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October 28, 2013
Getting back up
No position in football embraces ritual like kickers.
Every step, every breath, every mannerism from the time the holder kneels down until ball-leaves-foot is planned and predicted and practiced to the point of compulsion.
Nobody embraces the ritual of kickers like fans. It's not the idiosyncracies of the position. It's what it represents. In a game called the Last Gladiator Sport, no position receives the same spotlight, the same attention as a kicker, standing alone about 11 yards behind the line of scrimmage.
The successes can be spectacular. The failures, equally so.
Kim and Kevin Baggett have their own rituals. They wait after every home game for their son, Andrew Baggett, to finish showering, finish the interviews and autographs. From there, the family goes to dinner.
That ritual ended this Saturday. After Missouri's 27-24 double overtime loss to South Carolina was sealed by a missed field goal, Andrew walked outside to meet his family. He gave them hugs, but quickly dismissed the idea of dinner. It's there that Missouri's redshirt sophomore kicker got a parental pep-talk.
"Kev and I told him three things, basically," Kim Baggett said. "The people who know and love you don't care whether you miss the field goal. We still love you.
"Second of all, I don't know what it was like in the locker room afterward, but I can guarantee you, Andrew, there is not one single player that is going to blame you for losing that game.
"The third thing is, you win as a team, you lose as a team, and you're going to have to direct your focus to moving on."
Andrew wanted to go home. His parents again hugged him and parted ways, heading back to their hotel -- one of the few times they remained in Columbia for the night following a game, instead of returning to their home in Lee's Summit. They asked him to come to breakfast in the morning, and he agreed.
By that time, Andrew Baggett had taken the first step in moving on.
Baggett's miss ended a wild game for the then fifth-ranked Tigers, a 17-point fourth-quarter lead evaporating into a renewed race for the SEC East. The kick was his second miss of the night, a week after connecting on all five attempts.
Following the kick, the analysis began. Did a bad snap throw off the timing? The laces were spun inward -- did that cause his kick to hook left?
"Nope," Baggett said Monday. "You know, I missed it. It doesn't matter what those other things are. I got to make that kick. If the ball is laying on the ground, horizontal, I have to make that kick. I didn't, and that's on me."
It was a fitful night for Baggett. He said we went home and sat down, upset and thinking.
"I didn't even know if I really went to sleep or not," Andrew said. "Kind of one of those, 'Am I dreaming, am I awake?'"
"He was just carrying all that weight on his shoulders," his mother remembered. "I've never seen him so down, I don't think."
In the morning, Andrew went with his parents to the IHOP off of Conley Road in Northeast Columbia. His parents said their son seemed a "little bit better" after having some conversations with his teammates. It wasn't until the next day, however, that Kim Baggett saw her son take all the advice to heart.
"I talked to him this afternoon, and he seemed to be doing much better," Kim Baggett said. "I think Coach (Andy) Hill kind of put everything into perspective for him."
That talk was more of the same, but coming from the assistant in charge of kickers, it carried more weight. It was about the mistakes throughout the game, putting Andrew in a situation that could have been avoided nearly a dozen times prior.
"Yours just happens to be the last one that everybody remembers," Hill said to his kicker, as related by Kim Baggett.
On Monday, Andrew Baggett returned in front of the media, and the change that his parents saw seemed obvious. Throughout his life, his parents taught him about dedication and taking responsibility. In front of cameras and recorders, Baggett did just that, with a spoonful of humor, too.
"I missed," Baggett deadpanned, when asked to provide a verbal walkthrough of the kick. "I'm not sure if you guys didn't see it or not, but... Just kicked it. Thought it felt good. Looked up, saw it wasn't good. Stomach dropped.
"Can't do anything about it now."
He also showed more perspective than many journalists, taking the negative comments on Twitter in stride. Instead of turning it into an indictment on an entire fan base, Baggett turned to the positive.
"First, I need to say that there are twenty-fold more positive comments from Mizzou fans," Baggett said. "Anybody saying Mizzou fans are terrible, it's absolutely not true. There is way more -- I'm still getting stuff today, it's two days later, of positive comments.
"'Hey, man, it's OK, we need you, you're a great kid.' So it says a lot about the Mizzou family, overall, everybody.
"But the negative stuff -- nobody's comment will ever make me feel worse than what I did on the field. The negative comments, I don't pay attention to that. That doesn't affect me."
"My players are like my kids," Gary Pinkel said, "and I get bothered when people fire at a particular player, and he's a Missouri Tiger, and, by the way, he's 5-for-5 in field goals and helped in a big win the week before against Florida.
"I understand fans are fans, but you know what, we're a family here, and I obviously get frustrated when ... I wish people would back off."
A few years ago, Baggett's parents received advice to avoid social media from James Franklin's mother. While the first ritual of the family changed, this one hasn't. Kim said she and her husband haven't paid attention to anything written about their son. Usually, the most they'll seek out comes in the Sunday section of the Kansas City Star, delivered to their door. Even then, it's a brief perusal. An elderly couple that tailgates next to the Baggetts provides some more coverage, sending emails every now and then with links and a simple statement:
"I saw this article (about Andrew). It's positive."
There's one more ritual for Kim and Kevin Baggett, and that usually comes the day after the games. They record each televised game and re-watch it, going from fans to analysts to see what they missed being in the stadium. This week, however, that won't happen.
"This is one that isn't coming out," Kim said. "We'll keep it (on DVR) because Andrew sometimes likes to watch them when he comes home, but I don't want to re-live it, so we're not watching it over."
So the kick won't be seen by Kim. From her seats on the 50-yard line in the players' section, she could tell it began to hook left when fans on the hill let out a guttural, 'Ohhh.' She never saw it hit the upright, and never will.
Their son is moving on. So, too, are the parents.
There's another ritual in football, and all of sports. It's the ritual of getting back up. Right now, that's where Andrew Baggett is focused. A miss he'll always remember, sandwiched in between the best game of his career and a re-match with the team he beat a year ago.
It was Tennessee that Baggett felled with his right leg, kicking a field goal in quadruple overtime to provide the Tigers with the highlight of their 2012 season.
It's ironic, a twist of scheduling fate, that Baggett returns to the field after his lowest moment with an easy reminder of the best moment of his young career. In a sport dominated by superlatives, where everything is the best or worst, most or least, highest or lowest, sometimes a play can just be a play when what comes next defines a player or a team.
Andrew Baggett is many things -- athlete, student, son, brother, Eagle Scout. With parents, a coaching staff and teammates that support him, he won't be the answer to a trivia question, too.