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Horace—the Roman poet, not the guy who used to play second base for the Yankees—wrote: "Think to yourself that every day is your last; the hour to which you do not look forward will come as a welcome surprise."
Horace put down those words nearly two thousand years before the fortune cookie, but what he meant was this: forget the point spread for a minute; observe sports with a little more wonder and a little less cynicism. Remember, the world is deep in wise guys. Try saying, "Boy, I sure don't envy the referee having to make that call on Renfro," rather than, "That zebra must be from Pittsburgh." Or, "I didn't know there were marshmallow salesmen," instead of, "I knew Billy Martin would get in trouble."
Granted, that's reading an awful lot into a few words of Horace, himself one of the original wise guys. But if ever a sports year deserved our surprise and, indeed, our wonder, it was the one just past. There were enough marvels in those 12 months to fill a decade. Who could have known, for instance, that none of the four division champions in baseball would repeat and all but one of them would fire their managers? Who would have thought Pennsylvania would make the NCAA Final Four in basketball or that Ohio State would almost win the national title in football by passing? Some of the surprises occurred suddenly, like Coastal proving in the Belmont that Spectacular Bid was, well, equine, and some evolved over the course of the year, like Jack Nicklaus finishing 71st on the PGA money list. Declare that the lowly San Francisco 49ers will be in next year's NFC title game, and you'll get the same look you would have gotten last year had you proclaimed that Tampa Bay had a chance at the Super Bowl.
The most wonderful surprise was saved for last. At the Winter Olympics, the U.S., a prohibitive underdog, upended the Soviet Union's All-Planet hockey team, and the whole country went along on their joy ride. You will note that the headline on page 53 describes the Soviets as "The best in all the world." Because that page went to press before the Olympics began, we offer a footnote here: "Until Feb. 22." Horace would have loved it.
Along with the surprises came new faces, some of them startlingly youthful. World records were broken by Mary T. Meagher, 14, in the butterfly, and by Candy Young, 16, in the hurdles. Tracy Austin, 16, gave her elders a tennis lesson by winning the U.S. Open, while a 14-year-old named Andrea Jaeger was reminding people of the young Tracy. And then, of course, America was introduced to Eric Heiden, 21.
Some of the older faces began to fade. Muhammad Ali left the ring—perhaps for good this time. One O.J., Orenthal James Simpson, carried the ball his last yard, and another O.J., Ottis Jerome Anderson, ran for 1,605 yards in his first year in the NFL. Fathers like Richard Petty and Gordie Howe were hanging around so that they could pass their mantles to their sons. As the fortune cookie says, the order changes.
Speaking of things Chinese, 1979 was the Year of the Ram, which is the only sensible reason for Los Angeles leading Pittsburgh in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl. If you're looking for any more reasons to be amazed, consider Vince Ferragamo's meteoric rise from backup quarterback to matinee idol.
The year also brought us to the full appreciation of two superlative baseball players, Willie Stargell and Thurman Munson, one in triumph and the other in tragedy.
Records are always a pleasure to report, and there were eight world marks established in swimming and 26 in track and field. The most remarkable record-setter was Sebastian Coe, who broke the 800-meter, mile and 1,500 marks within a 42-day span. The English Channel was the scene of two extraordinary achievements. One of them belonged to Bryan Allen, the pilot and engine of the Gossamer Albatross, the first man-powered aircraft to cross the Channel. Doc Counsilman selected another way to get from England to France, and at 58 he became the oldest person to swim the Channel.
All the records, all the faces, all the marvels serve as a reminder of something else Horace said: "No ascent is too steep for mortals. Heaven itself we seek in our folly." Or, in other words, nothing is a lock.