VAHE GREGORIAN

Vicious comments directed at Missouri kicker Andrew Baggett fly wide of mark

Updated: 2013-10-29T15:12:45Z

By VAHE GREGORIAN

The Kansas City Star

— Perhaps 3 inches or so from caroming between the uprights or maybe even going through unscathed and sending the game into a third overtime, the ball clanked off the left goalpost and fell no good.

Instead, the game was over, and Mizzou lost 27-24 in double overtime, and Andrew Baggett was immediately cast somewhere between shock and anguish.

There was no worse feeling he could think of. He felt his stomach drop and wanted only to get to the sanctuary of the locker room. But even in there, he wanted to “crawl into a hole, disappear for maybe a day or two.”

He sat with his head bowed and a towel over his head.

That’s when senior receiver L’Damian Washington made his way over to Baggett.

Washington still was in tears from the loss. Maybe Baggett was, too. But even if he wasn’t, there was no doubt he was pierced to his soul.

So Washington leaned over and gently tugged the veil up just a little, careful not to make Baggett feel any more exposed or vulnerable than he wanted to be.

And he kissed him on the cheek and told him he loved him.

“That’s all that mattered at that time,” Washington said.

Some people didn’t think that mattered so much.

Never mind that Baggett had scored half of MU’s points a week before in the Tigers 36-17 win over Florida, or that a year ago he kicked a 35-yard field goal to beat Tennessee in the fourth overtime.

Suddenly, Baggett, a sophomore from Lee’s Summit North, didn’t just miss a kick. Suddenly, he was a choker and plenty worse if you were tuned in to antisocial media, where the absence of filter and responsibility also can mean no conscience or sense of mercy.

“For people to be on his back so hard,” Washington said, “it’s kind of heartbreaking.”

But Baggett wasn’t tuned in.

After the game, after many teammates had shown similar support, he turned off his phone and stayed off the Internet for the most part.

“I wasn’t searching my name,” he said, smiling and adding, “Don’t know if I shut down Twitter or not, if it was trending or something.”

Besides, he said, “Nobody’s comment will ever make me feel worse than what I did on that field. The negative comments, I don’t pay attention to that. That doesn’t affect me.”

He saw his parents, who as it happens still love him and left him with comfort treats, including brownies and pecans roasted with brown sugar cinnamon.

Then he tried to sleep. But mostly he found himself in some turmoil, thinking and upset, wondering even when he was asleep if he was just dreaming that.

Morning mercifully came, and he noticed that the sun came up and he started moving forward by resuming his football routine and going to a soccer game with Washington and others.

“What’s dwelling on it going to do for me? It’s going to do nothing,” he said. “If I sit there and dread it all week, if I start freaking out when I go out there for a field goal, I’ll miss them all.”

He’s still not exactly sure what happened. But he is sure it was no one’s fault but his own even though he had to kick from a crummy angle at the left hashmark and the ball was placed off a high snap with the laces turned backwards when it was put down.

“It doesn’t matter what those things are,” he said. “I’ve got to make that kick. If the ball’s … on the ground horizontal, I have to make that kick.”

Asked if he might concede that in a perfect world he would have been able to make if it he had kicked from the middle of the field, Baggett said since they weren’t there, he didn’t know.

He reconsidered, smiled and added: “In a perfect world, I make everything. Because I’m perfect in that world.”

Like everyone else, it turns out he’s not in this particular world.

But that hardly justifies the cowardly vitriol that’s been cast his way.

“First of all, I can go back and probably change nine or 10 plays in the fourth quarter or overtime to change that football game,” Mizzou coach Gary Pinkel said.

The idea that Baggett has been targeted by fans irked Pinkel, who called it “ridiculous” and bluntly suggested the perpetrators “back off.”

Not that it’s by any means been universal.

For his part, Baggett says the support he’s received has been “twenty-fold” to the criticism.

And MU guard Max Copeland, a physics major, offered his own theory of that ratio and the dynamics between Mizzou players and fans, which he explained with, well, some cell theory.

“You could call the football team the nucleus, and you could call the fans the membrane,” he said.

Nearly every personal interaction MU players have with fans, he said, shows them to be “loving, compassionate (and) very supportive of our craft.”

It’s the impersonal ones, over the Internet, that can seem warped otherwise.

“I got out of the social media gig because it’s a virtual reality that I think is very misrepresentative of large groups of people,” he said. “And I don’t like it because there’s no accountability. It’s completely anonymous.

“People reside in that anonymity and get to say whatever they want. And that’s why I think it’s a false reality I don’t want to be a part of. And … the actions you might see in this alternate reality are not representative of the Mizzou fans as a people.”

But more and more, it is representative of people … as a people, as the Cardinals’ Kolten Wong became just the latest to learn after being picked off, ending game four of the World Series on Sunday night.

Imagine the shattering permanent damage such mean-spiritedness could have on, well, anyone apt to read it, let alone unequipped to emotionally block it out.

“You’ve just got to know in your heart of hearts exactly who you are and kind of filter through it all,” Washington said.

While Pinkel acknowledged he’s concerned about Baggett’s psyche, Baggett by all outward indications has the mental resilience and focus and support network to be able handle it.

“Blank slate — what happened last week’s gone,” he said. “Can’t change it. Has nothing to do with this week. … Do I want it back? Absolutely. Am I going to dwell on it? No.”

After all, “That’s the life of the kicker. If I thought it would be smooth sailing, I wouldn’t be a kicker. I’d be at home watching TV or something.”

But even if he knows that, it bears remembering for those inclined to lob abuse at him from their bunkers: He’s a sophomore in college, and he’s flesh and blood before he’s a kicker.

A lot of fans do know that, and so do the teammates who’ve rallied around him.

“These games don’t define exactly who we are in life,” Washington said. “I think that’s the big thing.”

To reach Vahe Gregorian, call 816-234-4366 or send email to vgregorian@kcstar.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/vgregorian.

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