Blake O’Neill is a punter for the University of Michigan’s football team. He is from Australia and is in school for a second Masters degree at the university. Several times during the game between Michigan and their arch rival Michigan State Blake was asked to punt his team out of trouble. Each time he came up with great punts which set Michigan State back. One time his punt flew and rolled 80 yards! Three times he pinned State deep inside their own 10 yard line! Although Michigan State had a clear advantage in yards gained, they found themselves losing 23-21 as O’Neill was punting to them again. A big reason Michigan was ahead was because Blake kept making them drive the long field with his booming punts. His punt was booted so high that State could not return it. Right then the announcer mentioned that Blake O’Neill was one of the stars of Michigan’s effort that day! Nobody saw the change in fortunes that would follow.
Mark Dantonio the Michigan State coach told a story after the game about what happened on the team bus before they walked into the stadium. “I want you all to take 10 seconds and think about what might happen”, he said. Then he started counting down the time until the 10 seconds had elapsed. Quickly they exited the bus and put their minds on the task at hand. Little did they realize the irony of what just happened.
My son and I were sitting on the couch watching the game unfold. Michigan State made an effort to move the ball. They only needed a field goal to take the lead. However Michigan’s defense stiffened and with just under 2 minutes to go State threw an incomplete pass on 4th down. State had only one time out and it looked like they were finished. Michigan methodically ran the ball and State used their last time out. After 3 plays and the clock running Michigan was able to run all but 10 seconds off of the clock. On fourth down they didn’t hesitate on the play call. They sent Blake O’Neill on the field to punt one more time. Michigan State in desperation put their entire team on the line. Their only hope was to block the punt. Knowing the rush was coming I’m sure Blake was in a hurry up mode. The snap came back to him around knee high. Ideally the snap should be around chest high so the punter doesn’t have to reach. Blake reached down for it and the ball hit off of his hands and dropped to the ground. Quickly he picked it up and attempted to punt but the State players were on him and the ball bounced crazily in the air.
Suddenly a Michigan State player named Jalen Watts-Jackson had the ball and was running for the end zone with a convoy of State players in front of him. Jalen is a red shirt freshman on the State team. He had to be as surprised as anyone when suddenly he had the ball in his hands. Knowing that if he was tackled the game was likely over he pressed on behind his convoy. Michigan players tried desperately to reach him but to no avail and he dove into the end zone. Somewhere between diving into the end zone and his excited teammates diving on him Jalen was hurt. He laid on the end zone turf in serious pain. It was discovered later that Jalen had broken and dislocated his hip. He was carted off of the field and transported straight to the hospital. Surgery was performed the next day and Jalen’s season came to an end.
My son and I were rooting for Michigan State but we were watching in amazement instead of any kind of celebration. When Jalen Watts-Jackson crashed into the end zone finishing the game my son made a statement that made me realize that I was a successful parent! “That poor punter” he stated as he realized what that kid was going to have to live through. It brought me out of my amazement daze and made me take note of what he was saying. At that moment we took our minds off of the game and the score and rested them on the punter. Obviously Blake O’Neill felt worse than anyone. The cameras were showing pictures of stunned Michigan fans in the stands and yet the most stunned person of all had to be O’Neill. Time after time they kept replaying the victorious or disastrous play depending on your point of view.
Isaiah Thomas the hall of fame ex Detroit Piston basketball player watched the ending of the game from his couch. It brought back memories of when he made a bad split second decision that would cost his team the Eastern Conference Finals victory in the playoffs. With 5 seconds left and his team ahead by one point Isaiah attempted to throw the ball in bounds to his teammate Bill Laimbeer who was near the opposing basket. Hurriedly he threw the pass only to have Larry Bird of the Celtics knife through the lane and grab the ball. A second later he was passing to his Celtic teammate Dennis Johnson who laid it in the basket. Isaiah was in misery because he felt like he let his team and their fans down. He was the leader of the team and yet he made this horrible blunder. In the years ahead Isaiah would lead the Pistons to back to back titles. Much of the pain for his blunder had passed and yet seeing Blake O’Neill’s blunder brought it all right back.
There were two hurting people on the field at the end of the game. There was the Michigan State freshman Jalen Watts-Jackson who was laying in the end zone in pain. Then there was Blake O’Neill who was suffering from a pain of another kind. It was an emotional pain as his last minute miscue overshadowed all of the good he had accomplished previously. Medical people tended to Jalen and he received the operation that he needed to mend his body. Isaiah Thomas reached out to Blake with a phone call. He told him of his experience with the last second blunder he made and how that in time it all will pass.
In the immediate aftermath of the game social media was running rampant. There were many tweets that were very unkind and even death threats to Blake. Then to the credit of many there were tweets of support for the fallen punter. Blake vowed to carry on when he broke his silence a few days later. Jalen vowed to make a full recovery from his injuries and return next season. It’s easy to fault someone on the big stage for mistakes that they make. In reality we all make mistakes. The difference is that our mistakes are not performed before 110,000 people plus millions on TV. Mitch Albom wrote an article in the Detroit Free Press praising the quality of students and school representatives each of them were in their reactions to what happened. Quietly I admired my own son who recognized that the outcome of the game wasn’t nearly as important as the pain the punter was experiencing. Somehow whether through us or on his own he had acquired the gift of compassion. The world would be a much better place if we all felt compassion for others too!