How Brandon Bostick found peace after botched onside kick cost Packers shot at Super Bowl
GREEN BAY - He slept on the flight home.
There would be hard times in the next six months. He would get the yips, unable to catch a football. He would ask his next team to release him. He would lose his confidence, become the punchline in jokes. He would wrestle with the embarrassment. He would compare the pain to a death in the family.
He would need a full year to recover.
“I guarantee you,” one confidant says, “the process of healing — truly healing — is still happening within him.”
He would be shredded on social media, made into a caricature. The definition of Murphy’s Law. He would be the target of hate. Racial slurs. Death threats. He would read every single tweet, every dart thrown at him, no exceptions.
He would watch the replay. Over and over and over again.
He would refuse to quit.
“I wasn’t on, like, suicide watch,” he says. “I was just mad at myself.”
He would travel the road from depression to inspiration. He would play for three more NFL teams, just to prove he could.
But that could wait. It’s a long flight, Seattle to Green Bay. As reality crashed down on him Jan. 18, 2015, he was exhausted physically, emotionally, spiritually.
Soon after wheels left pavement, Brandon Bostick, eyes still red and swollen from tears, leaned back in his seat on the Green Bay Packers charter plane.
All he wanted was some damn sleep.
‘Oh, ball. Get it.’
Brandon Bostick woke up to a new world Jan. 19, 2015. Around the country, even casual football fans knew his name. He was the only topic an entire state discussed for days.
It was a fame that seemed unreachable growing up in Florence, South Carolina — population less than 40,000 — and later at Newberry College, a Division II program with barely 1,000 students.
Bostick happily would have remained anonymous.
With 2 minutes, 9 seconds left in the NFC Championship game and the Packers trying to secure their 19-14 lead, Bostick took his place for what’s perceived as an automatic play. Left foot on the 46-yard line, right foot on the 47, he was second to the near sideline as the Seattle Seahawks prepared for their onside kick. Bostick stood in a pod of three tight ends and a fullback, a wall built to block for receiver Jordy Nelson, who crouched 5 yards behind them.
When kicker Stephen Hauschka pushed his foot over the football, three members of the Packers' four-man wall advanced forward in unison, crashing like a wave into the Seahawks' front line.
The reserve tight end saw the football suspended in midair and, like a moth attracted to light, went for it. Left foot on the 46, right foot on the 47, Nelson waiting behind him with arms outstretched, Bostick jumped.
The ball slipped through his hands, bounced off the front of his helmet, finally caught by Seahawks receiver Chris Matthews. The man Bostick was supposed to block.
“It was a split-second reaction,” Bostick says. “The ball was in the air. I was so used to getting it. Like, jump and catch it. But in that situation, that wasn’t my job. Any other job when you’re a tight end, you run, you jump up and catch the ball. But in that situation, that wasn’t my job.
“I just lost track of what my assignment was in that situation. It wasn’t like I was trying to be a hero and win the game. I was just like, ‘Oh, ball. Get it.’ That’s what I did at the time, but that wasn’t my job.”
In less time than it takes to pour a stiff drink —just two seconds ticked off the game clock — the Packers went from Super Bowl bound to on their heels, falling off a cliff. They still had the lead, but the deafening roar inside CenturyLink Field was a tsunami, surging the Seahawks in front. Seattle scored four snaps and 44 seconds later. It never trailed again, ultimately winning 28-22 in overtime.
Many plays contributed to the collapse. The onside kick was the knockout punch. It remains, quite possibly, the most regrettable play in the 100-season history of the Green Bay Packers.
As the Packers travel to Seattle this week for the first time since the title game, they enjoy a three-game win streak over the Seahawks. Yet the onside kick hangs over the organization. Repercussions continue to reverberate almost four years later. It was as close as the Packers have gotten to reaching a second Super Bowl with Aaron Rodgers.
“It’s going to be a missed opportunity,” Rodgers said immediately after the game, “that we’ll probably think about for the rest of my career.”
Four years have passed. No, the regret hasn’t faded.
“That one,” Rodgers said Tuesday, “the sting’s probably never going to go away.”
Those two seconds could have lasted Bostick’s lifetime. They were enough to devastate anyone. Three years later, he has discovered peace. Bostick can discuss the play for an hour, as he did recently with PackersNews.com, without a hint of emotion.
It took a long time to get here. For months, Bostick was left searching. Agent Blake Baratz, who Bostick counts among his closest supporters, says he never doubted Bostick would move on. Even from this.
“There’s certainly guys that I’ve represented or have worked with that I would consider a little fragile, or maybe a little bit mentally unstable,” Baratz says, “where I could see that could just snowball. He was not one of them.”
When he woke up in Green Bay the next morning, Bostick could go either way. He had a decision to make: run from his mistake, or face it?
‘Was I the reason we lost the game?’
He crawled out of bed, still weary. The immediate aftermath is mostly a blur now, time healing the wounds that left the scars. But very early that next morning, Bostick remembers being inside coach Mike McCarthy’s office.
It had been McCarthy’s postgame address to the team inside the visiting locker room at CenturyLink Field when, Bostick says, he realized the gravity of his error. The season was inexplicably over, and the finality hit hard. In his exit interview, Bostick says McCarthy began discussing improvements for next season.
It was a surprising conversation, all things considered.
“I’ll never forget this,” Bostick says. “I asked him, ‘Will I be back next year?’ He said, ‘Yeah, you will.’”
McCarthy asked Bostick if there was anything he wanted to know. Bostick answered with the question that weighed on him since the day before.
“I asked him, ‘Was I the reason we lost the game?’” Bostick recalled. “And he said, ‘No.’”
Three weeks later, Bostick got a phone call. The Packers were releasing him.
In truth, it wasn’t surprising. Bostick had spent three seasons with the team, and though he caught a pair of touchdown passes, his production was easily replaceable. Maybe the Packers would have held on for further development, if not for the obvious.
“That was such a devastating blow to Green Bay,” Baratz says. “It was hard for everybody — for Brandon, for the front office, for the team. It’s not like he was a superstar player. Physically, they probably felt they could replace him with someone as good or better.
“But just the mental wear and tear and the emotional wear and tear, what he’s going to be dealing with in Green Bay, and then bring him back to the locker room every day. I thought that was going to be a concern.”
Bostick was left wandering in his own psychological ruin. Unsure of himself. Unsure of his future. The avalanche of hate cascading on him.
Bostick never took the death threats seriously, he says. Never did he feel physically threatened. Acquaintances would smile to his face. He often wondered if they were the same people making threats behind a keyboard.
This was a new kind of coping. Scott Norwood didn’t deal with the internet when he missed the game-winning kick in Super Bowl XXV. There was no Twitter when the Packers allowed the Philadelphia Eagles to convert fourth-and-26 in a 2003 playoff loss.
Bostick couldn’t avoid the vitriol forever. So he didn’t.
“I’ve looked at everything everyone ever sent me about it,” Bostick says. “Every message, I read every comment, everyone on social media. Everything.
“There’s nothing at that point. It’s like, what’s the worst thing you could say? So I read the good, read the bad. I soaked it all in. I used it as motivation, like, I don’t want to feel that pain again.”
It would be easy, Baratz knew, to slip into a self-loathing rut. Bostick couldn’t shutter himself from the public, become a pariah. He needed to live his life.
“He just kind of wanted to go huddle up in a ball somewhere,” Baratz says. “I was like, ‘Dude, come out and get in front of it.’”
Bostick, who lives in the Phoenix area, couldn’t leave his front door without being reminded of the onside kick.
The Super Bowl was in town.
‘I definitely had to forgive myself’
Halfway across the country, a formerly dejected running back recognized Bostick’s pain. He was one of the only people who could empathize with exactly how the Packers tight end felt.
Because Earnest Byner had stepped in those shoes 27 years before.
Byner was the Cleveland Browns' running back when he fumbled at the 2-yard line instead of scoring a game-tying touchdown with a minute left in the 1987 AFC Championship game at Denver. The image of a crestfallen Byner dropped to his knees without the football in the end zone remains infamous in Cleveland sports history. To this day, the play is simply remembered as “The Fumble.”
Byner later won a Super Bowl as a Pro Bowl running back with Washington, but even that didn’t ease his pain.
“I went years,” Byner says, “just feeling like I was the only person to blame for us losing that game.”
Byner half-watched the Packers and Seahawks while doing an event with Browns fans. When he saw Bostick fumble the onside kick, Byner kept shaking hands. It wasn’t until he saw Bostick’s postgame interview — the pain in his broken voice, those eyes swollen with tears — that Byner understood their connection.
“I saw that he was going to be vilified,” Byner says.
Through old friend and former Packers running backs coach Sam Gash, Byner sent a message for Bostick to call him. When he did, Byner immediately detected Bostick’s struggle to move on. Bostick barely said a word as Byner directed the conversation.
“If he was a turtle,” Byner says, “you’d probably barely see his head sticking out of the shell.”
Bostick couldn’t keep his grief forever, Byner told him. The burden would only grow over time.
So Byner shared his journey. He concluded with words that helped set Bostick free.
“I wanted him to know that his play was a reason for them to lose the game,” Byner says, “but it wasn’t the sole reason that they lost the game. I wanted him to actually look at the play, understand what happened, learn from it and then go about still trying to develop himself. Not to stay in that play like I did for so many years.
“I mean, I stayed in that play. Even though I went on to win a championship, even though I went on to play at a high level, I was never as free as I was prior to that play. I saw that as a possibility for him.”
Until then, Bostick had dodged the replay. He couldn’t avoid it — for a while, nobody with a television or computer could avoid it — but he reflexively looked the other way.
Byner helped Bostick confront those two seconds in Seattle. Though they never met in person, Bostick credits Byner for teaching him how to cope. Each time Bostick would want to move on, Byner brought him back. Watch it again and again and again, he said. Study it. Learn from it.
Today, Bostick says, he can watch the play and not feel the twinge of pain.
“I definitely had to forgive myself,” Bostick says.
He could have walked away from the game after the Packers released him. Instead, Bostick says, he never considered it, determined that the final scene in his football career wouldn’t be failure.
He spent the 2015 offseason in Minnesota, where Baratz’s office is located. With the Vikings overhauling their tight end position, Bostick was buried on the depth chart. “They never really gave him a chance,” Baratz says. When it became apparent in the preseason he wasn’t making the roster, Bostick says, he asked Vikings tight ends coach Kevin Stefanski — now the team’s quarterbacks coach — for his release.
Bostick spent that fall on the Arizona Cardinals practice squad. His conversations with Byner continued for months. Throughout, Byner made one thing clear.
Bostick had the power to help others. He needed to use it.
“I told him,” Byner says, “it didn’t happen to you, for you.”
‘My Twitter is still blowing up’
Bostick is in a transitional phase these days, caught between football and whatever comes next. He had a workout with the Detroit Lions this preseason but, in reality, he’s resigned to his football career likely being over.
Now, he’s trying to learn who he is without the game.
“That’s a great question,” Bostick says after a long pause on the phone. “I’m still trying to figure that out.”
He’s applying for jobs. Bostick would like to go into coaching, either high school or college. He lives in the same town as Shawn Slocum, the former Packers special teams coordinator who’s now associate head coach at Arizona State. Bostick says he bumped into Slocum once. They didn’t even mention football during the brief encounter.
If not coaching, Bostick says he’s interested in being a motivational speaker. He wants to work with children. He shares advice whenever he can, pulling from his personal journey. Even to people he’s never met.
From his home, Bostick watched the Packers' last game out west. When Ty Montgomery sealed a loss at the Los Angeles Rams with a fumbled kickoff, the flashbacks were instant. Bostick isn’t consumed with the onside kick, but it doesn’t take much to pull him back to Seattle. He sent an encouraging tweet to Montgomery a day later, disappointed that teammates had anonymously told NFL.com they questioned the running back’s motives.
Naturally, Bostick started receiving hate all over again.
“My Twitter is still blowing up,” Bostick says. “But I don’t really care.”
Bostick says Montgomery, traded a day later to Baltimore, also made a mistake in not addressing the media afterward. Without accountability, Bostick has learned, it’s difficult to truly heal.
He could have huddled up into that ball, blocking out the world. Instead, Bostick walked the sidewalks outside Super Bowl XLIX. Then he kept facing it. Bostick says he attended a game at Lambeau Field last season, leaving at halftime because of cold weather. Not a single stranger recognized him.
He also attended a game at CenturyLink Field in 2017, watching close friend and former teammate Eddie Lacy play. Bostick didn’t go the full day without recalling the onside kick — the memory is forever part of him — but he wasn’t seized by it, either.
Bostick prefers to remember another play.
After a year on the Cardinals practice squad, he spent the 2016 season with the New York Jets. In Week 2, Buffalo scored a late touchdown to pull within six points. There were 82 seconds left when the Bills lined up for their onside kick. Bostick, wearing No. 82, was in a familiar place. One foot on the 46, the other on the 47, he awaited the kick.
The football rolled across the field, into his teammate’s hands.
Better believe Bostick was ready to block.