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One-on-One Coverage

Ex-Bills kicker Steve Christie on Music City nightmare, beating cancer and art therapy

With the Buffalo Bills preparing to face the Tennessee Titans in Nashville on Sunday, it's impossible for Steve Christie to avoid thinking about his two most dramatic moments as an NFL kicker.

"Certain things in your career and certain events like that will go down in history, for good or bad reasons," he said by phone from his home in Lakewood Ranch, Fla. "They always stick in the back of your mind ... but it happened."

What happened in the same stadium on Jan. 8, 2000, during the Bills' wild-card playoff game against the Titans, was a wild swing of emotions stemming from a pair of swings of Christie's right leg. The first produced a 41-yard field goal that put the Bills in front, 16-15, with 16 seconds left.

Game over. Or so it seemed.

Then came that second, fateful swing. This one, by design, sent the ensuing kickoff high and to the right. Lorenzo Neal caught it at the Tennessee 24, ran toward the opposite sideline with Frank Wycheck behind him. He then handed the ball to Wycheck, who turned and lateraled it across the field to Kevin Dyson, who ran 75 yards for a touchdown. In Tennessee, it is forever known as the Music City Miracle. In Buffalo, it ranks among the larger of many heartbreaking sports moments.

"Then you always say, 'You should have done this … you should have done that,' " Christie said. "But everybody was so excited. We thought we had actually won that game and all we had to do was cover that kick. And we didn't.

"And then, of course, it brings up the whole deal of Dougie (Flutie) not starting (at quarterback), Rob (Johnson) starting on the prowess of one game that was meaningless against the Colts. But then the other thing we talked about was, we were a pretty solid team and I think, had we gotten through the Titans, I think we had a real shot at going back to the Super Bowl. I thought that that team was strong enough, all three sides of the ball, to show up again and make a run for the Super Bowl. And then everything started falling apart after that."

The Bills, with whom Christie played from 1992 to 2000, wouldn't reach the playoffs again for another 18 seasons.

Christie reached the height of his Bills days during their history-making wild-card comeback playoff victory against the Houston Oilers on Jan. 3, 1993. On the way to the Bills rallying from a 32-point deficit, he recovered his own onside kick to become the first kicker to do so in an NFL playoff game. Christie also booted the winning 32-yard field goal in overtime. The kicking shoe he wore in that game is on display at Pro Football Hall of Fame.

Although he spent 15 seasons in the NFL, the Hamilton, Ont., native considers the nine he spent with the Bills as what define his legacy, which is why he signed a one-day contract to retire with them in 2008. For his career – which also included stints with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1990-91), San Diego Chargers (2001-03) and New York Giants (2004) – he converted 336 of 431 field-goal attempts (77%) and 468 of 473 extra points (98%). That gave him a total of 1,476 points. His final pro season was in '07 with the Toronto Argonauts of the CFL.

In 2014, Christie was diagnosed with colorectal cancer, for which he received chemotherapy and radiation, and underwent two surgeries at the Cleveland Clinic. Although he continues to deal with some lingering aftereffects of the treatment, he is cancer free.

Christie, who turns 52 next month, and his wife, Kelly, sell real estate in the Bradenton, Fla., area. "Most of our clients are from Buffalo," Christie said. "We all say the same thing: We love Buffalo, but we hate our weather. People just come down here and, eventually, they come down her permanently. There's a huge Bills and Sabres following down here."

Christie also works as a volunteer kicking coach at the high school attended by his daughter, Clare. He likes to spend much of his free time painting.

In the latest edition of One-on-One Coverage, Christie talked with The Buffalo News about the memories from his playing days, his cancer fight, coaching, painting, and that time his offer to help struggling former Bills kicker Dan Carpenter was rejected.

Buffalo News: What went through your mind after kicking what you and whole lot of other people thought was the winning field goal in that Tennessee playoff game?

Steve Christie: I can't remember how much time was left on the clock, but we knew there was some and we knew that we had to get back in the huddle for kickoff. Because of the timing, it was pretty fast, I never got in that huddle on the sideline with (then-special teams coach) Bruce DeHaven. I got the call from (Steve) Tasker: "Bloop kick right." So I knew what we were doing. It was sort of that mortar kick that's going to go near the numbers around the 20.

Normally, we're going to collapse whatever setup they have. Had we squibbed or even hit the ball deep, it would have been a different situation because it almost was like they anticipated that that may be one of the things that we were going to do. Sure enough, Donovan Greer and I – he was the other safety on the right side – were the only two guys over there. And there's no way I was going to get through, you know? We still talk about it. It was pretty surreal.

And then, of course, from my angle, I couldn't tell if it was a forward lateral or not. And even when you look at it on the Jumbotron, the stadium's going nuts, the Titans are all on the field, and it's like, "What the heck?" Then you realize, no, they're not bringing the call back. It is what it is, we just lost. Then they fired Bruce DeHaven the next day? That was the beginning of the end of anything that we had left in the tank. That was the beginning of the dark years.

BN: You're five years cancer free. Please share your survival story.

SC: Five years later, I'm feeling better. I'm back in the gym a little bit. During my treatment, I did chemo and radiation at the same time. I took the chemo pills in the morning, then did my radiation at noon, then took more pills at night. Other than the survival part of it, which is fantastic – what else could you ask for? – but the flip side of the whole thing is, nobody really explains to you when you're going through the treatment what that treatment will do to you later on.

Because of the pills, the chemo wasn't as bad as those that get the port and drip. The radiation element of it all, they burned everything in its path. I can sit back and say, "Well, that's pretty careless," because after five years I'm still dealing with it. But at the end of the day, I'm up, I'm walking and I'm above ground. Now that I've been sort of through it all, we've done a ton of our own research, I think there are alternatives to some of the very, very damaging treatments that are just sort of thrown at you because we're so scared. But there's other ways to fight it. Sometimes you have to think for yourself and be an advocate for yourself and do what's right for you, and sometimes the company line doesn't really work for everyone.

After the first surgery, the reading came back 0.0. Here was my secret: I took that Rick Simpson Oil (named after the Canadian medical marijuana activist, it combines CBD and THC). There are European studies that say it kills cancer. Yeah, I can say that it does. As soon as I found out I had cancer, I started taking it and did so through my treatments. If I need to, I take it now at night, just to keep the cramping down or whatever pain may happen in the morning. To be quite honest, I have my medical marijuana card down here. I don't take painkillers, I don't need to. I have cramping, I have some other things that go on. I take (medical marijuana) at night and it takes care of everything.

All I can say is, anybody out there, if there's something that's really going out of whack and if you're like me and you keep putting it off, putting it off, don't. Get checked, whether it's a colonoscopy, endoscopy, whatever, get checked.

BN: How much, if anything, from your NFL career did you call upon while battling cancer?

SC: So many years later, when something like this happens in your life, I kind of thought, "Well, maybe this is where you draw on the things you've learned and you go back and, of course, I thought of Marv (Levy). Like the comeback game, when he said (at halftime), "Be resilient, fight the fight, don't ever give up." And from Day One, when I was diagnosed, that's how I played it. I treated it like every day was lining up for a game-winning field goal. That's what I loved doing, that's what I wanted. At the end of the game, I wanted to be the guy that got the shot. I was like, "Yeah, I'm going to beat this."

BN: What made you want to coach high school kickers?

SC: I used to help coach soccer at William & Mary during three offseasons with the Bills. I loved that and I really missed that. I come in for one practice a week and then I show up for Friday Night Lights for home games only. It's really been gratifying. I love coaching.

I punted and kicked in college, and that's what I'm dealing with now. My guy was our third-string kicker. The other two guys are hurt, so he's doing both. And that's the tricky part, because (punting and placekicking) both different leg swings. So I got really down to the bare basics. Your step, your drop for the punt, keeping your head down on the field goals. I mean, we're talking basic stuff. And for somebody like that, who never expected to play, that's been the challenge – to get him to understand that it's the simple things that are important that he has to do.

It's not just getting them to be better kickers or punters. I'm kind of just passing on all the things that I learned as a pro, how to deal with the ups and the downs, but also set goals for yourself. What do you want to do? How do you want to improve? And, basically, over time, just seeing how they understand and how they've kind of put my advice into helping their game and how they improve. And they have been improving. At the end of the day, that's all I wanted.

BN: What are the points of emphasis?

SC: You don't see it often in the pros, but it still happens where if somebody misses a field goal and you go back and you look at the film, you see they were peeking. It's no different than golf. When you look up during your golf swing, how do you know where you're hitting the ball? It's the same principle with field-goal kicking and, to a great extent, with punting, too.

It's just basic things. For kicking, it's your approach, judging the wind, and for punting it's first things first – catching the snap – and then let's worry about getting it out. My guy was taking three steps for his punting, I got him down to two, and he's striking the ball a lot better. He's still learning, but, again, as long as I see improvement, then I can't be happier.

Steve Christie enjoys painting in his free time, finding it "therapeutic." (Photo courtesy of Steve Christie's family)

BN: How did painting became such a big part of your life?

SC: I majored in fine arts at William & Mary. I mostly did studio oil painting. I took etching, sculpture, drawing and that, but I love painting. There, it was oil painting, but as I got older and realized how much oil painting damages carpet and drapes around the house, I went to acrylic – especially when my kids would run through my studio with paint all over them.

Now, I paint, I'd say, abstract expressionism, but I deal with some form, some subject matter. I used to paint off of photographs, but now I just do everything off the top of my head. If anything comes to mind, I'll block out a period of time. Because I'm in Florida, I can paint outside if I want to. And I've got half of my garage set up if I want to do it in there.

It's very therapeutic for me and I love the process. When I paint, I tend to think I fail and then I have to go back and reassess. It's like missing a kick and you kind of have to go back and say, "OK, how do I make it better?" I do a lot of charity work, painting-wise. I love doing that. I sell some stuff, but if Kelly likes it, she keeps it.

BN: What happened when you had offered to help Dan Carpenter, when he was struggling in 2016 after the NFL increased the length of extra-point kicks from 20 to 33 yards, and you were told he didn't want the help of an "outsider?"

SC: It affected a number of kickers. I was living at Niagara-on-the-Lake during the season, and I thought, "Hey, I can help this guy if I can go in there, tweak him a little bit and maybe get him out of this little (funk)." I thought it was a mental block. Because I thought he was pretty good in Miami and he showed a lot of potential in Buffalo and made some longer field goals and that's why I was like, "I know this kid can do it, but who's helping him? Obviously, whatever they're telling him isn't working."

I'm kind of used to the old-school guard where, especially with kickers and punters, it's, "Hey, if they're messing up, we'll just get someone else in here." But that's hard to do in Buffalo, because Buffalo is not the easiest place to kick. So I called over there, left a message and the answer that I got on my machine was that Dan doesn't like outsiders. Well, here's the weird thing: Dan never got the message. I talked to Dan after he got cut. He said, "I had no idea you reached out, because had I known, I would have loved for you to come in and help me."

And then, you know how social media is. People were like, "Oh, Christie just wants to work there." No, I don't. If I wanted to coach, I would have gone through the proper where you pay your dues in high school, you pay your dues in college. And I didn't need attention. I just wanted to help a guy out. And I was there for nine years. Don't call me an "outsider."

BN: What was your favorite memory from your time with the Bills?

SC: The comeback game was obviously a huge one. Getting the onside in that game was huge for a couple reasons. One, as a kicker, you don't often get to do that. I don't know what the odds are for success, but thanks to Mark Maddox and Mark Pike, my two guys next to me, those guys just sort of spearheaded their front line. I'll never forget that. I still have the ball here. That was kind of really neat, even though at the time, it was like, "Yeah, OK, we're down by a lot. What the heck? We're going to start doing something."

Marv and Bruce kind of put their heads together, going, "Hey, we might have a shot at this." At that point, we really didn't have a whole lot to lose, so why not? Then, I kind of go back and look at all the other huge plays that everybody made. Man, that was just incredible. And then to just be able to go in there and top it off was nice.

Then there was one kick I had against Denver (on Oct. 26, 1997). It was 55 yards, into the wind at the scoreboard end of (what was then known as Rich Stadium). Unfortunately, we lost in overtime, but that may have been my best kick ever, even though we lost. I've hit longer ones, but that was probably the most challenging one. In fact, Coach (Mike) Shanahan, after the game, ran over to me and said, "Hey, what a great kick!" or something like that. And even though we lost, I thought that was really cool that a head coach took the time to say something. It kind of made that kick special.

And then the Super Bowl (XXVIII) one, which was 54. That's still a record, but again, we lost. I'll take having the longest field goal in Super Bowl history if you change the size of my ring.

BN: How closely do you follow the Bills?

SC: I watch the Bills, obviously. My wife's from Williamsville. And I have a bunch of family up there in Canada. A lot of my family's Bills fans. Quite honestly, that was one of no-brainer elements of me signing in Buffalo. And there's a ton of Bills fans down here. I do follow the NFL, but I watch a lot of college football, too. And then Saturday mornings and Sunday mornings, I'm watching soccer like I have my whole life.

BN: What are your thoughts on the state of the Bills' special teams?

SC: When things add up with field position and scoring opportunities – you're missing a field goal and then we have a blocked punt – how often do we have that in Buffalo? We have a tradition of great special teams there. But that's the thing: you're playing New England, anything can happen.

And don't forget, even though the game was ugly in certain respects for both teams, New England has had the knack to win those games. And that's why they're always at the forefront. Buffalo needs to start winning the ugly games.

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