Continuing from last week, my annual countdown of the top ten sporting events I was lucky enough to attend this year.
5) Redbirds 24, Oklahoma City 7 (July 22) — Spectator sports are foremost about gathering, and this was one of the happiest gatherings of the year for me. My sister’s family was visiting from Seattle, and I was able to take my 5-year-old niece and 3-year-old nephew to their first game at AutoZone Park. As if the playground and leftfield bluff weren’t enough to impress, the home team scored a franchise-record 24 runs, with Pete Kozma and Steven Hill each hitting grand slams .... in the fourth inning. For one night, the last-place Redbirds and first-place RedHawks switched roles. Would have been the biggest baseball event of my family’s visit had Ichiro Suzuki not been traded to the Yankees the next day.
4) Tigers 84, Ohio 58 (December 5) — Adonis Thomas will be an NBA player a year from now. Three juniors from Memphis — Joe Jackson, Tarik Black, and Chris Crawford — collectively make up the face of the 2012-13 U of M basketball team. But on this night, two rookies made the team their own. Freshman forward Shaq Goodwin — a McDonald’s All-American from Georgia — scored the Tigers’ first 10 points of the second half, finishing with 20 (along with nine rebounds) for the game. Junior transfer Geron Johnson — shaking off a troubled past one field goal at a time — scored a game-high 21 points off the bench, nine coming via three-point shots, several others via supreme athleticism. Best of all, the Tigers had that grammatically fractured specialty of college hoops, a “quality win” over a team that played in the 2012 NCAA tournament’s Sweet 16. If Goodwin and Johnson are the players we saw on this night, the ceiling for the Tigers come March will be rather high.
3) Grizzlies 105, L.A. Clippers 98 (May 2) — After a kick-in-the-gut collapse in Game 1 of their playoff series, the Grizzlies regained their footing — and established some backbone — by beating Chris Paul and friends at a packed FedExForum. Six Memphis players scored in double figures, led by Rudy Gay (21) and O.J. Mayo (20). Paul picked up 29 points and five steals for the bad guys, but the Grizzlies maintained a lead from midway through the second quarter to the final buzzer. You had the sense leaving the arena that the Griz could regain home-court advantage in Los Angeles (which they did with a win in Game 6). Then Game 7 happened ... .
2) Tigers 83, Marshall 57 (March 10) — This was the sixth and final time the Conference USA tournament championship would be decided at FedExForum. And the fifth time the home team would cut down the nets. There was little in the way of drama, the Tigers coming off easy wins in the quarterfinals and semifinals before taking the court against the Thundering Herd. Memphis led by 18 points at halftime and cruised to the automatic NCAA tournament berth behind tournament MVP Joe Jackson (19 points and six assists). With the Tigers’ move to the Big East next year, it will be a long time before U of M fans get to see such a title won in their own neighborhood. On a Saturday morning in early March, the game — and a tourney championship — felt quite natural.
1) Tigers 42, Southern Miss 24 (November 24) — If this was the final Black-and-Blue Game on the gridiron, what a way for Memphis to finish a long rivalry. Three weeks after a program fell to 6-39 (dating back to the start of the 2009 season), it rode off the Liberty Bowl field — literally for many of the seniors — after winning a third straight blowout. The Tiger offense scored three touchdowns in the second quarter and three more in the third. (There were times of late when three touchdowns in a quarter-season would have felt normal.) The U of M finished its final Conference USA season with a 4-4 league record and, best of all, indications that it may well be competitive in the Big East, perhaps as early as 2013. This game was a much-deserved send-off for a group of seniors that had to endure more than any class of football players should.
This week (and next), my annual countdown of the top ten sporting events I was lucky enough to attend this year.
10) Redbirds 3, Isotopes 2 (June 27) — There was some ugly baseball played by the home team at AutoZone Park last summer. But on this night, the ’Birds looked sharp, both on the mound and at the plate. Shelby Miller — the St. Louis Cardinals’ top prospect — pitched like all the scouts said he can. Over five innings, Miller struck out eight and gave up but a single hit (a home run to Albuquerque’s Matt Angle). Better yet, he pitched out of a bases-loaded, no-out jam of his own doing (two walks and a hit batter) to keep Memphis in the game. Down 2-1 in the seventh inning, the Redbirds took the lead on back-to-back homers from Mark Hamilton and Zack Cox. Adam Reifer and Maikel Cleto retired the last six Isotopes in order. Baseball like it ought to be.
9) Tigers 37, Tulane 23 (November 10) — Good vibes have been hard to come by at the Liberty Bowl recently. But this night had plenty, even with sloppy football (a combined eight turnovers) from both teams. You had the sense Justin Fuente’s boys were primed to compete when they gambled on fourth down near midfield on their opening drive ... and converted. They pulled off the same stunt early in the fourth quarter, again part of a touchdown drive. The Tigers’ final two touchdowns were scored on a pass from tailback Brandon Hayes and a 32-yard interception return by Tank Jakes. Quarterback Jacob Karam passed for 270 yards on just 18 attempts. If this is a preview of what Fuente Football might be, it’s worth staying tuned.
8) Tigers 81, North Florida 66 (November 12) — “Starting at forward, from Memphis Tennessee!” “Starting at guard, from Memphis, Tennessee!” And on and on went FedExForum p.a. announcer Chuck Roberts: five Tiger starters, all of them natives of the Bluff City. It can be hazardous to be too provincial in rooting for a team (or players). Shaq Goodwin and Antonio Barton might bristle at the thought of the 2012-13 Tigers being “our” team. But it’s fun to cheer the familiar, and yes, the 2012-13 Memphis Tigers are indeed “our” team in ways no college team has been for many years, at least since Larry Finch coached his last game in 1997. The drubbing of the Ospreys seemed formulaic, but the start of a new college hoops season — coach Josh Pastner’s fourth — made for a delectable night of home cooking.
7) Memphis 60, Chattanooga 59 (March 15) — There are charms to watching a basketball game at the Elma Roane Fieldhouse that are all too hard to find in modern sports. The small crowds (relative to FedExForum) are generated from essentially three fan types: students (the venue is on the U of M campus; imagine that), families of players, and fans who go because their parents and grandparents went. Despite 24 wins and three all-conference selections — senior center Jasmine Lee made Conference USA’s first team — the Tiger women’s team was relegated to the NIT and hosted the Lady Mocs in a first-round game. Memphis fell behind by 16 points (25-9) early in the game, but fought back steadily behind Lee and sophomore point guard Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir. The Tigers took their first lead (since the game’s opening bucket) with less than four minutes to play. Down a point, Lee put back a miss by Nicole Dickson with six seconds to play to keep the Tiger season alive. Fans lined up to high-five the victorious team as it departed the court. Yes, college sports can still be charming.
6) Louisville 87, Tigers 78 (December 15) — Forget the outcome. The Louisville Cardinals — the team a local fan base most loves hating — were at FedExForum for the first time in more than seven years. The game was played a day after the senseless massacre in Newtown, Connecticut. A day after a Memphis police officer was slain in the line of duty. If sports serve any redeeming purpose, it’s as a distraction from the troubles (and sometimes, horrors) we must confront — and endure — as the days and years go by. The buzz before tip-off was that of an NBA playoff game in the fourth quarter. For two hours, the good guys wore white and the bad guys wore black. Then they shook hands after the final buzzer. Simple, really. And much needed.
Next week — the top five.
Quickly ... who won the Heisman Trophy in 2006? Who went home that year with the single most famous individual award in American sports? (He played for Ohio State.) Remember the Florida State stud that took home the trophy in 2000? What about that dual threat from Nebraska the next year?
This Saturday night at the Nokia Theatre in New York City, history will be made (as they say) when Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel becomes the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy. Or linebacker Manti Te’o becomes the eighth Notre Dame star to earn the honor. Whether or not such news makes history as you measure it, the trophy will all but surely be connected to the recipient for the rest of his days, and in the first paragraph of his obituary many, many years from now.
And I couldn’t care less. I’ll more than likely see if I can squeeze in a family movie during the broadcast announcing the 78th Heisman winner. Snooze.
It’s not that I’m against honoring individuals for athletic achievement. I count down the days to Major League Baseball’s MVP announcements every fall. I enjoy the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player (if only because calling a basketball star a MOP for life tickles me). And I take Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year more seriously than I should.
But then there’s the Heisman Trophy. Only U.S. presidential campaigns take longer to unfold than a “Heisman campaign.” No college football preview worth its paper (yes, some are still printed, found on newsstands) ignores “candidates” for the HeismanTrophy. Web sites are devoted to the enterprise (stiffarmtrophy.com, to name one). Worst of all, a player’s performance on a given Saturday is often spun as helping or hurting that player’s Heisman candidacy, merely incidental to how that performance helped determine the game’s outcome.
For me, the Heisman Trophy died when Michigan’s Desmond Howard actually struck the stiff-armer’s pose after scoring a touchdown (and before winning the trophy) in 1991. Any chance for exhuming the bronze body was dashed six years later, when a player who touched the football 55 times all season and scored four touchdowns (Charles Woodson) was given the award over the decade’s best player (Peyton Manning).
Among the 76 men who have won the Heisman (Archie Griffin won it twice), how many do you think are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame? Exactly eight: Doak Walker, Paul Hornung, Roger Staubach, O.J. Simpson, Tony Dorsett, Earl Campbell, Marcus Allen, and Barry Sanders. This is an apple trophy to an orange Hall of Fame, you say? The Heisman is about one year, in college football, not an entire career in the NFL. Right you are. But come on ... 90 percent of the men deemed “the most outstanding college football player in America” — even for just one year — don’t find themselves honored by the more-generous Pro Hall of Fame someday? (Among Heisman winners still active or not yet selected for the Pro Football Hall, I see two with yellow sport coats in their future: Tim Brown and, yes, Charles Woodson.)
Johnny Football is a great story this season (for beating Alabama). Manti Te’o is a great story (for leading fabled Notre Dame to the championship game). It’s somehow a shame that the winner of this Saturday’s award will be remembered more for that award than for the actual on-field achievements of the team he inspired. There’s something broken in that truth.
Troy Smith won the Heisman in 2006 (but you knew that). Chris Weinke became a household name in 2000, and Eric Crouch made Nebraska fans forget Johnny Rodgers in 2001. Right? Eric Crouch is a football legend. Right??