Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Top 11 of 2011

There was no shortage of excitement and intrigue in the sports world in 2011.  There were stories of inspiration and of controversy.  In honor of the year that was, I present my Top 11 momements, athletes, and games of 2011.

11. Women's World Cup Final

Soccer took center stage during the early part of the summer for the second year in a row.  Twelve months after the U.S Men's team made their exciting run through the World Cup, the American women did the same, and arguably in even more exciting fashion.

The U.S Women's team's journey to the final had several phenomenal moments, including a quarterfinal win over heavily favored Brazil that included an Amy Wambach goal in the 122 minute and the U.S winning on penalty kicks.

The team advanced to the finals after beating France in the semis.  In the title game against Japan, it was the United States that jumped out to a lead, only to see the Japanese team fight back with a late goal and win on PK's.

The World Cup Championship game had enough drama to fill an entire season of HBO Sunday nights and the performance of both the Japanese and United States teams extended beyond the pitch.

The U.S economy and political spectrum continues to be a mess.  There are signs of progress, but with each new issue comes a new set of stalemates.  During the several weeks of the World Cup, the nation had something to distract its attention.  The women who took the field representing the United States gave every citizen something to be cohesively proud of.   During the roughly three hours the team was on the field, there were no political divisions, no stresses over bills, and thoughts of war were trumped by visions of triumph.

Even though they came up just short of winning the World Cup, the U.S Women's Soccer team brought enjoyment and hope to a nation desperately searching for inspiration.  That is better than any trophy.

With that said, the trophy probably meant more to Japan than any other team in the tournament.  Just months before, the nation was ruined when a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami hit one of the country's most populated islands.  Nearly 16,000 people were reportedly killed by the natural disaster.  The physical recovery  may take decades, the emotional scars may never heal.

But, like the U.S team which gave their country a break from its hardships, the Japanese team did the same times ten.  Their run through the tournament was described by many soccer experts as the most unlikely ever.  They embraced the challenge of representing a nation at a time when greatness was needed most.  The Japan Women's World Cup team did more than win a championship, they started a healing process for a nation in shambles.  That is an immeasurable accomplishment.

10. Larry Merchant v. Floyd Mayweather

It's a shame boxing has lost its luster.  Some of the greatest athletes of all-time made their living in the ring.  Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, Jack Johnson, and Muhammad Ali all put on the gloves to make the sport a must-see event.  Even Mike Tyson, who probably never lived up to his talent, made fans shell out $59.99 for Pay-Per-View fights.  Who doesn't want to see a modern day Alexander Pushkin take to the mic after a knockout fight?

Now the sport is but a mere afterthought.  Sports fans around the world are hoping for one showdown and one showdown only, Floyd Mayweather v. Manny Pacquiao.  With Pac Man's promising singing career and Mayweather starting a 90-day stint as Andy Dufresne, the fight seems like it will remain one of the great unsolved mysteries.

I am one of the many who want to see these two legends go toe-to-toe, but it falls second to another fight I NEED to see.  Money Mayweather v.  Larry Merchant.

After Mayweather dismantled Victor Ortiz in September, Merchant stepped in to conduct his usual postgame interview, like the Detroit River on the 4th of July, fireworks sparked immediately.  During the roughly two-and-a-half-minute interview, Mayweather told a man who could be his great grandfather that he "ain't S*#t" and Merchant, who speaks at a snail's pace, did what Pacquiao has refused to do, he challenged Mayweather.  It was a remarkable moment of two men defending their pride like school kids on the playground.  Neither came out looking all that classy, but class is not exactly in boxing's DNA.

We may never get the "fight of the century" between Mayweather and Pacquiao, but in 2011, we did get the next best thing, Money Mayweather v. Grandpa Merchant.

9. Black Pearl

Every year there are individual performances that can't be defined.  An athlete digs deep and performs at such an  elite level that those who witness it can only look on in awe.  In 2011, there were certainly a fair share of these moments.  Robert Griffin III against Oklahoma, Dirk's Free Throw Shooting in the NBA Finals, and Justin Verlander's no-hitter come to mind immediately.  However, the greatest individual effort of the year may not have even come from a human.

In April, a force of nature shook the ground in Las Vegas.   Black Pearl, a mamouth bull put on one of the most epic performances you will ever see.  Bull Fighting?! you say.  Indeed.

My dad and I have developed an appreciation for the sport and tuned in to watch "The Last Cowboy Standing."  I'll admit, our knowledge of the sport is in the infant stages, but we have watched enough to appreciate not only the cowboys who ride, but the real athletes, the bulls.

These beast creatures have hops like Harold Minor, physicality like Bruce Smith, and grace like Baryshnikov.  They are remarkable.

Black Pearl is at the top of the list.

What he did to Pistol Robinson was brutal.  Ike Turner would have told him to take it easy.  Robinson spent a good two minutes getting ready in the shoot.  The second (literally) the gate opened, Black Pearl sent him right back in.  The enormous bull made one move and threw Robinson back into the shoot in, wait for it...1.47 seconds.  The speed of light had to hustle to catch up to that kind of dominance.   Then, like Prince Fielder after a walkoff home run, Black Pearl took a moment, posed for the crowd and pimp walked out of the arena, but not without a final kick just to remind the rest of the riders who he is and what he does.  I believe the kids call that, SWAG!

(Watch the epic performance here.)

Black Pearl may not be a household name, but there were few individual efforts in the 2011 sports world that were as powerful and awe inspiring as the one he put on in Las Vegas.  That's no Bull (c'mon, you had to see that coming!)

8. Derek Jeter

Most boys grow up idolizing their favorite athletes.  For me, it was Earl Boykins.  But, very rarely do grown men idolize other grown men.  I admit, I idolize Derek Jeter.

Mr. Gift Basket not only dates the most beautiful women (Minka, Halle, Jessica Alba, ADRIANA!, and for those of you who are into a little crazy, Mariah) but he is also one of the greatest shortstops of all-time, a bona fide winner, and to top it all off, he does it all with humility.

In 2011, Jeter had one of the best moments when he became the first Yankee with 3,000 hits.  He did it in Yankee Stadium, on a perfectly sunny summer day, and with a home run, no less.  He is so good it's disgusting.

But, the aspect that gets Jeter on this list is that he rejects the spotlight.  Unlike the majority of players who whore themselves out to any device with a record button, the Captain goes about his business and goes home.  He is great with fans and the media, but never makes it about him.  He represents what an athlete should be, great on the field, respectful off.

The five-time champion and future Hall-of-Famer has enough accolades to develop a Stewie Griffin big head, but he respects his profession and his dignity and chooses to take the high, humble road.  For that, Derek Jeter deserves tremendous credit.

7.  MLB's Final Day

If I was a good investor, I would have bought stock in a pacemaker company prior to September 28th.  Major League Baseball's final day of the regular season provided a multitude of heart stopping moments.

The Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays were playing for their postseason lives.  The Sox were in Baltimore with a chance to claim the final AL Wild Card spot.  The Rays were at home against the Yankees hoping to cap off an epic late season rally to even get in contention for the playoffs.

It appeared as though Tampa Bay's efforts were going to fall short.  New York jumped out to a 7-0 lead in the 5th inning and the Red Sox and Orioles were in a close battle.  If nothing else, it looked like there was going to be a one game playoff the next day.

Then, the baseball world was turned on its head.  The Sox and O's were delayed by rain.  During that time, sports fans got one of the best sound bites in the history of predictions.

 While mother nature slowed the completion of the game in Baltimore, the Rays were mounting a historic comeback.  They scored six runs in the eighth to draw within one and then with two outs and two-strikes in the ninth, Dan Johnson hit a solo homer to revive the Rays season and send the game into extra innings.

Meanwhile, play resumed between the Sox and Orioles.  Boston took a 3-2 lead into the ninth with their ace close Jonathan Paplebon coming to the hill to close out the win.  Apparently, Baltimore didn't read the script. The O's tied the game on a ground rule double and then Robert Andino hit a walk-off single to give Baltimore a 4-3 win.

Before the Red Sox could even get off their jock straps, the Rays finished the exciting night with an Evan Longoria walkoff home run in the 12th inning against the Yankees.

The Red Sox blew a nine game Wild Card lead over the final month of the season, which led to front office changes galore in Bean Town.  The win helped Joe Maddon secure Manager of the Year honors, even though the Rays were bounced out of the playoffs by the eventual AL Champion, Texas Rangers.

There was more drama on September 28th than a Telenovela.  Twiiter exploded.  Facebook timelines featured everything from "OH MY GOD" to "THIS IS THE GREATEST DAY EVER" and Tim Kurkjian was as giddy as a high school boy on prom night, voice cracking and all.  It really was one of the most special nights in baseball, and all of sports, not just in 2011, but ever.

6.  Twitter

Few things had a greater impact on sports this year than the little blue bird.  The 140 character messages had immense influence, from the Penn State and Ohio State scandals, to LeBron's Hairline and fourth quarter non-existence, to calling out God; athletes, journalists, and fans took twitter to a different realm in 2011.

Sports Journalism has been reshaped because of Twitter and athletes are using the social media platform to expand their brand and establish a closer connection with fans, for better of worse.

Twitter has become the top source of breaking news and become the primary sounding board for criticism and praise.  It's amazing how influential such short messages can have, but in 2011 Twitter ruled the sports world and it appears to be gaining even more momentum heading into 2012.

(My favorite athlete tweet of the year came from Arizona Cardinals Defensive End Darnell Dockett.  He tweeted...)

"This lady heard me PEE'N in the bathroom and said "that was loud I thought a horse was in there" I said "sh*t! it was", and winked at her!"

...And for information like that, I say cheers to you Twitter.

5.  The NBA (pre-lockout)

I tried to pick specific aspects of the National Basketball Association to put on this list, the problem is, the League would have taken up about ten spots, so I put the NBA as a whole in this slot.

Before the lockout, the NBA experienced excitement not seen since the MJ, Magic, and Bird-era.  Every night provided something special.

Kevin Durant evolved into an elite scorer, and then in the summer became the greatest street ball legend since Pee Wee Kirkland.  For nine months, Blake Griffin doubled as a priest, and baptized the majority of power forwards and centers.  John Wall dougied. World B. Free was replaced by Metta World Peace for the best name ever. The Heat flamed out, and  Dirk and Jason Kidd added the final championship piece to their Hall-of-Fame resumes.

The level of intrigue in the Association sky rocketed.  Fans, both die-hard and casual, tuned in for everything from unreal dunks, Melanie Iglesias-type dime assists, and buzzer beaters to newest tats, reality show stars, and Chuck, Kenny, and EJ.

The league has been plagued with poor play and suspect characters for years.  The latter isn't vastly improved, but the level of competition and, in some respects, parity made the NBA truly special in 2011, even if it did almost throw it all away with the lockout.

4.  The NFL Rookie Salary Cap

There is nothing better than leaving college and knowing you have a lucrative job waiting for you, or so I've been told, I'm almost five years out and am still waiting on that big contract, but I digress.

The NFL makes million dollar dreams come true every April during the draft.  But, before the league agreed to a rookie salary cap, teams were paying guys by the names of Tim Couch, Jamarcus Russell, and Ryan Leaf superstar money before they even stepped on the field.  Their college resumes and potential were enough to put them at the top of the payroll at the professional level despite not proving they were capable of handling on field or off field duties.

If a top draft pick was a bust, the financial hit to the team that picked them was substantial and set them back for years.

The NFL's lockout, while miserable for fans, did produce the rookie pay scale which in the long term is a huge benefit for the league's overall health and players, as well.

College players now have less incentive to go for a money grab even if their skills aren't ready for the next level.  They know the money will be there the following year and makes the decision easier to stay on campus and hone their skills for another season.

That means better, more complete players coming into the NFL out of college and subsequently keeps the quality of play in the league strong.

And when guys do come into the league, their "big" contract must be earned.  While no one should turn their nose up at any millions, all players want that $100-million deal.  With the salary scale in place, they must earn this through hard work and productive Sundays.  Again, that only makes the league better for everyone involved.

3.  Justin Verlander

The stigma that a pitcher can't win the Most Valuable Player award was shattered this year by a flame throwing right hander for the Tigers.  Justin Verlander put together a season for the ages in 2011.

His no hitter against Toronto was the highlight, but every time JV took the hill was a must watch.  He does things with the baseball that can't be described.   He gets better as the game goes on and triple digits are the norm.  That's not normal.

Verlander's 24 wins in the regular season helped the Tigers stay afloat early and then when they added Doug Fister in a mid-season trade with Seattle, Detroit owned maybe the best one-two pitching combo in the league and costed to an AL Division Championship for the first time since 1987.

It's scary to think how good Verlander can become.  He is just 28 years old and is adding to his repertoire.  No more does Verlander try to just over power hitters, in 2011 he learned to manage situations and his arm while still getting wins.

He was the best player on the field every time he played and was baseball's most must see player.  JV was the MVP, no doubt.

2.  Michigan State v. Wisconsin: Rounds 1 & 2

Personally, my two favorite moments of 2011 involved Michigan State and Wisconsin.  The two teams played two of the best games of the college football season and I was on hand for both, sort of.

I drove up to the alma mater the night before the regular season showdown between Sparty and Bucky to truly relive the college experience.  I got up there early to tour the ESPN College Gameday set, hit up SBS to get new MSU t-shirt, and then Saturday tailgated at the tennis courts.  It was like being back in college all over again.

I went to MSU from 2003-2007, those are the John L. Smith years, also known to Spartans as the Dark Ages.  So to be back on campus four years later with an elite team in the National Game of the Week was a big deal for me.

My friends and I didn't have tickets, but like we did throughout the majority of our time as students in East Lansing, headed to Ricks to watch the game.

Early on it looked like it was going to be SOL, Same Old Spartans.  But, unlike during our years there, this MSU team fought back with some tremendous defense and special teams play, took the lead at halftime, and appeared to be coasting to a victory.  Then, the Badgers awoke.  They stormed the Spartans in the fourth quarter and drew even late in the game.

...and then it happened.

As time expired, Kirk Cousins connected with Keith Nichol on the play of the year in college football, the game winning Hail Mary.

Spartan Stadium erupted.  Ricks erupted.  Most of East Lansing shook a little.  There were "bro-hugs" going all around.  I never experienced as much joy on MSU's campus as I did that night.  It was a perfect ending to a perfect weekend.  That's what sports is all about.

So you'd think, wow, how can that be topped?  How about round two?

Michigan State and Wisconsin  met in the inaugural Big Ten Championship game in Indianapolis.  I work less than an hour from Lucas Oil Stadium and secured a press pass for the game.  I took full advantage of the opportunity.

I was like a kid on Christmas.  I slept MAYBE three hours the night before, because I was so excited to go to the game.  I got down there around 8:30 a.m (the game started 12 hours later)and just took in the sights.  I interviewed some of the top journalists and players in the country, highlighted by getting career advice from Paul Pabst, who is the Executive Producer for the Dan Patrick Show.

I had the chance to meet up with some of my former college friends and, oh yea, I also got a prime view another classic game.

The Spartans and Badgers went back and forth just as they did months before and I was on the field for the final five minutes to see Wisconsin earn a trip to the Rose Bowl.  Even though my Spartans fell short of the conference crown, they made being at the game something I will never forget.

Sports are all about experiences.  Being at those two games reminded me of why I fell in love with sports and journalism as a kid.  Not much else tops the fun and excitement the Spartans and Badgers provided this year, except.....


Those who aren't Detroit Lions fans can't truly understand the agony of those who are.  Sure you can sympathize, but you can't empathize.  Lions fans are the most hopeful in all of sports and have experienced the fewest returns.

Barry Sanders never had a great O-Line.  Charles Rodgers couldn't stay healthy physically or mentally.  Morningweg prefers the wind over wins.  Mike Williams.  Rod Marinelli and Mike Martz were the Odd Couple who were funny only if you were one of the other 31 teams.  0-16.  Stafford injuries.

Every year there was hope for the Lions and within the first few weeks, that hope dissolved to looking at next year's mock drafts.

For lack of a better term, being a Lions fan sucked.

But not this year.  Nope, 2011 has been a blast.  The Lions redefined themselves as winners.  This season had it all.  Double digit comeback wins at Minnesota and Dallas, Monday night dominance against the Bears, player and coaches fights, and in the end, and most importantly, a playoff berth.

The last time the Lions were in the postseason I was in eighth grade.  I am now 27 and when the clocked ticked to 0:00:00 Saturday and they secured their playoff spot, a single tear formed in my eye.

The 2011 version of the Lions displayed heart and resiliency that is representative of the hard hit city where they play.  They weren't perfect by any means.  There were plenty of moments when the Lions were undisciplined and lethargic, but they grew and united as a team to reach a goal that has eluded them for so many years.

The Lions have the potential to make some noise in the playoffs.  If they do, that will be the icing on the cake. But, for a franchise and city that has waited more than a decade to return to prominence, the Detroit Lions deserve all the accolades in the world.  Their fight and the positivity they brought to the Motor City and entire state of Michigan can not be understated.  The Lions transformed into winners and hopefully will serve as the symbol of change for Detroit as a whole.

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