Sometimes a football playoff game follows a plot line so powerful it begs for a name: The Sneakers Game. The Ice Bowl. The Immaculate Reception. The Drive.
An improbable chain of events Sunday found Jermaine Kearse converting the worst day of his professional life into a once-in-a-lifetime day. His overtime touchdown reception gave the Seattle Seahawks a 28-22 victory, a second consecutive Super Bowl trip and a starring role in a contest that demands a more exotic title than the “2014 NFC Championship Game.”
Salvation in Seattle?
Kearse, the former Lakes High and University of Washington standout, so struggled to hold onto the passes targeted for him Sunday that his ordeal became — much like a national anthem singer who’s forgotten the words — painful to watch.
The first time quarterback Russell Wilson threw to Kearse, the short pass caromed off his hands and into the grasp of Packers safety Ha Ha Clinton Dix at the Seattle 30. The second time Wilson threw to Kearse, Dix was there to grab another interception at the Green Bay 32.
A pattern was established:
Wilson was going to keep looking for Kearse, and the ball was going to keep ending up in the hands of the Packers.
“A very interesting game for me,” Kearse said. “I think there were four interceptions that happened when the ball was thrown my way, and I was like, ‘What’s going on?’
“But I never really felt sorry for myself. I knew you’ve just to to be mentally tough. You’ve got to learn how to push through those type of moments.”
Six plays into overtime, Kearse got his chance to make up for the drops and whiffs that should have put the Packers on the brink of a blowout. Identifying single coverage on the receiver, Wilson changed the play call at the line into a deep post pattern.
And though cornerback Tramon Williams went step-for-step with Wilson’s target, Kearse applied what he called “tunnel vision” for the game-winning catch. It incited a field-rushing celebration of such pandemonium, Kearse got lost in the crowd.
“I knew if I could just beat my man, Russell was going to give me an opportunity,” he said. “I wish every ball earlier in the game felt as easy as that one.”
If every pass had been as easy for Kearse, the Hawks wouldn’t have needed to put together the furious fourth-quarter rally that turned a clunker of an NFC Championship Game into a classic. If every pass had been as easy, we’re denied a compelling narrative about the virtue of perseverance.
Kearse is not as fiery as his close friend, fellow Hawks receiver Doug Baldwin — heck, Chris Rock might not be as fiery as Baldwin — but after catching the 35-yard touchdown pass a little more than three minutes into overtime, Kearse became, as coach Pete Carroll put it, “very emotional, because he knew he was in the midst of a lot of things that didn’t go right for us today.
“What a great story, you know? Local kid wins the game with that touchdown catch. He was totally emotional about it, because he felt like he had not been able to come through in some other situations. But that is exactly the Jermaine Kearse I’m talking about. He just finds a way to do stuff for us, another touchdown in a playoff game in a critical situation, and wins the game. It was just extraordinary.”
Kearse’s grab provided more than a perfect ending to an imperfect game. It serves as a teaching tool for the coaches and parents of embarrassed young athletes tempted to sneak away and hide inside a closet after dropping a pass or five.
“Everything is not going to be perfect,” Kearse said. “Life is not going to be perfect. There’s always going to be downs. But the real test is how you respond to that adversity, how you respond to the down moments because everything is easy when it’s all good. When things aren’t good, it really tests your character.”
Few receivers have been tested as thoroughly as Kearse was against the Packers. But Carroll didn’t succumb to the temptation of benching him, and Wilson never lost faith in targeting him, and almost four hours after his first drop, Kearse was scoring a touchdown for the ages.
Salvation in Seattle.