Kyle Bambard sat at his locker and knew what was coming. He had just missed a 33-yard field goal that would have beaten Clemson and changed the course of the entire college football season.
So as soon as NC State coach Dave Doeren finished talking to the team, Bambard grabbed his phone and deleted Twitter, Instagram and every other social media app he had.
While Doeren and the rest of Bambard’s teammates emphasized that they won and lost as a team, Bambard knew plenty outside of the locker room wouldn’t be so supportive. It is the standard knee-jerk reaction for fans who believe kickers to have one job, and one job only: Make your kick.
Shortly after the game ended, Bambard started receiving death threats, and encouragement to never return to Raleigh or campus; one tweet suggested “Please slit your own throat.” Another read: “bro just drop out of school and sell drugs.” Someone began an online petition, asking Doeren to remove Bambard from the team.
How does it feel to lose the game for your team? You should do the team a favor and never show up ever again. @KyleBambard
— VON (@iThe_Truth) October 15, 2016
@PackFootball kick @KyleBambard off the team!
— Brian Comp (@RaleighLama) October 15, 2016
Though Bambard deleted his apps, he still learned about the myriad threats and tweets from those closest to him. They became impossible to ignore. That night, he and his roommate AJ Cole returned to their apartment, turned on “The Office,” ate pizza and sat in silence. Cole insisted the two of them sleep on the couches in the living room that night.
“I didn’t want him to feel like he was alone,” Cole says.
It would have been easy to feel that way, had Bambard allowed all those people typing nasty words to win. He refused to let one kick, and all of its aftermath derail him. Bambard kept going to practice, even after losing his job as primary field goal kicker.
Bambard kept going to class, kept pushing forward. Never once did he consider transferring. After the season ended, Bambard vowed to Doeren, “Whatever my role is, I’ll accept it.”
Now one year later, Bambard and his teammates prepare to play Clemson again, in a crucial game Saturday night that in all likelihood will determine the ACC Atlantic Division champion. Bambard has handled kickoff duties all season, relishing every moment he gets on the field.
“I take full responsibility for that kick,” Bambard said. “That’s a kick I have to make. But I told myself probably two or three days after the Clemson game that I would not let a single play define me as a person or define my athletic career, and that’s when things started to turn around for me mentally.
Everybody I saw on a daily basis was so positive that I couldn’t help but be positive as well and take that mentality and actually put it into action. It’s easier said than done, and it was still hard at times, but after a while you don’t really have a choice. You have to go back to work.”
What happened in Clemson last year has happened to many kickers before Bambard, and will happen to many kickers after Bambard. But nobody ever envisions missing the winning kick, until it actually happens.
Bambard had missed two kicks earlier in the game, so he had more on his mind when he lined up for the 33-yard attempt with 2 seconds left. Dabo Swinney called a timeout just before NC State snapped the ball. That kick went through the uprights. So Bambard felt good when it came time to kick for real.
“I was telling myself, ‘Don’t change anything,’ telling myself the keys that I think about, and then I just pushed it a little bit, that last kick,” Bambard said.
Up in the stands, his mother, Kelly, and his father, Eric, along with friends and family, looked on with surprise and sadness, as the ball pushed just right. The game went into overtime, but all they wanted to do was wrap their arms around Bambard and let him know they supported him no matter what.
Shortly after the game ended, Eric Bambard got a phone call from a coach he worked with back home in Michigan, letting the family know how ugly comments already had gotten on social media. Then, he had a flashback.
“Back when Kyle was being recruited, we met with another team’s coach after a camp and the coach said something I’ll never forget,” Eric Bambard said. “He said, ‘You guys have imagined your son kicking the winning field goal in front of 80,000 people and millions of people on TV. Let me paint you another picture. Then he proceeded to talk about missing that field goal and the backlash that comes with that. It always stuck with me as, ‘Yeah that will never happen to us,’ and of course when it did, it came rushing back.”
The day after the game, Cole and Bambard went into the football facility to prepare for a new week. Doeren called Bambard into his office and gave him a hug. But that was not the end of the nightmare. Police offered Bambard an escort to class Monday because of the various death threats he received. Bambard declined because he did not want to bring extra attention to himself.
He tried to get back to normalcy, but he would find hate notes on the windshield of his car. People would roll down their windows and shout at him on campus. The only place that felt like home ended up being on the practice field with his coaches and teammates, a place where he could get back to what brought him to NC State.
“Even if someone fails on a large stage, at least he attempted to pursue something he’s passionate about, and that’s how I had to view kicking at that point.”
NC State kicker Kyle Bambard
For every detestable comment, he received twice as many positive texts and messages, thoughts from across the country to keep his head up and forge ahead. One note that especially stood out came from North Carolina kicker Nick Weiler, who had been the subject of nasty comments on social media after missing several kicks his sophomore season.
Weiler quoted Theodore Roosevelt from “The Man in the Arena:”
“It is not the critic who counts …. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena … who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
“I had never heard of this speech prior to him sending it to me, and I’m eternally grateful he did,” Bambard said. “Even if someone fails on a large stage, at least he attempted to pursue something he’s passionate about, and that’s how I had to view kicking at that point. I was no less passionate about it because I missed that kick and I had to rely on that passion and know that I don’t know when my next attempt is going to be, but I’ve got to make the most of it when it happens.”
Though Weiler went to a rival school, he had no hesitation reaching out. He does it every time he sees a kicker struggle, because there is shared understanding based on their common experiences.
“People can be so ridiculously mean and vicious online behind a computer screen,” Weiler said. “I experienced it myself when I missed those kicks, whether it be death threats or wishing bad things to my family, so I couldn’t imagine what he was getting and I think it’s the most ridiculous thing in the world. Rivalries aside, it didn’t matter to me. At the end of the day it was another college kid going through sports.”
Bambard opted to focus on the encouragement, the only escape from all the negativity that threatened to crush him. After the season ended, he kept working, knowing that transfer Carson Wise would handle the primary kicking duties once he arrived at school. In time, Bambard started going back on social media again.
But it was at an Athletes in Action kicking camp over the summer that Bambard got another fresh perspective. He met Tyler Warner, who had gone through a similar situation during his career at Marshall. Warner missed a 40-yard field goal against West Virginia in 2010 that ended the game in overtime.
Like Bambard, Warner dealt with death threats and harassment on social media in the immediate aftermath, but turned to his faith and the support he had from coaches and teammates.
There will always be reminders, though. Seven years later, Warner still hears from people in West Virginia about his missed kick. This past January, Eric Bambard was walking through a home improvement store in Michigan wearing his NC State sweatshirt when another man pointed at him and started saying his favorite team would have had a much different season had it not been for the Wolfpack kicker.
“I said, ‘I’m about to ruin your day because that’s my son,'” Eric Bambard said. “He was a good-sized guy, and he crumbled. He absolutely felt horrible. He said, ‘I’m just a fan talking.’ I get it, I totally understand. It’s brought up less and less all the time, but I don’t know if it will ever go away for anybody who remembers it.”
Just recently, Bambard posted a picture of himself and his girlfriend on Instagram and someone commented, “Remember when you missed that kick against Clemson?”
“At the end of the day, everybody making those comments is dealing with their own insecurities and taking it out on someone who wanted to make the kick,” Cole says. “That’s what really blows my mind. Do you think he didn’t want it to go in? He wanted it to go in as much or more than anybody.
“It would be really easy to quit, transfer, go back home, say I’m done with football and not go out there for another snap. But the fact that he came back and has been working as hard as anyone I know, it’s a really huge testament to his character. The way he carries himself is an inspiration to me and everybody around him.”
Bambard doesn’t know when he will be called on to kick a field goal again. But he will be ready if that moment comes. That part is irrelevant, anyway. Bambard is part of a team on a quest for an ACC championship, and the way both faced adversity last season is a big reason why they have a shot at redemption Saturday night.