Yes, J.R. Hildebrand is a 23 year old, wet behind the ears rookie with only seven starts at the highest level of American open wheel competition. Yes, he’s driving a rocket ship around a race track at speeds that top 230 m.p.h. Yes, he was probably in over his head. But he also choked, and choked in a historical manner that may never be topped.
Some have argued that because of his youth and inexperience, and because of the stage he was on, that Hildebrand was in way over his head, and can’t really be faulted for being unable to deliver.
Uh, have you heard of Trevor Bayne? He seemed to handle the moment just fine. And Bayne, unlike Hildebrand, was under extreme pressure from challengers mounting serious threats to his lead in the waning moments. All Hildebrand had to do was practically coast his way from turn four to the start/finish line.
He simply had to keep the car off the wall and one of the most prestigious trophies in all of sports would be his. He only had to do it for ONE more corner. He only had to do one more time what he’d already done 799 times that day, and probably 1,000 this month. And he couldn’t do it.
No, we can’t expect perfection, even from professional drivers who do this for a living. Basketball players miss dunks, baseball players miss routine ground balls, golfers miss easy putts. These things happen. However, when these things happen when everything is on the line, when you make your mistakes when victory is practically sitting in your lap, that’s defined as choking.
And by that definition of choking, nobody has ever choked like J.R. Hildebrand did yesterday afternoon in Indianapolis in the Indy 500.
Jean Van de Velde at the British Open? No, there were 71 holes before that where Van de Velde could have saved a few more strokes off his round. This “choke”, while epic, and certainly among the worst of all-time, could have been avoided with a few better shots, or better putts, throughout the week. Beyond that, Van de Velde still had the extra hole to make up for it, all was not lost on the 72nd hole.
Just like with the Oilers collapse against the Bills, there was still a chance at redemption, a chance to overcome it. Hildebrand didn’t have that chance, his failures came at the last possible moment, without any time, chance, or hope, of recovering from it.
Some chokes take time to finish off, like Greg Norman in 1996 at Augusta. They aren’t the matter of simply failing in one last second, final moment. They are the compilation of mistake after mistake, of a failure to do one’s job. Norman had chances after his initial choke to still recover. Alas, he didn’t, but he had a chance.
Hildebrand’s literally came in the final moments, and was done instantly. The suddenness of it, the finality of it, and the timing of it place it in its own stratosphere in terms of sports biggest choke jobs.
Think Chris Weber’s timeout was a bigger choke? Really? His entire team had 39 minutes prior to that where they could have put up more points to prevent the team from being in that situation to begin with.
Bill Buckner? Same thing. The Red Sox could have scored more runs earlier in the game. Perhaps Calvin Schiraldi shouldn’t have allowed three consecutive hits with two outs and the bases empty, including the third on an 0-2 pitch in the bottom of the 10th. Perhaps Bob Stanley shouldn’t have thrown a wild pitch moving Ray Knight to second.
Any number of things could have been done by teammates at one point to prevent the players from ever having the opportunity to choke. It doesn’t mean that Buckner and Weber didn’t choke, just to to the level that Hildebrand did.
There was nothing else that they could have done during the course of the race to have put themselves in any better of a situation. What had transpired was the only way for the rookie to be in position to win the race. Any changes in the previous 499 miles would only have left him NOT in a position to win the race.
There is no prior moment you can look at and say, “well if this had happened then, he wouldn’t have been able to choke”. He was in an optimum position, and he blew it.
There can be no blame placed anywhere but on the youngster himself. He’s the one who drove the car into the wall. Nobody, and nothing else, caused it. The only thing that cost him the Indy 500 victory was his mistake, at the very last possible moment a mistake could have happened.
Scott Norwood against the Giants? Not even close. Scott Norwood was asked to kick a 49 year field goal, an extremely difficult task, even for the elite kickers. He wasn’t simply being asked to do the routine, the normal, to continue to repeat what he’d been doing all his life. Norwood, if you have forgotten, was 22/34 on field goals of 40-49 yards in the previous three seasons. That’s just a 66% success rate.
J.R. Hildebrand just needed to do the ordinary, something he’d done 799 out of 799 times that afternoon. Scott Norwood was being asked to do something extraordinary, something he often failed at. Hildebrand just needed to do the same thing he always did.
But he didn’t. He choked. He let the moment overcome him. He allowed the enormity of the moment cloud his judgement. Hildebrand later mentioned that he didn’t want to lift, or slow down and get behind the lapped car because he didn’t want to provide Wheldon a chance to close on him and pass him on the front stretch.
Do what? Did he really not realize how big his lead was at this point in time? I have a hard time believing that. A crew chief or a spotter had to be in his ear reminding him how much of a lead he had, and that he just needed to take it easy, and not make a mistake and the race was his.
It’s not as if the 2nd, thru 6th place cars were bearing down on him, ala what Trevor Bayne withstood at Daytona. He had a very comfortable cushion. All he had to do was navigate the 800th turn of the day. He simply had to do what he’d been doing.
He didn’t. He didn’t choke in turn one. He didn’t choke with 4 laps to go. He choked coming off the fourth corner with the checkered flag literally in sight. It’s not as though someone managed to move him out of the way, or just plain outrun him to the finish. He simply screwed up and put the car in the wall.
That’s choking. That’s choking like nobody else ever has, and hopefully never will.