I honestly don’t ever think about it anymore. I really don’t. The only time it’s ever in my mind is if someone actually says it to me. That’s it. — Blair Walsh
On Jan. 10, 2016, the Vikings hosted the Seahawks in Minneapolis at TCF Bank Stadium in an NFC wild-card game. Factoring in the wind chill, temperatures plummeted to -25° Fahrenheit, making their playoff affair the third-coldest game in NFL history. It was also the single worst afternoon of Blair Walsh’s life.
Players huddled around heaters near the benches. Fans scraped ice off luxury box glass as if attending to frozen-over car windshields. But this game wouldn’t be remembered for the cold. It wouldn’t be remembered for the three field goals Walsh made in the first three quarters, the only points scored by either team for most of the game. Nor would it be remembered for the Seahawks’ fourth-quarter touchdown, Adrian Peterson’s fumble that gave Seattle the ball back, or the field goal that put the Hawks ahead, 10–9.
Instead, that game will always be known as the time one of the NFL’s most reliable kickers, a first-team All-Pro in 2012, shanked a game-winning field-goal attempt with 26 seconds left. Of course it wasn’t that simple. There were circumstances. The cold meant the kickers couldn’t feel their feet; the holder placed the ball the wrong way, with the laces in, a la Ace Ventura: Pet Detective; and the Seahawks had nearly blocked the previous attempt, meaning Walsh’s unit would have to hurry. But nobody remembers any of that. What they recall is that Walsh missed from 27 yards, ending the Vikings’ season by hooking a kick he can still make with his eyes closed. That’s what most recollect, anyway.
“I’ll be totally honest with you,” Walsh says. “I remember almost nothing about that game.”
In the immediate aftermath, Walsh tried to follow the advice his parents, Joseph and Karen, gave him: Take accountability, make critical assessments, then move forward. That’s how he was raised; that’s the kicker life. He tried to place the miss in its proper context, as one kick—albeit one terrible, unfortunate, season-ending kick—but nothing more. Still, he says it took him about three weeks to reconcile the missed attempt.
Twitter made that approach more difficult, as it always does. There’s no room for nuance, no space for reason, no one to point out that Walsh had made 85.2% of his career field goals before that day. Imagine if you were that good at your job, and then you logged onto social media after your worst day at the office to be greeted by dozens, even hundreds, of death threats … “DIE BLAIR WALSH DIE YOU F------ SUCK.” Over and over. “I’ve only had positive interactions with people face-to-face,” Walsh says. “The rest is keyboard heroism.”
Today, he laughs when he thinks back to that time when he still played for Minnesota. It’s August 2017, 19 months after that fateful day, and he’s reliving the shank in the region that celebrated when it sailed wide. Walsh is sitting in a chair outside the Seahawks’ weight room, atop the depth chart of a Super Bowl contender, nine months after he was released by the Vikings last November. “If somebody told me the day I walked off that field, just watch, you’ll end up in Seattle,” he says, “I would have been like, nah, no way.”
That he landed in Seattle, of all places, isn’t even the most improbable part of Walsh’s life these last two years. There’s a whole other story about a teenager 1,700 miles away whom he befriended and what they tried to overcome, together.
I figured he needed to hear from somebody going through something like I was going through. – Camryn Nasman
The self-described “biggest Blair Walsh” fan in the Midwest watched her favorite football player line up for the final kick against the Seahawks. “You can do it, Blair,” Camryn, then 14, whispered, while pacing back and forth in a room apart from the rest of her family at their home two hours from Minneapolis. When the attempt sailed wide left, she cried hysterically and punched the floor. “I had always had a crush on him, so of course I wasn’t mad,” Camryn says. “But then I went on Facebook and saw how much hate was being thrown at him.”
“She locked herself in her room trying to defend him,” says Rikki Pardun, Camryn’s mother.
The week after the game, Camryn, now 15, happened to spy a local television segment about Walsh’s visit to Northpoint Elementary, located just north of Minneapolis. First graders at the school had written Walsh letters of encouragement the week after the miss; in response, he visited the school, delaying a planned trip home to California. One student told Walsh he wished he had made the field goal—that made two of them—but loved him anyway. Another asked if he owned a guinea pig. Another called him the “best kicker in the universe,” while another described him as “handsome,” and yet another told him “better luck next time.”
This only reinforced Camryn’s love for Walsh. “Mom, look at him,” she said. “He missed that kick and everyone is soooo mean and he’s still trying to improve himself.”
Camryn was impressed with how Walsh blamed no one, blamed nothing—not the holder, not the weather, not the Kicking Gods—but himself. He wasn’t Ray Finkle in Ace Ventura, plotting revenge on Dan Marino and Snowflake the Dolphin, yelling laces out! “I kicked it,” Walsh says, a year-and-a-half later. “The ball left my foot. That’s on me.”
At that point, Pardun didn’t know her daughter, who loved softball and the outdoors, had been suffering from depression. She didn’t realize that was part of the reason Camryn connected so deeply with Walsh’s story—she, too, dealt with bullies and didn’t know how to respond. Pardun knew that Camryn struggled with anxiety, but she only found out about her daughter’s depression four months after the missed kick, in May 2016, when a guidance counselor called from school, patching mother and daughter into a suicide hotline. Camryn had told the counselor about the suicide notes she had written to her family and her teachers, how she planned to kill herself with her rifle that night.
Pardun then made the toughest decision of her life, committing Camryn to a hospital for treatment for a week. Later that month, she poured all her emotions into a Facebook post, juxtaposing pictures of her daughter—flinging a softball, smiling next to her sister, holding aloft a fish she had reeled in—with an honest account of her struggles with depression.
“So, this isn’t something anyone likes to talk about,” the post starts. Pardun then details how her daughter spent the previous weeks in the hospital and how she drove 200 miles every evening just to visit for an hour or two. She writes that Camryn still has suicidal thoughts “every day,” that her goal is to help others and that she is proud of her daughter’s “strength and compassion.”
The post garnered more than 9,000 shares and elicited almost 900 comments, and none contained the vitriol lobbed at Walsh after the miss. Endless prayers for you and her, all of you. It has been 2 years since I lost my 21 yr old to suicide. Worst pain ever, that is always there … My issues started around that age. At 33 I still battle but I admire her strength and yours for sharing.
When Vikings camp started in July, not long after Camryn came home from the hospital, Camryn begged her mom to take her to a practice. She saw on the news that fans could fill out postcards, writing to their favorite players. The cards ask for the player’s name and then say “Good luck/This season I hope you …” and Camryn filled out three of them. The first starts … continue to inspire people like me everyday. Last year I developed depression because I cared so much about what people thought about me. Thoughts like harming myself flooded my head and I began to self harm.
Then in the playoff game you missed the game winning field goal. The whole world seemed to be against you, but you had the most positive attitude ever. You inspired me and I stopped cutting and caring what others thought of me.
Thank you so much. I am currently cut free and happy as ever. Keep your head up. You’re the reason I didn’t give up.
It’s just sports. It’s not life or death. But if I could help change her outlook and how she viewed herself that was huge. — Blair Walsh
He helped me more than he’ll ever know. — Camryn Nasman
Walsh didn’t learn about Camryn’s letters of encouragement until midway through the 2016 season. His year had started poorly. He missed two field goals in the opener and two more in the first eight games, and he also failed to convert three extra points in that stretch. His teammates remained supportive; no one even mentioned the missed kick from the previous season. But while Walsh insists there was no carryover, it was impossible not to connect the playoff fail with the shaky start to the subsequent season.
As Walsh struggled, so did Camryn. Some days she couldn’t deal, even as she made progress. That’s how depression works. It never goes away. One morning in October before school, she collected as many pills as she could find at home and threw them in a bag and hid the bag away. She says she planned to swallow them the next morning. “I was in a very, very low spot,” she says. But when she woke up that day, she had a voicemail from the Vikings. Walsh had seen her cards and wanted to meet with her in person.
They met at Vikings headquarters in Eden Prairie a month later. Walsh didn’t want to overstate what he had been through. The miss failed to compare to her depression; it never would.
When they convened, Camryn’s mind went blank. She forgot all of her questions. She asked Walsh his favorite color (black and red) and took pictures with him and went home with an autographed poster. She wanted to ask how he had managed to move on so gracefully. When she didn’t, he told her anyway, about the miss and how he felt awful for his teammates. He told her the kick—and its brutal aftermath—had strengthened his resolve.
“I was so scared the day after,” Pardun says. “Meeting Blair was her greatest wish in life, so I was afraid the next day would be terrible. It kind of was. She was embarrassed. But things changed after that.”
A month later, in November 2016, the Vikings released Walsh, but he tried to remain positive. Camryn tried to, as well. She’d write whenever she thought of harming herself, and the words—about depression and cutting her arms and asking for the help she needed—spilled out into pages. Lots and lots of pages. Eventually they became a book. Then a girl in a neighboring community hung herself, and the news hit Camryn hard. That could have been me, she thought. So she decided self-publish the volume she wrote, The Girl Behind the Smile, and tell her story, sparing none of the uncomfortable details. She posted pictures on Instagram of the cuts that lined her arms. “She started to feel like she had a purpose,” her mom says.
The kicker heard about the book and thought back to their meeting. He felt proud of Camryn and redoubled his own efforts, meeting with the retired placekicker turned kicking coach John Carney. They didn’t talk about the miss, either.
The man who shanked the Vikings’ playoff kick against the Seahawks walked into their headquarters after the 2016 season ended, almost exactly a year after the miss. He had not played since Minnesota released him in November. Immediately, he met Pete Carroll, a coach who likes his eggs and disposition the same way—sunny-side up. Carroll has said things like losing the Super Bowlwill be the best thing that ever happened to his team. He signed Walsh to a futures contract. Walsh maintains that none of his new teammates has asked him about the miss.
In his first preseason game with Seattle, Walsh made all eight of his attempts, including two field goals. “I’m fortunate,” he says.
Camryn still deals with her depression every day. She wrote a Facebook post in August that starts out, “I thought about suicide today.” But she didn’t reach for the knife. She considered all the “beautiful lives lost to sadness and hopelessness” and wanted to “hug everyone who gets put down for STUPID reasons.” In that context, Walsh’s miss seemed small. But not his impact on Camryn.
There’s no neat and tidy end here. Walsh won’t make every kick the rest of his career, and when he does miss, he’ll hear about on social media. Camryn’s depression wasn’t magically cured. What matters is that both faced something difficult, drawing strength from each other, moving forward, together, fighting and living and trying to do better than they did the day before.