The kick sailed high, and sailed straight. That was important. The one earlier had swung left, almost an irritable tic for a man who had missed some crucial kicks in that very fashion not so long ago.
But this one, from 48 yards back through the soft turf at Gillette Stadium, flew in its confident parabolic curve and greeted the net behind it firmly.
The snapper, whose mind was blank all the way until the ball left his fingertips to zip into the hands of the holder, turned to celebrate. He knew very well how important the kick was, although he wouldn’t admit it in so many words after the game.
The kicker’s left hand flew in the air as he connected with the ball, just as it does every single time. On his knuckles flashed the initials of his wife and kids, and “1-4-3,” which means “I love you.” He has been writing them on his hand for every game since college.
Consistency is important, after all, for kickers.
When the ball sailed through the uprights, the kicker grinned breathlessly, and accepted the pounding of his helmet and shoulder pads by teammates’ jubilant fists, and the clacking hugs football players give one another in celebration. It was over. The kick had sailed straight.
The kick Graham Gano made to beat the Patriots on Sunday looked easy for him.
Getting to it was not.
The toughest year
Nobody could forget the potential game-winning kick Gano was presented with last year, as the Panthers fell to their former Super Bowl foes, the Denver Broncos.
There were four seconds to play. Gano was trying for the game-winner, a 50-yard attempt.
The sour taste of one miss, while unfortunate for a kicker that week, usually fades as a fresh week begins. Kicking is a lot of mental work, after all, including the ability to leave the past in the past.
But Gano kept missing, and often in tough situations. He missed eight kicks in 2016, a high for him as a Panthers player, as the team followed a Super Bowl run with a lousy, 6-10 year.
After Gano missed three times against Tampa Bay in a loss in the season finale, head coach Ron Rivera voiced his impatience. Rivera said the team would look to “bring in competition” for Gano in the offseason. Then, the team drafted a kicker for the first time in franchise history, Harrison Butker out of Georgia Tech, in the seventh round.
The vitriol from the public was loud, and it was harsh. Critics thought Gano would lose the battle in training camp and the preseason to Butker. Gano certainly heard them.
Gano also had to get healthy. He said he was playing with a hurt plant foot through much of last season, and finally the bone that had irked him simply snapped.
“It had been bothering me for awhile,” he said. “It was cracked and it finally snapped during the season. Snapped straight in half. So it wasn’t fun.”
Gano had surgery in the offseason, and got to work rehabbing his foot, with Rivera’s words all too clear.
“This offseason was tough. There was a lot of trying times throughout the rehab,” he said.
Gano leaned on his wife, Brittney, who at the time was expecting a third child. He tried to stay confident and relaxed, even when the weirdness of a two-kicker roster set in after the team made its cuts and both Gano and Butker were still around.
Gano also leaned on the faith his teammates put in him. Long snapper J.J. Jansen didn’t say a word to him as they ran out onto the field for the final kick, because he knew Gano would make it – even though the kicker had missed an extra point earlier in the game, his first miss of the year.
Left, of course.
“I figured (this one) was going right down the middle,” Jansen said. “I think everybody thought that.”
Receiver Devin Funchess walked right up to Gano after the Patriots scored in the fourth quarter to tie the game at 30 apiece – as that missed point loomed large.
“Don’t worry,” Funchess told him. “We’ll get you into field goal range. We know you’ll put it through.”
A coach went up to Gano on the sideline after he made the kick and told him what teammates were saying as the specialists took the field: That the game was in the bag.
“It’s nice to hear that,” said Gano. “It’s nice to have that sense of ‘team’ from my teammates and the confidence from them.”
‘This one is pretty special’
Rivera called the time out. Four seconds left to play.
But this time, the kick sailed straight. This time, it won the game against a reigning Super Bowl champions.
“I always try to stay calm no matter what. It did win the game but it’s just another kick,” Gano said, trying to stay modest after the game. But he couldn’t stop himself from cracking into a grin.
“They’re all important, but this one is pretty special,” he said. “Especially doing it here in Foxborough. Yeah, it’s fun. I think it’s fun for all of us specialists. ...
“This one is definitely up there, as far as more special kicks.”