1. I know I am never noticed except at moments like this. Three seconds remain on the clock. Over the last three hours, I have appeared on the field for approximately thirty seconds. Now, I stand alone on the right hash mark near the forty yard line, tossing spears of dead grass into the air to gauge the direction of the wind while sixty thousand pairs of eyes are trained on me in the stadium, while another ten million are watching in living rooms and sports bars and on arrays of televisions in department stores and electronics superstores, while fifty-two teammates and fourteen coaches refuse to look at me for fear they'll shatter my fragile kicker's psyche, while fifty-three opponents and their coaches watch with eyes wide or narrowed (but all on me to be certain) and twist their mouths to spit invective designed to shatter my fragile kicker's psyche.
2. My wife's eyes at this moment are likely closed as she lies between the sheets of our bed—again too sick, she said, to come to the stadium and sit with the other wives in the private box insulated against the cold wind swirling in the bowl. Or maybe her eyes are not closed. Perhaps they are open, watching the muscles in his shoulders tense as he holds himself above her, the weight of his upper body braced on his elbows and forearms as she moves beneath him with a motion as natural as breathing, holding in her lungs the faint pine scent of his after-shave lotion.
3. Or perhaps it is not after-shave lotion at all that I've detected, but the scent of a perforated sheet she tosses into the clothes dryer when she does laundry, a sheet that gets stuck in the sharp creases of the pillowcase she folds and puts away in our linen closet, where it sits for weeks, bleeding forest scents into 180 percale cotton fabric.
4. Except for the handful of plays that bring me on the field (today, two extra points, a field goal attempt that went wide right, and three kick-offs), I am alone on the sideline. I sit on the far end of the bench, huddled beneath a heavy poncho that shucks off the falling snow but can't keep December chill from seeping into my joints—my knees and hips and shoulders. My teammates say nothing to me, for we kickers are a rare breed. Are they afraid I will snap? Afraid I will send my one hundred-eighty pound body hurtling into their tree trunk thighs, their moving truck chests, that my paper-thin pads won't be enough to prevent my bony shoulder from breaking bodies one could only attribute to the wonders of modern chemistry?
5. Or are they respectful of my craft? Do they know the physics of kicking—the delicate triangulation of plant foot, kicking foot, and held ball? Do they understand that my art is dependent upon factors beyond my control? What about the snap? If it is too high or too low, the entire timing of the delicate operation is thrown off. What about the placement? The ball being tilted a fraction of an inch in the wrong direction at the spot of my kick can result in it sailing fifteen feet off mark where the goal post stands fifty yards away. If I do not hit the ball's proverbial sweet spot, it will not explode off my foot—its trajectory will carry it into the ham-like hand of a behemoth charging, leaping from the other side of the line.
6. Art my ass. There is no physics to kicking. You just boot the ball for all you're worth and make damn sure it splits the uprights at least seven times out of ten or you're on the street and your wife is busy with some man who smells like a national forest and drinks the single malt scotch you keep locked in the cabinet.
7. The opposing team's coach has called a time-out. He knows my kick can erase his two-point lead as the game's final gun sounds. He knows that if he loses again, he'll be called into his general manager's office and be handed a pink slip—that his entire coaching staff will suffer exactly the same fate. Happy holidays, Coach.
8. Right now, the announcer sits in his booth and tells his television audience the opposing coach is trying to "ice me." What an interesting phrase—"ice me." I'd always thought December in Green Bay was enough to make me shiver without any help.
9. Perhaps that's it—I could bring home a can of Betty Crocker chocolate frosting.
10. Doesn't she keep Christmas candles in that closet?
11. Maybe she is watching me on television. Maybe she has put up the last of the holiday decorations—her collection of angels, cherubic, beaming, covered with delicate flecks of golden glitter; the votive holder that looks like Santa warming his hands over a chimney; the nativity scene in which the Christ child extends his arms from the manger as if signaling that the kick is good. Maybe she will greet me at the door with a smile and a snifter of brandy that chases the cold from my joints like no steaming locker room shower can. And maybe we'll settle down to a long winter's nap, lying in each other's arms, our heads resting on pillows that smell like nothing but our love.
12. If I make this kick, I will send sixty thousand happy people to their cars. They won't mind that the snowfall will grow heavier and heavier as they drive to their homes in Oshkosh and Appleton, in Milwaukee and Eau Claire. They'll battle the occasional slick spots on the highway with good humor. They'll walk into warm houses where loving family awaits and holiday smells wash over them—Christmas cookies, pineapple-glazed ham, apple cider simmering on the stove top, and the Norway pine in the living room decked with miniature lights and tinsel.
13. If I miss this kick, sixty thousand people will suddenly realize how cold they are. They'll lean on their horns as they jockey to get out of the maze-like parking lot. They'll curse the snow and slide into ditches. When they do get home, their families will have grown hungry; tired of waiting, they will have eaten the meal, and the plate of ham will have grown cold (its juices congealing to a jelly that holds it tight to the plate), the cider tepid, and the cookies stale. And though the miniature lights have been unplugged, they will still smell the Norway pine.
14. And what about the millions glued to their televisions?
15. Do I really believe a thirty-five year-old man with a shaky marriage, kicking pebbled leather between yellow-painted steel posts, makes a difference? That three points will do what nearly two thousand years of Judeo-Christian tradition could not accomplish for some people? That one kick, the ball in flight for three seconds that feel like an eternity, will make a woman remember that she once loved me?
16. Is that your final answer?
17. If I make this kick, my teammates will swarm me. Their taped hands will thump my back, pat my helmet. They'll carry me off the field on their shoulders—their savior. They'll have survived to play another week—another week of me sitting alone on the end of the bench, another week of coming home from practice to an empty house and waiting for her to return with the scent of cigarettes and stale beer on her breath.
18. I am kicker. Hear me roar.
19. And now it all goes silent. I know a beer commercial still plays on the Jumbotron. I know a bearded man stripped bare to the waist is bellowing at the top of his lungs along with sixty thousand others. I know coaches are screaming into headsets. I know a vendor tries to sell one last jumbo hot dog. But I enter a zone and hear none of it. And when the referee blows his whistle, when the opposing units fall into formation with me ten yards behind the center, when the ball is snapped and giants surge into one another with barbaric grunts and the pop of pads colliding, I still hear none of it. I do not hear slap of the ball against the holder's palms. I do not hear the whisper of my cleats on the turf as I stride toward the ball. I do not hear the solid thud of my foot striking leather, nor do I hear the hiss of air around the ball as it climbs, spinning end over end in a parabola that carries it to a place I can never know.
Mr. Winkler has kindly made available to us this YouTube HD video of himself reading his story: