Every sport has its own worst nightmare and, usually, an unforgettable illustration to prove the gruesome point. Fred Merkle forgot to touch second base long ago and -- almost 100 years later -- every bonehead play in baseball is still a Merkle Boner. Roberto De Vicenzo signed an incorrect scorecard and, so, lost the 1968 Masters. Roy Riegels ran the wrong way in the 1929 Rose Bowl. Chris Webber called a timeout that Michigan didn't have in the closing seconds of the 1993 NCAA title game. Perhaps Bill Buckner, letting a routine grounder dribble between his legs in the 1986 World Series is in some special category of its own.
In soccer, the incomprehensible blunder -- the gaffe you cannot even imagine until it happens to you -- is the own-goal: kicking the ball into your own net by accident. Perhaps the most infamous own-goal -- until Brandi Chastain's last night at Jack Kent Cooke Stadium -- came in the 1994 World Cup. Colombia's Andres Escobar did the deed in a 2-1 loss to the United States. Soon after, Escobar was murdered in front of a restaurant. A passionate fan, a furious gambler or perhaps even a hit man?
Usually, in those moments of supreme mortification, your fate is sealed. Merkle never got to go back and tag that base. Buckner couldn't say to Mookie Wilson, "Hit me another one like that." Nobody said to De Vicenzo, "Maybe you ought to add up that card just one more time." Riegels never got a chance to run the right way. The referee never said to Webber, "Did you say, `Time out?' I couldn't hear you." As for Escobar, the gunman gave him no second chance.
None of these legendary rockheads was as lucky, or, equally important, as resilient, as Chastain last night. For much of the evening, it seemed the 30-year-old veteran of the U.S. Women's World Cup team might go down as the biggest goat in the history of women's soccer. She would be remembered, for who knows how long, for turning and -- under no pressure -- nudging the ball back toward her own goalie for safekeeping. Instead, she kicked a bit too hard and a bit too wide. The ball rolled into the right corner of her own goal, giving Germany an early 1-0 lead.
In the game's 49th minute, Germany still led 2-1, by that haunting Chastain margin. Of such mishaps are upsets made, especially in a low-scoring sport where goals are at such an incredible premium. Sometimes you disgrace yourself or slay your team. How could you measure the weight on Chastain's back? The future of her sport -- booming phenomenally in this World Cup, all but hinged to the U.S. team's success -- seemed to be at stake.
Then, just as it became possible Germany might shock the soccer world, and bring black clouds of gloom over America's blossoming romance with women's soccer, who should score the second-half goal that tied the game at 2?
Why, Chastain, of course.
With a whirling right-footed redirection of a corner kick, she booted the ball into the same side of the same goal into which her notorious "own-goal" had trickled half-a-game before. Properly inspired, or perhaps just incredibly relieved, the U.S. team rallied for a 3-2 win. Who says women's soccer isn't perfect? Even the endings are happy.
"Thank God I was in the right spot," Chastain said. "It gave me the confidence I needed. . . . I got a few pats on the back in the locker room at halftime."
Actually, Chastain needed more than pats and confidence. Guts helped. In the first half, she went down in pain with a sprained ankle. She played through it, although she limped when she walked and had to leave the game in the last 15 minutes. But she scored her goal with that injured right foot.
"I wasn't going to let that little ankle keep me out," she said. She'd have stayed in the game on crutches, given her need to redeem herself.
In some ways, Chastain has the perfect personality to withstand such a mortifying moment and bounce back. She puts herself "out there," as they say, taking chances, believing in herself. Actually, she was fairly famous before last night. She's a favorite upbeat guest on David Letterman. She recently posed, clad only in one soccer ball for Gear magazine -- a publication a bit racier than she may have imagined when she did the posing. She thought she was showing her muscles. Recently, she got attention by joking that, if the U.S. team won the Cup on July 10 at the Rose Bowl, she'd run naked through the streets of Pasadena.
That escapade, as it proves, would be considerably less mortifying than what she did in the first half of last night's quarterfinal. "Oh, we practice that play all the time," laughed U.S. Coach Tony DiCicco. Then he added, seriously, "The tension of the game can do things to you. I felt so badly for them. I've seen very big time pros make mistakes like that and they were out of the game [mentally] the rest of the day. Brandi came back and got us the tying goal."
Obviously, soccer teams practice how they want defenders such as Chastain to pass backward to their goalies -- proper angles, never shoot directly at the goal, always communicate verbally. Then, under pressure, it goes awry.
"There's a lot of noise -- high intensity and pressure. Sometimes, you let your emotions get the better of you and make a bad decision. . . . I looked up and she wasn't there where I expected," Chastain said of goaltender Briana Scurry. "Maybe it was my fault. Maybe hers. But it worked out. That's all that matters now."
Many of us involved with sports are probably guilty of claiming too much for the character-building aspects of games, especially when it comes to those down-pat life lessons. Late last night, Brandi Chastain said words that we have heard athletes say countless times. Yet she really sounded like she meant them. That probably means they're actually true.
"You're going to make mistakes in life," she said. "It's what you do afterward that counts."
CAPTION: United States' Brandi Chastain exults after atoning for mistake with goal that tied the score at 2. "Thank God I was in the right spot," she said.