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The Year in Sports

The Grantland Staff reflects on the defining sports moments of 2011

January 31
The Best of Green Bay

The new year came with snow and ice to Green Bay, and I slowed down to look at the addresses on ranch houses just outside of town. I was searching for 667 Sunset Circle.

This was a week before the Super Bowl, and, like a college town with a dominant team, everything revolved around the game. Old women wore Packers broaches. The men drinking coffee after morning Mass huddled over the team’s chances. If you’re making a sports bucket list, being in Green Bay in the shadow of a Packers Super Bowl appearance should be on it.

I pulled into the drive of Katie Gehring, then 84, who bought this house from Vince and Marie Lombardi. Katie’s son, Andy, had moved back home recently to take care of her. He took me down the stairs into the coach’s famous basement, where Lombardi watched film and hosted parties after every Packers game. The green beer opener Lombardi installed was still attached to the bar.

“Friday, I opened up a few on that bad boy,” Andy said, grinning.

The bar stools were the same. So was the old-school fridge. Across the room, Andy had a Beatles poster and a vivid purple drum set, but here, in the corner, nothing had changed. “It’s awful quiet down there!” Katie yelled from the kitchen. “I hope you’re not into the sauce!”

The photographer did his work, snapping around the house, and for a moment, I got to just stand there, behind the bar. I stared at the beer opener, with the veins of rust around the screws. The town felt energized by the Packers’ success, and this basement felt like home to the purest distillation of that energy. That game was just a few days away, and though the win would bring joy to Green Bay, the anticipation brought something better: a brief window into the best of a place.
Wright Thompson

March 18
The (Futile) Quest for Perfection

Nothing is more tantalizing than the prospect of picking a perfect March Madness bracket. But I’m only a half-idiot; I know I’ll ever nail the entire first round, or even call a flawless Sweet 16. Still, I held out hope that a perfect day was possible on the opening Thursday or Friday. I nurtured the bone-deep feeling that someday I’d approach my 16-for-16 dream.

Knowledge of the game doesn’t help; in fact, it seems to make things worse. For several years in a row, my trademark was losing an Elite Eight or Final Four team in the first set of Thursday games. The first and last time I won a pool was in 2004, when I was the only coward among a group of Duke students to pick UConn to beat the Devils in the Final Four.

So it wasn’t a surprise last year when I went 9-for-16 on Thursday — a slightly better rate than you might expect from a flipped nickel. But Friday was different. It started out perfectly, 4-for-4. In the second set, I called Florida State in the 10-7 upset over Texas A&M. Eight-for-eight. Night rolled around, and I hit Marquette in the 11-6 upset over Xavier. With just the late games left, I was a jittery 12-for-12. This was the year.

But as midnight arrived, a nagging score wouldn’t stop flashing in the upper right corner. Virginia Commonwealth was routing Georgetown. I prayed for the Hoyas to claw back, but my prayers were in vain. I finished 15-for-16, and Shaka Smart’s Rams began the improbable run that would carry them to the Final Four. I was an innocent casualty of the Year of the Underdog, and the dream of perfection was deferred.
Shane Ryan

April 4
March Gets Madder

The best sports moment of 2011 is the same as the best sports moment every year, and technically shouldn’t qualify for this since it’s actually an event more than a moment. I’m of course talking about March Madness. Its name alone implies that crazy things are guaranteed to happen, but in 2011, March got madder than ever before, as upsets were more plentiful than usual and six NCAA tournament records were either tied or broken:

  • First time three double-digit seeds from the same region advanced to the Sweet 16 (10th-seeded Florida State, 11th-seeded VCU, and 12th-seeded Richmond in the Southwest region)
  • First Final Four without a single 1- or 2-seed
  • Highest combined seed number in Final Four history (26 — VCU was an 11-seed, Butler was an 8-seed, Kentucky was a four-seed, and Connecticut was a three-seed)
  • The Final Four game between VCU and Butler achieved the highest combined seed number (19) of any Final Four matchup
  • VCU tied the record for lowest seed to make the Final Four (LSU in 1986 and George Mason in 2006)
  • Butler tied the record for lowest seed to make the championship game (UCLA in 1980 and Villanova in 1985)
  • Intuition would tell you that we’ll never see an NCAA tournament with as many upsets and Cinderella stories as the 2011 tournament ever again, but intuition doesn’t account for the fact that when the calendar turns to March, there’s no telling what will happen in the world of college basketball.
    Mark Titus

    May 8
    The Fall of the Lakers

    I have a confession to make. As much as I love the excitement of a close game that comes down to the wire and gets decided in the last few seconds, I might love the meaningful playoff blowout even more. Game 7 of the 2004 ALCS is the perfect example; after three straight nail-biters, the Red Sox dropped six runs on the Yankees in the first two innings and the rest of the game amounted to a two-hour vanquishing party.

    With that in mind, my favorite sports moment — well, my favorite game — of 2011 was on May 8, when the Mavericks blew out the Lakers by 36 points to sweep the defending champions and send Phil Jackson into a retirement of car commercials.

    Now, admittedly, this wasn’t a Game 7, so the drama wasn’t quite as high as it might have been. But the narrative heading into the game seemed to lean toward the Lakers winning one; after all, having gone down 3-0, how unlikely could it be that the Mavericks would actually sweep the Lakers? Despite those three straight wins and the presence of the game in Dallas, the Lakers were just one-point underdogs in Vegas at tip-off, with all the betting action coming in on Los Angeles. People might have believed that the Lakers were going to lose the series (well, not Kobe), but it sure seemed like they were going to step up and win a game for their legendary coach before Jackson left Los Angeles for the second (and final) time.

    Instead, we got one of the most raucous blowouts in recent memory. The Mavericks were only up four heading into the second quarter, but that quarter is essentially pornography for Laker haters. Dallas took eight 3-pointers and made seven of them, with Jason Terry going 5-for-6 by himself. The Mavericks outscored the Lakers by 20 points.

    Of course, it was more than that. We often talk about teams that choke under the pressure of the playoffs, and how veteran teams with that extra experience just know how to pick themselves up and win in key games. Here, though, was a veteran team with all the experience in the world almost literally falling apart in front of our eyes. With their season finished in the fourth quarter, the Lakers gave up and turned into bullies. Lamar Odom decided to deliver a forearm shiver to a screening Dirk Nowitzki, and 45 seconds later Andrew Bynum laid out a defenseless J.J. Barea with an elbow of his own. They collapsed the way the villainous team in a kids sports movie would have; it might as well have been Lane Smith or Ed O’Neill retiring at the end of the game.

    I think that, as sports fans, we all want to believe that we’re watching something meaningful and transcendent, that it’s not just dudes in shorts playing kids’ games for embarrassing amounts of money. I know I do. Nothing felt more meaningful and transcendent to me in sports this past year than the night the Lakers went down in Dallas.
    Bill Barnwell

    May 21
    The Executioner Goes All the Way

    For a lot of guys in their mid-40s, doing five pushups is, all by itself, a major undertaking. When 46-year-old Bernard Hopkins dropped and banged out five after having already endured 18 draining minutes of a world championship boxing match against 28-year-old Jean Pascal in Montreal on May 21, he was well on his way to rewriting the history books on middle-aged athletic achievement. Those pushups represented the signature, never-seen-that-before moment of the year for a sport that, like “The Executioner” himself, has been written off countless times and refuses to go quietly. By stopping to tone his pecs and triceps at the start of the seventh round, Hopkins made the ultimate statement to his latest exasperated and amazed opponent: I might be 46, but I can keep this up all night long, son. In a thoroughly entertaining fight (particularly by Hopkins’ standards), Hard ‘Nard reclaimed the legitimate light heavyweight championship of the world, becoming the oldest boxer ever to win a major title. Pascal was Hopkins’ footnote; the pushups spelled that out for him. And for me, as a beaten-down Philadelphia sports fan who would, a few months later, sit dejected in Citizens Bank Park for Game 5 against the Cards as Ryan Howard and the regular season’s best baseball team came up lame in literal and figurative ways, Hopkins served as a comforting reminder that, yes, there are some Philly sports stars who can go all the way.
    Eric Raskin

    May 28
    The Beautiful Game’s Beautiful Team

    With all due respect to the collected e-mails of Dan Gilbert, the anti-Barcelona backlash of 2011 has been one of the dumbest sports phenomena I’ve ever come across. You mean … you mean Barca players sometimes dive (like every other soccer player on earth ) … or foul (like every other soccer player on earth)? You mean the club makes and spends money? YOU MEAN XAVI ISN’T ACTUALLY A FAIRY? No one ever said that Barcelona were morally flawless — for god’s sake, they’re fielding Sergio Busquets and Dani Alves at the same time, which makes them roughly as pure as a church choir starring R. Kelly and a coked-out rhinoceros. They’re not angels. What they are is a team whose fluid and intricate passing-and-pressing game has been (a) the most effective soccer tactic, in terms of winning trophies at a high level, of the past five years, (b) the most distinctive style of play over the same period, to the point that it’s largely defined the era even while looking totally unique, and (c) something that, to millions of fans, has been totally breathtaking to watch. This year’s Champions League final (Barcelona 3 — Manchester United 1) may have been the high point. Barca did whatever it wanted against the second- or third-best team on earth — 67 percent of the first-half possession, 12 shots on target to Manchester United’s 1, three goals scored by strikers from open play with midfielders getting assists. It was a fast, fun match, with no annoying controversies, and the most exhilarating team in the game staked its claim to greatness. There’s a word for that. It was beautiful.
    Brian Phillips

    June 2
    Defining the Finals

    Let’s look back and remember how this game set the tone for the rest of the series. No one offered Dallas much of a chance to win the Finals, and, for the first time, most had started crediting LeBron James for his decision to join Miami, which, it seemed, had already been crowned as the champion. The Heat had just easily shrugged off the Bulls, who had MVP Derrick Rose and the league’s best regular-season record. Miami entered the second game of the series up 1-0, victor of nine straight playoff games at AmericanAirlines Arena and now faced the Mavericks and Dirk Nowitzki, who had a torn tendon in the middle finger of his off hand. Miami led by 15 points in the fourth quarter and danced and preened on the court. Nowitzki ignited a comeback and scored Dallas’ final nine points, including the deciding final two, a layup against Chris Bosh with his injured hand. We all know the rest. Dallas wins three of the next four games, James disappears, and Mark Cuban celebrates. But it was the second game that initiated the series win and defined the Finals.
    Jonathan Abrams

    June 5, June 7, and June 9
    Three Nights in Dallas

    One hundred hours, one city, three Finals games. Everything blends together. I had the same seat every time: a few rows behind the Mavericks bench, dead-even with the 3-point line, surrounded by people in blue. I watched fans keep believing when there was nothing left to believe. I watched basketball history get rewritten on the fly. I watched the title switch hands. It’s just that I can’t remember what happened. Too much happened.

    Did Wade yell at LeBron in Game 3 or Game 4? Was Dirk sick for Game 4 or Game 5? What about Jason Terry catching fire and submitting an “Irrational Confidence” performance for the ages? When was that? Game 5? What about that specific moment when the Heat were leading by eight (or was it 10?) with nine minutes to play (or was it seven?) and seemed headed for the title in Game 4 (or was it Game 5?), and the Mavericks called timeout, and their heads were hanging on the bench, and I would have bet anything they were done… and somehow they came charging back? What about a weakened-by-illness Dirk working the clock for a game-winning shot, then suddenly bursting to the rim for a layup before Miami’s defense had a chance to adjust? That was Game 4, right? When did I officially give up on LeBron ever becoming the greatest player of all-time? Game 4? Game 5?

    Everything blends together. And you know what? I kind of like it that way. I haven’t watched those games since. I only remember the absolutes. I remember Wade prancing around like a man in Game 3, playing with a chip on his shoulder, unleashing one of the most ferocious performances I have ever seen. I remember Dirk finally reaching that “I know this guy is coming through, I would bet anything” level. I remember Chandler using everything except a gun to protect the rim. I remember LeBron shrinking from the moment, everyone sensing it, everyone whispering about it. You could see it. I remember the drama more than anything — feeling like something substantial was happening. I remember driving to Game 5 thinking there was nowhere I would rather be.

    Six months later, Miami blew Dallas out of that same building on Christmas Day. There’s only one lousy thing about winning a title — the year after, that moment when you know it’s not happening again, when you know your team changed a little too much. I think that happened to Dallas. I’m not sure it matters.
    Bill Simmons

    Abby Wambach

    July 10
    Abby Wambach, Concussions and the Loss of Sports-Watching Innocence

    My favorite moment of 2011 was also the one I wish I could forget. The improbable header by Abby Wambach that tied the Women’s World Cup quarterfinal against Brazil was one of the most electrifying sights I’ve ever seen. But as I watched the replays of Wambach hurtling headlong through the air toward the net, heedless of the charging defender and goalie, there was something about the slight jerk of Wambach’s neck that made me wince. I was worried about her brain.

    The moment that will define 2011 for me is the moment that it became impossible for me to watch any sport and remain innocent of the threat of concussions. Don’t get me wrong. You’ve got to love a player who will sit there calmly as someone staples her scalp back together after a collision. But it’s harder to see what’s happening inside her skull. The problem isn’t limited to sports in which big men try to beat each other up; repeated incidental contact can be just as damaging. One recent study of high school athletes found that female soccer players have the second-highest rate of concussions, after football players (hockey wasn’t part of the study).

    This is the thing about the concussion crisis: It’s actually an existential crisis. The only real way to avoid it is to not play, which makes the threat of brain injury seem like some kind of weird original sin. It turns out that athletes aren’t some special category of human gods! They’re hurting their brains. So is it worth it? I don’t know. I replayed the replay: Rapinoe’s tremendous cross; Wambach’s aerial daring; the long odds; the sound of the crowd … and then I replayed it again, and again.
    Louisa Thomas

    August 17
    The Georgetown Basketball Brawl and the Shifting Dreams of Sports’ Global Stage

    Each year someone does something like this or this, and depending on your allegiance, it seems the most vital symbol of what life might promise. Empires will fall, youngsters will be anointed before their time has come, and someone will change how their respective game is played with a casual, inevitable genius. Among these moments, I will remember a brawl. The year Yao Ming, that unfailingly affable transpacific bridge of a man, retired and the year NBA players began considering overseas contracts not merely because their careers were on the wane, the Georgetown men’s basketball team traveled to China, and, during their “friendship” game with the Bayi Military Rockets, experienced the exact opposite of friendship. It was terrible to watch, obviously — the way any lapse of sports into violence reveals the true nature of competition. But more broadly: We’ve grown so accustomed to seeing American athletes treated with some measure of deference abroad, particularly in places where the level of play might not be up to the standard of the American ideal. As I watched the brawl, it felt like something was changing: Maybe they no longer aspired to be versions of our stars. It’s impossible to disentangle the factors that resulted in the melee, whether it had to do with slack refereeing or China’s recent generations of treasured “only children” or maybe the aggressive, chippy play that has, in recent years, become the Chinese style. It’s hard to ignore the larger backdrop, this shifting balance of global power, the realities that link the front page to the sports section. We still have the stars, but the money is elsewhere. Geographies are global now. It troubles our stable sense of lineage — the common, generational mythologies and legible, cross-town battle lines, our sense of who seeks approval from whom. Not everyone aspires to Springfield, Canton, or Cooperstown, and maybe a “love of the game” is no longer what unites us. The Brooklyn Nets might be a Russian billionaire’s plaything; they might exist, in his mind, only to make him sufficiently famous so that he won’t be assassinated. Striker Samuel Eto’o, a champion with both Barcelona and Inter Milan, relocated to Anzhi Makhachkala, in Dagestan, to become one of the best-paid athletes in the world. He flies 1,200 miles to home games. Playing for the Bayi Military Rockets might be the sum of one’s dreams.
    Hua Hsu

    September 7
    Finding Solace in the Routine

    Hockey is a sport of routines, and all the usual ones were unfolding on the afternoon of September 7. Players woke up flushed and refreshed from their daily catnaps, stretching and checking their watches. Team massage therapists folded up and stacked their portable tables. Wives and children were kissed, electronics were tucked into carry-ons, and more than two dozen huge, bulky hockey bags were heaved up onto the plane that was to take Lokomotiv Yaroslavl to Minsk, Belarus, for its first game of the new KHL season. But the also-familiar routines of the cockpit somehow went awry, and the plane failed to properly lift off. When rescue crews arrived at the riverbank crash scene about a mile from the runway, they found only two survivors out of the 45 players, coaches, equipment managers, and airline employees who had been on the flight.

    On the plane were three Stanley Cup champions, four World Champions, and an Olympic gold medalist from Team Sweden. Those with NHL ties ranged from the old-time to the hopeful, from Brad McCrimmon, the 52-year old NHL veteran and Detroit Red Wings assistant who had gone to Russia to pursue his head-coaching dream, to Daniil Sobchenko, a 20-year-old prospect in San Jose’s system. Teams around the NHL held tributes; many continue to wear commemorative patches.

    But as much as the tragedy tugged at hockey’s tight international web, it threatened to all but unravel the one in the Russian city of Yaroslavl, where a number of the team’s locally grown players and coaches once began their careers as little children learning to skate. One of the crash’s two survivors, Alexander Galimov, had trained in Yaroslavl since age 5; when he ultimately passed away from his injuries after a passionate, city-wide, five-day vigil, it was a particularly cruel blow to an already devastated community.

    Out of respect for the city, KHL and Lokomotiv officials opted to cancel this season rather than cobble together an interim team out of other KHL players. Instead, the hope is that Lokomotiv can rise from within, beginning next season with skaters from its in-house development team, known as Loko, which recently played its way into a higher junior league within the Russian hockey circuit. Captained by 20-year-old Maksim Zyuzyakin (who had been slated to be on the Lokomotiv roster, and the plane, before being sent down to juniors hours earlier), Loko faces a heavy task with heavier hearts. And so there’s not much else to do than lace up the skates, set the lines, wrap the tape — relying on routine to help cope with the September day that was so heartbreakingly not.
    Katie Baker

    September 10
    Going Djokovic

    Perhaps the single greatest aspect of tennis is that, more than anything, fans want to see a good match. Yes, we all have our favorites, but when it comes down to it, we’d probably prefer our favorite player to lose in five legendary sets than to win in 90 minutes. This was the exact scenario for me with the U.S. Open semifinal between Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic. Novak already collected the 2011 Australian Open and Wimbledon crowns, and had lost only two matches in 2011, one of them being to Roger. On the other hand, Roger was Grand Slam-less in 2011, and the last time he went a calendar year without collecting one was 2002. Those facts, plus my very real obsession with Roger and dislike of Novak, made Roger’s 2-0 set lead over Djokovic a thing to celebrate.

    Then something happened. Something horrible and something beautiful. Novak found a way to turn the match around and win the next two sets 6-3, 6-2. I was furious, but for the first time I had to at least give NoDjo some credit for being a fighter. Convinced that Federer was incapable of losing when two sets up, I was hoping he’d hurry and put Novak away so he’d have some gas left for Nadal. Unfortunately for Roger, Novak wasn’t having it. He wouldn’t go away. Although I was still on Team Roger, Novak’s will to win was infectious. And then, with a Federer match point, the unthinkable happened. Djokovic returned Federer’s serve with a ferocious cross-court winner and I audibly cheered for Novak. I couldn’t believe it. The true tennis fan had finally reared its beautiful head. I wanted whatever outcome it took for this match to never end.
    Rembert Browne

    September 28
    Baseball’s Big Night

    Game 162 — all of them, unfolding simultaneously — was the greatest night of regular-season sports in my lifetime. But the best of it was that rain-soaked game between the collapsing Boston Red Sox and the less dramatically but more consistently miserable Baltimore Orioles. Tampa Bay’s ridiculous 8-7 comeback win over the New York Yankees was awesome, too, but cynics could (rightly) argue that the Rays benefited from Joe Girardi’s use of 37 different pitchers, including at least two janitors and a plumber. It was an impure spectacle. And the St. Louis Cardinals and the Atlanta Braves didn’t matter as much, because neither of them was going to win the World Series anyway. (Wait. WHAT?) The Red Sox and the Orioles played an actual game, incredibly meaningful, strung out in its agonizing entirety, and with so many what-ifs and should-have-beens it risked keeping the insufferable Red Sox Nation gnashing its collective teeth forever, which did amazing things for my black, black heart. It was so good because it was so close and so terrible. Jonathan Papelbon is one pitch away, then back-to-back doubles, and then Robert Andino’s flaming-arrow squib to left, Carl Crawford’s sliding trap, and finally — bedlam.

    The Orioles started that night 29 games out of first place. They were playing for absolutely nothing, except they were playing for absolutely everything. In that way, for once, North American sports were reminiscent of the far superior English soccer system of promotion and relegation, in which there is no such thing as playing out the string. Every game counts. For one night, at least, it felt that way here. It felt as though everything boiled down to this singular moment, and now there were the Orioles, 69-93, piled up on each other, rolling around the wet grass, and there were the Red Sox, 90-72, walking out of the dugout and down the tunnel, and only three minutes later it was decided: All of them were going home.
    Chris Jones

    September 28
    The Great Pumpkin, the Collapse of the Sox, and how the Impossible Became Inevitable

    The most dramatic moments are the ones you never see coming. As late as mid-September, the prospect of any meaningful games on the final day of baseball’s regular season seemed remote. But the Red Sox started their collapse early, and the Braves accelerated their collapse late, and we went to Game 162 with both wild-card spots very much up for grabs.

    Even then, the prospect of a historic finish seemed dispelled early when the Yankees jumped out to a 5-0 lead on Tampa Bay after two innings, and led 7-0 after five. The Red Sox were beating the hapless Orioles, the Cardinals were blasting the Astros 8-0, and the only drama involved whether the Braves could beat the Phillies to force a tiebreaker game.

    And then things got weird, in a way they only can in baseball, where there is no clock and no lead is theoretically unassailable. Down seven with six outs to go, the Rays scored six runs in the eighth, the last three on a two-out, three-run homer by Evan Longoria. The Red Sox led Baltimore 3-2, but their inevitable victory was put on hold by a rain delay.

    And then came the moment that reverberated around Twitter and set up the wildest dual finish in regular-season history. With the Rays down to their final out, manager Joe Maddon called on Dan Johnson, The Great Pumpkin himself, to pinch-hit. Johnson was hitting .108 on the season (9 for 83), and hadn’t had a base hit in the majors since April.

    With Tampa Bay one strike away from defeat, Johnson lined Cory Wade’s pitch down the right-field line, just fair and just over the fence, and rational discourse momentarily became impossible. I think I spoke for everyone when I tweeted, “HOLY EFFING EFF.” Baseball, it seemed, was just showing off.

    Everything that came after was just gravy. With one game on my TV, another on my computer, and a third on my iPad, I watched as the Braves blew a ninth-inning lead to Philadelphia. I watched the Red Sox get runners thrown out at the plate in both the eighth and ninth innings. Atlanta gave up the go-ahead run to the Phillies in the 13th, and then Freddie Freeman grounded into a game-ending and season-ending double play minutes later. The previously unflappable Jonathan Papelbon got two quick outs for the Red Sox in the ninth before surrendering a first-pitch double, a two-strike game-tying double, and finally a walk-off single to left field that Carl Crawford probably should have caught. And inevitably, Longoria hit the walk-off homer in the 12th inning that sent the Rays to a postseason that they were all but eliminated from two hours earlier.

    But it was Johnson’s home run that crystallized the greatest night of regular-season baseball ever. Going forward, Major League Baseball has added a pair of playoff teams, pitting two wild-card teams from each league against each other in a one-game, winner-take-all death match. In theory, it will guarantee the kind of breathless drama we saw this year every year.

    In reality, the most dramatic moments are the ones you never see coming, and the contrived drama of a one-game play-in round can never match the completely unscripted soap opera that was the night of September 28. Then again, nothing else can either.
    Rany Jazayerli

    October 9
    Tiger and the Epic Hot Dog

    I’ve never played golf, and I’ve never watched a golf tournament on TV. I have standing orders from my father to shoot him if he ever takes up the sport. Something “courageous and epic” would have to happen on a golf course for it to register as my most memorable sports moment of 2011. Well, it happened: Brandon Kelly of Petaluma, Calif., ran onto the green at the Open and chucked a hot dog at Tiger Woods, who was about to putt. “I threw the hot dog toward Tiger Woods because I was inspired by the movie Drive,” Kelly explained. “As soon as the movie ended, I thought to myself, ‘I have to do something courageous and epic. I have to throw a hot dog on the green in front of Tiger.'” Bless you, Brandon, brave soul that you are.
    Rafe Bartholomew

    St. Louis Cardinals celebrate

    October 22
    The Stolen Moments of College Football

    The thing about watching a Hail Mary pass is that it’s a little bit like a near-death experience: It affords you precious seconds to contemplate life while the ball hurtles through the troposphere. On a Saturday evening in October, when Kirk Cousins heaved a football into the East Lansing sky, I was standing in a hotel room in Freeport, Maine, having rushed back from a wedding reception (at which I had spent a good deal of time tracking the Penn State-Northwestern score on my cell phone) to catch this ending. Undefeated Wisconsin, the most fearsome Big Ten team in at least a decade, was on the verge of losing to an enigmatic Michigan State squad, and I could not quite believe it had come to this, and yet I could, because this is college football, and insane stuff happens all the time. And so when the ball caromed off a helmet into Keith Nichol’s hands at the 1-yard line, and Nichol wrestled the ball over the goal line, and Kirk Herbstreit actually starting laughing like a schoolboy in the broadcast booth during the replay review, I texted a couple of friends some inane, half-drunk comment about how I loved this game despite all its systemic flaws and peccadilloes.

    That moment now feels distant and removed, as if it took place in some bygone era. Two weeks after the Hail Mary, my alma mater, Penn State, crumbled to pieces amid one of the worst scandals in the history of college sports. And I looked back on all those Saturdays spent stealing moments and began to wonder if I’d been chasing the wrong things.
    Michael Weinreb

    October 27
    David Freese: Hometown Hero

    I still cry when I watch it.

    We’re two months past one of the most surreal baseball games of our lifetimes. I have not a shred of allegiance toward either of the two teams that battled through a Game 6 for the ages. I am 37 years old. And tears still stream down my face every time I crank up the clips.

    The Cardinals were down to their last strike. The only man who could save them was hometown boy David Freese, the guy who’d come out of nowhere and dominated the postseason. This was a team that had no business even making the playoffs, a team that pulled off the second-greatest September comeback of all time. And yet, one more strike from Neftali Feliz and the ride would be over.

    Then Freese smashed an outside-corner fastball deep to right, over Nelson Cruz’s head and into history. Tie game. I watch the play and get emotional, even now.

    Two innings later, it’s Freese again, launching another fastball high and deep to center. Gone. Joe Buck makes a great call, aping his dad’s famous capper in Game 6 of the ’91 World Series with a simple, “We will see you tomorrow night.” After a minute-plus of silence, taking in the sight of 47,325 fans gripped by ecstasy, Tim McCarver one-ups his broadcast partner: “How did this happen?”

    I watch that homer sail into the night, listen to that incredulous reaction, and cry like a baby.

    I’ll spare you the flowery words about Game 6 making it all worth it, how a sports year that brought some of the most despicable headlines you’ll ever read was somehow redeemed because a dude made a baseball go boom.

    But it was unbelievably fun, and affecting, to watch. Then, now, and probably 100 years from now.
    Jonah Keri

    November 5
    Beautiful Brutality in Tuscaloosa

    The Eric Reid interception on the goal line in Tuscaloosa. Ripping the ball away from a bigger man midair. Don’t blame the tight end; there was no way he could’ve been prepared for that. It had never happened to him before, not at practice and not in high school and never even in the street or parking lot as a kid. The final score of the game was 9-6, so the big play wasn’t going to come on offense. But it almost did. Michael Williams almost caught the ball. I felt elated after that play, elated that one team had done something to distinguish itself from the other, but I also felt grief for Saban and Jim McElwain. The first time all day they show some daring, and they get burnt for it. They blinked, I suppose. Fear of the futility of running normal plays against LSU coupled with fear of your kicker’s ineptitude. The Alabama receiving corps is lacking this season, which is probably why the best one of them, Marquis Maze, wound up trying to throw a touchdown rather than trying to catch one. The ball floated, which is expected on these trick plays in which non-quarterbacks are asked to throw. It floated just enough. The LSU-Alabama game was one during which you kept waiting and waiting for something other than brutality (not that the brutality wasn’t impressive and inspiring and even beautiful), waiting for something else. What else, though? That’s the thing. There was no way to know what else until it happened. And then it did. Alabama strained its offensive character, and an overshadowed defensive back who on most teams would be the star of the secondary turned in a play for the ages.
    John Brandon

    November 26
    Return of a Rivalry

    When cornerback Courtney Avery’s interception at midfield sealed the victory for the Wolverines in the waning moments of their narrow win over the Buckeyes, did my dad, standing next to me in the 79th row of Michigan Stadium, get a little misty-eyed? He did. After all, he’s a maize-and-blue die-hard who’s had the same seats for 45 years, and with a 10-2 season, a BCS bowl bid, and wins over Notre Dame, Nebraska, and Ohio, it was clear, he said, that Michigan football was back, with the future only looking brighter. Watching my dad wave a pom-pom as the students stormed the field, did I get a little misty-eyed myself? You bet. Hell of a Thanksgiving.
    Davy Rothbart

Filed Under: Grantland, Sports