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The kick, then the kicking

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© St. Petersburg Times, published December 27, 2000

TAMPA -- He closes his eyes, and the image is there, uninvited and cruel.

All at once, Martin Gramatica is back in Green Bay, and the goal posts are in his sight, and the kick is away. Once again, he is pleading, praying, for the ball to somehow turn in flight and sneak inside the right upright. Just like last time, just like the last hundred times, it flies wide again.

Then Gramatica opens his eyes, and the pain is still there, too, raw and hollow.

Such are the windows into an anguished soul. Gramatica sits at his locker, some 48 hours after missing a kick against Green Bay, and his eyes are brown and tortured. These are the eyes of the hunted, a wounded deer that cannot comprehend the sudden, unexpected pain in his chest.

So you want to be an NFL star, do you? You want to dance in the spotlight and bask in the glory? You want to listen to people tell you how great you are?

This is the other side.

Man, does it hurt.

"I've never felt anything like this," Gramatica says quietly. "Never. Not even close."

For two years Tampa Bay has gotten as big a kick out of Gramatica as the other way around. He has been the 170-pound kicker with the 300-pound right foot, dependable, deadly and delirious. He has been the kid who kicks it from a half-football field away, then bounds, bounces and boogies across the field in such sheer joy that he makes you want to dance along. If ever there has been a kicker Tampa Bay wanted to sling its arm around, it's Gramatica.

And then came the kick in the cold.

And hell, frozen over.

"It's hard to describe what I felt," he said. "It was ... unbelievable. I felt relaxed. I felt confident. The kick just went right. I felt powerless. When the team needed me most, I let them down."

Since then, he has been an open wound, barely sleeping. Even on the team flight home, he put on his headphones, and he closed his eyes, and he tried to shut out the world. He didn't really sleep, and he didn't really see the movie. Mostly, he hurt.

His family, from which he gets so much support, has been out of town. So he has stayed in. But every television channel he watches seems to be showing another replay of his miss. He estimates he has seen 25 replays.

He takes his dog for a walk, and he passes a newspaper box. And there he is. "I don't think my picture has ever been that big," he said.

He tries to play a video game, just to get his mind off things. And he picks the Bucs. And the Gramatica on PlayStation misses a kick, too.

His teammates have called to console him, and coaches and friends and family; he appreciates every one. But when an athlete has fallen short, words cannot soothe the pain.

"It's been a tough 48 hours," Gramatica said. "I'm still not over it. I wish people would realize that you don't go out there and miss on purpose. And that this hurts."

There was the guy on Fox. Gramatica doesn't remember his name, but he remembers how the guy said, "Well, he isn't jumping around now." He remembers how the guy said Ryan Longwell, not Gramatica, should have made the Pro Bowl.

"I got mad for a second," Gramatica said. "But he can't do what I can do. All he can do is talk."

Still, you get the feeling more people feel Gramatica's pain than point a finger at him. Yes, it was the biggest kick in Bucs history, with a bye and a home game in the balance. But around here, fans know what Gramatica has done for this team time and again. They saw the Miami game, when he kicked a 45-yard field goal that struck a million raindrops on its way, to pull out a victory. They saw the two field goals of more than 50 yards in the fourth quarter to pull out the first victory over Green Bay.

Maybe there is a lesson here. As a society, we are big on trying to share someone's success, but we tend to let athletes suffer alone. Maybe, before you rip again, you need to look into the eyes of Martin Gramatica. Maybe you need to realize how badly he feels. This does hurt. This does matter.

If ever an athlete deserved a pass for a big miss, it is Gramatica. Yes, it meant a lot. But without Gramatica throughout the year, it wouldn't have meant a thing.

"It was like the Yankees sending out Mariano Rivera and him giving up a home run," safety John Lynch said. "It happens. He's going to come back."

For the Bucs, this is the most important thing. Gramatica has to get over this. Some kickers never do, but Gramatica remains his team's most consistent weapon, and there is not a player in the locker room who does not know it. And so Gramatica passes by, and everyone wishes him well.

"I'll get over this," Gramatica said. "Once I start kicking in practice, it'll help. I owe it to my teammates to get over this and get ready for Sunday. By the time I go out there, I'll be confident again."

And, perhaps then, he will get another chance. Perhaps, as the game creeps near its end, he will stand another 40 yards away, with another goalpost in his sight.

"If he does, I'll feel good," coach Tony Dungy said. "I'd feel like he was going to make it."

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