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The worst of fans, best of sports

Sports reminds us almost every day just why we love it so much, why we're so passionate about the victories and defeats, the triumphs and failures.

And every so often, it shows us why we hate it, too.

The news that the two men whose miscues were the signature moments of the NFL's conference championship weekend received death threats was another sickening reminder of one of the ugly by-products of our games -- fans who allow their passion to become insanely pathetic.

On Sunday, on the East Coast, Baltimore Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff, a one-time Pro Bowler, yanked a potential game-tying 32-yard field goal as if he were a frazzled hacker needing to stick his approach on the 18th hole in order to avoid losing a $50 nassau. The Ravens lost to the unusually shaky New England Patriots 23-20.

A few hours later out West Kyle Williams, a second-year wideout and kick returner for the San Francisco 49ers, a young man who was subbing for an injured teammate, suddenly thrust onto a huge stage, made two calamitous errors in a 20-17 overtime NFC championship loss to the New York Giants.

Replacing punt returner Ted Ginn, Jr., Williams touched the ball with his knee during a fourth-quarter punt, allowing the Giants to recover at the San Francisco 29 (after a successful challenge.) Seven plays later, New York quarterback Eli Manning threw a 17-yard TD pass to Mario Manningham that gave the Giants a 17-14 lead. In overtime, Williams' fumble on another punt return begat Lawrence Tynes' game-winning 31-yard field goal 7:54 into the extra period.

Back in the day, an enraged fan might have tossed his beer mug through the television screen, punched the wall or (and no animals were harmed in the writing of this column) kicked the dog.

A decade ago, that rage might have been expressed to the few die-hard faithful on a message board, or five years ago to a fans' circle of friends on Facebook.

As it happens in this day of immediacy and GLOBAL accessibility, enraged fans tweet. And everyone sees it.

Within milliseconds of each player's mistake, Twitter -- aka America's Wackiest Sports Bar -- lit up with ugly outrage.

For example:

From @northphilliest -- BREAKING NEWS: Raven's kicker Billy Cundiff attempted to commit suicide but the bullet missed wide left

From @IAMDJBUNK -- BreakingNews:Death warrant for Billy Cundiff, wanted Dead or alive REWARD $1Million Will be paid by Tax payees of Baltimore

From @javpasquel -- @KyleWilliams_10 I hope you, youre wife, kids and family die, you deserve it

From @rodrashid10 -- @KyleWilliams you my friend can go die. How do you lost TWO fumbles? If you don't kill yourself I swear someone will. Useless piece of [you figure it out]

And this very special one from @ComptonAssDeezy -- Yo @KyleWilliams, whatever [uh, woman] STILL decides to [a bit more than snuggle] you after what you did, I hope she's carrying instant AIDS

Knuckleheads like these, folks who hit "send" on threatening posts, should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law -- even if they subsequently delete the posts (which most of these offenders have done). And if there aren't any laws governing these kinds of insipid online actions in the wild, wild Twitterworld and beyond, well, there oughta be one -- at least one. At minimum, perpetrators of life-threatening tweets, whether in "jest" or not, should be banned (or suspended) from Twitter.

The NFL, like all major sports leagues, has a sophisticated and relentless security team, so I'm not really worried about the personal safety of Williams or Cundiff. In fact, people who tweet threats and other dumb messages are usually cowards, hiding behind the web's cloak of anonymity.

But all it takes is one wacko to answer the call to violence by someone he or she "follows" to spark an unspeakable tragedy.

Yet in the midst of that madness, the two losing teams also gave us a gift:

They showed us how to handle loss.

They showed us how to handle the depths of adversity.

They showed us -- and young athletes -- how to stand up for those among them who fail.

They showed the truest meaning of "team."

Yes, the Ravens were clearly stunned when Cundiff's kick fluttered left like a wounded pigeon (we saw it on their faces). Yes, the 49ers were deflated when they watched the football bounce onto Candlestick's muddy turf, having been stripped from Williams' grip by the Giants' Jacquian Williams, and settle into Devin Thomas' gut.

Both teams performed well enough to win, but were confronted with defeat within the blink of an eye.

It would have been easy to roll both Williams and Cundiff underneath the proverbial bus -- and back it up a couple of times. It would have been easy to be, say, the Boston Red Sox and dissolve into a puddle of immaturity and unaccountability in the midst of collapse.

Instead, almost immediately, the Ravens and 49ers embraced their crestfallen teammates, and were continuously supportive, even as Twitter thugs were unleashing their unfiltered wrath.

How they reacted, how they stood by, encouraged and even lifted their teammates as they dealt with their own disappointment and despair was heartening, revelatory and -- we can at least hope -- effective.

In New England, the Ravens allowed Cundiff space to grieve as the reality of the loss set in. The eight-year veteran didn't need quick consolation. But after the game, when the Ravens' locker room was still an open wound, no one unleashed their pain on their disappointed teammate.

Sitting just across from Cundiff was Ray Lewis, the surefire Hall of Famer whose indomitable voice set the tone for the visiting locker room, essentially quashing any thoughts of blaming the kicker for the defeat. "There's no one man that's ever lost or won a game," he said. "And when I go to him, which I will, quickly, I'll say, 'Don't you ever drop your head. We win as a team, we lose as a team.' There's no, 'Oh, it's Billy's fault, Billy missed the kick.' It happens. Move on. Move on, as a man, because life doesn't stop."

"He's all right, he's all right," linebacker Terrell Suggs added, referring to Cundiff. "You think he wanted to miss it? We fell three points short. But you learn more in failure than you do in success."

The story was slightly different in the Bay Area. As a young player, Williams was more vulnerable to allowing his performance to be career-changing, and his teammates knew it. As Thomas smothered the second fumble, Williams' head dropped to the grass while he laid on the ground, trying to block out the obvious reality of his mistake.

Teammates walked by him as he lay prone. But before he could leave the field, one burly teammate placed his arm around Williams' shoulder. And as he sat on the sideline, head down, while the Giants drove toward the Super Bowl, teammates and coaches strolled by offering comforting pats.

"I told him to keep his head up; things happen like that when you're trying to make a play," running back Frank Gore said. "Kyle did a great job for us all year. We can't just point the finger at that. It's a football game. Things happen, and he'll be fine. … I'm happy he's a teammate of mine. I'll back him up any time."

Kicker David Akers empathized with Williams. In 2010, when he was with the Philadelphia Eagles, Akers flubbed two field goals against eventual Super Bowl champion Green Bay in the NFC wild-card playoffs, and Philadelphia lost 21-16.

"I was that guy last year," he said. "Kyle's made a lot of big plays for us. He's just trying to make plays out there. The weather conditions were horrible. I know he'd never give any excuses for any of that. I say this and I say it in the truest way: We win as a team, we lose as a team."

"Nobody feels worse than he does," linebacker Patrick Willis said before tweeting his own support. "Some of the stuff out there that I've seen, man, I was just like, 'They're saying that because they're hurting.' But we live this game, we breathe this game, we sleep this game. If they feel that way, you can only imagine how bad he feels. … I'm sticking behind him. He's still my teammate."

"He is going to need his teammates to stick with him and be with him," nose tackle Ricky Jean Francois said. "Like I told him, 'The blame is not on you.' … I just don't want him to beat himself up for it."

Man, who knew there was so much hugging in football?

Roy S. Johnson is a veteran sports journalist and media consultant. His blog is Ballers, Gamers and Scoundrels.

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