This year's theme? Regrouping, man. Second effort. You know, never give up. What good is sports if it can't be reduced to a nifty postgame wrap-up? These guys will not quit, is what we're saying. So we boil it down for you, the entire year. (This is your postyear wrap-up.) Never say the is the gist of it. And as we've always insisted, just because it's a clich� doesn't mean it's not true. Thank God for that.
If you were paying any attention in the past year, you're already on board with our big idea: Lotta comebacks, people dusting off the seats of their pants (or their Hanes) and stepping back into the box. Speaking of which, let's talk about America. How 'bout that plucky little country! It gets the bejesus bombed out of it and, even as the dust is still billowing down Wall Street, finds a way to locate heroism in its defeat (and quickly organize a rematch, which it's winning huge at press time). So much devotion to duty, so much resolve, so much charity. Who knew that Americans, softened by cable TV and riding mowers, had it in them.
We hate even to mention Sept. 11, to trivialize a nation's trauma here, except that right up till then this country had a way of confusing sports with real life. Sports always seemed so much bigger. Its bowls were Super, its leagues Major, its slams all Grand. Our lives, Tiny. Then, suddenly, sports was so reduced in scale that it actually vanished for a week or so, reappearing only in the service of extended metaphor (the comeback thing). Plus, as you might have noticed, sports has been forced out of the hero business. It can't compete with the notion of men lugging hoses up 50 flights of stairs (we play hurt, but...) or plane passengers battling terrorists (we wanted it a lot, but...). Still, you might like our halftime show!
All the same, reevaluate as we might (you haven't read about too many life-and-death struggles here lately, have you?), this year's seasons undeniably had a strange resonance, and looking back, we can still see pluck aplenty. And we don't just mean underwear pitchman Michael Jordan coming back after his management phase, although he does advertise the idea of rebirth in the most American of ways (ka-ching!). There was resilience everywhere, beginning to end. The New York Yankees, suddenly everyone's home team, nearly clawing their way to another World Series championship, Mario Lemieux coming back from retirement and cancer to boost his Pittsburgh Penguins, Jennifer Capriati coming out of her lost childhood to win a pair of Grand Slam titles, the given-up-for-dead Lance Armstrong winning another Tour de France.
It wasn't all storybook stuff. There was disgrace, defeat, even death. And for every person who proved that second acts are possible in American life, somebody else was still tangled in the curtains ( Bobby Knight, Mike Tyson). Not to mention the folks still in their first act, swaggering back and forth on the stage as if they own it. Still, didn't you think there were some nice moments? Journeyman Hasim Rahman, overlooked and unknown, decking Lennox Lewis for the heavyweight championship. Tiger Woods, slipping on a green jacket, having won a Pretty Good Slam. The Arizona Diamondbacks, 35-1 underdogs at the start of the season, outlasting those Yankees.
The year started on that kind of note, Oklahoma showing up for the Orange Bowl as the Bowl Championship Series afterthought. Florida State, now there was a team. The Seminoles, playing in their third straight national championship game, were led by Heisman Trophy winner Chris Weinke and, except for an early loss to Miami (a lot of people would have preferred a rematch of that game for the championship), had played all season pretty much like an NFL starter kit. Oklahoma's prestige, on the other hand, dated to a previous era. Coach Bob Stoops wasn't yet being confused with Bud Wilkinson.
Well, it wasn't exactly a Cinderella story by bowl time-Oklahoma had, after all, gone 12-0 during the season—but it was a surprise when the Sooners stymied Florida State's passing game and upset Weinke's team 13-2. Oklahoma quarterback Josh Heupel, who had stewed privately when Weinke finished ahead of him in the Heisman balloting, played a near-perfect game. Looking back, the outcome fits comfortably into our narrative of hopefulness: Remember, Heupel, who was last seen kneeling at midfield after the biggest game of his life, came to Oklahoma after stops at Weber State and Snow Junior College.
The NFL provided moments of redemption as well, although it didn't produce the same warm flush as the colleges. The Baltimore Ravens, a .500 team the season before, advanced to the Super Bowl against the New York Giants, largely on the strength of their defense. Largely, to be more specific, on the play of middle linebacker Ray Lewis. Lewis not only was the principal in a unit that held teams to 10 points a game in the playoffs but was the Ravens' emotional leader as well.
The thing was, it was hard for the rest of us to get behind Lewis. He'd spent much of the year charged with murder, climbing out from under it—partly, anyway—only when he pleaded to a lesser charge of obstruction of justice in connection with a knife fight that had left two men dead. But there he was, batting away four of Kerry Collins's passes, making five tackles, becoming the Super Bowl MVP in Baltimore's ridiculously easy 34-7 victory over the Giants. Afterward Lewis said, "The man upstairs tells you, 'I'll never take you through hell without taking you to triumph.' " Feel-good moment? You decide.
The year was like that a little bit, its lessons not always obvious. What did it mean, for example, for Dale Earnhardt to the at the Daytona 500, which he'd elevated to such dramatic heights? Earnhardt was NASCAR's pole sitter in popularity, his defeats at Daytona somehow as mythic as his wins elsewhere. Now, having slammed head-on into the wall on the race's final turn, he was gone. Even with his son, Dale Earnhardt Jr., winning at Daytona when the circuit returned five months later, it was difficult to reach any satisfying conclusions beyond the usual: Gee, isn't life fragile.