Kicking bad memories


Published: Saturday, January 6, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 6, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — In a season where the Gators have won the SEC title and are playing for the national title, one player has received death threats.

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ALEXANDER COHN/The Gainesville Sun and Sun file ph

Another has seen his worst play, his most embarrassing moment, replayed over and over on national television the past month.

It's been a great year for the Gators, but a rough one for Florida's senior kickers — place-kicker Chris Hetland and punter Eric Wilbur.

"As low as it's been this year, we're going to play for a national championship (Monday night)," Hetland said. "It doesn't get any better than that. I wouldn't trade it for anything."

Winning the national title certainly would be uplifting for Hetland, whose year has been such a downer.

In a season where so many things have gone right for the Gators, it's all gone wrong for Hetland.

It's a sad story, really. Not just because Hetland has missed nine of his 13 field goal attempts after being nearly perfect in 2005 (13-for-16), but because of the reaction drawn from some fans.

Hetland has received threatening e-mails and telephone calls.

"They weren't serious, I'm sure," Hetland said. "Nobody ever held me at gunpoint or anything. I take it in stride. I'm mad at myself, too."

The threats were serious enough that Hetland's parents told him he should contact police. Hetland said that wasn't necessary, he could handle it.

"Call them crank calls," Hetland said. "I'd let people listen to them and we'd laugh about it. I got rid of them."

Wilbur sees nothing funny about it.

"That's a little extreme," Wilbur said. "Whoever does that is a pathetic person who needs to go be somewhere by themselves and not be affiliated with our football team.

"Going through all that and having a bunch of people out there just bash him and rip him, it definitely takes a toll on you. It definitely (ticks) me off. I really can't do anything about it. There's a lot of stuff I want to do. We just try to surround him with our support. Every time he starts to get down, we lift him right back up."

Wilbur also has needed a little picking up lately. Thanks to ESPN. As part of the network's game-changing highlight contest, Wilbur's dropped snap and blocked punt for a touchdown in the loss to Auburn has been a popular choice among voters. The play that ignited the Tigers' second-half comeback has been replayed over and over during the bowl season.

Like Hetland with his death threats, Wilbur considers the unflattering replay insignificant.

"I've seen it just about every time it's been played, and every time I get calls from all my friends saying, 'Hey, I just saw you on TV again with your game-changing performance,'" Wilbur said. "It doesn't matter. We still made it here. I couldn't care less about it. I just laugh it off."

The sad thing would be if fans start judging Wilbur's season based on that replay instead of his body of work. He has had a very strong and steady season, averaging 42.2 yards a punt and pinning opponents inside their own 20-yard line 22 times. Wilbur is part of a punt team that has given up an average of only one yard per return and is considered one of the best in the nation.

"I've seen the replay a couple of times. I think that will eventually stop," UF coach Urban Meyer said. "He just needs to play his best game Monday. He's had a very good year."

Wilbur will have a chance to erase his lowlight moment at Auburn with a strong performance in the national championship game against No. 1 Ohio State.

Hetland also has one final shot at kicking his bad memories to the curb. Meyer announced Friday that Hetland has retained his job as the starting place-kicker.

"He made every one yesterday (in practice) and Chris will start the championship game," Meyer said. "I think (his confidence) is pretty good. He has been hitting the ball well all year, but he has just missed them. He just has to continue to work on his accuracy.

"He has a lot of experience and to make a change now would be inappropriate and not be right. I have a lot of confidence in Chris. I see him every day. I see him hit the ball every day. He will be fine."

Throughout Hetland's season-long slump, Meyer has never given up on him. Neither have his teammates. More important, Hetland has not given up on himself.

He's hoping he has an opportunity to kick the winning field goal Monday night.

"There are nine low points (misses). Put them together and it makes one big low point," Hetland said. "The good thing is we're in the championship game and the team has been behind me. It's the opportunity of a lifetime.

"I feel very fortunate I haven't cost us a game this season. It shows you how good a team we are. They've picked me up when I haven't been doing so good. Maybe this game I'll get a chance to pick them up. It's bound to work out. I figure now is a good time for it to start."

Contact Robbie Andreu at 374-5022 or andreur@gvillesun.com.

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