- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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It may be hard for Clevelanders to see it just yet after years of living through sports heartbreaks so catastrophic they actually have titles that begin with capital letters -- The Drive, The Fumble, The Shot, The Decision. But there's a message embedded in what's been going at Boise State this week that applies to LeBron James' return to play the Cavaliers on Thursday night amid fears that some jilted fans may not stop at booing James, and actually resort to mayhem or violence.
Until six days ago, James and Boise State kicker Kyle Brotzman had little in common beyond the fact they were both local kids who grew up to play for their hometown teams. Brotzman is a 5-foot-11, self-taught walk-on who had to earn his scholarship once at Boise State. James, of course, was an Akron high school phenom who went straight to NBA superstardom with Cleveland. But now fans are blaming both men for ruining what could have been a once-in-a-lifetime chance for a championship for their oft-disrespected teams -- James for The Decision to dump the Cavs on national TV for the Miami Heat, Brotzman for what may go down in infamy as The Kicks.
Last Friday, Brotzman narrowly missed two chip-shot field goals of 26 and 29 yards against Nevada -- the first with two seconds left in regulation, and the second in overtime -- that would've kept Boise State unbeaten, ranked third and still clinging to its Cinderella dream of heading to the national championship game if either Auburn or Oregon lose this weekend. He would've been a hero for a Broncos team that's been adopted by fans nationwide, especially those rooting against the much-loathed BCS system that's skewed to exclude outlier teams in outlier conferences like Boise State.
Instead, Brotzman now stands accused of what's been called "the costliest choke in the history of collegiate sports."
There are other high-stake gaffes that come to mind, of course -- starting with Chris Webber's panicked timeout call for Michigan with 11 seconds remaining in the 1993 national title game against North Carolina though the Wolverines had no timeouts left.
But that was in a different era, before the social media and YouTube explosion, before the blogging mob and visitors to fan message boards and anyone with an e-mail account could whip up an ugly, snowballing, instantaneous backlash against someone like Brotzman. The backlash was already under way even before he was done sitting in his team's losing locker room, teary-eyed, or he finally hauled himself home that night, grateful that his Boise State coach and teammates immediately stuck up for him, but inconsolable just the same.
The tone of what awaited Brotzman beyond the stadium was as ugly as anything James has faced. More than 550 messages were awaiting Brotzman in his e-mail in-box that night, and he finally took down his Facebook page after seeing one too many remarks like, "I hate you ... I hope you die." The Ada (Idaho) County sheriff heard about harassing phone calls placed to a Boise woman with the same last name as the kicker, and CBSSports.com reported that a man from Oregon called Brotzman's family home, ranting that he had lost $250,000 betting on the game. When the man persisted calling, Brotzman's family notified authorities too.
Brotzman had helped Boise State beat TCU in the Fiesta Bowl last season with a pass off a fake punt on fourth down. He's performed so well his entire career he sits just nine points from breaking the Division I scoring record for kickers, and he's a finalist for this year's Lou Groza Award, kickers' version of the Heisman. But all of that was forgotten now too. There were rants about how the Broncos, who nosedived eight spots to a national ranking of No. 11, are probably headed to the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl instead of the Rose Bowl. For Boise State, the lost payout could be about $5 million, not just incalculable prestige.
If the story just ended there, Brotzman's treatment -- like the reception James is expected to encounter Thursday night -- would just be more proof that the passion people pour into sports is great, all right, until all that emotion gets so overheated or ugly or dangerous it lacks any perspective.
Is something like the ham-handed way James left Cleveland after seven seasons really worth rioting or destroying something over? Never.
Does a college football kicker whose misses cost his team a game deserve to have fans act so threateningly that police were actually called in? Of course not.
But take note, Cleveland: Amid all heartbreak and anger toward Brotzman, people somehow got a grip. Perspective did roar back in. It was natural to be upset at how Boise State lost the game. The Dream gave way to The Kicks. But when some fans saw the punishment Brotzman was taking, they began creating their own Facebook pages as a rebuttal until there were two, then three, then nearly a dozen of them full of supportive messages for Brotzman.
One of them, "Bronco Nation Loves Kyle Brotzman", had 39,685 fans as of Thursday morning. As one woman happily noted in a post, "That's more people than can fit inside Boise State's stadium!", which seats only 33,500.
That's a nice mental image to hold onto, isn't it? Picture an entire stadium full of people wanting to tell Brotzman that they and he may never forget last week's disappointment, but it's damn sure not worth persecuting him about.
"It's a game, not life," one supporter wrote.
Brotzman didn't speak to reporters after the game. But he eventually felt good enough to give one interview, to ESPN's Tom Rinaldi, that aired Thursday. And Brotzman, even through his visible sadness, was impressive.
LeBron could learn a thing or two before he walks into the arena tonight from how the 22-year-old Brotzman stared right into the teeth of all that went wrong for him and was big enough to shoulder it with candor. With humility. With class.
Brotzman wasn't too macho to volunteer that he cried at his locker right after the game, and pride didn't prevent him from confessing that after his first short kick drifted ever-so-slightly wide right, his disbelief and the pressure of having everything riding on his shoulders got to him on that second kick that he barely pulled it wide left in overtime. It did.
"I thought about that last kick a little bit too much, to be honest," Brotzman told Rinaldi. "I think that was still in the back of my mind.
"I didn't want to fail again."
James will get less sympathy, of course. He's a grown man, a millionaire a few hundred times over, a guy who's been lambasted for choosing the "easy" way out by dumping the Cavs for Miami.
Still, nothing justifies the kind of violent backlash that authorities feared and hoped to prevent Thursday night by seeding the stands at Quicken Loans Arena with plainclothes security people, not just extra policemen, and by keeping the Heat's travel plans a secret, and by having everyone from past local sports stars to Cleveland elected officials plead for days to the LeBron haters to keep their cool.
Clevelanders and Cavs fans can feel livid about the way James turned them all into extras for perhaps the biggest show of ego in sports history. Fine. Boo him, hoot at him, mock him for how so far, anyway, The Decision hasn't transformed the 11-8 Heat into the NBA power James predicted it would become.
Then leave it at that.
Cavs followers don't have to go as far as Boise State fans are likely to Saturday when Brotzman runs onto the field against Utah State. It's going to be Senior Day in Boise, Brotzman's last game on the Broncos' funky blue turf. And not a soul in the joint should be surprised if after all the events of the past seven days -- perhaps just because of them -- Kyle Brotzman gets what he deserves. A standing ovation.
Johnette Howard is a columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com, and is the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at email@example.com.
Fans have pushed back against the backlash faced by Boise State kicker Kyle Brotzman after he missed two field goals last week. There's a lesson in this for Cleveland and LeBron James.