Washington kicker Cameron Van Winkle’s 46-yard attempt at Boise State barely missed to the right. Now he has set his goals even higher for the rest of the season — perfection.
You know it wasn’t his fault. His teammates and coaches know it wasn’t his fault. And deep down, he knows it, too.
But when you’re a perfectionist whose performance includes even the slightest imperfection, negativity can seize your every thought.
It has been six days since Cameron Van Winkle’s 46-yard field goal attempt slid a shoe-length wide of the upright in the game’s closing seconds. Nearly a week has passed since Washington fell to Boise State 16-13 in its opener, a result that could have been altered had everybody to Van Winkle’s right just taken a deep breath and blown.
Yes, the junior made both of his field goal tries earlier in the game — the first from 40 yards and the second from 28 — and yes, he had the highest field-goal percentage in the Pac-12 last year. But in the seconds, hours and days after that miss on the blue turf, Cameron found it difficult to look back on the finer moments of his placekicking past.
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“I was a little hard on myself,” said Van Winkle, a Mount Si High School grad who slapped his hands together in disgust after the potential equalizer sailed right. “The next day, I came out and went 10 for 10 from the exact same spot. I just had to try and get it out of my system.”
No position in sports can equal the all-or-nothing nature of being a kicker. Basketball players hoist up buzzer-beaters with their teams trailing by one, but they also have the option of passing. Baseball players step to the plate with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, but only if it is their turn in the order. Kickers, however, have a specific, inescapable role that regularly puts the fate of their teams at their feet.
Moreover, Van Winkle hadn’t really been in such a high-pressure position since high school, when he drilled a 42-yarder to send a game into overtime, then a 36-yarder to win it. And that contest wasn’t played in front of 36,000 fans or televised on ESPN.
Fortunately, Van Winkle’s support system has kept his chin from sagging the past six days. Its members? Teammates, coaches, family — and Cameron himself.
Anybody watching that game Friday night saw Huskies Siosifa Tufunga and Jeff Lindquist tap Van Winkle’s helmet in support after the miss. And anybody who stayed tuned during the postgame heard UW coach Chris Petersen and quarterback Jake Browning sing their kicker’s praises.
But what folks might not know is that as soon as Van Winkle returned home, he wrote himself a note saying he would make the rest of his kicks this season. He then placed it on the mirror so that the message would greet him every morning.
Perhaps you think that such a standard is too lofty, but the experts would disagree. Well, at least one of them would.
Former Oregon State kicker Alexis Serna infamously missed three extra points in a loss to Louisiana State in 2004. A year later, he won the Lou Groza award, which is handed out annually to college football’s most outstanding kicker.
Serna said the only way to approach that position is with unabashed optimism, or risk demons infiltrating even the narrowest crack.
“It’s almost like a sport within a sport,” said Serna of kicking. “It does weigh on you, and it can wear you out.”
Having said that, Van Winkle hardly looks mentally fatigued. The kicker who once nailed a 72-yarder in practice has been anxiously anticipating Saturday’s home opener vs. Sacramento State, but not because he is actually anxious.
Would you want to be in that same situation again? Van Winkle was asked Wednesday.
“Oh, yeah,” he said. “I love it.”
Believe Van Winkle when he says this. Trust that his confidence is high.
His kick may have just missed Friday, but his smile when answering that question?
Couldn’t have been wider.