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Abdul's life falls into disarray

Friday, October 24, 2003

If only it were so simple as one step back, two steps over, snap, hold, kick, exult. Nothing anymore seems to come easily for David Abdul. Nothing goes one, two ... three.

David Abdul: Billy Gaines never far from his mind. (Lake Fong, Post-Gazette)

Except pain, anguish, heartache.

In April, his girlfriend gave birth to a son he never sees often enough.

In May, his apartment and possessions went up in flames.

In June, his best friend and teammate died in his arms.

Missing four field-goal attempts in a row? Pitt coaches opening up the kicking duties this week? You want to feel the numbing reality of trying times, crawl into the helmet and heart of a certain Panthers sophomore who: turned 20 a week ago yesterday, missed two field-goal attempts Saturday against Rutgers and went to court Tuesday to make official arrangements for child-support payments for 6-month-old Chase David Abdul and Nicole Schilling -- the Massillon (Ohio) Washington High sweetheart he plans to marry after college.

And then, that same Tuesday afternoon, Pitt coaches pumped up the competitive volume by filming kickers in practice for a change and allowing backup J.B. Gibboney a few whacks at field goals.

"Yeah, I didn't think the year could get any worse, really," Abdul said. "Until now.

"There's a lot going through my head all the time. I don't want to make an excuse for the way I've been kicking. But there's a lot in my life that's going on at a young age. I think I'm handling it all right. I've just. . . ."

David Abdul Sr. is his father, counsel and forever kicking coach. He taught him everything his son knows, so he brags. But nothing in the father's life experience could prepare him for this. Nothing in most anyone's life.

"Personally, I'm going on 42 years old," the father said. "But I've never held anybody's bloody skull in my hands while their lights were going out. I've never personally been through a fire where all my personal possessions burned up. And I've never gotten my wife pregnant before I married her. The only thing I've been through that he's been through, I've had my losses on a football field come off my foot."

It's inconsequential by comparison, a couple of botched field-goal attempts in a six-point loss to Notre Dame. Two more misses against Rutgers. Pitt's sophomore kicker should be excused for his half-dozen misses in 10 attempts this season. Shoot, he should be excused from school and allowed to sit out the semester, for all he has endured.

David John Abdul II doesn't want excuses, though. He knows kicking is mostly mental. When Abdul emerges from this football rut -- and he will -- I dare anyone to show me a college kicker with a more tested psyche, a more steely mettle.

He trots onto the field with baby Chase and buddy Billy and his Panthers teammates and Pitt followers riding on him. The load must be unbearable, especially at 20 years and eight days, especially at 5 foot 10 and 185 pounds. Worse still, he can barely decide which effects him greater, not being able to spend more time with his newborn son or not being able to commiserate about his kicking problems with his late friend.

Schilling and Abdul's mother, Beverly, brought his son to Pittsburgh for a surprise birthday visit last week. The Abduls try to lure him home to Hartville, Ohio, for a night after games. The Tuesday hearing, he said, was "just a legal matter. It's not like we're arguing over the baby.

"It's been tough. It's been tough all around with Billy."

Without, to be precise.

Because their apartment burned in May, Gaines and Abdul were residing temporarily in a Homestead church. It was the place where, after a night of drinking, they took a foolish and ultimately tragic venture into a crawl space. He has to wonder:Why did Billy fall 30 feet and not me?

"That was hard on him. That still is hard on him," said Tez Morris, a starting junior safety. "He doesn't talk as much as he used to. When a person is real quiet around 120 players, there's something bothering him.

"You carry around something like that. . . it's an experience nobody wants to go through."

Abdul wears wristbands emblazoned with "BG29," Gaines' number. Like Morris and the rest of the Panthers, his helmet bears a memorial BG sticker. Then he attempts to score points in tribute to his late friend. Given his recent lack of success, maybe that's carrying too much onto the field.

"If making the kicks for him means not thinking about him on the field, I'll try. I really don't think that's the reason for the misses."

It's technique, say Pitt coach Walt Harris and special-teams coach Bryan Deal. It's a slump, says the father. Maybe it's even a sophomore jinx, much like his sophomore year at Massillon Washington, says the son.

Whatever, Abdul believes the game against Syracuse tomorrow at Heinz Field will be his turning point. The same game helped him break a 2-for-7 funk a year ago as a freshman, his 2-for-2 field-goal day in the Carrier Dome jump-starting a finish that saw him make nine consecutive attempts and 11 of his final 13.

If only kicking could go back to being so simple for him.

"I'm sensitive," said Deal, his Pitt coach. "David's got to be tough emotionally. He's gone through a lot. Hopefully, that has made him tougher mentally. But he's no different than any other player on this football team: He's a starter, he has a backup. The starter doesn't perform, the backup gets an opportunity."

"I'm going to keep doing what I'm doing," added Abdul, who kicked by himself on the South Side practice fields Wednesday while the rest of the Panthers worked indoors. "The ball will go in. I know it will."

It will for him, for his son, for his friend, for Pitt.


Chuck Finder can be reached at cfinder@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1724.

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