Thursday, June 05, 2008

Top Ten Sports Memories

Because of my love for sports and top-ten lists, and because of the recent completion of #10, I have decided to make a top-ten list of the best sporting events I have witnessed in my 29 years of fandom. I picked these games/series because of superstar individual performances, dramatic Disney-movie storylines, and a team (OK, my team) overcoming overwhelming odds. In descending order:

10. Stanley Cup Finals, 2008: Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Detroit Red Wings. This gets on the list because of games 3-6. This stays at the bottom of the list because of games 1-2. Game 5 was especially memorable because of the heroic, out-of-his mind performance of the Pens' goalie and the photo-finish. The Pens felt outgunned in each of the four, but contended valiantly anyway to pick up two wins.

9. Wales Conference Championship, 1994: New York Rangers vs. New Jersey Devils. I'm not sure how I wound up rooting for the hated Rangers in a series- perhaps because of the utter hockey-awesomeness of Mark Messier (or maybe I just hated the Devils more). Anyway, the Rangers were down 3 games to 2 when Messier guaranteed a game 6 win (backing it up with a hat-trick), and then won the series in double overtime in game seven. I don't think I've ever seen anything come down to the wire like that.

8. 2004 PIAA Football Class AAA Championship: Pine Richland Rams vs. Manheim Central Barons. I believe this was the only state-championship football game my alma mater (PR) has attended in my lifetime. Unfortunately, we didn't win it, losing in triple-overtime on a blocked extra point. About a foot of snow fell during the game. But both schools were turnover-free, made highlight catches, converted late-game fourth downs, and generally played out of their minds.

7. 1986 World Series: Boston Red Sox vs. New York Mets. This is on the list because it is my first professional sports memory- the first time I learned how a momentous game could pull you in and then destroy you. The Mets had a lineup full of dark-side-of-the-force stars like Strawberry, Carter, Mookie. The Red Sox looked like they would be able to do what my beloved Pirates could not- beat them and win the World Series. But the Sox had a soon-to-be infamous name of their own: Buckner. He ripped the heart out of Sox fans (and NY haters) everywhere, a memory Sox fans had to wait 18 years to make peace with (see #1).

6. White Out 2005: Penn State Nittany Lions vs. Ohio State Buckeyes. The only non-playoff entry on the list. But it was as good as a playoff game, and made the country take notice that our one-loss record was no fluke. Safety Calvin Lowry picked off a Troy Smith pass to set up a TD in the second quarter, the decisive points in PSU's 17-10 victory. There was something like a combined 100 yards of offense in the second half (only a FG scored), and PSU sealed the game with a third-down sack and forced fumble by mammoth DE Tamba Hali. It was so loud in Beaver Stadium that Steve Jones and Jack Ham had to scream into their headseats for the radio broadcast.

5. Rose Bowl, 2006: Texas Longhorns vs. USC Trojans. The Vince Young game. The Reggie Bush lateral game. The Lendale White goes nuts game. I don't even remember the final score - 40-38? It was two undefeated teams for the national championship, and it was won a fourth-and-five by the unstoppable VY. After having been hyped incessantly for the fourth months prior, this game lived up.

4. Super Bowl XLII, New York Giants vs. New England Patriots. Speaking of hype, has there even been a sporting event analyzed more completely in the run-up? Everybody remembers the first possible 19-0 season, Brady with a cast on his foot, the Giants winning three on the road to make it to the Super Bowl. And then the game featured a stunning defensive struggle save for a wide-open fourth quarter featuring two (and almost three) long come-from-behind drives, and with the highlight of the decade, David Tyree's Helmet Catch. Which, incidentally, was 1000 times more exciting than Joe Buck makes it seem in that clip.

3. Stanley Cup Finals 1992, Pittsburgh Penguins vs. Chicago Blackhawks. The Penguins swept this series, part of an 11 game playoff winning streak that season. But the 'Hawks were definitely a lot tougher opponent than the sweep would make it seem. They led game 1 by three, but the Pens battled back to tie on an amazing Jagr goal, and then took the lead with twelve seconds left on the sports highlight of my childhood. And game 4 was even better. The Pens chased Hawks goalie Ed Belfour in the first period, but ran into their rookie backup (and soon to be superstar) Dominik Hasek. He stood on his head for two periods to keep the Hawks in the chase, stopping Mario and Jagr on breakaways repeatedly. But Ron Francis scored the game winner halfway through the third to seal the Pen's second Cup.

2. AFC Divisional Championship Game 2006, Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Indianapolis Colts. This was the second of four straight wins for the Steelers in Playoffs '06, and definitely the most exciting. The Colts had an undefeated season going into week 14, and were the Super Bowl favorite from the end of the '05 season. But Steelers defensive coordinate Dick LeBeau had some Jedi magic to work on Peyton Manning's offense. The Steelers led by 18 going into the fourth quarter, but some twilight-zone officiating let the Colts pull to within three. And then there was the series that every 'Burgher knows by heart: the huge Porter sack on fourth and twelve, the Fumble (and the Tackle), and Vanderjagt's fateful kick. Just thinking about it makes me want to stand on the couch and scream "NO GOOD!"

1. 2004 ALCS, Boston Red Sox vs. New York Yankees. Seriously, they wouldn't make a movie like this. Take the hated sports empire from New York. Take the 86-year accursed Red Sox. Let them beat on each other for a few years, always with the Empire winning. Let said Empire beat on the Sox again for the first three games and eight innings of this series. Put the toughest closing pitcher in baseball on the mound with a lead in the bottom of the ninth, up three games to none and two outs away from a trip to the World Series. And after the Sox pull it out (somehow), let them do it all again in the bottom of the eighth the next night. Then let a beat-up Boston starter pitch out of his mind to send it to game seven. The last game wasn't that close, because there wasn't any more nail-biting plot twists to use. All in all, the greatest sports playoff series of all time.

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