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A TIME OF TRIAL

Aug. 29, 1994
Aug. 29, 1994

Table of Contents
Aug. 29, 1994

College Football '94
SI 40th Anniversary
Point After

A TIME OF TRIAL

For Navy kicker Ryan Bucchianeri, last fall was a season of testing on the field and of tragedy off it—a time that helped turn a talented boy into an exemplary young man

Five-thirty, the sunlight fills my room. First thing I dunk is, I'm at the United States Naval Academy. It's still sinking in. I'm still amazed and pleased that I'm a midshipman. I roll over and look out the window and see the sunrise over the water. I see the clouds, their outline in dark red or different shades of purple, and I see the seagulls come right up to the window. Every day it's different. At nighttime there's the orange sunset and the blue water and the sailing boats at dusk. That's my favorite time of day: the earth, the setting sun, the clouds—and when I'm kicking I see the silhouette of the goalposts against the sky, and the black ball....
—Ryan Bucchianeri

This is an article from the Aug. 29, 1994 issue Original Layout

In all the years he had played and replayed this moment in his mind—from spring and summer nights to restless autumn afternoons, from his Pennsylvania boyhood to his first months at the U.S. Naval Academy—Ryan Bucchianeri had always made the kick, the one he had to nail to beat Army. Not once, in all his youthful reveries, had he ever missed. Ever hooked it left, floated it right. Ever failed. Ever imagined anything but the kick that sailed end over end through the uprights, the boot that lifted the Middies over the Cadets and raised the boy onto the swarming shoulders of his teammates.

"Literally thousands of times I'd been in that situation in my dreams and made the kick against Army," Bucchianeri says. "I always made it. I had been visualizing it for years. For years!"

And now there he was, at age 18, only six months out of high school, looking like some downy-cheeked waif who had wandered out of a Dickens novel into Giants Stadium in New Jersey. It was almost 10 past three on the afternoon of Dec. 4, 1993, and for Ryan Joseph Bucchianeri—placekicker, poet, pianist, plebe—the Army-Navy game was just one play away from being his to decide. Army was leading 16-14, but the Midshipmen had driven 79 yards in 12 plays in the game's final 4½ minutes, from their own 20-yard line to Army's one, and now it was third-and-goal with 12 seconds left to play, and Bucchianeri (pronounced Boo-chee-ah-nary) was reciting his mantra on the sidelines: "I'm going in to kick the game-winner.... Get me in position!"

It was very strange, the way it was all happening. "You start thinking about fate," Bucchianeri says. "Was this meant to be?"

George Chaump grimaced at the thought. That the most important game of the year should turn on so young a toe was a fate the Navy coach wanted much to avoid. Bucchianeri had kicked erratically most of the season—he had never really recovered from the physical rigors of Plebe Summer, the Naval Academy's seven-week boot camp in the blazing heat of July and August—and Chaump feared exposing the struggling freshman to all the pressures that bore hard on the moment.

Besides the game itself, there was the coveted Commander-in-Chief's Trophy, which goes to the service academy that beats the other two in football. Navy had already defeated Air Force 28-24 on Oct. 9, and all the Middies needed now was a victory over West Point to take home the trophy for the first time in 12 years. And beyond the trophy was the powerful, dramatic subtext that ran between the lines of the football field that gray afternoon at the Meadowlands.

Three days earlier, in a bizarre murder-suicide that led news reports and commanded front-page headlines across the country, two of the most capable athletes in the history of the Naval Academy—former quarterback Alton Grizzard and long-distance runner Kerryn O'Neill—had been shot to death by O'Neill's estranged fiancè, former midshipman George Smith, in her room at the U.S. Naval Amphibious Base in Coronado, Calif. Grizzard had been the Academy's alltime leader in total offense, with 5,566 yards rushing and passing from 1987 to '90, and O'Neill had earned 12 varsity letters in cross-country and track by the time she graduated last spring. Rear Adm. Thomas C. Lynch, the superintendent of the Academy, described the brilliant and beautiful O'Neill as "the darling of the brigade."

Smith, deranged over O'Neill's decision to break off their engagement and armed with two pistols, went to her room for a final confrontation at 1:45 a.m. on Dec. 1. Grizzard happened to be there. He and O'Neill were not romantically involved, according to friends; he was there only to console and counsel the young ensign on her troubles with Smith. When Grizzard answered the door, according to police, he and Smith exchanged words. Smith opened fire with a 9-mm Ruger pistol, killing Grizzard instantly. Then he strode across the room and shot O'Neill as she cowered in terror behind a chair. Turning the gun to his head, Smith fired a last salute to his unbridled fury.

When Chaump broke the news to the football team before Wednesday's practice, there was a pall as palpable as the fog that rolls in ewer the seawall at Annapolis. Chaump had been coaching football for 35 years, including 11 under Woody Hayes at Ohio State and three more under John McKay with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and he remembered the handsome, ebullient Grizzard as "the toughest kid, mentally, I ever coached." The enormously popular former quarterback was an icon to all the seniors on the team, who had played with him as plebes, as well as to the players Grizzard had met on his return visits to the Academy. The fact that he had joined the SEALs, the Navy's elite special forces, merely embellished his warrior legend at Annapolis.

"He was an untouchable figure out here," says Middie quarterback Jim Kubiak. "When we found out how he had fallen, it was devastating."

Seeking to use the energy of their grief against Army, the Midshipmen dedicated the game to Grizzard's memory, stuck strips of tape on which GRIZ had been written to the backs of their helmets and wore black bands on their right sleeves.

And so it was third-and-goal in Giants Stadium, down on Army's one, and Chaump did not want the outcome of so emotional a drama to ride on a plebe with an uncertain toe. "I didn't want his confidence shattered." Chaump says. Nevertheless, the coach hedged. The ball was on the right hash mark, creating the most difficult angle for a right-legged kicker such as Bucchianeri, and so Chaump ordered a running play to the left, hoping to leave the ball in the middle of the held if the runner failed to score.

"Make sure it's dead center!" Chaump hollered at Kubiak. "Give him every chance to make it!"

Kubiak went to the huddle. "We're taking this in!" the quarterback hollered above the din of the crowd. Kubiak called 15-Cut, a handoff to fullback Brad Stramanak off Kubiak's left side. At the snap Stramanak took the handoff and started left. Suddenly, seeing a giant hole yawning on the right, he cut back and bolted for it. Alas, at the instant he seemed about to score, the damnable fates intervened. From the far right side of Army's line, linebacker Pat Work had slanted for the middle and dived forward. Now, reaching out, he caught Stramanak's foot with his left hand. The fullback tripped and fell a foot inside the one.

It was fourth down, with :06 left to play, and the ball was back on the right hash.

"Booch!"

It was Chaump calling. The young man materialized at the coach's shoulder, his waxen face glistening in the rain, his eyes blinking into the TV cameras from the hollow of a helmet that appeared a size too large. The coach grabbed him tightly by the arm. "Get in there and relax!" Chaump said.

"Just kick it like you do any other kick," said wideout Matt Scornavacchi.

"Come on, Ryan!" hollered Red Romo, the team trainer. "Put it in there and I'll give you an extra steak next week."

All along the Navy bench midshipmen at parade rest stared solemnly. On the day that Grizzard died, the team had watched a film of the Army-Navy game of four years before—the one in which kicker Frank Schenk, with Grizzard holding, drilled a 32-yarder with 11 seconds left to win the game 19-17—and the events unfolding now seemed an eerie echo of all that. On the sideline, as the timeout dwindled, senior wide receiver Jimmy Screen turned to tailback Jason Van Matre, a classmate, and said, "He'll make it. It's just like Schenk and Griz in '89."

Behind them, off by himself, Kubiak knelt on the artificial turf and beseeched the originator of grass: "Dear God, we deserve this. Let this go through."

Bucchianeri rubbed his mourning band, making sure it was secure, and headed onto the field, right to the cusp of that most cherished of his fantasies. He repeated, like a litany, the first commandment of placekicking, of which his father, Richard, had reminded him only the night before: "Keep your head down and follow through the ball." Ryan's holder, Tony Solliday, approached him on the field. "I want you to know, whether you make this or not, that you're a great kicker," Solliday said. Given the acute angle to the goalposts and his tendency to hook the ball from the right hash, Bucchianeri made an adjustment. "I aimed slightly right of the nearest goalpost," he says, "thinking it would hook between the two." He took three steps back and 1½ over and bent forward.

Just before the catch of the snap, Bucchianeri stepped forward, locking his knee as he swung his leg like a golf club, driving the outside of his toe into the ball. "It felt like a good hit," he says now, "but something felt a little different. I looked up...."

Monongahela, Pa., lies 25 miles south of Pittsburgh on the west bank of the river for which it is named, and there Ryan Bucchianeri's roots spread through a subculture of sports, football in particular, that runs as hard and deep as the coal in the ground. Five miles downriver from Monongahela is Donora, where Stan Musial and Ken Griffey Sr. were reared, and just three miles below that lies the little burg of Monessen, whose high school has already sent eight players to the NFL, including four who competed in the league at the same time in the late '60s and early '70s: the Miami Dolphins' Doug Crusan, the Baltimore Colts' Sam Havrilak, the Cincinnati Bengals' Eric Crabtree and the Washington Redskins' Bill Malinchak.

Bucchianeri grew up in a secluded corner of south Monongahela, in a three-bedroom ranch on a gentle ridge that commands a wooded valley with a creek and a waterfall. But he spent much of his youth at the car dealership and home of his grandfather. Peno Bucchianeri, on eventful Park Avenue, surely one of the most extraordinary streets in small-town America. Myron Pottios, the old Pittsburgh Steeler linebacker (1961-65), grew up in a house on Park, and just down and across the street from him was the corner house and general store of Walter Cox, whose son, Fred, kicked for the Minnesota Vikings from 1963 to '77 and is still their alltime scoring leader, with 1,653 points.

Across the street and some 200 yards down from the Coxes was the home of Peno's brother, Mike Bucchianeri, who kicked and played guard for the Green Bay Packers in the '40s. And not a quarter mile farther on, in a row of houses set along a bluff, was 512 Park Avenue. All Joe Montana had to do was step out his front door at 512 and cross the street to practice throwing footballs through a tire on a grassy stretch of land. Just down and across Park from Joe, a hefty Hail Mary away, was the boyhood home of Carl Vuono, who attended West Point, rose to become the U.S. Army Chief of Staff and built the army that fought in Desert Storm. And one of the steady visitors to the Bucchianeri homestead was a cousin of Ryan's father, Armand Niccolai, who kicked and played tackle for the Steelers from 1934 to '42.

What else was a diminutive boy—raised in such a neighborhood, with all those colorful maps to point the way—to do but kick footballs and head for a service academy? "No relative said to me, You'll be a kicker, you'll keep up the family tradition," Bucchianeri says. "It was just there. Very, very subtle."

And, at times, not so subtle. "These things were ingrained in his mind," says Ryan's mother, Rosemary, a fourth-grade teacher. "Ryan didn't have much choice. It was predestined." When Ryan was a young boy, Niccolai was already giving him instructions in the family's backyard. "Armand would turn a foam cup upside down, like a tee, and hold the football on it," says Richard Bucchianeri, a middle-school principal. "Armand taught Ryan how to kick."

By the time Ryan got to high school, he had attended one of Ray Pelfrey's kicking camps—"I learned the science of kicking," he says—and picked up a point or two at the celebrated toe of Cox, who by then had left pro football and was a local chiropractor. They practiced kicking together at Ringgold High.

"We talked about kicking and visualization," Bucchianeri says. "I remember practicing the kicks in my head. You'd be on the field by yourself, alone. You see the ball set up. You position yourself behind the ball. O.K.: one step, two step, one half step back. Stop. Look up. Line the ball up with the goalpost. Take a deep breath. Take a half step over. Look at the ball. Bend over. Head down. Arch your back. See the ball. Go through the kick motion. Slow motion. Parallel pull. Get the leg to snap. Hit the ball with the leg locked. Follow through! Go through it over and over and over."

Bucchianeri was his own lord of self-discipline, and he figures he burst at least 10 balls a year in high school, pounding them toward a distant tree in his yard or, on summer days, drilling them through the goalposts at Ringgold High. District athletic director Paul Zolak—the father of New England Patriot reserve quarterback Scott Zolak—could set his watch by the boy. "I'd be driving down the hill, and there'd be Ryan, kicking by himself," says Zolak. "He did it every day. Every day."

He was on an endless quest for the perfect kick, the unflawed set and rhythm. Its message is instantaneous. "You feel it through your whole being," Bucchianeri says. "It reverberates up your leg and through your body. You know that it is the perfect kick." If part of him perceives the act as a form of art—"There's a beauty in kicking, it's graceful, like a dance," he says—he always approached it as a mechanical science. Ask him how a 5'9" 150-pounder can launch a football 60 yards, and his brow furrows as he begins: "My legs are small but quick. You see, force equals mass times acceleration. The force you put into the ball, the explosion, is equal to the mass of my leg times how fast I whip it into the ball. The acceleration is how I compensate for lack of mass."

No one who saw him at practice in high school was ever quite certain whether he was trying to split the uprights or the atom. Ryan was meticulous to a fault. One day he set up a videotape machine at practice so he could study his form, and assistant coach George Overton wandered over to watch him. "He was so intense," Overton recalls. As a lark, Overton said at one point, "Booch, it doesn't look right." The boy turned with a look of panic and blurted, "What doesn't look right? What doesn't look right?"

That he wanted everything to be clear and precise and unmistakable often drove his high school coach, Joe Ravasio, to distraction. Nothing delighted Ryan's teammates more than one of his hairsplitting exchanges with Ravasio. One day the coach asked Ryan to squib a kickoff—to make the ball bounce a few times—against an opponent lined up in a 5-3-3 tier.

Ryan: You want me to kick it between the first and second line or the second and third line?

Ravasio: Ryan, I don't care where you kick it! I just want the ball to hit the ground.

Ryan: You want it left or right?

Ravasio: Ryan, are you listening to me? I don't care what side you kick it on. I want you to squib it. Bounce it on the ground!

Ryan: Well, Coach, how many times do you want it to bounce? Three times, four?

Ravasio: Ryan! End of discussion!

Ryan was not tugging on Ravasio's leg. He had become, by the end of his senior year, the most accurate kicker in the history of Ringgold High—he kicked 105 of 108 extra points and made 24 of 29 field goals, including a 50-yarder his junior year—and he was among the nation's most ballyhooed kicking prospects. He was all-state, All-America and auld lang syne, a charming throwback to some Jurassic age of scholar-athletes. He didn't drink, smoke or swear. His grade point average hovered near 4. He was a member of the National Honor Society, the Science-Math Honor Society and the Tri-M National Music Honor Society. He was the president of his junior and senior classes.

He organized, often grandly, everything he touched. During the basketball season of his senior year, he orchestrated a 55-minute pep rally that had everything but commercial breaks and dancing bears. There were revolving spotlights and Rocky music, cheerleaders and the school band, coaches giving speeches to the low roll of drums, and all the while, carrying a clipboard and wearing a pencil behind his ear, there was Ryan, signaling the cues. "He was like an assistant principal for me," says Gary Hamilton, the Ringgold principal. "He reminded me of a grownup coming through high school." Indeed, Ryan was so intense that Hamilton often found himself worrying about the boy.

"Would you stop and smell the roses?" Hamilton would tell him. "Ryan, are you having fun?"

He had his times. In fact, what he will be most remembered for at Ringgold is not his kicking but the solo performance he gave onstage his senior year. Bucchianeri is, by all accounts, a superb dancer, and after considerable badgering he agreed to give his French class what he now calls his Michael Jackson Concert-on-a-Whim. He stayed up most of one night watching Jackson tapes, rehearsing and taping his songs. Dressed in Jackson regalia—a white glove, a flowing wig and five costume changes—he performed for what turned out to be hundreds of students in two packed assemblies. (To Bucchianeri's surprise, half the school turned up for the performance before his French class, and then the other half demanded an encore.) Lit by a single spotlight, his clothes blown by a huge fan set below the stage, he lip-synched Billie Jean and Thriller, did spins and toe raises and moon-walked up and down the floor as the crowds chanted, "Michael! Michael!"

"Everyone just howled," Hamilton says.

Bucchianeri looks back upon that day as something of an anomaly. "I'm not a spontaneous person," he says. "I spend most of my time alone. I went home after school that day, and I walked in the woods, down by the creek by the waterfall, to listen to the water and the birds, to get back in balance. This whole thing about intensity: It's natural for me. I balance my bursts of energy with long periods of relaxation and silence."

He learned to play the piano when he was a young boy, and by age 12 he was playing classical music. On many Saturday nights, when his parents and his younger brother, Rodger, were away, Ryan turned off all the lights in the house and sat alone for hours at the piano in the living room, improvising in the dark, now making the keys sound like wind chimes, now making them sound like rain. "I play piano the best in the dark," he says. "It pulls out the sensations. We rely too much on sight. You cut the lights and you play in the dark, and there is no interference. And everything comes from the heart."

When Bucchianeri arrived at the Naval Academy on June 30, 1993, he might have been mistaken for the protagonist of some lost Frank Capra movie: Mr. Bucchianeri Goes to Annapolis. Practically the first thing he did when he arrived at the Yard was to ask his dad to pull over next to the football practice fields. Ryan dug into the trunk and pulled out his right kicking shoe, whose cleats were caked with mud from the Ringgold High field. He said, "I want to put part of Monongahela around here. I want a little bit of something from where I grew up down here with me." So he walked onto the practice field while picking the dirt off the cleats, scattering it about like magic seed.

He had never wanted anything more than to be where he was that day. The summer after seventh grade, enraptured by the U.S. space program, Ryan talked his parents into sending him, at a cost of $525, to a five-day program at the U.S. Space Academy in Huntsville, Ala. After being named Outstanding Trainee in a class of 120, Ryan returned to Monongahela determined to do a real moon walk one day. He saw in the Naval Academy his path toward being an astronaut. "I know it's a long shot, but this is the place to be to get there," he says. "But I would be happy on a submarine, too. I just want to be an officer and serve my country." Scores of colleges made passes at him—Pittsburgh and Penn State courted him at home—but none had a silent prayer. "The Navy didn't recruit him," says Rosemary. "He recruited them."

The entire Academy, from its ancient traditions to its smart salutes, suited the sense of discipline, order and purpose with which Bucchianeri had sculpted his life. He loved falling out in the morning, in the cool of the autumn, in the shadow of enormous Bancroft Hall, the dorm that they call Mother B. "You know you're part of something special," Bucchianeri says, "when you see the steam on the breaths and hear the click of the heels." He loved the sound of his fellow plebes running in the halls, voices shouting, "Go, Navy, beat Army!" He loved the snap of the day. "Everyone moving with direction," he says. "You study from 7:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. Every single minute and second is spent studying. I type on my computer until the very last second. And then the Blue Magnet, the blue spread over white sheets, sucks you in. You hit that bed and stop a few seconds, and you reflect on the day and what you've done with it...."

His reflections were not always untroubled. He was anguished by the problems he had at the start of the football season. He had lost 15 pounds during Plebe Summer, dropping from 150 to 135, and there were days when he looked like an impostor. "He couldn't do anything," says Chaump. "We were saying, 'Gosh, this is incredible—a high school All-America?' He couldn't get the ball up. He was kicking spirals. He was hitting linemen in the butt with the ball. I felt sorry for him. He came to me after practice one day and apologized profusely, and I said, 'Don't worry. We'll stay with you. Eat a lot of spaghetti.' "

Six games into the season, at home against Colgate on Oct. 16, Chaump threw Bucchianeri in for the first time to kick an extra point. He booted it clean for the score. That night, as he returned to his deck in Mother B, two female sophomores in his company, Autumn Pevzner and Robin Pegram, clapped politely as he approached. "Way to go, Mr. Bucchianeri," said Pegram, a member of his 12-person squad.

"No big deal," said Booch, shrugging.

Notre Dame turned out to be a vastly bigger deal. Navy's regular kicker, David Gwinn, had been having kicking troubles of his own, so Chaump told Bucchianeri to get ready for the Irish, then ranked No. 2, on Oct. 30. Bucchianeri was kicking better than he had all year. "I'm not kidding," Chaump said. "Keep up the good work. We'll see what happens."

It happened sooner, and far more dramatically, than Bucchianeri had dared imagine. With 2:22 gone in the first quarter and no score, Chaump called on Bucchianeri to try a 38-yarder. Head down, by the numbers, Bucchianeri swept through the ball. He knew instantly. "One of the greatest feelings of my life," he says. "Seeing that ball, almost in slow motion, turning end over end toward the uprights, on its unchangeable path! I hit it perfect. I just stood there and watched it. All of a sudden you hear bah-BOOM—that's the Navy cannons going off—and then you see a plume of blue smoke come across the ball. That's dramatic! You turn around and the Midshipmen are there cheering, and you look up on the scoreboard and it's 3-0, Navy over Notre Dame, and you were a part of that."

Navy collapsed in the second half and lost 58-27, but Bucchianeri kicked one more field goal, a 34-yarder, and three extra points, for nine points in all—and no misses. Even so, this would pale to transparency five weeks later if the great blue plume were to cross the flight of the ball against Army at Giants Stadium.

The kick floated to the right, missing by 18 inches, and Bucchianeri saw the referee wave his arms to the side. "No!" said the kicker.

He turned his back to the goalposts and fell to one knee. Solliday reached out for him. Bucchianeri dropped his head, closed his eyes and raised his left hand to his face mask, his right to Solliday's shoulder. "I can't believe it," he muttered. "This isn't happening...."

Bucchianeri was starting for his locker room when the Army placekicker, Rocco Wicks, put his arm around him. "Don't worry about it," Wicks told him, one toe to another. "One kick doesn't lose a game. Keep your head up."

Bucchianeri walked into the locker room looking utterly lost. "He was in shock," says Kubiak. "He was white as a ghost, and his eyes were wide open." To Kubiak he said: "I don't know what just happened out there. I think I'm in the stages of shock. I think I'm in denial...."

Someone leaned over and told Bucchianeri that the "gentlemen of the press" were waiting for him.

"Should I go?" he asked.

"If you don't feel like going, don't go," co-captain Van Matre said.

Bucchianeri thought a moment, then turned and left the room. "I knew I had to face the media," he says now. "Be responsible for your actions." Facing the microphones and the lights, he could not have been more ingenuous, more appealing. Asked, first off, how he felt, he paused, blinking. "I did the best I could," he finally said. "That's how I feel."

When someone gently lobbed him an excuse, wondering about the rainy conditions, about the snap and the hold, Bucchianeri let it sail past. "It doesn't matter," he said quietly. "I missed the kick, sir." And so, on and on, it went. Bucchianeri thus became, in failure, a kind of national hero—the kid who missed the kick, blamed only himself and addressed his inquisitors as sir. In an age of sport in which winners own the world and losers are lepers, at a time when talk is trash and the buck is passed, he strummed an old and cherished chord at the hour of his keenest disappointment.

No one felt worse for him than those who knew him at Annapolis. Senior Lisa Winslow attended an NHL hockey game at the Meadowlands that night. Afterward she called her mother, Betty, in Bowling Green, Ohio. Betty had seen the game and asked about the plebe who missed the kick. "He's in my squad," Lisa said. "I want to talk to him and make sure he understands that it was not his fault. If the team had done better, it wouldn't have hinged on his kick. It's just a game. I really want to make sure I'm there for him when he gets back."

The Navy caravan of buses did not leave the Meadowlands until the next morning. The memorial service for Grizzard was scheduled to be held at three o'clock, and the caravan set out for Annapolis at 10. For Bucchianeri, still stunned by the turn of events, it would be a long ride south. It would be a far longer journey for superintendent Lynch, who had received distressing news from his executive assistant at 8 a.m. in his Meadowlands hotel room. At about 6 a.m., in the rainy, windswept darkness, three midshipmen had been killed and a fourth seriously injured when the roof of the Ford Bronco in which they were riding back from New Jersey was sheared off by a rotted willow tree that had just fallen across a road about a mile from the Naval Academy.

The caravan from the Meadowlands arrived at the Academy gate at 2:30 p.m., and the chapel filled for Grizzard's memorial service. During the service, without naming the victims, Lynch announced what had happened that morning outside the gate.

Who had died? all hands wondered.

Bucchianeri left the chapel and hiked in the cold rain across Tecumseh Court, then up the steps and into Memorial Hall, a vast, ornate room on whose far wall hangs the historic flag from the USS Lawrence. The flag bears the legend DON'T GIVE UP THE SHIP. Outside, beyond the Yard, people seemed to be dying everywhere. Bucchianeri stared at the motto as though leaning on it for support. "It was perfectly silent," he says. "I wanted to be alone to dismiss the kick once and for all. I dismissed it: O.K., it's over. Move on with your life!"

He did an about-face and left. Outside, on Tecumseh Court, he started back to his room. He noticed that the sun had broken through. "I looked up, and a huge rainbow had formed over Bancroft Hall, with a couple of seagulls flying across the sky," he says. "I almost cried. I thought, It's over. I can get on with my life."

Back in Mother B, he climbed the steps to his company deck and strode down the hall. A disquieting stillness hung in the air. "I knew something was wrong," he says. He joined some midshipmen in one of the rooms, where they sat talking for an hour, and then two plebes walked in to give them the news. Brian Clark, Bucchianeri's squad leader, was in serious condition at University Hospital in Baltimore. He had been driving the Bronco when it crashed into the tree. The three dead midshipmen were all women, all friends of Bucchianeri's: Lisa Winslow, Autumn Pevzner and Robin Pegram. They had left the hockey game together, visited a fellow midshipman in his hotel room, then set off for Annapolis at about 1:30 a.m. Alcohol was not involved. The tree toppled onto the road either just before the Bronco approached it or the instant the car got there.

Bucchianeri did not move. He sat in silence. "I was thinking, One thing after another, when is it going to end?" he says. "That put everything in perspective. Football's a game; death is real. It had become a nightmare."

Now the grief was tinged by a vague, unwarranted guilt. "If I had made that kick, it might have meant more partying," he says. "The time continuum would have changed. Maybe just one high five would have slowed them down. It bothered me. I thought about it. But I can't place the blame on myself.

"This was a monumental moment in my life. When times get tough, I'll be able to relate back to it, to think to myself: I've been here before. I can get through it. It's all in the frame of mind. Some people have it a lot worse than this. At the very least I'm alive."

His sadness over the death of Grizzard, to whom he had never spoken, was nothing compared with his anguish over the loss of the three midshipmen. In a Naval Academy made up of more than 4,000 students, it so happened that all three women who died were in Bucchianeri's 100-member company, and that Winslow and Pegram were both in his 12-member squad. "Lisa Winslow used to dance in the halls," Bucchianeri says. "A great smile, always upbeat. Robin Pegram was funny and athletic, very energetic. Autumn Pevzner was more reserved—nice and very intelligent, an inspiration to us all. They were full of laughter."

If, as it seemed, all of life's major lights had turned green for Bucchianeri since he was a boy, then he had finally arrived at a place where he had never been, a place darkened by death and failure and grief. "This was new for me," he says, "the most adversity I'd ever faced personally."

In the days after he returned from the Meadowlands, he received hundreds of letters, including scores through the E-mail on his computer. The expressions of kindness and solace overwhelmed him. "I didn't expect to get mail," he says. "I really didn't expect to get anything."

The letters, predictably, addressed the missed kick, the public agony amid his private sorrow. They came from all places and all kinds of people—from a man who addressed the envelope "To the Young Man at the Naval Academy whose place-kick missed going through the goal by inches" and from such senior military officers as Adm. Frank B. Kelso II, then the chief of naval operations, who subsequently stepped down in the wake of the Tail-hook scandal. "When I was captain of the Naval Academy golf team many years ago," Kelso wrote to Bucchianeri, "I missed a putt on the 18th green to lose our match with Army, and I feel I haven't done too badly."

The central theme of these letters, which were often long and always generous, was the suffering and handling of adversity. "Everything from striking out in the last inning of a Pony League baseball game to captains and admirals losing men in war," Bucchianeri says. "They shared some very personal things with me. A lot of people said I taught them a lesson—that we can fail, that we can mess up sometimes, and it's O.K."

Bucchianeri was left, of course, to write his own endings to the days that followed. One night during the week after the Army-Navy game, when one memorial service seemed to blur into another, he fled the sadness of the faces and the walls to be alone again. He went to the auditorium in Mitscher Hall, turned off all the lights and sat down at the piano in the dark. "I was thinking about everything." he says. "How fragile life is at times...the kick wide...Lisa Winslow dancing in the halls...how larger-than-life Alton Grizzard was...."

He made the keys sound like wind, and he made them sound like rain.

ILLUSTRATIONOWEN SMITHSunset was Bucchianeri's favorite time of day and his favorite time to kick.ILLUSTRATIONOWEN SMITHWhen Chaump broke the news of the murders at practice, a pall came over Bucchianeri and his teammates.ILLUSTRATIONOWEN SMITHIt was fourth down with six seconds to go against Army. The coach grabbed his kicker by the arm and said, "Get in there and relax!"ILLUSTRATIONOWEN SMITHHe walked onto the practice field while picking the encrusted dirt off his cleats, scattering it about like magic seed.ILLUSTRATIONOWEN SMITHHe loved falling out in the morning, in the cool of the autumn. "You know you're part of something special," he said.ILLUSTRATIONOWEN SMITH"I can't believe it," Bucchianeri told Solliday after missing the kick.ILLUSTRATIONOWEN SMITHThe letters he received came from all places and all kinds of people. The expressions of kindness were overwhelming.ILLUSTRATIONOWEN SMITHWhen one memorial service seemed to blur into another, he fled the sadness of the faces and sat at the piano in the dark.TWO ILLUSTRATIONS