Sports Are So Cool and So Cruel

Two very cool stories met in the NFC Championship Game. Sadly, only one could continue. (Josie Lepe/San Jose Mercury News)

I have a story for you….

For most of Sunday, January 22, Kyle Williams was just an anonymous (how many of you knew before this weekend he was Kenny Williams’ kid? How many of you know who Kenny Williams is?) special teams player living the dream. Filling in for Ted Ginn, Jr., Williams was going to be handling the return duties for the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game. He was probably hoping to make at least one big play and help contribute to a Super Bowl run. Maybe he would even return one for a touchdown and become a celebrity by Monday. At the bare minimum he wouldn’t make any mistakes and his team would win.

Two plays later, Kyle Williams is seemingly the goat of the playoffs. Forget Jacoby Jones. At least his mistake was early in the game. The second of Williams’ miscues is the play everyone will (unfortunately) remember as the play that lost the game. The first play could be forgiven relatively easily, as a football does not bounce conventionally and he may have not felt it touch him. Fumbling on your side of the field in overtime is not so defensible. Who cares if he is the son of a millionaire? No one with any kind of heart could look at him on the sideline after the fumble and not feel sorry for him. That is, other than the monsters who have sent him death threats.

Now I have another story for you…..

Eli Manning is the younger brother of one of the best quarterbacks to ever play the game. He took all kinds of flak this offseason for claiming to be one of the elite quarterbacks in the game. All season it was all eyes on Eli. He is teammates with Mark Herzlich, a former ACC Defensive POY who survived cancer, returned for his senior season, and was able to make the an NFL roster. Victor Cruz, a Division 2 no-name whose rookie season was erased by injuries, was Eli’s leading receiver this season.

Now Eli is going to the Super Bow again and has a chance to beat Tom Brady, again. He has a chance to prove he his ELIte. He can silence the critics and add a very important accomplishment to his HOF resume. Mark Herzlich is getting to play in the biggest game in U.S sports when just a few years ago he thought he might die. Victor Cruz is a superstar from the University of Massachusetts.

At that moment when the Williams lost the ball, these stories were all completed. Sports fans can smile for Eli, Mark, and Victor. Maybe it even brought a smile to Tom Coughlin’s face. Steve Weatherford may never have a more noteworthy moment in his career than saving the snap on the winning field goal. A do-or-die run that started with a gaffe by Jason Garrett continues with one by Kyle Williams. They get to rematch the villains of the NFL, the Patriots, and have a chance to beat Hall of Famers Belichik and Brady again. At the same time….

Kyle Williams might lose his job with the 49ers. Despite how positive he was in his post game interview (think opposite of Chris Webber postgame after The Timeout) I’m sure this is a moment he won’t ever forget. If he ends his career without a ring he might always think about what could have been had he just held on to the football. Meanwhile, Alex Smith lost his chance to finally silence the critics. The win versus NOLA was nice, but he needed to win it all to finally make Aaron Rodgers just a bad memory. A season that was in general a Cinderella Story finally ended in typical 49er fashion: disappointingly.

Sports provide some of the greatest feel-good stories in the world. They also contain some of the most painful moments to watch. Often they go hand in hand and one is not possible without the other. It IS only a game, but often it’s so much more. A few examples to think about.

Bill Buckner

This isn’t what you think. Yes, I’m going to write about the infamous play, but better yet I’m going to write about what happened after. The play itself is a misunderstood tragedy. Never mind that it was only Game 6 and the pitching was horrendous. Buckner should not have been in the game in the first place. McNamara left him in the game when he had used a defensive replacement in games 1, 2, and 5. To blame the entire series loss on that play is ridiculous.

Still, that doesn’t mean he didn’t feel awful about what happened. I had an easy ground ball hit to me while playing second base in the bottom of the seventh with two outs in a high school baseball game once. Maybe it took a weird hop, maybe not, but I botched the play and a run scored. We ended up losing in 14 innings. I felt awful about blowing the game-sealing play. I can’t imagine how he felt after not finishing the World Series.

I also didn’t receive death threats.

Baseball fans and the media acted shamefully with their treatment of Buckner. I guess it didn’t matter he was a career .289 hitter with over 2,700 hits (and, ironically, a .991 fielding percentage rate). He still got heckled and booed by his own fans.

However, this awful moment in sports history made it possible for one of those tremendous feel-good stories. On Opening Day of 2008, after Boston had just won the World Series the year before, Buckner threw out the first pitch and received a four minute standing ovation. When asked after the game if he had doubts about appearing, he said “I really had to forgive, not the fans of Boston, per se, but I would have to say in my heart I had to forgive the media for what they put me and my family through. So, you know, I’ve done that and I’m over that.” Maybe the media will continue to bring up Bill Buckner’s mistake for years to come, but at least he and the Boston fans have finally been able to forgive.

2010 World Cup

It started with a play that Mike Tirico compared to Bill Buckner’s. England’s goalie, Robert Green, failed to make an easy save from a shot by the United States’ Clint Dempsey. The goal was the only one scored by the U.S, and the game ended in a 1-1 draw. Sad moment: check (well, if you’re English).

Donovan's goal was a great sports moment made possible by an embarassing sports moment that led to a throw the remote at the TV sports moment. (Devork Djansezian/Getty Images).

Then the U.S ignited a soccer revolution when Landon Donovan scored a thrilling late goal versus Algeria to send the squad to the knockout stage. As the man calling the game, Ian Darke, said “You could not write a script like this!” Happy moment: check.

The story doesn’t stop there. The U.S lost their next game to Ghana in extra time. While it was a dispiriting defeat for the U.S and its soccer fans, it sent an African team to the quarterfinals for only the third time ever. Add in that the World Cup was in Africa and the plot gets even better.

Their story would not end happily either.

With the score tied 1-1 in the quarterfinal versus Uruguay, Ghana sent a shot across the goal with essentially no time remaining. However, Luis Suarez (who is possibly a racist?) illegally blocked the shot with his hand, preventing the goal but giving Ghana a chance for a PK and earning himself a red card. Soccer, because it seems to want to be as archaic as possible, doesn’t have instant reply that would have clearly shown the ball already crossed the line. Asamoah Gyan, Ghana’s best striker and one of the best players on the African continent, had a chance to send an African team to the semis for the first time ever. He stepped to the line for a penalty kick.

He missed.

Ghana lost in PK’s.

The story ends.

Sports are a @#$%.

2011 Women’s World Cup

Much of this is taken from my 2011 Year in Review.

Wambach’s game-winning goal versus Brazil was incredible. Any time in a game that kind of  goal would be terrific. It was one of those moments that make watching sports great. Now the country actually cared about a women’s sport. For a few days we reveled in our awesomeness. It’s not often we get to beat Latinos at their own game. Unfortunately the U.S had to play Japan in the final. The U.S was playing for a championship; Japan was playing to bring hope to a nation. Normally we love to cheer for the underdogs or the feel-good story, but that’s tough to do when they’re playing your team. Throughout that game it was clear that the U.S was the better team, but they squandered several goal opportunities and Japan scored a miracle goal of their own to send the game to penalty kicks, and the U.S choked. There is no way to get around it; they should have won, and they didn’t. That set off complaints about the penalty kick system, when there had been no such talk after the U.S defeated Brazil in the same way. The United States of America is pretty good at sports, if you didn’t know, and it’s hard for us to admit that we lost, fair and square.

Sports does this to us all the time. The U.S had an incredible run fall short in a game they were this close to winning. If we had won, it would have been at the expense of perhaps the feel-good story of the year. Those kind of choices just frustrate me as a sports fan. Believe me, I was crushed after the Colts lost the Super Bowl to the Saints. But I would be lying if I said if there wasn’t a small part of me that was a little bit happy for the Saints. Honestly, if I was a neutral fan, I would have no second thoughts about cheering for the team from a Hurricane-wrecked city who had never won a Super Bowl playing the team who had just won a few years earlier. Unfortunately I had to endure way too many Saints featured commercials after that….

2011 NCAA March Madness

Three teams’ incredible stories collided in the NCAA Tournament this year. It ended in possibly the worst way possible. That’s not to say it wasn’t a good ending….

VCU Shaka’d the world when they defeated USC, Georgetown, Purdue, FSU, and the 1-seeded Kansas en route to the Final Four. This was after their admittance to the tournament was highly criticized (to be fair to Jay Bilas, he said they weren’t more deserving than Colorado, not that they weren’t good enough to compete).

The Butler Bulldogs had been the Cinderella Story of the 2010 Tournament. They ended up losing the championship to Duke after a last-second shot just barely missed from halfcourt. With a solid returning group, they were fighting their way back to the Final Four again. On the way they took part in a game versus Pittsburgh that had its own share of sports cruelty.

The Connecticut Huskies had not lost a tournament game all season. At the Maui Invitational at the beginning of the season, Kemba Walker launched into the stratosphere and never came down. The team would lose eight Big East games and finish in the middle of the pack, but they turned it around at Madison Square Garden as they won the Big East Tournament. They continued the run into the tournament and made it to the Championship Game.

Unfortunately, the matchup of VCU and Butler meant one of their stories would have to end. Shaka Smart and Co. gave us the best underdog run since George Mason, but it sadly had to end, setting up a championship game of Butler vs. UConn.

As a mid major, the chance to win a championship doesn’t come around too often. Getting a shot two years in a row is unheard of. That made their eventual loss even more tough to watch. Add in the fact that it wasn’t even a good game and the story becomes one we want to just forget. Butler shot just 18.8% for the game. Commentator Greg Anthony called the second half “the worst half of basketball I’ve ever seen in a national championship game.”

Silver lining?

Yes.

NCAA sanctions aside, Jim Calhoun is a cancer survivor who missed several regular-season games due to medical problems and was the oldest coach at 68 to win the tournament.

The win also capped an amazing run that began in the Big East Tournament and included wins against

First he broke Gary McGhee's ankles, then he broke Butler's heart.

teams like Georgetown, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, Louisville, a surprisingly talented San Diego State, and two close victories in the Elite Eight and Final Four to a Derek Williams led Arizona team and a highly talented Kentucky team. In total, they won 11 straight games. Kemba Walker, who started out the season by torching a tournament, ended in a similar way. He scored 24.6 per game during the win streak. His step-back jumper for the win versus Pittsburgh was one of the great plays of the year. The show he put on versus San Diego State was incredible.

That story is pretty cool, if you ask me. It was an incredible run by a team that was a lot less talented than some of the others in the tournament. It was one of those great sports stories that make watching, playing, and writing about sports so great.

But, because of the nature of the beast, it was still quite possibly the worst way that tournament could have ended. UConn’s story only happened at the expense of Butler’s crushing failure.

So cool, so cruel. That’s the nature of sports.

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