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During speaking engagements, I'm often asked to name the most memorable event I've covered in my four decades as an ink-stained wretch. For me, this is one of those impossible-to-answer questions. Kind of like "Which one of your children do you like best?" Or "Name your favorite Beatles song." In retrospect, I've been truly blessed to have been in the press box, courtside or on the fringe of fairways for so many transcendent sports moments through the years.
I was there when Joe Carter's home run ended a World Series, Scott Norwood's kick sailed wide right, Muhammad Ali lit the Olympic cauldron, Frank Reich engineered the greatest comeback in NFL history, Pearl Washington brought 30,000 Carrier Dome fans to their collective feet with a game-winning, half-court shot, Nancy Kerrigan and Tanya Harding staged their figure skating soap opera in Norway, George W. Bush threw out the ceremonial first pitch at Yankee Stadium following 9/11 and Abby Wambach panned Olympic gold by heading a soccer ball into the goal in Athens, Greece.
At a recent gathering, someone attempted to throw me a curve by asking what event I didn't cover but wished I had. Without hesitation, I said I would have killed to have been in that cozy, antiquated rink in Lake Placid for the "Miracle on Ice" at the 1980 Winter Olympics. I remember watching-on tape delay-as a motley crew of amateur U.S. hockey players scored the most monumental upset of the 20th century by knocking off the mighty Soviet professionals. As broadcaster Al Michaels intoned his famous line, "Do you believe in miracles? Yes!" and chants of "USA! USA!" rumbled through my television's speakers, tears streamed down my cheeks.
To fully comprehend the enormity of the moment, you need to understand the tenor of the times. Dragged down by a seemingly endless hostage crisis in Iran and fearing gas rationing throughout the U.S., we Americans weren't feeling very good about ourselves or our prospects for the future that February 33 years ago. So, this wasn't just an improbable victory by a bunch of overachieving young men who had no business beating the best hockey team of that time, perhaps of all time. This was a feel-good, spirit-boosting moment our country sorely needed. It clearly transcended sports.
The question got me to thinking about other sports events I wished I had covered. Here are some of them:
Don Larsen's perfect game, Yankee Stadium, Oct. 8, 1956. It's still the only no-hitter ever thrown in the World Series and it was authored by a journeyman pitcher who had lost 21 games just two years earlier. The big ballpark in the Bronx was rocking that autumn afternoon and the unsung hero was my favorite athlete of all time-Mickey Mantle, who made a spectacular, running, back-handed catch in deep left centerfield and hit a home run as the Bronx Bombers beat the Brooklyn Dodgers, 2-0.
J-Mac's miracle moment, Greece Athena High School, Feb. 15, 2006. I wrote about Jason McElwain's incredible feat in this space two weeks ago. My son, Chris, was a classmate of J-Mac's and was in the stands that February night when the student manager with autism came off the bench and scored 20 points in four minutes for the Athena basketball team. My son always tells me how lucky I am to have covered so many big events-and he's right-but that's one game he witnessed that I wished I had, too.
Lou Gehrig's farewell speech, Yankee Stadium, July 4, 1939. Every time I see the original footage and hear the Yankee slugger say, "Today, I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of the earth," tingles shoot up and down my spine. It's regarded as baseball's Gettysburg Address. It still astonishes me how a dying man could utter those profound words.
Wilt Chamberlain's 100-point game, Hershey, Pa., March 2, 1962. This historic NBA contest was played in front of only 4,124 fans. I don't see this record ever being broken. Michael Jordan couldn't do it. And I don't think Lebron James can either.
The 33-inning marathon between the Rochester Red Wings and Pawtucket Red Sox during the 1981 season. I've conducted scores of interviews and written dozens of stories about the longest game in baseball history, and it never ceases to fascinate me. It took 65 days to complete after it was halted following 32 innings. While I love recounting the game, former Wings centerfielder Dallas Williams would rather forget. I understand why. He went hitless in 13 at-bats, the worst single-game batting line in baseball annals.
Jesse Owens' fourth gold medal at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. This was another one of those way-beyond-sports moments, as the African-American sprinter dealt a blow to Hitler's Aryan superiority theory.
Super Bowl III, Orange Bowl, Miami, Jan. 12, 1969. Would have loved to have been there when Broadway Joe Namath made good on his guarantee and the New York Jets upset the Baltimore Colts.
Babe Ruth's called shot, third game of the World Series, Chicago's Wrigley Field, Oct. 1, 1932. This remains one of baseball's enduring mysteries. Did the Yankees slugger actually predict his home run against a Chicago Cubs team that was razzing him from the dugout? We'll never know, but it sure would have been fun watching the Bambino go deep.
Jackie Robinson's major-league debut at Brooklyn's Ebbets Field, April 15, 1947. This seminal moment blazed a trail for Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights movement. I still don't know how Jackie put up with hatred he faced.
Jim Brown, Ernie Davis and Floyd Little running the football during the primes of their All-American football careers at Syracuse's old Archbold Stadium. Talk about a succession of greatness.
Award-winning columnist and best-selling author Scott Pitoniak's 16th book, a collaboration with rock 'n' roll legend Lou Gramm titled "Juke Box Hero," is available at amazon.com and in bookstores. He provides analysis following Bills games on WROC-TV and is a correspondent for USA Today SportsWeekly.
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