MADISON -- I've arrived in Madison for Saturday’s Gophers-Badgers game. Rivalry games are one of my favorite things about college football. I love the history of long-standing rivalries and the passion and animosity between fan bases.
I caught up with two former Gophers players -- kicker Rhys Lloyd and punter Justin Kucek -- who experienced the highest of highs and lowest of lows in this series.
In 2003, Lloyd made a game-winning field goal as time expired to give the Gophers a 37-34 victory. Two years later, Kucek had his punt blocked and recovered by Wisconsin in the end zone with 30 seconds remaining as the Gophers blew a late lead in a 38-34 loss.
I asked both players how often they reflect on their one defining play in this rivalry.
“It’s not something I sit around and think about it a lot,” Lloyd said. “I always get phone calls or texts around the time of the game each year because they show me racing across the field.”
Lloyd recalled the scene before his kick as Wisconsin called a timeout to make him think about it.
“One of their players, I can’t even remember who, was talking some smack to me,” Lloyd said. “I was giving him the hand signal like keep talking because I kind of liked to talk some trash too. One of my teammates pulled me away and I went to the sideline.”
As far as the kick, Lloyd said he didn’t really feel much pressure. The score was tied so even if he missed, the Gophers still had overtime. And the kick set up nicely for him -- 35-yarder, left hash.
“It wasn’t a difficult kick in that sense,” he said.
Lloyd’s reaction became a highlight in itself. He led the Gophers mad dash across the field to grab Paul Bunyan’s Axe. He jumped over the Badgers bench in the process.
“I just started running around doing a little soccer celebration and then I see our entire bench running across the field,” he said. “I figured I would run with them instead of getting flattened by them.”
Lloyd said Gophers fans love to talk about that kick whenever he runs into them and joked that more than a few have bought him a drink because of it.
“Let’s just say that kick has been very good for me,” he said, laughing.
Kucek experienced the opposite end of the emotional spectrum. With the Gophers clinging to a 34-31 lead with 38 seconds left in 2005, he lined up for a punt, standing near his own 5. The snap was on target, but Kucek dropped it.
He picked up the ball and tried to punt it while running to his right. But Wisconsin’s Jonathan Casillas blocked it, and Ben Strickland recovered it in the end zone to finish off a wild comeback.
“I do think about it from time to time,” Kucek said. “But when I think about it, I’m not happy that it happened, but I was fortunate to have something like that happen in my life where I can apply it to what I do today.”
Today, Kucek lives in Florida and enjoys a successful business career as Wal-Mart Director of Operations for Bridgford Foods.
I always admired Kucek for how he handled that situation as a redshirt freshman. He handled it with class and eventually became an all-Big Ten performer a few years later.
It was tough for him immediately afterward though. He said he received between 500-700 nasty messages and emails. His parents also received phone calls at their home.
Kucek came into the postgame interview with tears in his eyes that day but he answered every question.
“It didn’t feel good going in there, but I knew if I went in and owned up to what happened that it would help me in the long run,” he said.
Kucek said that experience helped him grow as a person and learn how to deal with adversity.
“You realize that life is not always going to be perfect for you,” he said. “If it is, God bless you. There’s always tribulations that go on in your life. You have to learn from it and grow from it. I don’t think I would be where I am today if I hadn’t dropped that punt. In football and also my career. It helped me look at things from a different angle, just be positive in everything.”
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