Student of the Game is a weekly column by Sam Pouncey (an over-worked and over-caffeinated medical student) examining various aspects of the world of sport. The goal of the column is fairly simple: to provide quality and original content that the reader will find both entertaining and informative. As always, hopefully you will enjoy this. Feedback and suggestions for future column topics are always welcome.
As we experience the major historical events of our lifetime, both sports and other, we have a way of connecting with them through our own temporal and spatial association with the event. For instance, I will never forget sitting in Ahna Baggett’s 5th grade music classroom at Trinity Presbyterian School at 9 A.M. on September 11, 2001 as she informed our class of the horrors that took place earlier that morning. For sports fans, the major sporting events of our lifetime (and sometimes before) have the same way of etching themselves forever into our brain.
Certain events, teams, and athletes tend to own years in history. Even non-hockey fans can hear 1980 and immediately jump to “Miracle on Ice”. The undefeated Miami Dolphins and 1972 go together like peanut butter and jelly. The home run race between Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire is the first thing a baseball fan thinks of when you ask him/her to recall 1998. These are just three examples in a probably endless list. So in 50 years, what or who will jump to the minds of those who think back on 2016? Will it be a champion? A great team? Or will some unthinkable tragedy or nefarious scandal overshadow the positives?
Unfortunately, people tend to remember doom and gloom better than anything else. This is why “The News” is both depressing and unwatchable. Tragic events have a way of touching human emotion and memory deeper than triumphant ones. If you don’t believe me, let’s take a look at what happened in 2001: the greatest college football team of all time (arguably) took the field, Tiger Woods completed the “Tiger Slam” at the peak of his dominance, the Kobe-Shaq Lakers were at the height of their dynasty, Barry Bonds set the single season home run record, and the Arizona Diamondbacks beat the New York Yankees on a walk-off in Game 7 in one of the most thrilling World Series ever. Yet, even for an obsessive sports fan like me, you say “2001”, I think “9/11”.
As I’m sure you have read by now, 2016 wasn’t a great year for world events and the Summer Olympics was a huge letdown in the sports realm, but I don’t think there was a singular event of the magnitude to overshadow what was an exceptionally good sports year. Then again, we may all look back on the most recent presidential election as, to steal a Michael Stipe phrase, “the end of the world as we know it”. We are going to be optimistic on that front for the time being though, and focus on the good in the world of sports.
The aforementioned Olympics were in Rio last Summer, and often the Olympics will be, or produce, the defining moment of the year. It had some nice moment to be sure, like Michael Phelps’ continued dominance, Brazil Men’s Soccer winning the gold medal on their home turf with penalty kicks, and virtually everything Simone Biles did. However, the enduring legacy from the Rio Olympics will, in all likelihood, be Zika Virus, green pools, and an economic fiasco.
Fortunately, their were three great storylines in the three biggest American professional sports leagues to overcome the relatively lackluster Olympics. First, Peyton Manning went out on top with a Super Bowl win over the Panthers in what will come to be known as, “The Sheriff’s Last Ride”. Just kidding, hopefully nobody will ever call it that again because that’s corny AF. Bad jokes aside, Manning managed to upgrade his legacy from “greatest regular season quarterback ever” to “won the Super Bowl with two different franchises”. The one bad thing for Manning, and for the NFL in general, is that each Super Bowl is numbered with a Roman numeral so we tend to remember it as “Super Bowl L” and not “2016”. As an example, we all remember Joe Namath’s guarantee as “Super Bowl III”, but I had to count backwards to figure out that it was in 1969.
Next, we have LeBron James bringing the city of Cleveland its first professional sports title in 52 years and the Cavaliers their first ever title. In the process, he overcame a 3-1 deficit against the Golden State Warriors, who had just set the single season record for wins in a regular season. He also firmly entrenched himself as one of the greatest players of all time. (Feel free to take your NBA G.O.A.T. debate elsewhere this isn’t the time or place). In most years this would easily claim the title of “Calendar Year’s Defining Moment” and for the better part of two months it was, but then something happened to usurp the throne…
The Chicago Cubs won the freaking World Series! As painful as this is to write (I’m an Indians fan if you didn’t know), Chicago ending its 108-year World Series drought and shedding the “Lovable Losers” appellation will forever be associated with 2016. That probably would have been the case even if the series itself had been dull, but that wasn’t what happened. The Indians also built a 3-1 lead, like the Warriors a few months previously, and then helped the 2016 Cubs’ legacy by making Game 7 one of the most memorable baseball games ever by rallying back to tie the game late on a Rajai Davis home run and eventually sending the game into extra innings. Then, after a brief rain delay and what allegedly was a cross between the “Any Given Sunday” and “Braveheart” speeches from Jason Heyward, the Cubs came out to score two runs in the top of the tenth and held Cleveland to claim their place at the top of the baseball world.
The Cubs and their fans will forever own the year of 2016 and not even Donald Trump (hopefully) can take that away from you. Even if you don’t like the Cubs (which I don’t), it’s still nice to know that a great redemption story still trumps (pun intended) tragedy, scandal, and misadventure in our conscious memory and we can thank the Cubs for reminding us of that in 2016. Congratulations Chicago you deserve it!
Cover Photo Courtesy of Peter Gorski/USA TODAY Sports