When I was 9 years old, my older brother devised a fool-proof plan that he promised would make us both rich. We would sell fish. He explained how the business would work: We’d spend our summer days hooking bass and bluegill at the nearby pond, which was something we enjoyed doing anyway. But instead of releasing our catch, we’d sell the fish to the highest bidder. This would give us the endless supply of money we needed to buy candy and baseball cards and bikes and, eventually, a small island nation.
Because, as I’m sure you know, the market for bluegill in 1986 rivaled that for crude oil and diamonds. Or so we assumed.
My job was to call around town and find us a buyer. Negotiate the price, if need be. The only problem was that I was terrified of the phone. I didn’t even like answering it back then, much less calling strangers and swinging entrepreneurial deals.
But with dollar signs in my eyes, I dialed the number of the local bait shop. Here was the exchange, to the best of my memory:
Store employee: “Thank you for calling The Tackle Box. How can I help you?
Me: “Uhh…um, well…”
“Do you…do you buy fish?”
“Do we what?”
“What I mean is, um, how much money would you pay for a bass?”
“Is this a prank?”
I literally threw the phone, ran away and dissolved into a pond of tears large enough to accommodate an entire summer’s catch. Fortunately, phones back then were attached to cords. Heaven only knows what the guy at The Tackle Box was thinking as that receiver swung in the kitchen.
This is what the leading scientists of today call a choke. And my reaction that day is a pretty good indicator of why I’ve made my living writing about pressure moments instead of attempting to navigate them myself.
We’re spending this week recapping the biggest sports stories of 2019, but sports are really more about moments than stories, aren’t they?
Stories can take a long time to unfold. Bud Foster’s Virginia Tech narrative has been ongoing for 33 years and can be told in any number of ways. But a moment like we saw Nov. 9, when players carried him off the field after a 36-17 win over Wake Forest, sticks with us.
Stories also have a limited shelf life. Any list of the “Biggest Sports Stories of 2019” will include the Patriots winning the Super Bowl. With another edition of the NFL playoffs about to begin this week, is anybody still buzzing about who raised the trophy in February? To paraphrase the winning coach in that game, “We’re on to 2020.”
Before we get there, though, here’s my countdown of the top three pressure moments I covered in local sports in 2019. In all cases, thank God it wasn’t me out there.
3. Kevin Chappell putts for golf immortality.
The stage doesn’t have to be enormous for a special opportunity to materialize. That was the case on Sept. 13, when Chappell lined up his final putt on the second day of the PGA Tour event at The Greenbrier.
Chappell, 33, was playing his first PGA Tour event in more than 10 months, having undergone spinal surgery to repair a back problem that had plagued him for five years.
But suddenly, he couldn’t miss.
A record-tying nine straight birdies early in his round left him just 11 feet, 10 inches from becoming the second player in Tour history to shoot a 58.
Chappell missed the momentous putt just left. But the tap-in gave him an 11-under 59 — only the 11th sub-60 round in the history of the Tour.
He neither screamed nor threw anything. He was what we all would hope we’d be in such spots: graceful and appreciative.
“My thoughts are just extreme gratitude,” Chappell said. “I couldn’t feel more lucky to be here right now. Ten months ago, I was laying on the couch and couldn’t get up.”
2. Quincy Patterson stares down fourth and 3.
Virginia Tech’s thrilling 43-41 victory over North Carolina on Oct. 19 lasted an ACC-record six overtimes, but it easily could have ended after two.
Patterson, the Hokies’ third-string quarterback entering the game, played most of the second half after Hendon Hooker suffered an injury late in the second quarter.
He did some nice things in regulation — none better than his 53-yard run that tied the game with 4:31 left — but nothing could have prepared him for what he faced in the second overtime.
The Hokies trailed 41-34 as Patterson took the snap on fourth and 3 from the UNC 18. Patterson calmly dropped back and floated a perfect pass down the left sideline, just out of the reach of the UNC defender and into the hands of Damon Hazelton for a game-tying touchdown.
Patterson, a redshirt freshman, later would run in the decisive two-point conversion.
“After Hendon got the job, and he played a great game against Miami, it’s really easy to get down on yourself and think your shot is never going to come,’’ he said. “But I just had to stay in that zone of preparing like I was the starter, and today was that day that I got to play quarterback, so that was pretty cool.’’
Indeed it was.
1. Kyle Guy at the line.
We’ve all done it alone on our driveways or at the local YMCA: stood at the free-throw line and created the dream scenario.
For Guy, it actually happened on April 6 in Minneapolis. His Virginia basketball team trailed Auburn 62-60 with 0.6 seconds remaining in the national semifinals. Fouled on a 3-point attempt, Guy needed to make two free throws to tie and three to win. Anything less, and the Cavaliers would be eliminated.
He made them all.
We all remember what happened next. The Cavaliers went on to beat Texas Tech in the title game and win their first national championship. Guy served as the embodiment of resilience for a team that had suffered an embarrassing exit the previous year.
It took an indelible moment to complete a remarkable story. So how was Guy able to do what so many of us can’t? How did he cope with such enormous pressure?
“Kind of had that feeling in your stomach,” he said. “Like a good nervousness.”
And he conquered it.
Kyle, my man.
Summer will be here before you know it. Have I got a business proposition for you. ..