The Dreaded C-Word
Football fans will recall the Buffalo Bills of the early nineties. The Bills went to four straight Super Bowls following each season from 1990 through the 1993 season – and lost every one of them. While fans of most franchises would kill to go to multiple Super Bowls, football fans in upstate New York came to dread the Big Game after the annual embarrassment the Bills suffered. When the Bills failed to qualify for the playoffs following the 1994 season, cynical Bills fans drew a sigh of relief that they wouldn’t have to go through another monumental disappointment. The problem with that was that the Bills haven’t sniffed another Super Bowl since. What’s the old saying of watching out what you ask for?
As good as those Bills were, they laid an egg when it came to winning championships. There were many Hall of Fame players and coaches on those Bills teams of the early nineties. They posted gaudy numbers and statistics. No other team in NFL history has ever been to four straight Super Bowls. Yet, that team has the burden of being labeled with the “C-Word” – chokers.
Of all the slang terminology used in sports, there may not be a moniker so damaging as the word “choke”. In sports, to choke, basically means that an individual or team failed to win, when heavily favored to win; or had squandered a big lead. Choking can occur for a variety of reasons. Sometimes a team or individual becomes complacent and thinks that a total effort is not needed. Other times, a choke can occur due to mounting pressure that causes the team or individual to wilt or crumble. The fear of screwing up is a powerful force. Whatever the case, it’s not an enviable label for an athlete.
The Buffalo Bills are a good example of a team that choked. But individual athletes that have choked seem to be more memorable. Golfer Rory McIlroy is known for choking away the 2011 Masters. He began the day with a four stroke lead, but on the tenth hole – everything went terribly wrong on his way to shooting an 80 and finishing fifteenth. Bill Buckner will forever be remembered for allowing a routine ground ball to go through his legs on a pivotal play in the 1986 World Series, as his Boston Red Sox eventually lost to the New York Mets. To this day, Buckner is vilified in Bean Town.
In fact, the name Buckner is now synonymous with some of sport’s biggest chokes. Some have compared JR Hildebrand hitting the Turn Four wall on the last lap of the 2011 Indianapolis 500 as a Buckner moment. There are those who have wondered if we may be witnessing another Buckner moment, or at least a Buffalo Bills situation, as we watch Will Power heading into a third straight season finale with a chance to win the IndyCar title. For the past two seasons, Power has come away empty-handed. This latest chapter has yet to be written.
Heading into Sunday’s race in Baltimore, Power held a comfortable thirty-seven point lead over his closest competitor – Ryan Hunter-Reay. All of the momentum was with Power. He was coming off his third straight podium finish. Hunter-Reay, in the meantime, had finished seventh, twenty-fourth and eighteenth in those same races. Power was starting on the pole at Baltimore, while Hunter-Reay had suffered another stroke of bad luck in qualifying. With Power starting first on a track he dominated a year earlier, many thought that Power might actually clinch the title on Sunday. No one would have thought that there was a realistic shot that things would work out as they did.
It’s not that Power actually choked on Sunday – he finished sixth. But given the history of Power letting the past two championships slip away at the end of each season, skeptics and cynics are already slapping the “C-Word” label on him. Is that fair or accurate? No, not really – but that is the perception with a lot of fans, and we’ve all heard that perception is reality.
But when Power reeled off three straight victories in April, those same people that are now taking joy in Power’s recent struggles – were ready to hand him the Astor Challenge Trophy before this year’s running of the Indianapolis 500. Although I try to not get too excited or pessimistic when things are either very good or really bad – I would have found it hard to believe it had you told me his victory in São Paulo on April 29th might be his last of the season. Hunter-Reay had three straight wins of his own this summer before cooling off – but he had his biggest on Sunday, when he needed it the most. Digging deep and delivering the goods when your back is against the wall, is not only a cliché festival – it’s the sign of a champion.
Although the feel-good story and all of the momentum is now on Ryan Hunter-Reay’s side – let’s remember that it is still Will Power that holds a seventeen point lead. All kinds of scenarios have been worked out as to who needs to do what to win the championship. Essentially, Power has to finish third or worse and Hunter-Reay has to win for Hunter-Reay to come away with this year’s trophy. Results like what we saw in Baltimore – a track that is best suited to Power’s driving style – will crown Hunter-Reay the champion. But if neither driver wins, then the scenario gets more complicated.
The wild-card in all of this is the next race – a five-hundred mile race on a two-mile oval. Two of Hunter-Reay’s victories this season came on ovals. Power doesn’t necessarily struggle on ovals, but suffice it to say they are not his strength. He has only one oval win on his resume – one of the abbreviated Texas Twins from 2011 – that some say is deserving of an asterisk. Anything can happen at Fontana, which is great for fans but nerve-racking for competitors going for a championship.
Power is probably feeling the pressure which will surely grow by next Saturday night. But for all the drivers in the field, pressure is normal. There is pressure every time anyone crawls into the cockpit. That’s why we don’t all do it. Personally, I don’t think the pressure will get to Power. Other factors besides caving in to pressure have come into play in the past two championships.
Will Power may not win the championship, but I don’t think it will be because he couldn’t handle it. But if he doesn’t win, look for comparisons to Bill Buckner, the Buffalo Bills, the phrase “forever a bridesmaid” and the dreaded “C-Word” to all be applied to Will Power in the days and weeks that follow. Would I agree with that assessment and consider Power a choker if he fails to win the championship? Not for a minute. But the dreaded C-Word will come up. And as unfair as that all sounds, remember – perception is reality.