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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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BY RYAN KARTJE
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. All of our plans and dreams were just gone.”

A few days following the diagnosis, friends from the Brabbs' church offered to watch their two kids, Ocean and Iris, and allow the couple to have some time alone together. The two didn’t have much to say to each other. But after awhile, conversation inexplicably turned to one of Brabbs’ favorite childhood movies, "The Lion King".

“I envisioned Simba losing his father, and that’s when I broke down,” Brabbs said. “My son at that point was two-and-a-half, so I’m just thinking, here’s my son, and depending on where this thing progresses and where it ends, he might never really remember me. That’s when I felt like I was stabbed in the heart.

“Since that moment, I feel like this is an opportunity to focus on what’s important in life.”

Coming out of the woodwork

For former Michigan defensive lineman Shawn Lazarus, Brabbs’ story hit home.

Six months before Lazarus heard of Brabbs’ diagnosis, Lazarus' father was diagnosed with multiple myeloma. When Lazarus found out that Brabbs had the same illness, he immediately called his former teammate, despite having only talked to him once or twice since his final season in Ann Arbor.

Lazarus, a lineman on the 2002 team, couldn’t help but compare his teammate’s courage with that of the biblical story David and Goliath.

To Lazarus, Brabbs’ faith and ability to see beyond himself is what has separated him as a person, both on the football field also in his battle against cancer.

“For Phil, you don’t come back from missing two kicks and make the third without any confidence,” Lazarus said. “He’s going back to where his mind and heart need to be to find the resolve now that he found to kick that field goal that won that game.”

Lazarus wasn’t the only former Wolverine that tried to contact Brabbs. After Brabbs started a blog entitled “Multiple Myeloma for Dummies” to keep his family updated on his status, Brabbs was contacted by at least 30 or 40 former teammates that found the site and emailed, called or sent along messages to show their support.

For Brabbs, the support brings him back to that game-winning field goal.

“All of those people were there in that one moment,” Brabbs said. “And now they’re back now to lift me up, to encourage me to take on the treatment, take on the disease.”

Finding peace — again

The overwhelming support Brabbs has received following the diagnosis is no surprise to those around him.

“He’s just one of those guys on the team that everyone loved,” said Jim Richardson, Brabbs' father-in-law. “I swear, he is one of the most positive and upbeat people on the planet.”

Another moment from Brabbs’ football career stands out to Richardson as an example of the admiration and respect he had among his teammates.

On kickoff duty in 2002 against Illinois, the Illini returner darted down the field before fumbling Brabbs’ kickoff, leaving the ball directly in front of the junior kicker. Without hesitation, Brabbs picked up the fumble and ran toward the opposite end zone, only to be tackled just before the goal line.

Richardson remembers the mob of winged helmets that surrounded Brabbs. It didn’t matter to his teammates that he hadn’t scored. To them, their kicker, with just three field goals in his collegiate career, was an inspiration.

Brabbs will start a clinical trial of chemotherapy next month in hopes that he will be able to undergo a stem cell transplant soon after. Despite the inevitable hardships of the oncoming months, Brabbs remains calm.

When his field goal soared through the uprights against Washington, Brabbs had no idea what purpose it would serve in his life.

In the same light, Brabbs acknowledges that he has little idea what the meaning is behind his diagnosis, but his family and his faith is being strengthened because of it.

“The same thing is going on through my head as it was during (the field goal),” Brabbs said. “I should be feeling all this pressure, I should have all these doubts and questions and insecurities surrounding my disease that I’m facing, but I have complete peace. I can’t explain it, but I feel like this is what has been dealt.

“I think there’s a purpose behind it and I don’t know what that is, but I hope it’s a game-winning field goal.”