This kind ofreckoning is never a science, but let's do the math: An absurdly difficultcatch to ignite a Super Bowl upset plus a heart-stopping swim in the Olympicsplus the gutsiest golf performance imaginable plus the greatest tennis matchever played plus....Yeah, it all adds up
ELI MANNINGscrambled from the clutches of the New England Patriots, retreated and flung adesperate pass more than 40 yards downfield that an obscure New York Giantsreceiver named David Tyree corralled and pressed against his helmet whiletumbling to the ground. When it happened, not one of the guests watching on TVat Jason Lezak's Super Bowl party in Irvine, Calif.—however impressed by theacrobatics—was immediately struck with the notion that he had just witnessed aplay for the ages.
This is often theway of history, momentarily lost in the chips and dip of the here and now.
Even after theManning-Tyree hookup led to the late touchdown that gave the Giants a stunning17--14 win over the previously undefeated Patriots, Lezak and his buddiescouldn't have divined that this was not a one-off of excellence but a prologueto a string of marvels in 2008. Like Tyree'sprolate-spheroid-meets-curved-helmet, physics-defying catch—indeed, like theSuper Bowl--party host who six months later would swim faster than any manever—the best sports year came out of nowhere.
WELL, IT actuallycame out of 2007, a toxic brew of duplicity, criminality and cruelty, with achaser of arrogance. The headline-makers of a year ago included a crookedbasketball referee; a home run king who was indicted (and pleaded not guilty)on perjury and obstruction of justice charges; a brazen football coach whoapparently authorized industrial espionage; and the athlete who truly put theass in morass, an NFL quarterback who was convicted of running a dogfightingring.
Blessedly Tyree'stumbling Barnum & Bailey catch cleansed at least some of the venality thathad engulfed sports. The ablution: With third-and-five from the Giants' 44,1:15 to go and the Patriots clinging to a 14--10 lead, Manning spun from thegrasps of three defenders and heaved a rainbow that Tyree, who had broken off apost route, caught while fending off strong safety Rodney Harrison for a32-yard completion that set up the winning score.
Only multiplereplays, slowed to Friday-rush-hour-in-L.A. speed, revealed the magicalimprovisation of it all. The play began with one man who is maybe thethird-best quarterback in his own family and ended with another who spent mostof his autumn Sundays on special teams. Thus did the unlikely accomplish theindelible: the greatest play in the XLII-year history of the Super Bowl.
A moment likethat once in a calendar year would be considered a blessing; for 2008, it wasmerely the beginning. In games, matches and meets, all the reasons we're drawnto sports—the surprises lurking in unscripted drama, the grace of athletesunder pressure, the inspiration of rare achievement—revealed themselves inunprecedented ways. Emboldened, we proclaimed with increasing confidence thatwhat we had witnessed was the "best" ever, unless we called it the"greatest." The year ennobled sport, but it beggared the language.
It's a trickybusiness, the slathering on of superlatives. As New Jersey Devils president LouLamoriello observed in October as his goaltender, Martin Brodeur, inched closerto Patrick Roy's NHL record for wins, "Greatest is a tough word becausetomorrow comes along awfully quick." Duly noted. But for now, 2008qualifies as the greatest because it produced bests in so many categories:Super Bowl play, victory in a golf major, tennis match, Olympics by a summerathlete (Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt, your choice). Consider:
• Tiger Woods wonthe U.S. Open at Torrey Pines on one leg, his 14th and most impressive majorchampionship. With spaghetti for left knee ligaments and a double stressfracture in his left tibia, Woods winced his way around the 7,643-yard course,conquering throbbing pain and Rocco Mediate on the 19th hole of the Mondayplayoff. The stoic Woods and the gregarious Mediate were ideal foils,heightening the drama. (Being paired with Rocco must be like playing golf withthe radio on.)
First, Woodscurled in a 12-foot birdie putt on the final hole on Sunday to force theplayoff. Then after squandering a three-shot lead on the back nine—hisnear-gagging in a major tournament was almost as astounding as his ability tosoldier on through five rounds—Woods made a four-foot birdie putt on 18 to takethe championship to a 91st hole, which he won with a par. While striking a golfball is not exactly purple-heart material, Tiger's play certainly was valiant.More compelling than his 12-stroke win at Augusta in 1997 and more demandingthan his surgical, bunker-free tour of St. Andrews in 2000, the Glory at Torreywas a testament to the man's tenacity as much as his talent.
• Rafael Nadaland Roger Federer played a Wimbledon final that stretched the dying light andtheir shotmaking imaginations to the limits. On a sodden Sunday in July, anearly five-hour match (minus rain delays) ended at 9:16 p.m. when Federer, thefive-time champion, netted a short forehand to lose 9--7 in the fifth set.Federer knew every inch of the All-England Club's worn lawn—he had not lost in40 matches there. But he was outlasted by a muscle-shirt maestro five years hisjunior who finally harnessed his talent on that trickiest of surfaces afterlosing the past two finals to Federer.
There were 149winners in a match that combined the rhythm and intelligence of a clay courtduel with the power and shot making of a grass court slugfest. Nadal andFederer produced tennis of the gods, Thor and Zeus wielding rackets instead oflightning bolts. If John McEnroe, who lost the epic 1980 Wimbledon final toBjorn Borg and beat Mats Wilander in a spectacular five-set Davis Cup tie twoyears later, proclaims Nadal-Federer as the greatest match ever, can youargue?
• Bolt, athunderclap from Jamaica, ran two individual Olympic races, won two gold medalsand set two world records in two of the most elemental of human sportingendeavors. (The 100 meters dates to the moment the first caveman decided tochallenge his neighbor to a race to that boulder, while the original Olympics,in 776 B.C., consisted of one 200-yard race in which the competitors, legendhas it, were naked. Nike did not introduce clothing contracts until the secondOlympics.) In the 100, a race usually decided by last-second leans, Bolt putabundant daylight between himself and the fastest men in the world. He mighteven have nuzzled up to the boundaries of physiology; despite slowing to spreadhis arms wide in the final 15 meters, he covered the distance in 9.69 seconds,beating his own mark by .03.
Bolt was evenbetter in the 200. He ran a startling 19.30 to topple Michael Johnson'sseemingly unapproachable 12-year-old world record by .02. Bolt also ran thethird leg on the world-record-setting 4√ó100 relay team, an added fillip. On thesport's biggest stage, Bolt was time's arrow.
• Never losinghis focus, a race or his Napoleon Dynamite smile, Phelps went eight for eightin the Water Cube at a moment when nothing else would have sufficed. He couldnot have exceeded the pre-Beijing hype. He did equal it, however, with sevenworld records and a time-stood-still victory in the one race, the 100butterfly, in which he had to settle for a mere Olympic mark. Phelps surpassedMark Spitz's seven Olympic gold medals, winning in five individual events andthree relays while reestablishing U.S. hegemony in the pool. In a week whenAmerican clocks were set to PDT—Phelps Domination Time—he overcame thephysiologically jarring morning finals, a goggle malfunction in the 200butterfly and a mouthy U.S.-trained Serbian by .01 in that 100 fly.
Leisel Jones, theAustralian breaststroker who won two golds and one silver, said that watchingPhelps was "the highlight of my Olympics.... I couldn't care less about myown swims." Said Simon Burnett, a British swimmer, "He seems to be theonly guy who sees the impossible as possible."
IN OTHER years aworst-to-first team in the World Series like Tampa Bay or the buzzer-beatingthree-pointer in regulation that led to Kansas' overtime win in the NCAA men'sfinal would shine as singular moments, but amid the abundance of spectacularachievement in 2008 the delightful Rays became ho to Mario Chalmers'shigh-arcing hum. We grew spoiled. We almost shrugged as Paul Pierce and theBoston Celtics, a year after winning 24 games, won 66 games and the title;politely nodded at Alexander Ovechkin's 65 goals for the Washington Capitals;merely applauded the cerebral play by Philadelphia Phillies second basemanChase Utley that nailed Jason Bartlett at the plate in Game 5, helping ensurethat the World Series would be something more than an extended weather report.Venus and Serena Williams returned to win grand slams, but (yawn) we hadalready witnessed that.
No, the greatestyear in sports was not about the quotidian wonders you might see (with a littleluck) during any 12-month span but about the most incredible things you willever see. Which takes us back to that Super Bowl party in Orange County.
THE HOST was aself-coached swimmer who had been an Olympian since 2000 but who, on themorning of Aug. 11, had never won an individual medal. Lezak, at 32 the oldestmale on the U.S. team, had carved out a reputation as a professional relayspecialist—although that isn't necessarily a compliment in his line of work.The Americans had won the 4√ó100 freestyle in all seven Olympics in which it hadbeen staged before 2000, but with Lezak in the quartet they came up short ofthe top step in both Sydney and Athens. As he dived in for the final leg, therewas nothing to suggest Lezak was capable of transcendence.
The swimmer whohad plunged into the pool almost .6 of a second ahead of him was Alain Bernard,a Frenchman whose absurdly broad shoulders and schoolgirl waist made himresemble an inverted triangle. Pretentious? Lui? One of the Four Frenchmen ofthe Apocalypse, Bernard reportedly said the week before they would"smash" the Yanks. At that moment Lezak was less in need ofbulletin-board motivation than a coating of pixie dust, up against the anchorof a team that was favored to abort Phelps's eight-for-eight quest in just hissecond race. With 50 meters remaining Lezak had slipped to .82, about a bodylength, behind the man who, when the race began, was the world-record holder inthe 100 free.
"As I'mflipping at the wall, I'm thinking There's no way I can catch the guy,"Lezak recalled. "Typically I don't think when I'm in the water. I justswim. Not that day. I was thinking, Gotta get off the block, gotta get off theblock, and then I'm thinking as I'm swimming the first 50, I really might haveblown this."
Lezak stilltrailed by half a body length with 15 meters left, short of pool and hope.Then, brilliance. Spurred by a surge of adrenaline and a will forged by yearsof Olympic disappointment, desire exceeded fatigue. He inched closer andcloser. Because the finish takes place below the water line, an event thatmight be the greatest thing you ever saw really is only half seen. When theswimmers wheeled to look at the scoreboard at the far end of the Water Cube,Lezak realized he had touched first by .08. His split was 46.06, or 0.67 fasterthan anyone had ever navigated 100 meters in a pool. Astonishing.
As Tyree haddeprived the Patriots of football history, Lezak had preserved swimming historyfor Phelps. "There's never been [an anchor swim] like that in mymemory," U.S. coach Eddie Reese said that morning. "Not running downsomebody who's holding the world record, who's on top of their game.... It hasto be in the unbelievable category. That's the biggest word I know."
SO BEFORE we tuckall this back in that foot locker where we keep Willie Mays's over-the-shouldercatch and Tom Watson's chip-in on 17 at Pebble Beach and Christian Laettner'sshot against Kentucky, take a last, longing look at all the things that leftyou slack-jawed. In a year of excellence unbound, of Tyree and Tiger, of Rafaand Roger, of an aptly named Bolt and a Phelpsian feat, there is also a placeof honor for an uncommon swim by a common man.
NOW ON SI.COM
Read Joe Posnanski's take on the year in sports and check out essays on thebest moments in each sport and on what to look for in 2009, atSI.com/yearend.
LUCY NICHOLSON/REUTERS (TYREE)
GREG NELSON (PIERCE)
HEINZ KLUETMEIER (PHELPS)
MIKE BLAKE/REUTERS (WOODS AND MEDIATE)
NORTHWEST SPORTS PHOTOGRAPHY (COCHRAN)
SCOTT ROVAK/US PRESSWIRE (HAMILTON)
ROBERT BECK (WALSH AND MAY-TREANOR)
BOB MARTIN (BOLT)
REUTERS (NADAL AND FEDERER)
BOB DONNAN/US PRESSWIRE (LEZAK)
THE FAMOUS FINGERS Tyree's helmet catch, considering the way it happened and when, goes down as the best play in Super Bowl history.
LOUIS LOPEZ/CAL SPORT MEDIA
THE PAIN AND THE PAYOFF Despite leg injuries Woods refused to buckle at Torrey Pines, sinking a birdie putt on the 72nd hole to force a playoff.
PREVOST/PRESSE SPORTS/US PRESSWIRE
THE DUEL INTO DUSK After five sets, nearly five hours and a flurry of brilliant shotmaking, Federer (left) fell to Nadal in an epic Wimbledon final.
THE FASTEST OF ALL Bolt broke a world record once thought impregnable in the 200 only four days after blowing away the Olympic field in the 100.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
THE IMPOSSIBLE FINISH Phelps (left) and Garrett Weber-Gale reveled in Lezak's anchor leg: the greatest swim ever, by a most unlikely candidate.