DETROIT – As he dressed in a familiar corner inside the Ford Field visitor’s locker room, Green Bay Packers running back Aaron Jones approached. This year, there were no condolences, no need for encouragement. Jones merely wanted to show Mason Crosby his gratitude.
“Mason! Mason! Mason!” the Packers running back chanted quietly.
To the side, a pair of Packers public relations officials debated where to place Crosby for his postgame interview. There was no question the media throng surrounding him would be massive. A short list of game balls were warranted after Sunday’s thrilling, 23-20 win at the hapless Detroit Lions, among them Jones, Blake Martinez, even Allen Lazard.
Everyone knew Mason Crosby was the hero.
“Last year,” Jones said, “I don’t remember where exactly he did the interview, but he was like, ‘That’s the bad-luck spot.’ I was like, ‘No, that’s the redemption spot.’ That’s our kicker. We stick with him, and he got the job done.”
If there were a script for how this Packers regular season would end, given the Hollywood-worthy twists of fortune this team has accumulated over 17 weeks, this was it. A year ago, Ford Field served as the backdrop for the worst day of Crosby’s professional life. Inside this house of horrors, Crosby missed five kicks: four field goals and an extra point to boot.
Those kicks took 13 points off the scoreboard. The Packers lost that game 31-23.
That day was an impetus for Crosby’s prove-it offseason. The Packers brought a kicker into training camp. They made their 13th-year veteran, their all-time scoring leader, earn his job.
Crosby didn’t blink. He kicked his way back into job security, but just as he was piecing his career back together, his personal life skidded. His wife, Molly, was diagnosed with treatable cancer last summer. His brother’s wife, Brittany, died in the fall after battling ovarian cancer for three years. His great uncle died from cancer in the fall.
So after Crosby knocked through his 33-yard field goal Sunday, his second game-winning kick against the Lions on the last play this season, redemption was best served with a side of revenge, Crosby didn’t run around the field to celebrate. He didn’t leap for joy.
He just stood there, hands outspread, arms lifted to the sky.
“Just so thankful,” Crosby said. “I have so much to be thankful for. My heart’s been heavy this year. Every time I step on the field, I’m carrying a lot with me. So just give praise to where it belongs. My faith has gotten me through so much this past year and so, yeah, it just means so much.”
Early Sunday, it looked like Crosby’s personal house of horrors was running a sequel. As solid as he has been this season, missing only one field goal in the Packers’ first 15 games, the football tends to have a mind of its own inside Ford Field.
So it did with Crosby’s 51-yard attempt in the first half. The football looked true off Crosby’s foot. “That one,” Crosby said, “I felt like I hit really well.” Instead, the football started tailing to the left, tailing to the left, like everyone on the Lions sideline to the right was blowing as hard as they could.
It missed by inches.
“When it came off my foot, it was left center,” Crosby said, “and about the 10-yard line, it just started moving left. To me, it felt like it hit a gust of wind, how you do when you’re kicking outside. Can’t explain it all the time. Luckily, I regrouped and reloaded, and felt really good about how I hit it.
“So I went into the next one and kept going.”
The Packers are sure glad he did. As their comeback progressed Sunday afternoon, it seemed apparent their chances at a top-two seed in the NFC – and the first-round bye attached to it – would hinge on Crosby’s right leg.
Crosby said he started preparing for that possibility immediately after quarterback Aaron Rodgers connected with Lazard for a 28-yard touchdown on third-and-10, tying the score at 20. It was the first time all game the Packers hadn’t trailed. With just more than 5 minutes left, Crosby knew the Packers had at least one more possession in them, maybe two.
The first ended with Rodgers’ wounded-duck of an interception deep down the left side of the field to receiver Jake Kumerow. The second started with 1:20 left on the clock, the Packers getting possession at their own 17-yard line. It was aided by Jones’ 31-yard reception on a screen pass, putting the Packers at Detroit’s 20 with 33 seconds left.
From there, it was academic. Crosby would get his chance. Not that he minded. Crosby, who gets inspiration texts from his brother, Rees, before every game, said Sunday’s was prophetic. Rees told him a moment would come Sunday when he’d have to step up and deliver. He encouraged Mason to embrace it.
“Obviously that’s what you hope,” he said. “You hope you can have a little redemption. I felt like I got a little bit of that the first time we played them. But coming into Ford Field, gosh for some reason it’s a tricky place. It’s a tricky place to play. I’m just happy I was able to capitalize there at the end to help this team get that bye.”
Crosby said it felt like a long time ago when he last stood in this visitor’s locker room, explaining what had gone so wrong. In truth, it has been. Crosby has been through a lot in these past 15 months. In this league, it’s an eternity. Long enough to resurrect a great career that might have been pushed to its brink.
Now, the Packers are back in a familiar place – NFC North champions, Super Bowl contenders – as they enter January. It’s the month when seasons come down to seconds, a kick meaning the difference between advancing and going home. That the Packers get to play at home is advantageous for many reasons, but Crosby is certainly one of them.
Fifteen months after the worst day of his career, Crosby is back to clutch.
“Oh, it’s a lot of confidence,” Jones said. “He’s been doing it for so long. I mean, if the playoffs have to run through Lambeau, who’s better at kicking outside than Mason? That’s something he’s used to doing, he does it every day. So I’m very confident in him.
“I love Mason, and just love everything about him. He’s our leader. He’s been through a lot, and he doesn’t let that faze him. He’s still here leading this team.”