BCS bowl. Every time someone fails in the clutch or makes the final, crushing mistake that decides a game, we have to figure out how to feel about him. Is he a choker? Does he deserve scorn or solace? Usually, when he owns up to his failing, the ridicule gives way to respect. After Williams patiently answered questions about his painful day in the San Francisco locker room on Sunday, defensive line coach Jim Tomsula wrapped an arm around him. "What you just did," Tomsula said, "that was your finest hour."
Cundiff and Williams didn't want to be slammed or stroked on Sunday. It seemed as if they would have preferred to just disappear. Williams walked off the field determinedly ignoring the photographers who tracked him, while Cundiff put his hand over a TV camera lens as he headed for the locker room after New England's 23--20 victory, gently pushing the camera away. But neither one hid from his mistake. "It's a kick I've kicked probably a thousand times in my career, and I went out there and just didn't convert it," Cundiff said. "There's really no excuse for it."
Williams was equally forthright. While most of his teammates dressed quickly after the 20--17 loss to the Giants, he moved more deliberately, slowly pulling off his shoulder pads and tape and shaking his head as though he couldn't believe what had happened. He had not mishandled just the punt in overtime that led to Lawrence Tynes's game-winning kick; on a punt that he didn't want to field in the fourth quarter, he had been unable to avoid having the ball glance off his knee, leading to a Giants touchdown. "I caught the ball, tried to head upfield and make a play, and it ended up for the worse," Williams said of the overtime drop. He declined the opportunity to blame the mistake on the slippery conditions from the rain that fell intermittently throughout the game. "Everyone handled the weather O.K.," he said. "The guy [Giants linebacker Jacquian Williams, who poked the ball out] just made the play."
It would be foolish, of course, to say that Cundiff or Williams alone cost his team a trip to the Super Bowl. Every victory or defeat is made up of a latticework of plays, inextricably bound together. If the Niners had been better than 1 for 13 on third down, if the Ravens had not been forced to settle for field goals on a pair of trips to the red zone, if any one of dozens of other things had happened differently, San Francisco and Baltimore might be preparing for the Super Bowl today. But it's the last mistake, the one for which there is no time to atone, that we end up remembering.
As painful as those memories are to 49ers and Ravens supporters, maybe those fans will find mercy in their hearts more quickly if they also remember that the hurt runs even deeper for the players responsible. That much was clear as Williams left rainy Candlestick Park on Sunday night, pausing for a moment to pull his black hoodie tight over his head and bracing himself for what was to come.