Not every game is the concentration of crisis or the management of miracle we'd wished it would be. Lots of games are boring. Have no importance, little elegance. Offer scant entertainment. We can get pretty puffed up about our sports, what they mean in our culture, what they mean in our lives, but—timeout!—not every game teaches us a lesson. Sometimes a game is just an afternoon at the park, the lazy languor of watching people at play, so that all we might remember is the sunshine, the company, the small brushfire beyond center field in Chavez Ravine.
The real fan argues that it takes a season for a team to fully reveal its poetry (puffing up now), and that any particular game is just a piece of the puzzle. It would be unfair, given how many games there actually are, to expect thrills and chills on a daily basis. Most games are the dues we pay for membership in this sports club to which we are so devoted.
Of course there are games, and there are games. These, our favorites, are aberrations, so beyond the normal experience that they become spikes in personal time lines. They have drives, comebacks, fades, muffed kicks, a slow grounder right between the ankles. Heroism that can't possibly be repeated, gaffes that will not necessarily be redeemed. Maybe it was 40 minutes of sustained brilliance, or an explosion of spirit that four quarters simply couldn't confine. Or maybe it was an occurrence of such improbability—a Hail Mary pass or a kickoff return that threaded through a marching band-that the role of fate in human affairs must be reexamined. Or maybe it was the pure expression of personality: Michael Jordan's competitive drive as a tantalizing glimpse of man's outer limits.
These are games no dramatist dare schedule. They are unlikely events, and it's only after we've seen and considered them against the backdrop of the more humdrum season that they allow complete understanding. These are the games that set the threshold of possibility (puffing up) and serve as useful and eye-widening instruction. These are the games that (fully puffed) teach us a lesson: You never know.
JANUARY 2, 1982
Chargers 41, Dolphins 38 (OT)
You didn't need years of hindsight to appreciate this game-you knew it was a classic while it was still before your eyes. The AFC playoff game between the San Diego Chargers and the Miami Dolphins was such a test of will, courage, guts, legs, wind, strength, resolve, skills, patience and brains that it was exhausting... to watch.
MARCH 23, 1957
UNC 54, Kansas 53(3 OT)
The '57 Carolina Blue needed back-to-back triple overtime wins to become NCAA champions, but high drama aside, this was the most significant basketball team ever: Frank McGuire's all-New York starting team of four Catholics and a Jew brought basketball to the Bible Belt and built the Hoop House of Chapel Hill. The Yankee Tar Heels beat Kansas-starring Wilt Chamberlain—in the final. Up a point with four seconds to go, Carolina's play-maker, Tommy Kearns, who had been sent out to jump the opening tip against the Stilt, hurled the ball heavenward. When it came down, Carolina was the NCAA champion, and college basketball was a true national sport.
NOVEMBER 23, 1984
Boston College 47, Miami 45
Miami's fatal error: They scored too quickly. The touchdown that put them ahead 45-41 came with 28 seconds to play, and Eagles quarterback Doug Flutie needed only six seconds to become a hero. Taking the snap at the Miami 48, Flutie threw a sodden ball 64 yards—in the rain, into the wind, into a crowd—and it was caught by BC receiver Gerard Phelan in the end zone. That throw won the Heisman Trophy for Flutie and a Cotton Bowl bid for BC. Poor Bernie Kosar of Miami. He threw for 447 yards, and no one noticed.
DECEMBER 28, 1958
Colts 23, Giants 17 (OT)
The Greatest NFL Game Ever Played? Maybe. The Most Important NFL Game Ever Played? Indisputably, because it changed the way America looked at pro football. In the gloomy fourth-quarter shadows of Yankee Stadium, after the Colts' legendary defensive end Gino Marchetti broke his ankle while stopping Frank Gifford on a third-down sweep, Johnny Unitas himself became a legend, passing (mostly to Raymond Berry) on the drive that tied the game on a last-second field goal. Then Johnny U won it with another long drive in overtime, as the Colts band struck up the fight song: "For Baltimore and Marylannnd, you will march on to vic-to-reeee!" Which is exactly what the NFL did.
OCTOBER 3, 1947
Dodgers 3, Yankees 2
With two outs in the bottom of the ninth, Bill Bevens, an undistinguished fourth starter with a 7-13 record for the Yankees, had a 2-1 lead and a chance to put his team up three games to one in the '47 World Series. More important, he was one out from the first no-hitter in Series history. When the Dodgers got two runners on with walks, their fate was left to a 34-year-old journeyman pinch hitter named Cookie Lavagetto. Here was the very essence of the national pastime: two very ordinary Americans playing at history. Lavagetto doubled off the rightfield wall to drive in two runs. Brooklyn won 3-2. Of course, the Yankees won the Series anyway, and nine years later another Yankee righthander, Don Larsen, would throw the first Series no-hitter... against the Dodgers.
JULY 5, 1980
John McEnroe 18, Bjorn Borg 16
The 13th game of the fourth set of the '80 Wimbledon final was the most excruciatingly sustained display of brilliance ever seen on a tennis court. McEnroe survived five championship points, while Borg escaped seven set points before he muffed a drop volley off a wicked forehand return of serve. It was almost the only bad shot in the 22-minute tiebreaker. Incredibly, Borg regrouped to play almost as flawlessly in the fifth set to win 8-6 for his fifth straight Wimbledon title. Johnny Mac, who had entered the stadium to boos, a villain, departed to cheers.