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This Decade’s 10 Unrepeatable Sports Accomplishments

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One of the innumerable selling points for sports is that fans have the chance to see something that's never happened before. (In a distant second, mascots throwing out free t-shirts.) The unknown is exciting, and we're in no position to get there, but there are some well-sculpted mammals out there that seem capable.

Will anyone ever match Lance Armstrong's seven Tour de Frances or Michael Phelps' eight gold medals? Probably not, but we never thought the Red Sox would ever win the World Series again. Or that an NFL team could go through the season undefeated after the '72 Dolphins did it. Or that Greg Norman and Tom Watson would return, as pentagenarians, to lead the British Open, only to completely piss it away. (They have a pill for that now.)

This list is for the unrepeatable. The once and never again. The "don't hold your breath because you could suffocate and your estate may litigate" moments.

Weight was given to:

• Prominence of the sport
• Novelty of the accomplishment
• How it makes me tingle at night when I can't sleep

So what sorts of deeds did we see that we shant see again in such magnitude?

(10) May 22, 2003: 18-year-old LeBron James signs $90 million endorsement deal with Nike

Will any individual player ever see that much money in endorsements before playing a minute in a professional sports venue? Keep in mind this was a month before the Cavaliers took him No. 1 overall.

In hindsight? What a valuable investment. But looking back at the LeBron phenomenon, it could have so easily not worked out.

(9) February 15, 2000: Martin Brodeur shoots game-winning goal in 4-2 victory

A total freak occurrence. Goalies have sometimes gotten the occasional empty netter, but in this case Brodeur merely cleared the puck. With the New Jersey Devils up 2-1, The Philadelphia Flyers, who pulled the goalie during a delayed penalty, mishandled the puck into their own net. Brodeur was the last Devil to touch it, and because he gave up another goal to Philly, he was credited with the better-than-it-sounds "game winning goal," the first goalie to ever do it, and perhaps the last.

(8) December 28, 2008: Detroit Lions finish 0-16

And the Dan Orlovsky, Rod Marinelli-led juggernaut found its final resting place.

The expansion Tampa Bay Buccaneers went winless in a 14-game season, so they're not the first champions of futility, but with two more cracks at getting in the win column, and a league which parades the mantra of "parity" at every dogleg, this was a terrible team with terrible fortune.

(7) June 26, 2008: 4th seeded Fresno State wins College World Series

Between Utah and George Mason, I pick neither as the decade's college underdog. How many championships did they win?

Fresno entered the NCAA baseball tournament unranked and with a 37-27 record. Qualifying only because they won the WAC tournament, the Bulldogs knocked off No. 2 North Carolina, No. 3 Arizona State, No. 6 Rice, and No. 8 Georgia en route to the title.

This is like a 12-seed winning the NCAA basketball Final Four. And Mason was an 11-seed. Just reaching the semifinals? BORING!

(6) March 19, 2005: Blake Hoffarber hits buzzer-beater while flat on his ass to win the Minnesota state basketball title

There might be stranger shots to win basketball games. But the odds of swishing a basket while sprawled on the ground?

When it comes to game-winners, one will presumably not be using ideal mechanics. But quite often they know how far they have to push it.

However! When you're on your back, that's another six or seven feet you have to launch the arc. I hope kids around the nation practiced that shot in their driveway, and soiled their shirts in the process.

Hoffarber wasn't done. Three years later, while playing for Minnesota in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals:

Standing upright. He practically cheated.

(5) October 17, 2001: Barry Bonds hits his 73rd home run

This may go up there with DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak, batting .400, or throwing a no-hitter on LSD, as a record marked by the sign of the times. Between 1998 and 2001, there were six players who knocked 63 or more home runs (Sammy Sosa three times, Mark McGwire twice, and Bonds). Since then, there were only seven occurrences of 50 or more taters, with Ryan Howard getting as high as 58 in 2006.

There may be a situation in which 60- and 70-home run seasons become existent or even commonplace. (Ever played Super Baseball 2020? What foresight!) But it would require a culture shift, a blind eye, and a ton of steroids. Hey, we did it once…

(4) July 9, 2006: Marco Materazzi provokes Zinedine Zidane to headbutt him in the World Cup final

There have been insane fights in sports. (Ron Artest, are you reading? Of course not.) And there have probably even been headbutts during competition. But on perhaps the world's largest sports spotlight this side of the Olympics, for the Italian defender to get under the skin of one of the game's best with a classic "I want to bang your sister" routine … and to have it result in a friggin' headbutt? What a rare combination of notoriety, prominence, and innovation. Molto bene!

When someone is insulting you to the point of rage, what's your first reaction? A push, perhaps? Maybe a punch to the face? What involuntary spasm results in a noggin into the sternum? Of the above maneuvers, the headbutt is the most intricate of the unarmed combat selections.

(3) March 16, 2003: Ricky Craven wins NASCAR race by .002 seconds

Wow. Remember Ricky Craven? Of course you don't. He only won two career races at NASCAR's highest level, the latter being this photo finish over Kurt Busch in the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. I mean, look at it:

If you thought Michael Phelps' photo finish in the medley was close, he had some space. That one was a difference of .013 seconds. And as much as the lore would like you to believe, Phelps doesn't swim 180 mph.

So yeah. Ricky Craven. That takes me back.

(2) September 1, 2007: Appalachian State beats No. 5 Michigan 34-32

It had never happened where an FCS team even beat a ranked team, let alone one so high. Looking back, it wasn't exactly a slam dunk upset; App State was a championship in their own subdivision, and they repeated that year. While the Wolverines weren't top 10 material, they did finish 9-4 with a No. 18 after beating Florida and Heisman winner Tim Tebow in the Capital One Bowl.

This could certainly happen again, but here's why it may not: these large teams receive no benefit from stomping on small schools. Scheduling them brings a risk that is not worth the reward. One might as well bring someone in from the MAC or Sun Belt; at least they're one of the bowl subdivision schools. The only time they'll dial up these smaller schools is to steal their coaches away to become coordinators.

(1) March 24, 2001: Randy Johnson kills a bird with a fastball in spring training

Hey, I'll admit it: I turned this into a long list for padding purposes. Because nothing else so much as sniffs the impossibility of repetition than this anomaly during the Diamondbacks spring training in 2001:

He threw a pitch and killed a bird. In the Big Unit's defense, the bird shouldn't have been flying there. It's almost Danny Darwinian.

No coincidence, that inadvertent animal sacrifice imbued Johnson with the power needed to go 3-0 in the World Series (another feat that hadn't happened in 33 years, but I don't remember Mickey Lolich's avian homicide rate).

You can never say never in sports, or in life. But you can probably sleep at night if you declared that this will never happen again. A Blue Jay will never maim a blue jay. A yellow hammer will never crush a yellowhammer. This was certainly unrepeatable. (Now just watch this happen next spring training, and it's gonna be Paul Byrd.)

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About Suss

  • http://blogcritics.org/writer/heloise Heloise

    Good article Matt. But today, I think, Tiger Woods was just name athlete of the decade and you don’t have him on your list. They listed the also-rans but Tiger won the lion’s share of the votes. Perhaps he is in a sports class all to himself. But either you missed something or I missed something since you don’t mention (at least) that he is the first billionaire “ball” player, or that he quadrupuled the purse for golf or that the ratings plummet when he no play? Hmmm. Just askin’

  • http://blogcritics.org/writer/heloise Heloise

    In case you missed it:
    “Tiger Woods is in the news again, but mercifully, it’s for something positive and sports related: the world’s No. 1 ranked golfer and recent tabloid celebrity has been named the “AP Athlete of the Decade.”

    A whopping 56 PGA Tour victories, including 12 major victories, over the last 10 years apparently outweighed any negative press sent his way over the past three weeks, as Woods received 56 of the 142 votes cast by AP member editors since last month.” it’s from Golf something or other

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    No mention of Roger Federer either, the tennis machine.

  • http://www.futonreport.net/ Matthew T. Sussman

    My apologies for not making it clear in the headline that this list is about unrepeatable accomplishments. I should’ve capitalized it. UNREPEATABLE.

    Forbes: “MJ should hit the $1 billion mark in career earnings in the next four to five years.”

    And yes, Roger Federerererererer is good too. Are we just naming really good athletes now? Sidney Crosby! Ronaldo! Kyle Farnsworth!

  • http://blogcritics.org/writer/heloise Heloise

    Matt, I hate to argue, I am right on this one. You said “this decade” and MJ may not get the 1 billion mark until next decade? No, we are not naming just really good athletes. As much as I hate to say it “Tiger reinvented golf” for non whites! Do I need to capitlize REINVENT? LOL

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    But there was Mark Fidrych, aka The Bird.

  • doug m

    No, you missed it. Someone will be named athlete of the decade next decade. And Tiger didn’t reinvent golf. He uses a club to put a ball in a hole just like everyone else, and now it’s possible he used performance enhancers.

  • http://www.futonreport.net/ Matthew T. Sussman

    “Matt, I hate to argue, I am right on this one”

    You’re actually wrong.

    “You said “this decade” and MJ may not get the 1 billion mark until next decade?”

    Next decade qualifies as a point in the time-space continuum. I looked it up.

    “As much as I hate to say it “Tiger reinvented golf” for non whites!”

    You could argue that happened back in the 90s and spilled over into the Aughts.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writer/heloise Heloise

    Matt, Matt, your logic is so thin you could thread a needle with it.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writer/heloise Heloise

    He reinvented golf on a cultural continuum. Spin that.

  • Tony

    Who would have thought a piece like this would get so heated. You can put “unrepeatable events” in big, bold letters, repeatidly state it as the point of the list, and still some won’t get it.

    But here I think you missed it buddy. I really doubt will ever see anyone blow up their career the way Tigers Woods has. More girls coming out every day and now his doc is busted for roids. Pretty bad.

  • Tony

    The irony being that reason is the only way Tiger makes this list and it is thin at best. Just to clarify for everyone who found this piece challenging. Nice work here Matt.

  • Tony

    I have to take issue with the Randy Johnson pick at number one. Dave Winfield got one with a warmup throw in the 80s. The Johnson thing was freaky but some other things on your list were much weirder. And how could you mention 0-16 and Dan without a nod to the run out of the back on the endzone.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writer/heloise Heloise

    Nice try Tony. Okay I’ll bite. He’s the biggest phenom in sports since the Olympics. But wait, wait I got it: What other billionaire athlete of the decade/century (in any sport) who started the sport at age 4 on TV–will make ALL the tabloid covers and MSM mention every day running for a month! And not be seen in public for that same time period? Damn I’m good.

    BTW Lebron is a god.

  • http://etierphotography.blogspot.com/ FCEtier

    I’m with you on the App State win over Big Blue and the exploding bird.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writer/heloise Heloise

    Breaking sports news: Chris Henry of Bengals “fighting for his life” after fighting with his gf. He fell off a moving truck! WTF

  • http://www.futonreport.net/ Matthew T. Sussman

    Oh my.

    Well, ya got me. Tiger Woods revolutionized golf. I won’t dispute this. But does it fit on this list?

    (a) Not that it matters, but I don’t know the exact moment it happened. I was going for moments on which the pinnacle was finally reached for the first and (probably) only time, but if it was anything, it was his Masters win in 1997, when he became the first African-American to win a major championship. But it’s moot because…

    (b) …he was not the first person to revolutionize golf. Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, sure. You can go all the way back to Francis Ouimet in 1913, who broke socioeconomic barriers to win the U.S. Open as an amateur. Now, will anyone ever re-revolutionize the sport specifically for minorities? (And where are they, by the way? Not a single other black golfer was on the PGA Tour last year.)

    (c) If you’re talking about somebody exposed to the world at two years old (or younger) and went onto become a superstar athlete … well, nowadays with YouTube, that’s almost certainly going to be duplicated.

    And Tony, time will tell if Tiger can recover from this. He probably will. Look at Kobe Bryant and the rape/adultery. Muhammad Ali and his anti-war stance getting him banned from the ring. So far all that’s been damaged is his image and (slightly) his pocketbook. The only criminal damage he’s done is some points on his license.

    I’m not sure about Winfield’s bird incident. Because he was arrested for intentionally hitting it (!?), I’m going to assume the bird was standing perfectly still. A perpendicular moving target has a higher degree of WTFness.

  • http://ruvysroost.blogspot.com Ruvy

    Tiger Woods was named “athlete of the decade” because of his skill with the wood – between his legs.

  • http://www.futonreport.net/ Matthew T. Sussman

    Pow! Golf sex metaphor. Pick it up.

    Shaft.

  • brad laidman

    remembered this too – but obviously didn’t have the video greatness of the johnson one

    On August 4, 1983, Dave Winfield and the Yankees were playing against the Blue Jays in Toronto. Winfield had a great game, driving in two runs as the Yankees won 3-1. Unfortunately, he was arrested after the game. In the middle of the fifth, Winfield finished his warmups and tossed the ball to a batboy. The ball hit a seagull on the head, killing the bird, and Winfield was charged with cruelty to animals.

    “They say he hit the gull on purpose,” said Yanks manager Billy Martin “They wouldn’t say that if they’d seen the throws he’d been making all year. It’s the first time he’s hit the cutoff man.”

    The charges were dropped the next day.

  • http://lowposts.com/ ebooker

    Ricky Craven = Greatest Maine Athlete of All-Time.

    (Him & Cindy Blodgett..)

  • http://marksaleski.com Mark Saleski

    I really doubt will ever see anyone blow up their career the way Tigers Woods has.

    yeah? you just watch sussman after his pulitzer.

  • STM

    Matt, the headline should have read: the Decade’s 9 unrepeatable AMERICAN sporting moments (which most people outside the US have never heard of), and A Mad Frenchman’s Moment of Lunacy.

    It’s a big, wide, sporting world out there and most of us outside America wouldn’t have a clue about the other stuff because it mostly doesn’t rate a mention outside the US.

    I can, however, think of one moment that certainly trumps most of these you’ve listed: England five-eighth Jonny Wilkinson’s extra-time drop goal in the 2003 Rugby World Cup Final at Stadium Australia in Sydney with just 21 seconds left of the normal extra-time period and before the game went into sudden-death extra time.

    Despite having won two World Cups previously, Australia were the underdogs in the game even before the 80,000 home crowd.

    Against the might of the England forwards, Australia somehow managed to stay well in the game, using their quick backs for go-forward and Australia five-eighth Elton Flatley booted a controversial penalty in the last kick of normal time to lock the scores at 14-14 on the hooter.

    Neither side were able to convert any points throughout the first 19-minutes of extra time, until Wilkinson stood off the back of the ruck about 30 metres from the Australian goal line, took a whippy pass from the halfback and hoisted a pinpoint drop-goal that sailed straight through the posts and sealed the game with 20 seconds remaining.

    In the process, he broke my heart and that of 20 million of my countrymen, but the game was a corker that thrilled hundreds of millions of rugby fans around the world who watched it live. I doubt there has been a World Cup final as exciting.

    So come on Matt, this is an international site now … if you’re going to do THE definitive list, don’t disappoint us: do your homework – it’s not all about America, mate :)

    Oh, yeah, then there was the fourth cricket Test against South Africa at the …

  • Johnny

    Yay STM. Agree about being American only list. I read half the items and went wtf because I hadn’t even heard of these people or events.

    Rugby’s a real man’s game. No need to cover yourself with a ton of padding like some prissy.

  • zingzing

    “Rugby’s a real man’s game. No need to cover yourself with a ton of padding like some prissy.”

    you’ve never heard of calcio fiorentino, i assume. makes rugby look like a game for little girls.

    “England five-eighth Jonny Wilkinson’s extra-time drop goal”

    biddle boo-wha?

  • http://www.futonreport.net/ Matthew T. Sussman

    Lists will be Americentric. We will all get through this together.

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    you’ve never heard of calcio fiorentino, i assume. makes rugby look like a game for little girls.

    I dunno about that, zing. From Wikipedia:

    “The modern version allows tactics such as head-butting, punching, elbowing, and choking, but forbids sucker-punching and kicks to the head.”

    Sounds a bit wimpy to me.

  • STM

    And then there’s Rugby League, a game that resembles rugby only in the shape of the ball, the field, the posts and the object of getting the ball over the line, but which takes toughness and fitness to another level entirely.

    No offensive or defensive teams there either. Play the full 80 minutes or go and get a new handbag.

    It’s true that our American brethren, sadly, are a terribly insular bunch (as the rest of us in the English-speaking world commonly note).

    Matt, who I’ll admit really does seem to know his sport, once showed me a video of sports scientist testing the power of the hits between American footballers and rugby players (which of course showed Yanks hitting harder).

    Except for one flaw: for the experiment, they’d used some rugby players from some mickey mouse competition in the US, not professional competitions that are at the top of the world game.

    And they certainly didn’t have any professional Rugby League players from the English Super League or the Australian NRL, the two top tiers of the sport.

    I suspect the results would have been vastly different.

    While the experiement is worth doing just to end the arguments, in that case a little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

    Still, it all makes for a fun time :)

    On the other hand, I do love American football, even if I don’t understand all the rules and (not so subtle) nuances.

    The thing is, unlike a lot of Americans, I will at least make the effort.

    All of us who love sport can appreciate great athleticism when we see it, right? Soccer’s not big in Australia but I like watching top-flight EPL just for the skill level.

    And in last season’s Super Bowl, someone scored a touchdown that was one of the best pieces of running football I’ve seen in any of the oval-ball codes anywhere.

  • STM

    Calcio fu.k-me-a-what-ino?

    “The modern version allows tactics such as head-butting, punching, elbowing, and choking, but forbids sucker-punching and kicks to the head.”

    Must be why Italy is the lowest ranked of the six-nations northern hemisphere rugby competition.

    They’ve played this other game and haven’t learned how to do all that stuff, including sucker-punching and kicks to the head, without the ref seeing.

    Another game for girly men, obviously, like American football.

    Still, what do you expect from those Yanks? It’s all talk and chest thumping.

    Or in zing’s case, a load of hot cock and bullshit.

  • STM

    On that note, it’d be interesting to know whether zing’s ever pulled on a pair of boots himself and been smacked from pillar to post around a paddock.

    Can’t know how bad (or good, if like that kind of stuff – and I do) it is until you know first hand, zing …

  • zingzing

    “Or in zing’s case, a load of hot cock and bullshit.”

    hmm?

    “On that note, it’d be interesting to know whether zing’s ever pulled on a pair of boots himself and been smacked from pillar to post around a paddock.”

    jigga-who? “pillar to post around a paddock” is pretty purple prose, but of course i haven’t. i don’t particularly understand the game, what’s legal and what’s not, and i am in no way a physical match for rugby. a friend of a friend of mine plays the game, but the man is about 6’4″ and a good 250 pounds, which is a good 4 inches and 100 pounds on me. i’ve also never played football (american) outside of some backyard toss arounds. but i don’t think that matters.

    i am, however, a very fine football (rest of the world) goalkeeper. or i used to be. i’m also a very fine wing in street hockey, although i got in trouble for being a bit too physical. little shit cried, his mom threatened to have me arrested, i quit in disgust. but i could score at will! at will! fucking children.

  • STM

    I hope you realise this is a gee-up.

    We’ve had this discussion before, haven’t we??

    I played goalie too, mainly because I was a rugby player and knew how to catch a ball.

    I loved shoulder charging opposing players, or “shoulder bustling” at any rate while jostling for the high ball, and watching them get all huffy.

    I did occasionally sneak in a sneaky whack too.

    Use of the shoulder – up to a point – used to be perfectly legal in soccer. Don’t know if it still is. Doc might be able to enlighten us on that.

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    Shoulder-charging is still technically legal, Stan, but much depends on the player’s intent, or in the final account on the ref’s interpretation of it. The charge needs to be clean and sideways-on, or the player will more than likely get penalised for obstruction.

  • STM

    I used to get the feeling that in the old first division (now the EPL), the skill level and speed of the game was such that there wasn’t really room or time for the physical stuff, whereas in the old English second division and below, there was heaps of boot, biff and barge going on.

    Vinnie Jones springs to mind …

  • STM

    Matt: “We will all get through this together.”

    Mmm. Geez.

    Dunno there.

    Not necessarily. I’ve already completely but inadvertently ruined your thread

  • STM

    Although to be fair, you’ve probably got waaaay more comments here than you’d usually get

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    Vinnie Jones springs to mind …

    Except that Vinnie spent most of his playing career in the top flight…

  • http://www.futonreport.net/ Matthew T. Sussman

    My next list is still Americentric, the way the Lord Our God intended, but it will feature an Australian. So, that’s something.

  • STM

    Why are you putting Aussies on your lists Suss?

    Do they really deserve this?

  • STM

    Doc,

    Didn’t Vinnie Jones play for a couple of old second division/new first division clubs, including QPR??

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    Well, he spent a season in Sweden before joining Wimbledon – where he made his name – had a couple of seasons at Leeds in the old Second Division, and spent his final year at QPR, also in the second tier. Aside from that, though, his whole career was in the Premier League/old First Division.

    Pundits constantly panned him for bringing down ‘the beautiful game’ and moaned that he didn’t belong at the top level, and he certainly wasn’t the most skilful player the sport has ever produced, but nobody could fault him for his commitment and leadership.

    There was that unforgettable moment – I think he was playing for Sheffield United at the time – when he managed to get himself booked within about five seconds of the kick-off. Charged straight for the other team’s centre-half and flattened the poor sod before he even had a chance to figure out where the ball was.

    When he made his international debut for Wales (he was found to be eligible through his grandfather who was from Wrexham) he actually took the trouble to learn the national anthem – in Welsh – and showed up his teammates, most of whom didn’t know it despite being born and raised in Wales, by belting it out at the top of his voice.

    Quite a character, both on and off the field.

  • STM

    Yeah, and he’s been in some great pommy gangster movies.

  • Charlie

    I would say Matthew Mitcham getting a perfect 10 dive in the Olympics probably is unrepeatable.