By JOEL COLEMAN
Westin Graves’ life is centered around his faith. The Mississippi State junior kicker holds Isaiah 41:10 as his favorite bible verse.
“Do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God,” the verse reads.
Never, perhaps, has Graves clung to that scripture more than he did on the afternoon of Sept. 3.
Mississippi State had watched as South Alabama erased a 17-0 halftime deficit to take a 21-20 lead. With just seconds remaining, Graves trotted out for a 28-yard field goal attempt to try and salvage the game for the Bulldogs.
The football hit the left upright and bounced away. MSU fell in its season opener. The Bulldogs were 0-1. Graves was devastated.
“Honestly, I didn’t know what to do,” Graves said. “That’s where I just started praying. That’s the only thing I knew to do. Talking to family, everybody can say, ‘You’re fine’, and, ‘It’s okay’, but to me it’s not.”
Graves had missed kicks before, but none like this. After the game, he Tweeted an apology to all Mississippi State fans, stating he was sorry for letting them down.
Graves was hurting for not coming through, but eventually, he had enough.
“There wasn’t anyone more upset after that game than I was, but you can only let that last for so long,” Graves said. “I just started praying and tried to do as much reading of the bible as I could. There are so many verses where God speaks about falling and getting back up and how you’re going to fall in life and he’s going to test you. That’s honestly the only reason I was able to bounce back.”
Graves credits God for putting him back on his feet. He also says the MSU fanbase helped keep him there. Following the big miss, Graves said he received messages from hundreds of State fans offering words of encouragement.
“These are people I’ve never seen in my life,” Graves said of the messages. “People say that Mississippi State is family and I’ve always thought that because I’ve always been a Mississippi State fan, but I’ve never thought of it this way. It has been pretty amazing.”
Last weekend in MSU’s 27-14 win over South Carolina, Graves got the chance to use his faith and his fans as fuel for a bounce-back effort. With time expiring in the first half, Graves hit a 27-yard field goal, just one yard shy of the kick he’d missed a week prior. In the fourth quarter, he got one from the same 28-yard distance as the miss and made that one too.
Maybe it was just coincidence that both kicks were essentially the same distance as the one that provided so much hurt. Or maybe, just maybe, there was more to it than that.
Either way, MSU head coach Dan Mullen couldn’t help but have a little fun with Graves on the sideline.
“It was kind of funny,” Graves said. “I try not to pay too much attention (when kicking). Other than where I’m at on the field, I don’t like to overthink things. I didn’t really think much about it (being the same distance), because I remember having the thought and thinking, ‘I can’t think about that.’ Then, Coach Mullen said, ‘You realize where that kick was don’t you?’
“It was pretty ironic.”
Graves has seemingly fully moved on from his opening-week disappointment. He says the only kick that matters for him now is the next one. That next one might very well be in Tiger Stadium this Saturday when MSU travels to LSU for a 6 p.m. game.
If that contest, or any other, should come down to a critical kick from Graves, he says he’ll be ready.
“I would love to have the opportunity,” Graves said. “I think every kicker dreams to have that opportunity. I definitely would love the chance to go back and redeem myself, but hopefully I won’t have to (because of a big lead).”
Every failure is the opportunity for growth. There’s no denying that the season opener was crushing for Graves. Yet here he stands, having come through that fiery trial stronger than ever.
Graves would love to go back and have the South Alabama kick over again, however he wouldn’t take anything for what he learned through the experience.
“The biggest takeaway I’d say is I think that everything, make or miss, that God has a reason,” Graves said. “I’m there to glorify him. The biggest thing I take away from it is he’s teaching me if I fall, how to get back up.
“He’s teaching me life lessons a little earlier than most people. It was tough. No one wants to miss a game-winning kick. No one wants to miss a kick period, but I’m trying to look at the positives of it. You can’t keep thinking about it. That’s what I tried to do last week (against South Carolina) is just put it away. It stinks, but there is a reason for everything. I believe that.”