As I watched Florida Gulf Coast University celebrate advancing to the NCAA Sweet Sixteen, the first-ever 15-seed to do so, my buddy Jorge suggested I revisit some of sports’ other upsets, unusual runs, and astonishing accomplishments we never tire of seeing replayed because they remind us that anything is possible.
These are just a fraction of hundreds of heroic moments any sports fan should know—and I just stuck to the ones in my own lifetime!—but feel free to post suggestions of your own. Now, in no particular order…
It’s my birthday this week, so let’s start with the second most awesome event of 1972. The Miami Dolphins achieved the only perfect NFL season thus far, beating the Washington Redskins in Super Bowl VII to finish 17-0.
The Iron Man
Cal Ripken’s accolades would take up half of IBM’s servers, but the Baltimore Oriole infielder is best known for surpassing Lou Gehrig in consecutive games played (2,131 in 1995). He continued his streak to a voluntary end at 2,632 in 1998 and retired in 2001 a 19-time all-star.
That Slam Dunk…No, the Flu Game…No…His Return…No…
Like Ripken, it’s almost impossible to pick the best Michael Jordan moment. So I’ll go with what is simply called “Game 6.” Chicago was visiting the Utah Jazz in the 1998 NBA Finals. Jordan hit a jump shot with five seconds left to put Chicago ahead 87-86, giving the Bulls their sixth title in eight years.
America’s Sweetheart Sticks it to the Competition
In Montreal 1976, Romanian Nadia Comăneci became the first woman ever to score a perfect 10 (uneven bars) in Olympic history and elevating women’s gymnastics to primetime.
Eight years later, Mary Lou Retton would trail another Romanian, Ecaterina Szabo, by .15 at the 1984 Los Angeles Games. Retton (who was nursing a knee injury) nailed two perfect-10 vaults, becoming the first American to earn the all-around gold medal and Wheaties boxes everywhere.
The Chase for Home Run History
In 1961, Yankees right fielder Roger Maris surpassed Babe Ruth’s 1927 record of 60 season homers. But in 1998, for weeks, Americans watched in awe as not one but two hitters chased the record—and exceeded it: St. Louis’ Mark McGwire (70 HRs) followed by the Cubs’ Sammy Sosa (66). Sadly, steroid allegations against McGwire have since added a silent asterisk to the honor.
You probably don’t remember what it was (Women’s World Cup Soccer Finals) when (1999) where (Rose Bowl) or even who played (U.S. and China), but you will recall Brandi Chastain’s topless knee slide across the turf after scoring the fifth shootout penalty kick to win the U.S. the title. Attired in exultation and a sports bra, Chastain became one of the most photographed female athletes in history.
Red Sox Redemption
Things were looking pretty great for Boston in 1918. They had won five baseball world titles. They had the best player, Babe Ruth, on the roster. Gin and jazz for everyone!
And then it all fell apart. The team sold Ruth to their arch-rival Yankees (where Ruth went on to post historic numbers—see Roger Maris, above). And so began the legendary “Curse of the Bambino”—an 86-year championship drought until 2004, when the Red Sox swept the St. Louis Cardinals, never trailing in the series, and even Yankee fans had to smile.
At only 5-10, Boston College’s Doug Flutie was not your usual quarterback. But he made an unusually successful career, winning the Heisman Trophy and playing pro ball in both the U.S. and Canada. His prowess was due in large part to his last-second “Hail Mary” pass to Gerard Phelan to beat defending-champion Miami, November 23, 1984. The play is considered perhaps the greatest in college sports history.
Tennis has many historic rivalries and matches—Billie Jean King defeating Bobby Riggs in 1973’s “Battle of the Sexes”; Martina Navratilova and Chris Evert; John McEnroe and…everybody.
Maybe it’s not really a “miracle,” but the match that stands out to me is the 1995 Australian Open quarterfinal between Pete Sampras and Jim Courier. Sampras’ coach Tim Gullikson had collapsed at the tournament (and was later diagnosed with brain cancer). Shaken, Sampras openly wept as he played, but won. He lost in the finals to Andre Agassi, but all I remember is his determination to honor his friend (who passed away the following year).
Miracle on Ice
Of all American sports celebrations, this moment stands skates above them all—and I think even Jordan and Ripken will agree. It was a Cold War, literally and figuratively, for the U.S. hockey team during the 1980 Winter Olympics at Lake Placid, New York. They were inexperienced underdogs facing an indomitable Russian squad with a 21-game Olympic win streak and considered by far the best team in the world. Yet somehow coach Herb Brooks led this group of amateurs and college players to defeat the U.S.S.R. and then go on to win the gold medal against Finland. Disney’s “Miracle” is the movie adaptation.
So will FGCU be the next miracle to remember? We’ll find out Friday night, 10 p.m. ET on TBS.