TAMPA — He was prepared to face the questions, to have microphones and cameras thrust in his face. He was prepared to face his teammates, as they came steadily past to whisper words of encouragement. Matt Gay seemed to have taken heartbreak’s best shot, and wasn’t giving an inch.
At least not until he had to face the private hell of his own thoughts.
Sitting in a chair in front of his locker as the rest of the room emptied, Gay’s chin dropped down onto his chest and he let out a breath deep enough for innocence to escape.
This is what it looks like to let a roomful of friends and teammates down. This is what it feels like to confront your darkest professional fear. And maybe, just maybe, this is the realization of how long and harrowing Tampa Bay’s placekicking nightmare extends.
Less than 30 minutes earlier, the 25-year-old Gay had missed a 34-yard field goal that cost the Buccaneers a victory on the final play of a 32-31 loss to the New York Giants.
And now with his backpack, and the weight of the world on his shoulders, he stood up to make his exit from the Bucs locker room at Raymond James Stadium. Before he got even one step, Jameis Winston called his name. Gay walked to the quarterback’s locker and bent over for a quick hug and conversation.
When he stood up again, Gay’s composure finally seemed shaken.
Walking toward the exit with glassy eyes, he talked about the compassion he had just been shown by a group of men he had not even met five months ago.
“It means everything to me. It means everything to know they have my back in moments like this,’’ Gay said. “Jameis just told me to keep my head up. He said to keep my head up because they’re going to need me again this year.’’
The NFL season is full of moments such as this. Gay’s pain is no different than a kicker who misses a field goal in Pittsburgh in October, or a quarterback who throws an interception in Houston in November.
The only real difference here is the perspective of time. Tampa Bay is too accustomed to this, and Gay is too new to this. He was brought here specifically to solve a franchise’s wayward kicking problems, and he has spent the past several months convincing the world he was the right choice.
He came here from Utah with a calmness about him. He was confident. He was mature. And all of those fresh expectations were wiped clean with a kick that sailed just a foot or so too far to the right.
“I told him, “Take your time, let it marinate.’ It’s going to hurt for a while,’’ said running back Peyton Barber, who stopped by Gay’s locker. “But I said, “Don’t let this define you. This doesn’t define you as a kicker or a man.’’’
For the record, Gay said he felt fine before the kick. He wasn’t spooked by a couple of misses on extra points earlier, and he wasn’t affected by coach Bruce Arians choosing to take a delay of game penalty to move the ball back an extra five yards.
“I just didn’t hit it clean, and it didn’t go in,’’ he said.
Like the home opener a couple of weeks earlier, plans had already been made for Gay and long snapper Zach Triner to go to holder Bradley Pinion’s house after Sunday’s game.
Pinion said they would eat, relax and try to forget a kick they could no longer do anything about.
“You hurt for him. Everybody in here hurts for him at that moment,’’ Pinion said. “But I’ve played with some of the greatest who have ever done this — Phil Dawson and Robbie Gould — and Gay will be on that list too. We believe in him, and he’ll be on that list for a very long time. He’ll make way more game-winners than misses.’’
Less than a month ago, Gay’s wife gave birth to their first child in Utah. He said walking out of the hospital to catch a flight back to Tampa hours after the delivery was the hardest thing he’d ever done.
His family has not yet made the trip to Tampa to join Gay.
“So he’s all alone?’’ I asked Pinion.
No, he said.
“He has us.’’
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com. Follow at romano_tbtimes.
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