Less than a week has passed since Ryan Bucchianeri lost a chance to become a hero when he missed an 18-yard field goal in the closing seconds against Army last Saturday, but the Naval Academy plebe has used the time to put his life and athletic career into perspective.
Bucchianeri has attended memorial services at the academy Chapel, the past three for female members of his Third Squad, 1st Platoon, 32nd Company.
L "Death is real. Football is only a game," he said yesterday.
The first service was for Alton Grizzard, the former Navy quarterback who was murdered in California last week. The Midshipmen dedicated the Army game to Grizzard by wearing black arm bands and stickers labeled "Griz" on their helmets.
"I remember touching the patch and making sure it was secure on my arm before I went out on the field to kick," Bucchianeri recalled.
When he returned to the academy Sunday, Bucchianeri learned that three of his squad members -- Midshipman 3rd Class Autumn Pevzner, Midshipman 3rd Class Robin Pegram and Midshipman 1st Class Lisa Winslow had been killed in a freakish car accident on Route 450 a mile from campus.
"It was very difficult," Bucchianeri said. "I was especially close to Robin Pegram, she lived across the hall. It was her responsibility to train the plebes."
Midshipman 1st Class Brian Clark, the driver, survived the crash and returned to classes yesterday.
"When he came back to our company area today [Thursday], we all formed a semicircle around him," Bucchianeri said. "It was the first positive thing that happened to us this week. We've come together through this adversity."
The 5-foot-8, 150-pound freshman from Monongahela, Pa., has had an easier time overcoming the disappointment of his missed field goal, witnessed by more than 60,000 fans at Giants Stadium and a television audience of millions, plus the countless replays on the nightly sports shows.
Letters arrive every day bearing words of encouragement and applauding the mature manner in which he handled the game-ending situation. They have come from a diverse group of well-wishers, including Secretary of the Navy John Dalton and former Nevada-Las Vegas basketball coach Jerry Tarkanian.
"There are a lot of great people out there, people who write to you after you've missed a kick," Bucchianeri said. "They were mostly about dealing with adversity. I haven't received a negative letter or comment. I know they're probably out there, but these people weren't in the arena."
His favorite note came from a mother from his hometown, complete with crayon illustrations from her two boys, 8 and 4 years old. "They both drew pictures of me making the kick," he said, with a smile.
Of course, he missed the kick that could have changed a 16-14 Navy deficit into a thrilling 17-16 victory over its principal service rival.
He has seen only one replay, sitting with his parents, Richard and Rosemary, in a Meadowlands hotel room hours after the game.
L "It was strange looking at the TV screen, and 'There I was!'
"But my parents were right there for me, very supportive," he said.
It was the same with his teammates and even his rivals from Army. "I never felt alone out on the field," he said, recalling how both huge tackle Max Lane and his holder, Tony Solliday, consoled him after his short kick from a difficult angle sailed wide right.
Even more gratifying was the way he was embraced by opposing kicker Rocco Wicks.
"Kickers share an understanding of how we get put in real pressure situations," he said. "After I missed, Wicks walked the length of the field with me, and even stood behind me when they played the 'Navy Blue & Gold.' "
Replaying the kick, Bucchianeri said, "I visualized that moment 1,000 times. But when I went on the field, I told myself, 'This is really happening.'
"I knew if I'd make it, we'd win, if I missed, we'd lose, but I wasn't nervous.
"It was a tough angle, probably the hardest for a right-footed kicker. But I've made that kick many times before. The problem is that you want to be square with the goal posts when you kick, and from that angle, I never saw the posts."
Before this magnified moment, Bucchianeri, who replaced senior David Gwinn as the starting place-kicker eight weeks into the season, had been successful on his only two field goal attempts against Notre Dame.
Bucchianeri, who prepped at Ringgold High, the same high school that produced Joe Montana, was considered a gifted kicker, having booted one 50 yards his junior year against Connellsville.
"I played mostly soccer when I was young and real small, but I always wanted to play football."
"It's given me a burning desire to go back on the field and give it my all," he said. "We're going to win a lot more games next year, and we'll definitely beat Army."