This kind of reckoning is never a science, but let's do the math: An absurdly difficult catch to ignite a Super Bowl upset plus a heart-stopping swim in the Olympics plus the gutsiest golf performance imaginable plus the greatest tennis match ever played plus....Yeah, it all adds up
ELI MANNING scrambled from the clutches of the New England Patriots, retreated and flung a desperate pass more than 40 yards downfield that an obscure New York Giants receiver named David Tyree corralled and pressed against his helmet while tumbling to the ground. When it happened, not one of the guests watching on TV at Jason Lezak's Super Bowl party in Irvine, Calif.—however impressed by the acrobatics—was immediately struck with the notion that he had just witnessed a play for the ages.
This is often the way of history, momentarily lost in the chips and dip of the here and now.
Even after the Manning-Tyree hookup led to the late touchdown that gave the Giants a stunning 17--14 win over the previously undefeated Patriots, Lezak and his buddies couldn't have divined that this was not a one-off of excellence but a prologue to a string of marvels in 2008. Like Tyree's prolate-spheroid-meets-curved-helmet, physics-defying catch—indeed, like the Super Bowl--party host who six months later would swim faster than any man ever—the best sports year came out of nowhere.
WELL, IT actually came out of 2007, a toxic brew of duplicity, criminality and cruelty, with a chaser of arrogance. The headline-makers of a year ago included a crooked basketball referee; a home run king who was indicted (and pleaded not guilty) on perjury and obstruction of justice charges; a brazen football coach who apparently authorized industrial espionage; and the athlete who truly put the ass in morass, an NFL quarterback who was convicted of running a dogfighting ring.
Blessedly Tyree's tumbling Barnum & Bailey catch cleansed at least some of the venality that had engulfed sports. The ablution: With third-and-five from the Giants' 44, 1:15 to go and the Patriots clinging to a 14--10 lead, Manning spun from the grasps of three defenders and heaved a rainbow that Tyree, who had broken off a post route, caught while fending off strong safety Rodney Harrison for a 32-yard completion that set up the winning score.
Only multiple replays, slowed to Friday-rush-hour-in-L.A. speed, revealed the magical improvisation of it all. The play began with one man who is maybe the third-best quarterback in his own family and ended with another who spent most of his autumn Sundays on special teams. Thus did the unlikely accomplish the indelible: the greatest play in the XLII-year history of the Super Bowl.
A moment like that once in a calendar year would be considered a blessing; for 2008, it was merely the beginning. In games, matches and meets, all the reasons we're drawn to sports—the surprises lurking in unscripted drama, the grace of athletes under pressure, the inspiration of rare achievement—revealed themselves in unprecedented ways. Emboldened, we proclaimed with increasing confidence that what we had witnessed was the "best" ever, unless we called it the "greatest." The year ennobled sport, but it beggared the language.
It's a tricky business, the slathering on of superlatives. As New Jersey Devils president Lou Lamoriello observed in October as his goaltender, Martin Brodeur, inched closer to Patrick Roy's NHL record for wins, "Greatest is a tough word because tomorrow comes along awfully quick." Duly noted. But for now, 2008 qualifies as the greatest because it produced bests in so many categories: Super Bowl play, victory in a golf major, tennis match, Olympics by a summer athlete ( Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt, your choice). Consider:
? Tiger Woods won the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines on one leg, his 14th and most impressive major championship. With spaghetti for left knee ligaments and a double stress fracture in his left tibia, Woods winced his way around the 7,643-yard course, conquering throbbing pain and Rocco Mediate on the 19th hole of the Monday playoff. The stoic Woods and the gregarious Mediate were ideal foils, heightening the drama. (Being paired with Rocco must be like playing golf with the radio on.)