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If only things had worked out better, Paul Woodside could have been remembered as the biggest goat in Super Bowl history.
Yup, he could have been Scott Norwood.
As everybody is reminded every year about this time, Norwood hooked the 47-yard, last-second field-goal attempt that would have won Super Bowl XXV for the Buffalo Bills in 1991. And he became Bill Buckner in a helmet. A Picasso of a choke artist. The “wide right!” guy.
And every year about this time, Woodside gets a tad envious at having missed the opportunity to miss.
“I’d say it’s better to have kicked and shanked than never to have kicked,” says Woodside, chuckling, in his Northern Virginia home. “At least Scott got that chance.”
In 1985, Norwood beat out Woodside for the Bills kicking job. That wasn’t supposed to happen. Woodside, not Norwood, had been drafted by Buffalo. Teams don’t usually waste a draft pick on a kicker unless they plan to keep him around. And Woodside had come to the Bills camp that year with the much-bigger reputation. He was an All-American at West Virginia University, where, as a sophomore, he broke the NCAA mark for field goals in a season, with 28. The Mountaineers were a national power throughout Woodside’s stay in Morgantown and were a fixture in bowl games and on network television. He set and still holds most season and career kicking and scoring records at the school.
Norwood, meanwhile, had played his college ball at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va., an NCAA Division I-AA school, where network coverage wasn’t even a possibility. He wasn’t drafted by anybody. He came to the Bills camp as a free agent, a walk-on castoff from the USFL, the rival league that had just gone belly-up, and he’d already been cut by one NFL team, the Atlanta Falcons, during that squad’s camp.
Despite their divergent collegiate paths, the kickers share some local heritage. Woodside and Norwood, for example, grew up only a few miles apart in Fairfax County. Both played youth soccer in the same league—the Annandale Boys Club. As high school students, both practiced place-kicking at the same field—the home gridiron of the Annandale Atoms— though neither was enrolled there: Norwood played football for Jefferson, and Woodside kicked for Falls Church (where he was a teammate of a talentless dirtball of an offensive lineman who would go on to write the Cheap Seats column for the Washington City Paper).
“I saw Scott around and knew who he was, but I never formally met him until training camp,” says Woodside.
Woodside now sees that he didn’t prepare himself for his toe-to-toe matchup with Norwood at camp, where the Bills rookie class also included a defensive tackle named Bruce Smith and receiver Andre Reed, both future Hall of Famers. And Norwood, Woodside accepts, was the better man when he had to be. Bills coaches agreed.
“What I remember most about camp is hearing the guy who makes the cuts walking down the hall of the dorms every morning telling players to go see the coach and bring your playbook,” Woodside says. “I’d always hope he keeps on walking past my door. One day, he didn’t. To be honest, I knew that day was coming. No question, Scott won the job.”
And on the whole, Norwood made the coaches look smart for their personnel decision. In a fairer world, Norwood would be remembered for his All-Pro season (1988) and as the guy who retired as the Bills career scoring leader. Despite being a lowly kicking specialist, Norwood was a recognized force on one of the most potent offensive teams in NFL history—Washington Post columnist Michael Wilbon dubbed him the Bills’ “most valuable player” in a 1988 article. Forget Smith, Reed, Jim Kelly, and Thurman Thomas.
But fairness usually doesn’t rear its head when it comes to kickers. So Norwood’s remembered for only one play.
A lot of folks from Buffalo will tell you that had Norwood made his kick, the Bills not only would have beaten the Giants but would have gone on to win several more Super Bowls. And the Sabres would have won a Stanley Cup. And the city of Buffalo would have enjoyed the very same prosperity that every other American town enjoyed during the ’90s.
But the boot went wide right by just a few feet. And the Bills lost three more Super Bowls. And the Sabres got cheated out of a Stanley Cup on a bogus goal by the Dallas Stars. And downtown Buffalo still looks like the Land the Clinton-Gore Economy Forgot. All because of Norwood.
Just like New England’s leagues of anti-Bucknerites, Bills rooters still hold venom for their former kicker. Last year, a woman went to a Web site dedicated to Bills fans to say she was helping a youngster with a school report on the American home front during the Gulf War, and that to finish up she needed only to find a photo of Scott Norwood.
“Do you mind if it’s been pissed on?” was the first response.
All that hatred could have been directed Woodside’s way. If only things had worked out.
The Bills cut Norwood after the 1991 season. He now lives in Centreville and sells insurance. He doesn’t kick anymore. Woodside works for UPS and, as he has for more than a decade, tutors young kickers in his off-hours.
A former student of Woodside’s, Virginia Tech’s Shayne Graham, was signed by the Bills in November. Woodside says that when he heard about Graham’s ascension, he viewed it as “a redemption of sorts.” Woodside thinks Graham will stick on the Buffalo roster for several more years. But no matter how Graham fares over time, his ex-teacher hopes that if the Bills are ever a field goal away from a Super Bowl win under his watch, the ball splits the uprights.
“Sports isn’t about careers,” Woodside says. “It’s about moments.”
No need to tell Scott Norwood that. —Dave McKenna