Freeman’s gesture of unity (2000): As impressive as Cathy Freeman’s performance was in the Women’s 400-meter race during the Sydney Olympics—she took the gold—it paled beside what came next. Despite the Olympic ban on unofficial flags, Freeman took a lap around the track waving both the Australian flag and her Australian Aborigine one. The gesture spoke more loudly than any speech or large-scale protest ever could.
Dale drives for dad (2001): Dale Earnhardt Jr. had every reason to be skittish in his return to Daytona toward the end of the 2001 NASCAR racing season. After all, his father had died on the track months earlier, and most of his confidants expected him to put off the inevitable return trip until 2002 or later. Somehow, Dale Jr. put aside his emotions, and blasted to victory in the Pepsi 400.
No seed? No problem (2001): Goran Ivanisevic had long been regarded as an enigma on the men’s tennis tour, an athletically gifted big server who could be the best player in the world one day and a foot-faulting mess the next. But over the course of two weeks in July 2001, Ivanisevic was the model of steadiness at Wimbledon, belying his number-125 world ranking and overcoming the indignity of eking his way into the tournament via a wild card. His triumph, then, was viewed as both a surprise and a coronation.
Baseball returns to a very different New York (2001): The Yankees had become a championship mainstay at the end of the 20th Century, winning four titles in five years. But on September 25, when the Yankees played their first game in the Bronx following the 9/11 attacks, the game seemed almost beside the point. Amid tight security—and a display of full-throated, flag-waving patriotism rarely seen within the sports arena—cops, firemen, EMTs and other first-responders lined up alongside Derek Jeter, Bernie Williams, Paul O’Neill prior to the first pitch. No matter what team you were rooting for, you were a New York fan that night.
Brett honors his father (2003): After news leaked that Brett Favre’s father had died of a heart attack, nobody expected the QB/multiple retiree to play in the next night’s game against the Raiders. But play he did. On a Monday night for the ages, Favre threw for four touchdowns and 399 yards. How life-affirming was his performance? Raider fans, the very ones who pride themselves on taunting opposing players within an inch of their lives, gave him a huge ovation.
‘Zo comes back from the dead, almost literally (2004): When Alonzo Mourning was first diagnosed with kidney disease, he attempted to play through it, even participating in the 2002 NBA All-Star Game. When it became clear that he needed a transplant, it appeared that his NBA days were done. ‘Zo, however, had no plans of going out so quietly. After skipping the 2003-2004 campaign, he made the Nets’ regular-season roster and returned to the game in 2004. In one of those rare happy-ending tales, Mourning finally claimed an elusive championship ring with the Heat in 2006.
Red Sox finally–finally!–claim some championship gold (2004): Yes, they pinched the “now I can die in peace!” line from a New York Rangers fan who displayed the sentiment on a sign following the team’s Stanley Cup win in 1994. What made the Sox’s win special was the way they did it: coming back from a three-game hole in the American League Championship Series against their longtime abusers from New York and taking the title in a brisk four World Series games against the Cardinals. In the wake of that eight-game run, multiple generations of New England fans had to shed their perpetual-runner-up mentality. They didn’t seem to mind.
Bruschi fights his way back (2005): However you may feel about Bill Belichick and his stealth videotaping exploits, you can’t knock the mainstays of the Patriots’ championship teams. Take the great Tedy Bruschi, who suffered a mild stroke in February 2005 and, after announcing that he’d sit out the 2005 season, managed to get himself back into football shape by October and resume his usual defensive duties. Partially paralyzed in February, fighting his way through blocks in October. Amazing.
Andre says goodbye (2006): For years, Andre Agassi was regarded as the spoiled brat of the men’s tennis tour, betraying his talent by not bothering to harness it on more than a semi-regular basis. That all changed toward the end of his late-career run, during which he won multiple majors and became the second player to claim the so-called career slam (victories in each of the four major tournaments). When it was time to go, he left graciously, with a short speech at the U.S. Open: “Today the scoreboard says I lost. But what the scoreboard doesn’t tell you is what I’ve found.... I found loyalty. You have pulled for me not only on the court, and also in life. I found inspiration. You willed me to succeed even in my lowest moments. I found big hearts. You let me stand on your shoulders to reach a dream I couldn’t reach on my own. I found you. And I will take the memory of each and every one of you with me for the rest of my life.”
Small kid, big heart (2006): You might not know the name Jason McElwain, but you almost certainly know what he did. Inserted at the end of a game by the Rochester High School hoops squad for which he served as a team manager, McElwain—who suffers from autism—hit six three-pointers and ended his four-minute cameo with 20 points. The best part? He seemed almost nonplused by what he’d accomplished.
The mid-majors enter the bigtime (2007): Let’s be honest: prior to the 2007 Fiesta Bowl, if you knew Boise State at all, it was due to the super-awesome blue playing surface of the school’s football field. But after that game—one of the best in the history of college football, owing to its multiple trick plays and lead changes—the message was out: underestimate a team from a mid-major conference at your own peril. Heck, even replays of Boise State’s 43-42 overtime win over Oklahoma are more exciting than most anything you’ll see on Saturday afternoon.
Everett walks again (2007): After shattering his spine in a brutal kickoff collision, Buffalo tight end/special-teamer Kevin Everett was only given a small chance of surviving, much less walking. But there he was on the field only three months later, waving to the crowd and taking a few tentative steps prior to the Bills’ contest against the Giants. The triumph-over-great-odds thing is often overplayed in sports, but not in this instance.
Dalton’s dinger heard ‘round the world (2007): The 2007 Little League World Series proved considerably more thrilling than Major League Baseball’s fall classic that year, thanks to one Dalton Carriker. The USA champ (from Warner Robins, Ga.) was tied with the international champ (from Tokyo) after the six innings of regulation play. In the eighth, Carriker stepped up to the plate and ended the game with a moonshot most adults would be lucky to match. Immortality achieved at an early age is immortality nonetheless.
Lester beats cancer and the Rockies (2007): Returns from career-threatening injuries get overhyped in sports, but some deserve the additional notice. Like the one effected by Boston’s Jon Lester, who won the World Series-clinching game against the Rockies only a few months after returning to the bigs following a bout with lymphoma. Early the next season, Lester added to his legend by throwing a no-hitter. The guy knows how to create a moment-with-a-capital-M.
Hamilton hijacks the home-run derby (2008): Even by Mike Tyson’s standards, Josh Hamilton has had a turbulent career, battling addiction in the years following his selection by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays with the first pick of the 1999 draft. But he cleaned up and made it to his first All-Star Game, where he pushed his peers to the background with a stunning 28 homers—most of them of the ohmigod variety—during a single round of the Home Run Derby. We love second acts, and with those 28 swings Hamilton made his even more improbable and stirring.
No knee? No problem (2008): For years, other pro golfers have wondered aloud whether Tiger Woods is actually human, so otherworldly is his talent and ability to harness it under pressure. What they rarely mention, however, is Woods’ resilience, which was on full display as he bested Rocco Mediate to win the 2008 U.S. Open in a playoff… while playing on a shredded knee. Really, it’s almost not fair.
Sportsmanship in America: alive and well (2008): During a softball game between Central Washington and Western Oregon University, Western Oregon’s Sara Tucholsky smacked the ball out of the park. When she went to touch a base she’d missed, however, her knee exploded. Enter Central Washington’s Mallory Holtman, who asked the umpires if it was legal to carry an injury-hobbled player around the bases. It was. Holtman and her team might’ve lost the game, but she won in the larger scheme of things.
Goliath, Meet David (2008): We didn’t think the Giants had a chance of beating the Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. You didn’t think the Giants had a chance of beating the Patriots. But the Giants did, blitzing the then-undefeated Pats into submission. When Eli Manning arched the game-winning pass toward Plaxico Burress, the ball seemed to hang in the air for about four days. You could almost hear New England’s invincibility shatter.
Danica drives into the record book (2008): Until she claimed the Indy Japan 300 in 2008, Danica Patrick was painted by her critics as more sizzle than steak, Anna Kournikova in a visored helmet. But when she passed that checkered flag, Patrick became the first woman to win an IndyCar race. Those who doubted her bona fides suddenly had a much harder time making their case.
Phelps makes a—wait for it—splash (2008): As much as the media coverage of the Olympics has devolved into human-interest drivel, they remain one of the few events that can dominate the national conversation for weeks at a time. And so it was with Michael Phelps’ Beijing 2008 rush, during which he swam 17 races in nine days and came away with gold medals in each of the eight events. In doing so, he broke Mark Spitz’s record for gold medals won in a single Olympics. Not bad for a kid from the Maryland suburbs.