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Finding peace in a kick: How one game-winning field goal prepared a former Wolverine for a life-changing diagnosis

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Daily Sports Writer
Published September 29, 2009

It was halftime of Michigan’s 2002 football season opener against Washington, and walk-on kicker Philip Brabbs stood in the north end zone, peering anxiously at the towering goal posts.

He'd hit two field goals from more than 60 yards out before the game began, but now, he fired off kick after kick, shanking some into the Michigan student section — a section that showered him with boos after each individual miss.

It was his first game in a Michigan jersey, and Brabbs was blowing it.

The first mistake came earlier. With nine minutes remaining in the first quarter, he lined up for his first collegiate field goal try from the right hash marks — 36 yards out.

Wide left.

And as the first half winded down, Brabbs lined up another from 42 yards. The ball was marked at the left hash mark — an ideal placement for any right-footed kicker — but the ball wobbled out of the holder’s hands and through the air like a knuckleball, wide left and under the goalposts.

Former Michigan coach Lloyd Carr did what he had to do with a player who cost the Wolverines six points. He sent Brabbs to the bench.

With just over a minute remaining in the fourth quarter and the Wolverines trailing the Huskies, 29-28, Troy Nienburg, Brabbs’ backup, had a chance to secure the win from 27 yards with a field goal of his own. He missed. The Wolverines had seemingly run out of chances.

But after a controversial fumble call and a 12-men-on-the-field penalty, Brabbs was given one final chance.

He walked onto the field with five seconds remaining and the weight of 110,000 fans on his shoulders. His walk from the sideline was a peaceful one.

“I kind of felt like things were scripted at that point,” said Brabbs seven years after the moment. “I missed two field goals, one really badly, and you’d think all the pressure in the world would be on top of me, and I feel fine. I didn’t know what the purpose of that game would be in my life … but I knew things were going to fall into place.”

As time expired, the kick sailed seamlessly through the uprights and a deafening roar filled Michigan Stadium. ESPN play-by-play announcer Brad Nessler called Brabbs “a cult hero in Ann Arbor.”

“The third time is indeed the charm,” Nessler announced.

It was Brabbs' five seconds of fame, every kicker's dream come true.

“He did something today that will never be forgotten," Carr told The Michigan Daily after the game.

Since then, Brabbs, now 29, rarely speaks about his miraculous kick. His wife, Cassie, says that only when prompted does he discuss those final seconds.

But the feeling that Brabbs felt walking to his triumphant field goal, “a peace beyond understanding” as he described it, has stuck with him six years later — when he needed it most.

A bigger burden

Brabbs was visiting his family in 2006 when he first noticed something was wrong.

Several nights in a row, he woke up dripping in a cold sweat and complaining of sharp pains in his chest. Doctors at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Ypsilanti diagnosed Brabbs with a pulmonary embolism, a blockage of the main artery of the lung, and doctors put him on a blood thinner.

After moving back to Ann Arbor from his home in North Carolina and stopping his blood thinner treatment, Brabbs’ health issues continued with blood clots, first in his right leg and then in his left.

“I’m thinking, ‘I’m in the best shape of my life, why am I having all of these health issues?’ ” he said.

Results revealed that his total protein level was elevated, so Brabbs and his family went to Little Rock, Ark. for a myriad tests that would hopefully diagnose his recent influx of health issues.

But months of examinations and reassurance from doctors that he shouldn’t be concerned were proved wrong — his diagnosis was more serious than anyone had anticipated.

Brabbs was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer of the white blood cells, which is almost unheard of in adults his age. And since the disease affects the blood and not a specific part of the body, Brabbs learned he would have to deal with the illness for the rest of his life.

“I made the mistake of doing Internet searches … and everything I found said that Phil only had five years to live,” Cassie said. “When I saw that, I felt like everything just ended right there.