Nov. 17, 2007
By JACK WILKINSON
The miss was inconceivable, the pressure now unbearable, the consequences surely catastrophic. Not just for football. For future family harmony.
“That,” Travis Bell said, “was probably the longest 2-1/2 minutes in my life.”
It wasn’t just that Bell, as sure-footed a placekicker as any in college football, pushed a 33-yard field goal wide right with 2:31 left. That left Georgia Tech trailing North Carolina 25-24 and Bell dazed.
“I came off the field thinking, ‘Man, I can’t believe I missed that,'” said Bell. “I don’t miss those kicks. That’s automatic.”
It wasn’t just that Bell, given a 59th-minute reprieve, then had to endure a last-second, strategically-timed timeout called by Carolina coach Butch Davis. “I don’t think I’ve ever had a kick where the coach doesn’t call time out to ice. It doesn’t bother me.”
Nor did it freeze or faze Bell when, after kicking an apparent 32-yard, game-winning field with 18.7 seconds left, he had to re-do it all over again. Carolina was penalized five yards for having 12 men on the field.
“It is smart,” Bell said of the possibility that the Heels intentionally had an extra defender on the field, making Bell’s kick from the left hash mark even dicier.
“The angle’s tougher. I was actually wondering if we were going to decline it,” Bell said of the dead-ball foul called before the ball was snapped. “At that angle, five yards makes a huge difference.”
Tech couldn’t decline the penalty. No biggie. What, Bell worry? Not even when the second snap was high. Durant Brooks, the superb punter who moonlights as a holder, caught the ball and gave Bell a perfect hold. “He’s one of the best in the league at holding and punting,” Bell said, smiling. “A dual threat.”
And when this kick sailed true and through the uprights with 15.3 seconds left, when Tech’s Michael Johnson blocked Connor Barth’s 63-yard Tar Heel prayer of a field goal attempt and time finally expired, Tech exhaled and Bell breathed easy at blessed last. Who wants to screw up the first time your soon-to-be father-in-law watches you kick in person?
“I’m proud of him, said Keith Hudson. “I was hoping that he’d have a chance to come back and redeem himself.”
And Hudson’s daughter? “I was so upset when he missed,” said Holly Hudson, Bell’s finacee. “My mouth just dropped. I was choked up.”
And Hudson’s younger brother’s reaction to Bell’s misfire? “I said, ‘Way to go, man!'” said Tim Hudson’s, Holly’s uncle who also pitches for the Braves when he isn’t sitting in the stands at Bobby Dodd Stadium. “I’m just teasing,” Hudson told his niece, laughing.
By then, Holly could stand on her own two feet. She didn’t flinch when Carolina called that timeout to disrupt Bell’s concentration and ice him. “They’ve done it his whole career. He’s pretty good under pressure, though.”
The senior, a semifinalist for the Lou Groza Award as the nation’s top placekicker, began Saturday 20-for-23 on field goal attempts this fall. His 20th, last week at Duke, made Bell Tech’s single-season record holder. He’d already kicked a 33-yarder in the second quarter to give the Jackets a 10-3 lead and himself the 59th field goal of a stellar career.
Yet even Bell — who’ll marry Holly July 9th in Costa Rica, with the reception to follow later back here at Uncle Tim’s house — was momentarily unnerved by his fourth-quarter miss.
“Honestlyl I thought for the first 30 seconds that game was over,” said Bell. “But everyone kept saying, ‘You’re going to get another chance.'”
Even his coach. “When he came off the field when they called time out,” said Chan Gailey, “I said, ‘Hey, not many guys get the opportunity to do it twice. You got the chance, go do it.'”
Not that it was a textbook Tech field goal. “Nah, I just wanted to keep it interesting,” Bell said, grinning. “Just knuckled it through.”
“It was a line drive,” said Holly, a senior at Georgia State. “But it was good.”
“In the scorebook,” Tim Hudson said, “it’s a beauty.”
With that, Tech had its seventh victory and Bell his 60th career field goal, tying Scott Sisson’s school record. At game’s end, Bell headed toward the north end zone to wave to his intended. There in the stands, Holly had had some stout family support. Literally.
“I had his brother, Justin, and two sisters — Annie and Megan — holding me,” Holly said. “Justin picked me up. We were all screaming, excited. And then I started crying, of course.
“When Travis made the second kick,” Holly said, “Tim looked back at us and said, ‘Now I know what I put you guys through with me.'”
“But,” the pitching uncle said, “one of my pitches usually doesn’t win or lose a game.”