Last week I offered up numbers 11 thru 30; today, my Top 10. And here's my annual disclaimer: it's my list reflecting my opinions. It's totally subjective. Feel free to disagree and feel free to tell me about it. The Top 10:
10) New Fields for Parity
The NFL has long made a good case for parity, even in this era of a possible Patriots dynasty. Parity has been evident in college basketball for a while now—remember George Mason—as we were quickly reminded this season, with Gardner-Webb whipping Kentucky and Mercer rolling over USC in the opening weeks. But college football—you've got to be kidding. Each season has been same-old same-ld—until this one. It opened with Appalachian State booting Michigan in the Big House and saw 41-point underdog Stanford upend USC and Kentucky upset no. 1 LSU in overtime. Everybody beat Notre Dame, including Navy for the first time in 43 years. Something even more special happened in Tuscaloosa, Ala., where Nick Saban, who bolted his national champion LSU Tigers for the NFL then again bolted to Alabama for $4 million a season, watched his Crimson Tide get whipped by Louisiana-Monroe. Sure, LSU, Ohio State, USC and Oklahoma were familiar contenders, but Connecticut, Kentucky, Kansas, Illinois, South Florida, Hawaii and Missouri were not.
9) A Rush to Judgment
Durham County District Attorney Mike Nifong led the charge and, deservedly, paid a big price—disbarment—after all charges were dropped against three Duke lacrosse players accused of raping a stripper at a team party. But many pundits and fans alike had been quick to embrace the tale as both the embodiment of the flaws in our sports culture and an example of ugliness in America's race and class divides. The result was that three college students, guilty at worst of tasteless partying, were put through a year of torment before finally being vindicated. Still, they had to be cheered when, one year after their season was canceled by the scandal, their former teammates went all the way to the NCAA lacrosse finals, just missing out on the fairy-tale ending with a 12-11 loss to Johns Hopkins.
8) Requiem for a Queen
Marion Jones was the queen of the 2000 Sydney Olympics, the golden girl of American track and field (and Nike) as she won three gold and two bronze medals. As drug rumors swirled—first the suspension of her then-husband, shot-putter C. J. Hunter, then the raid on BALCO's drug lab, of which she was a client, then the banning of Tim Montgomery, the father of her son, from the sport—Jones remained steadfast in her denials. But this year her defenses all crumbled. A teary Jones pleaded guilty to lying to federal investigators and admitted she had taken steroids (though she clung to that pathetic defense that she didn't know what she was taking). Jones forfeited all her Olympic medals, and all her results dating back before the Sydney games were stripped from the record books. BALCO records released just last week revealed that Jones had taken an exhaustive regimen of a wide range of performance-enhancing drugs. The IOC showed rare good judgment by not automatically awarding Jones's Olympic medals to the next finisher. The runner-up in the 100 meters in Sydney was Greek sprinter Katerina Thanou, who was suspended for two years after failing to show up for a drug test right before the 2004 Athens Olympics.
7) The George Mitchell Story
Almost two years in the making, the report on drug use in baseball by former Sen. George Mitchell didn't disappoint. No, it wasn't the definitive history of doping in the game. But Mitchell had promised to report what he learned—and that meant naming names. And while his list proved to be rather random, and perhaps just a small fraction of those who cheated, it had plenty of impact. Most prominent among those Mitchell accused of using performance-enhancing drugs was the greatest pitcher of the modern era, Roger Clemens. Though Clemens continues to vehemently deny the Mitchell report's contention that he used steroids or human growth hormone, his storied career may now be viewed as every bit as asterisk-worthy as that of Barry Bonds. They may stand together, pitcher and hitter who defied Father Time, as the ultimate symbol of baseball's disgraced steroids era.
6) Vick-timizing Man's Best Friend
It wasn't enough for Michael Vick to be one of the NFL's most popular and highly paid superstars. The Atlanta Falcons quarterback had to have a side game, dogfighting, in which the inhumanity was incalculable (dogs were bludgeoned, drowned, electrocuted and hanged) but the illegality wasn't. The calculation for Vick was 23 months in federal prison, after an agreement in which he pleaded guilty to a conspiracy charge and admitted to having financed the operations of Bad Newz Kennels on his property in Virginia since 2001.
5) The Three-Year Wait
It lacked a curse, a few miracles and a bloody sock, not to mention that it happened 83 years early. Still, the Red Sox' championship run did bear some resemblance to their historic 2004 triumph. There was a come-from-behind rally in the A.L. Championship Series (not from 3-0 against the hated Yankees, but from 3-1 down to the Indians) and then a sweep of the outgunned N.L. champs. The Colorado Rockies may not have been Boston's equal in the World Series, but their late-season run—21 wins in 22 games to barely make the playoffs—was a remarkable display of resolve under pressure.
4) Nice Guy Finishes First
A succession of playoff losses had called into question his ability to win the big game. And far worse, he had endured a family tragedy, the suicide of his teenage son. Through it all, Indianapolis Colts coach Tony Dungy remained an exemplar, a model of class, decency and abiding faith on the NFL sidelines. And last season he got his football reward. Behind quarterback Peyton Manning, who had some of that same big-game rap, and a surprisingly stiff defense, Indy won Super Bowl XLI 29-17 over the offensively challenged Chicago Bears. It was a Super Bowl of historic firsts, one that may do more for black coaches in the NFL than any commissioner's mandate; it was the first victory for an African-American coach as well as the first time two African-American coaches had met in the big game. But Dungy is the first to admit that the biggest win of his career came two weeks earlier, when the Colts came from behind to beat their nemeses, the New England Patriots, in a 38-34 thriller for the AFC championship.
3) Double, Double, Double
When the University of Florida met Ohio State for both the college football and basketball championships, it was the first time that teams from the same schools had played each other for both in the same year. Everything came up Gators. On the football field speedy Florida ran circles around the undefeated and heavily favored Buckeyes in a 41-14 rout that wasn't as close as the score indicated. On the basketball court a brainy, veteran Florida team swamped superfrosh center Greg Oden and Ohio State 84-75. Florida became the first team ever to hold both titles at the same time. The basketball team won the first back-to-back championships since 1992, and the Gators were the first team ever to repeat with the same starting five.
2) A Dickens Tale
When old Charley wrote, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," he may have had Barry Bonds's year in mind. The controversial 43-year-old slugger finally passed Hank Aaron as baseball's all-time home run king. Though the hometown fans cheered, it was hardly a glorious coronation. Few baseball fans outside San Francisco celebrated the record, convinced that Bonds had made extensive use of performance-enhancing drugs—steroids, HGH, and more—to make his mark. Bonds ended his season slumping and injured—and the Giants, after 15 years, cut him adrift. A month later the feds pounced, indicting him for perjury and obstruction of justice in connection with the investigation of the BALCO lab, of which Bonds was a client. Bonds hopes to play again next season, but with the legal problems he faces—including the likelihood of prison time if he is convicted—and the baggage he carries, his career may be over.
1) Executioner's Song
It may not have been the biggest game of the year, but it was the perfect reminder of why we love the games. Underdog Boise State finally gets a shot at the BCS big-time, against Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl. They blow an 18-point lead, then rally for an overtime victory on a succession of perfectly executed trick plays. First, trailing by a touchdown in the game's finals seconds, Boise scores from 50 yards out on a fourth-and-18 hook-and-ladder play. Then, after Oklahoma goes up seven in overtime, Boise's season again comes down to fourth down—and again they score, this time on a halfback option pass. Then, for the perfect capper, coach Chris Peterson eschews the tie, going for the win with a two-point conversion. On a Statue of Liberty play that bamboozled the Sooners' defense, Boise tailback Ian Johnson waltzed into the end zone—and then proposed to his cheerleader girlfriend. I don't know about you, but I felt proud to be a sports fan.