The Best Of Sports: 2020
As you are more than aware, dear reader, this year has been a cosmic, biblical, and perpetual storm of flaming shit. It has been near unbearable watching hundreds of millions of people suffer around the world as misgovernance, economic imbalance, and a pandemic tore into the structures we take for granted.
Sports were in no way immune to this disruption. What a shitty year it has been on fields and in arenas everywhere. We could talk about what a fuck up the entire NCAA football season was, or the NCAA’s other ongoing compensation fuck up. We could talk about the Big Ten’s fuck up, the Big Ten’s other fuck up, the Playoff Committee’s fuck up—
I apologize, did anybody else fuck up this year, or was it just the NCAA?
Oh yes, the NFL failed to keep a basic weekly schedule due to COVID-19 outbreaks. An AC Milan match legitimately might have led directly to Italy’s COVID-19 nightmare. And who could forget the MLB’s royal fuck up concerning a player WITH COVID-19 PLAYING A WORLD SERIES GAME?
Wait, you forgot that one? It’s been that kind of year.
I could go on (and on… and onnnnnn) about all the bad stuff that happened, but I’'m sick of the bad stuff. I want to talk about good stuff. You and I both know the world isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. But that’s why we watch sports, isn’t it? We watch to find moments that bring pure joy and excitement and sometimes even justice to a world often lacking in all three. So let’s take one last look back at the big and small events that made our lives a little more tolerable, if only for a moment.
Sarah Fuller Makes History:
She wasn’t the first female player in college football. That honor goes to Liz Heaston, who booted two extra points for NAIA Willamette in 1997. But Sarah Fuller was the first player to suit up for a major college conference, playing for Vanderbilt. A woman playing SEC football, even at perennial doormat Vandy, is a watershed moment for the game. In a season where the week to week news revolved around which teams couldn’t play due to COVID-19 outbreaks, having a must-see moment was vital for the sport.
People from around the nation locked their eyes onto a blowout for a chance to see Fuller make history. Why else would anyone subjugate themselves to a Vanderbilt game? Then we all tuned in to watch her make more history with a successful PAT the following week. Who knows what the future holds for the senior goalkeeper after graduation, but she’ll forever have the love of young women across the country, and a place in the history books, to boot. Fuller would be quick to tell you that the former is a lot more important than the latter.
I’m Forever Playing In Bubbles:
It turns out when people stay in one place and practice responsible social distancing… they don’t spread coronavirus. IF ONLY WE HAD BEEN TOLD THIS SOONER.
The NBA’s Disney World bubble, the excellently named WNBA “Wubble” and the NHL’s extended Summer camp in Canada (without their Canadian girlfriends) were all terrific successes in proving that sports could be played safely and at a very entertaining level amidst the pandemic. In fact, the incredible levels of success seen in the various bubbles makes later decisions by leagues to abandon or flat out ignore this model in favor of travel seasons even more galling. I guess it makes sense though that these leagues would eventually sacrifice future safety for potential profits since they weren’t brave enough to test the bubble in the first place.
You can thank America’s soccer leagues for taking the plunge first. The NWSL led the way with Major League Soccer following soon after. Though each league had at least one team banned from their bubble tournaments due to outbreaks before play, once “sealed off” the two leagues combined for a whopping zero true positive tests.
So remember the halcyon days of the bubble when you get the news that half your favorite team’s roster is suddenly out with the ‘Rona. It can be better because it was better.
World Series Game 4: The Stumbleoff
Before the complete fiasco that was COVID-positive Justin Turner playing in, getting pulled from, and then returning to celebrate sans mask after the Dodgers Game 6 victory, there was a moment so bananas, so utterly dumb, so completely exhilarating that it only could be created by America’s Most Boring Sport ™
Let’s rewind to Game 4 of the World Series. The first eight innings had been completely unremarkable baseball. The final inning would prove to be the opposite. Down 7-6 in the bottom of the inning, the Tampa Bay Rays managed to get two runners on base but were down to their final out. Up strode leftie Brett Phillips, who had been batting under .200 on the entire season. Not exactly Teddy Fucking Ballgame at the plate. The video below chronicles the ensuing madness and is by far the best five minutes of the season.
Did you get all that? There’s no way you got all that. Watch it again.
Welcome back. You saw the single? And the booted ball by the centerfielder? And the throw to the plate that got spin cycled? And you saw the winning run stumble kilt-over-kielbasa rounding third? Oh, you missed that bit? Go watch it one more time. It's after the airplane celebration. You know what, just keep watching it until you’ve memorized it.
The Joe Buck call. The limited fans inside Arlington’s shiny new tax blackhole losing their minds. The complete bafflement from both teams as victory slipped away again and again at a whim. It was such a relief to hop onto Twitter for one night not because my mind was blown by the latest insane thing our idiot president did, but because my mind was blown by the ending of a ballgame. More of that in 2021, please.
David Ayres Emergency Rescue:
Hockey is a weird game, but one of the weirdest things about it is the concept of the “Emergency Goaltender”. Allow me to drop this rule into another sport so you can fully appreciate the weirdness.
Imagine that the Bears and Packers are playing on Monday night. Now imagine that in warm-ups on the awful Soldier Field turf, Aaron Rodgers tweaks something and can’t play. Not great, but that’s why teams have backups, right? Now imagine in the first quarter the guy that normally holds Rodgers’ clipboard gets knocked silly. Really not great, but there is a third-stringer around here somewhere. Now imagine that the Packers have their third-string QB, Jake from State Farm, in the game. Jake steps back to throw but gets crushed by Kahlil Mack, sending a cheer up from a grateful nation and sending Green Bay’s last remaining quarterback to the hospital. Well they’re screwed, right?
Sitting in a skybox, an emergency quarterback just got his wings. This emergency player was just some dude who played quarterback in high school. He is a service provided by the Bears as they are the home team, and is at the game just in case either team suddenly needs a quarterback. In this case, the Packers need him. He drops the nachos he’s been feasting on since kickoff and hustles down to the locker room to quickly dress into green and gold. That is insane, is it not?
Well, not in hockey, apparently. Emergency goalies actually litter the stat sheets of past NHL games. But David Ayres, who came into play for the Carolina Hurricanes in the second period of a road game against Toronto, was on a whole other level. I swear to God, I’m not making up any of what follows:
Ayres was 42 years old and had never played in a truly professional league. His day job was Zamboni driver and rink maintenance guy for the Toronto Maple Leafs’ AHL affiliate. He was literally wearing a Toronto Maple Leaf’s t-shirt under his Hurricanes jersey that night. So basically, your neighbor who is nice enough, but never shuts up about grilling is suddenly an NHL netminder. Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that Ayres was the recipient of a kidney transplant in 2004.
The first two shots from Toronto bested him, but from that point on, Ayres shut the door and didn’t allow anything else past. The boys in front of him also rallied and pulled out a victory, giving Ayres the record for oldest ever winning debut for a rookie goalie. It was the feel-good moment of the year and one that gave beer leaguers across North America hope that one day their nacho-stained numbers might also be called.
George Hill couldn’t play in good conscious. It didn’t matter that the Milwaukee Bucks were in the playoffs. It didn’t matter that they had a game mere hours after the shooting of three protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin by a right-wing terrorist. The Bucks may have been preparing for their game in the Disney bubble, but their hearts were in Wisconsin.
Giannis Antetokounmpo couldn’t let Hill sit out alone in good conscious. He would stand by his teammate in solidarity.
The rest of the Bucks couldn’t let those two sit out alone in good conscious. They would stand by their teammates and not suit up for their game against the Orlando Magic, their absence a silent plea for the madness to stop.
The Orlando Magic couldn’t play in good conscious. They would not take a forfeit victory and would instead stand in solidarity with their opponent, their absence a silent plea for the madness to stop.
These individual choices would end up turning into a daisy chain that would force the postponement of the rest of the NBA’s slate of games and spread into The WNBA, MLB, and NHL. Athletes of all colors and backgrounds broke their collective bargaining agreements in a flash strike that gave owners a very real, legal right to void their contracts if they had wanted. I’m sure some owners had wanted but didn’t act because of the likely backlash. These athletes took this stand, not for more pay, or more negotiating power, but because they knew that their absence from TV’s across America would be a megaphone for the ongoing civil rights reckoning that was spawned weeks earlier following the killing of George Floyd.
Although it only lasted a few days, the waves caused by one man’s insistence that enough was enough are still rippling through the sporting landscape. George Hill's role in all of this may have been lost in the shuffle, but remember this. Every voice can make a difference.
Natives Are Not Your Mascots Anymore:
When tectonic shifts occur in a culture, like the ones witnessed this year, the aftershocks can be surprising and wide-reaching.
For more than seven decades, Indigenous peoples have been calling for Washington’s NFL team to change their slur of a nickname. In all that time, various ownership groups have never even considered changing the team's name. Then, suddenly, almost overnight, the Washington R*dsk*ns were gone. In their place, the Washington Football Team appeared.
As millions of Americans took a much-needed look at the systematic racism that faces Black communities, the plights of Native communities were more closely examined as well. Native faces and names have been used by their colonizers to represent and sell everything from cigars to hockey teams. Caricatures and racist stereotypes have abounded for centuries, demeaning the existence of millions of people.
One of these caricatures was retired without much fanfare not long ago by the Cleveland Indians. Now, they will also retire their nickname. Renewed pressure has been placed on other pro teams that continue to use Native names and imagery without permission. The Braves, Blackhawks, and Chiefs have all felt increased pressure to change after the decisions made by Cleveland and Washington. They might weather this current storm, but if we have learned anything from this year, it is that the clock eventually hits zero on everyone, whether we are ready for it or not.
Hail Murray, Full Of Grace:
The NFL has had some pretty amazing endings this year. Hell, half of them have come at the expense of my Falcons, like this nightmare, or this waking terror, or this fever-dream of sadness. But the ending of all endings came courtesy of Kyler Murray and the Arizona Cardinals.
This is football at its best. Running around the back yard style, finding some time, and pitching it deep. Nothing about this play should have worked. The Cardinals had time to run at least one more play to set up for a shorter throw. Murray instantly rolled to the wrong side because of pressure and ended up chucking the ball entirely on his arm strength alone. But it helps when that ball gets chucked to some of the best hands the game has ever seen.
The Mewis Bender:
One of the things I miss most about the Before Times is cutting loose with some friends and just celebrating life. That unscratchable urge helped to make the Houston Dash’s epic celebration of their NWSL Challenge Cup victory all the more enjoyable.
Drunkenly celebrating a trophy is not new to the sports world. It's usually not even noteworthy. Teams run up insane bar tabs on an annual basis, they drink from their trophies. They occasionally even swim with them. We've all seen the pictures of the truly great revelers. Jordan. Messier. Gronk. But no player in recent memory has celebrated as viscerally, as authentically as Kristie Mewis did after winning the Challenge Cup. With just a few snapshots we can all soak in the best day of her life.
Here we find Mewis taking time to thank one of the NWSL's loyal sponsors postgame.
Mewis smartly doing some calisthenics between keg stands.
Great idea here by Mewis, if only she hadn't already drained the bottle.
Here she is aggressively coaching a teammate through a challenging shotgun.
And finally, Mewis on her way out of the bubble in Utah, still vibing.
Watching that tiny human dare her liver to abandon ship gave me a chance to live vicariously for just a moment in a world where hugs, drunken sing-alongs, and yes, protecting an arm-full of beers as if they were my children was again possible. God bless you Kristie Mewis, you absolutely, positively earned your hangover and in the process, earned my favorite sports moment of 2020. May we all be able to twerk on our friend's heads in 2021.