Lin Elliott still takes responsibility for Chiefs’ pain. Can we set him free now?

Andy Reid not holding anything back as Chiefs prepare for Colts

Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid isn't looking back at past playoff losses against the Indianapolis Colts, and doesn't plan on holding anything back in his scheming for Saturday's January 12, 2019 playoff game at Arrowhead Stadium.
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Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid isn't looking back at past playoff losses against the Indianapolis Colts, and doesn't plan on holding anything back in his scheming for Saturday's January 12, 2019 playoff game at Arrowhead Stadium.

Between the time Lin Elliott missed his third field goal that fateful day in 1996 and reached the locker room through the minus-15 degree wind chill at Arrowhead Stadium, he’ll tell you, he hadn’t exactly “blacked out.”

Amid the blur, after all, he thought of the “blood, sweat and tears” of his shattered Chiefs teammates that day. He knew his failure had pierced the Hunt family and a fan base whose passion he still admires.

He was cognizant, too, that just as there suddenly was no tomorrow for the team that entered the game 13-3 only to lose to Indianapolis 10-7, there would be no future for him with the Chiefs.

He remembers that teammates like Danan Hughes and Lake Dawson and others came over to touch him and offer consolation, though he can’t quite recall exactly who else because, well, “are you really coherent at that point?”

“The good news is that nobody died; the bad news is that I felt like someone did,” Elliott said in a phone interview Monday. “That’s how you feel. You’re devastated. It’s your hopes. It’s your dreams. It’s the team’s hopes. It’s the team’s dream.”

It was all the more brutal the next morning, but at least he had immediate clarity when coach Marty Schottenheimer told him his contract wouldn’t be renewed.

“The sun did come up,” he said. “But it had kind of set on me — in the football fashion.”

Beginning of the end

As it happened, Elliott would be beset with injuries the next few years and never kicked again in the NFL despite making 75.8 percent of his regular-season field goals in four seasons and earning a Super Bowl ring with the Dallas Cowboys.

While it’s the latter that he’s known for in Waco, Texas, where he loves his life as a husband, father and investment manager at Texas Farm Bureau Insurance Companies, he remains the object of scorn and derision here in Kansas City … as if he’s the only reason the Chiefs lost that day and somehow responsible for all their postseason futility since.

It’s convenient to create a scapegoat when things don’t go your way, and if there weren’t an obvious one maybe it would be necessary to invent it. That’s why we fixate on the end of a game instead of all that led to it and talk about jinxes or curses, which are kind of nonsensical fun to kick around if they’re not, say, demonizing you.

But there were plenty of reasons the Chiefs lost that game, including three Steve Bono interceptions. And even if you lost money or your mind from what happened that day, perhaps it’s worth considering that no one had more of a burden to live with than Elliott did.

“I take full responsibility for failing … I get it that I missed it, but the only question that I really have (for fans) is do you think I didn’t give it my best shot? Do you think I didn’t try?” he said. “And that’s the thing: People act like you went out drinking the night before the game, you know, or you did like Antonio Brown and didn’t even show up for a football game …

“I gave it everything that I had.”

For that matter, if you want to talk hexes, maybe there’s a curse of cursing Lin Elliott and clinging to all that anger. And, heck, maybe letting go of that can help set the Chiefs free when it comes to playing the Colts on Saturday at Arrowhead, where the Chiefs haven’t won a playoff game since 1994.

Taking responsibility

The main thing Elliott wants you to know about that day is this: He had one job, and he didn’t get it done.

“The first thing that you have to do is you have to take responsibility for what you did or what you didn’t do,” he said.

“My job, just like Cody Parkey’s job (with the Bears), is to kick the ball through the upright. It’s just that simple,” he said. “That’s the job of the field-goal kicker to do any time but specifically when the game is on the line. It’s magnified. And the reality is that obviously I didn’t do that. …

“If you’d have had Adam Vinatieri, he would have done it. If you would have had Justin Tucker, he would make that kick. So there’s a few people who separate themselves from the rest because no matter how tough the kick is, they’re going to make it if the game’s on the line. But there’s only a handful of those guys. ...

“I have to stand up: I had the opportunity and I didn’t get that job done, and there are kickers who would have gotten that job done.”

Less remembered about doing the job that day is this: With no heating mechanism beneath the turf like there is today, the field might as well have been concrete. In pre-game warmups, Elliott changed from a cleat to an artificial-turf shoe on his plant foot, something he’d never done before. And the area where he could practice kicks during the game was so icy that carpet had to be laid over it to make it work.

There is a difference between reasons and excuses, and you can decide for yourself how you view all that. But the reality is that he had to change the dynamics of his technique on the fly, the same challenge Colts kicker Cary Blanchard faced and fared only slightly better with by connecting on one of his three field-goal attempts, a 30-yarder.

Elliott had already missed from 35 and 39 yards before he tried to tie the game from 42 yards away with 42 seconds left. As he thinks back to that kick, he remembers feeling no fear or nerves and entirely lasered in with a good sense of the wind.

With perhaps one exception: If he attacked the kick as usual, he figured he was going to slip and fall “like Charlie Brown.” Instead, he reckoned he had to “sneak up on the football and kind of keep my body more straight up.” He knew it might give him less power and affect his accuracy some, but it had to be better than falling. His last thought before the kick was, “Stay on your feet and give it a chance.”

The result, he said, “was as shocking to me as anyone watching.”

“But, unfortunately, I had to live with the result,” he said. “Did I get over it? Sure, I got over it. But I’ll never forget it.”

Life goes on

Luckily for all of us, life goes on after our worst moments and all the other things we wish we could take back but simply have to find a way to reconcile.

Sometimes, Elliott wishes he’d had more time in the NFL, thinks about that the next year Blanchard, his Indianapolis counterpart that day, became All-Pro and he was out of football.

Then again, maybe other things wouldn’t have fallen as they did if not for what happened.

“It did change my life. One kick changed my life,” he said. “But it didn’t change my life for the worse. It just changed the direction of my life.”

The following January, Elliott became reacquainted with a woman he’d met years before and would marry a year later.

“If I still would have been playing anywhere in the NFL, I probably wouldn’t have bumped into her when I did,” he said. “I wouldn’t trade anything in sports for meeting her.”

Twenty years later, Joy Elliott is a cancer survivor who remains the apple of his eye, and they have three young children and he finds great fulfillment in his work.

He’s a happy man because of all that, even if there is volatility to this job, too.

“The stock market doesn’t always go up,” he said. “And you have to kind of deal with it. But at the end of the day, you probably won’t have many days as bad as the last time I played in Kansas City.”

That experience also has informed Elliott as a father and mentor, who tells his children and others about not being afraid to fail and can share the spectrum of it. From the Super Bowl win with the Cowboys and the magical feeling he wishes you could just “take a drop of when you need it” … to the playoff loss to the Colts and a feeling “as close to, like, a death as you could ever feel.

“‘Don’t be afraid to take chances,’ ” he’ll say, “ ‘because how else are you going to win a Super Bowl?’”

He’ll be watching and rooting for the Chiefs on Saturday against the Colts, in part because of his continued attachment to the organization and in part because he’s partial to Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes, a fellow Texas Tech product.

All these years later, he loves the drama of the playoffs because of what’s at stake.

“I, of all people, understand that legends can be made,” he said. “And careers can be ruined.”

Careers playing a game, mercifully, not lives.

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Vahe Gregorian has been a sports columnist for The Kansas City Star since 2013 after 25 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He has covered a wide spectrum of sports, including 10 Olympics. Vahe was an English major at the University of Pennsylvania and earned his master’s degree at Mizzou.