I was 13 years old when I made the biggest sports mistake of my life.

I had been to a handful of Michigan games before, but as a teenager now, the game had really started to come together for me. So with my grandparents’ season tickets — a pair of tickets that would change my life — my dad and I embarked for the Big House to see Michigan take on Washington in the 2002 season opener.

And as the Wolverines traded jabs with the Huskies, Phil Brabbs lined up in the first quarter for a field goal from 36 yards out. He missed.

I still remember the look on my dad’s face when he missed that field goal. And when he missed the second one before halftime — scratch that, shanked the second one — I could never forget the disappointment on his face.

Sitting in our seats at halftime, my section was full of less-than-kind words for Brabbs, and the boos were obvious. Brabbs was clearly shaken, and when he missed some easy practice kicks at halftime, I couldn’t help but feel bad for the guy.

And when Troy Nienburg, Michigan’s other kicker, lined up for and missed an easy field goal that would’ve put the Wolverines in the driver’s seat, my dad — in his typical sports-is-a-glass-that’s-always-half-empty fashion — declared that Michigan would lose the game.

I’m still a bit unclear on the chain of events that led to my dad angrily pulling me up the stairs of Michigan Stadium, but before I knew it, I was walking past the U-M Golf Course and away from the Big House.

If you know Michigan football lore, you know what happened next. Braylon Edwards drops the ball, Tyrece Butler jumps on it and the ref (incorrectly) calls it a fumble. John Navarre throws two incomplete passes, setting up a 60-yard field goal. Then, out of what only could have been destiny, the Huskies get called for a 12-men-on-the-field penalty and Phil Brabbs finds himself staring down the goalposts for a 44-yard field goal.

Since that day, I’ve told only close friends that I missed the end of that game. As soon as we got home and saw the highlights, my dad made me promise to never tell a soul that we left early (sorry Dad).

But as we walked to our car, parked a mile or so down State St., and listened to the car horns and howling chants of the Michigan fans who had just seen a legendary football game, I began to realize the gravity of the situation.

There was a certain magic to sports that couldn’t be replicated anywhere else. It was just frustrating enough for us to feel personally slighted when a freshman kicker misses two easy field goals. But it was also magical enough that the same kicker could redeem himself in legendary fashion two quarters later and become a cult hero in Ann Arbor.

There is no suspense like sports, and as I walked into the offices of The Michigan Daily in December of 2007, I knew that I wanted to be the guy who put that suspense into words, sharing that same magic I should’ve felt in watching Phil Brabbs nail that game-winning kick.

A year after I started at the Daily, I dialed the phone number of a certain infamous Michigan kicker, who had recently and tragically been diagnosed with incurable cancer.

And when Phil Brabbs answered the phone, I didn’t immediately ask him any questions. Instead, I told him about how I left that game early, how I missed his kick. I told him, in that moment, he had almost singlehandedly convinced me to be a sportswriter and a sports fanatic. He laughed, shocked that one single kick from a random freshman kicker could alter the course of someone else’s life.

But it had. Just like one conversation with Red Berenson made me want to be a feature writer. And one television in Denard Robinson’s grandmother’s garage made me know I was making the right decision.

The Daily and this University and Phil Brabbs and Red Berenson and Denard Robinson and so many others have given me opportunities in the past four years that I only could have dreamed of had I not missed seeing that kick in 2002.

I’ve met my sports idol, Charles Woodson, at a charity golf tournament. I’ve seen last-second comebacks at legendary stadiums like the Big House and Notre Dame Stadium. I’ve been publicly chastised on the Internet (more times than I can count). I’ve been to Florida and then California and then back to Florida again.

I’ve seen a certain kind of heartbreak on the faces of athletes most people will never understand. I’ve talked mindless hours about defensive football formations or basketball recruits, and called it work. And I’ve spent 50 or so frustrating hours per week working with some of the most stubborn, egotistical, maddening, creative, sincere, honest and amazing people I’ve ever met.

So many what-ifs, so many happenstances have put me in the position I am today, and I will never stop being grateful. And for those of you who have consistently read my columns (all three or four of you), thanks for being there. And especially thanks for putting up with my recent bouts with nostalgia.

Thanks to those of you who had confidence in my writing, to my friends and my family who never doubted a single one of my crazy ideas. Thanks even to those of you who did doubt my crazy ideas — without you, I never would have been stubborn enough to do them.

Mom, Dad, John, Molly, Amanda, Megan, Dillon, Oleg, Tyler, Cameron, Matt, Tim, Joe, Chantel, Burns, Nicole, Jake, Aaronson, Pyzik, and everyone else who I’ve worked with, you guys have made me the writer I am just as much as Brabbs’ kick did.

A special thanks to my dad though, who may still be embarrassed that we left the Big House in 2002. But Dad, without your frustration that day (and a lot of other days), we would’ve never left, we would’ve never made the biggest sports mistake of my life. I would never be a writer, and I never would have felt the magic in sports that I do every single day today.

These past four years have been awfully magical, and if I’ve done anything for you, I hope it’s that I shared with you some of that magic. Thank you, all of you, for the best four years of my life.

—Kartje will be taking his talents to The USA Today this summer and hopes this won’t be the last column he ever writes. He can be reached at rkartje@umich.edu.

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