ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
On any given game day, hopes are high in Tallahassee, Fla., home to Florida State University. Football fans and players expect a W, a win. In today's Almost A Dub, conversations with athletes about moments of victory, defeat and perseverance, we meet former Florida State placekicker Xavier Beitia. His 2002 field goal attempt should have put the team on the road to another national championship. And then the ball went wide left.
NPR's Jason Fuller reports.
JASON FULLER, BYLINE: The pressure to win is what binds and attracts the very best players and coaches to programs like Florida State University.
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FULLER: Coach Bobby Bowden turned a losing team in the 1970s to one that was nearly sure winners year after year. So when Bowden came knocking on Xavier Beitia's door...
XAVIER BEITIA: I wouldn't say I had the pinch-me moment. But when Bobby Bowden sits in your living room and he's talking to your mom and he's just - he's putting his feet up on the couch like it's no big deal, like he lives there and he's like, yeah, we want your son to come to Florida State, and we want him to play, and he's going to be our starter Day 1.
FULLER: Beitia's road to starting began on the soccer field, where he played against older kids who were bigger, stronger and faster. It was tough, but it improved his game. By the time Beitia reached middle school, his peers were hitting their growth spurts. But he wasn't. It felt like his body was betraying him. But his kicking skills remained superior.
BEITIA: And at that point, that's when I kind of specialized in football and becoming a placekicker and doing that and trying to maximize my ability at just one thing.
FULLER: Beitia also genuinely liked football and thought he could actually make it as a pro.
BEITIA: We used to drive by Tampa Stadium when I was 8, 9, 10 years old. I remember we used to - me and my mom, we used to throw a quarter out the window - make a wish. You're going to play in that stadium one day.
FULLER: Unlike a lot of high school athletes...
BEITIA: My goal wasn't to get to college and get a college scholarship. My goal was to go beyond college. And really, my goal from the time I was young - I go, I want to be the best ever. I want to be in the Hall of Fame one day as a kicker. Like, that was my goal.
FULLER: Beitia attended Jesuit High School of Tampa, which was known for sending top kicking recruits to the upper echelons of college football. Thirteen kickers in a row received college scholarships before Beitia. His kicking skills were so exceptional that he received an invitation to play in the high school All-American football game, featuring the country's top recruits. So when it came time to head to college, Beitia zeroed in on one coach, Butch Davis.
BEITIA: Originally, I wanted to go to University of Miami. Butch Davis left that year to go to the NFL. I, you know, started being recruited by different people at the University of Miami. I was like, let me see what I want to do.
FULLER: Coach Bobby Bowden and Florida State's winning ways won Beitia over. And he was eager to become a part of the Florida State-University of Miami rivalry.
BEITIA: In my freshman year of college - now, I'm just stepping in the rivalry - played at Florida State. I mean, they just blew us out. They beat us 49 to - I think it was 27. And it just wasn't close.
FULLER: The team finished that season 8 and 4. Beitia was determined his sophomore season will be better. He was sure of it. Florida State would avenge the loss against Miami. And Beitia thought he can make it happen. He was one of the best kickers in the country.
BEITIA: I had made something like, I don't know, 34 out of 37 field goals in college. Like, I'd only ever missed three.
FULLER: And then they rolled into Miami to play the Hurricanes - Saturday, October 12, 2002.
BEITIA: Physically, it was a super hot day. I remember actually, like, my calf cramping up a little bit. Like, it was kind of hot. But no, I mean, I felt great. We had a two-touchdown lead in the fourth quarter, really, with six minutes left. You're thinking like, man, we just need to hold on to this.
FULLER: But they couldn't.
BEITIA: And they scored two touchdowns within, like, a three-minute span. And then all of a sudden, I was like, wait a minute. We were up 27 to 14. And now we're losing 28-27.
And it was like, here we go, right? This is what is coming down to. It's another kick. It's another game. It's no big deal.
They line the ball up. I'm going to make it. Like, that was my mentality. That was my confidence level going in. There was never an ounce of doubt I would miss it - nothing much to it other than just execute what you always do, and let's go home.
FULLER: That's being a placekicker, the go-to guy in clutch moments.
BEITIA: In that game specifically, I think I made a - like, a 46 and a 42 yarder - something like that.
FULLER: One second was left on the clock.
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UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER: This for the win for Florida State to upset Miami - from 43 yards away - for the win - the kick on the way. He missed it - wide left.
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BEITIA: And then all of a sudden, I'm like, wait a minute. This isn't how I dreamed. This is not how I envisioned it. And you've never even thought of failure. You've never thought of, what if it doesn't work out? There is no plan B 'cause plan A is the only thing that matters.
FULLER: Plan A - play well in college, become a pro - Florida State had the next week off. But Beitia would miss six field goals in the last five games of the season. He wasn't over the missed kick against Miami. Neither were many of the fans.
BEITIA: Multiple death threats, stalkers - these people would somehow get my phone numbers, pretend to be different people who say they're outside my building, you know. And some people would get our hotel - our team, like, phone number when were on away games and say stuff. And so I got death threats. But I also got letters from Burt Reynolds.
FULLER: Yeah - Burt Reynolds, the actor, who also played at Florida State back in the day.
He did make it to the NFL, playing with the New York Jets and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But it still took him years to get over the missed kick. He knew he needed help and sought out a sports psychologist without the Jets' knowledge. And he was taught a new set of skills.
CAROLINE BRACKETTE: Those skills are going to be things like visualization. There's self-talk. What are they telling themselves? That can really impact the way that they feel about themselves, but also the way that they perform in sport and outside of sport.
FULLER: That's Caroline Brackette, associate professor of mental health and assistant dean at Mercer University. She credits the rise in athletes seeking mental and emotional support to increase in societal awareness of mental health needs in sports. The very high peaks and very low valleys that are inevitable in sports can be detrimental to day-to-day life.
BRACKETTE: It speaks to Maslow's hierarchy of needs. You know, we all have this need for belonging, to feel needed, to feel that we've accomplished something. They do want to achieve. They do want those accolades because it then reinforces the work that they've put into it.
FULLER: Brackette added that it's all about forming a healthy balance, where what you do for a living doesn't define your self-worth in your personal life. After his own work with a different therapist, Beitia appreciates that message. But it's the words from his coach during his rookie season with the Jets that define Beitia today.
BEITIA: Herman Edwards comes in to greet us - first time he's greeted the team. He says, to you, rookies, the best of you guys, the best of the best in this room, you might play till you're 33 years old. Everybody else, you'll be out of the league in a few years. But even the best - let's say you're all going to play till you're 33 - what are you going to do with the rest of your life? Who are you?
FULLER: Nearly 20 years after the missed kick, Xavier Beitia is a husband, father to three kids, former NFL placekicker and at peace.
Jason Fuller, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE INNER BANKS' "ELECTRIC") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.