Stop the count! 10 times sports history would have changed by calling game early
The president of the United States is howling that this week's vote count in several states should stop before it’s complete because he thinks that will make him a winner. Aside from being the stuff of banana republics, that’s not how the rules of any game work.
As the Atlanta Falcons and Phil Mickelson can attest, you don’t get to call “Game over!” just because you’re ahead. Much as I’m sure Grady Little would have liked to take the ball and go home after that devastating change in fates in the 2003 ALCS, he isn’t 5. And Kentucky fans can hit pause every time Grant Hill’s pass to Christian Laettner is about to be replayed, and it still doesn’t put the Wildcats in that year’s Final Four.
You have to play all the way to the end and accept the results. Even ones so painful they trigger rage, sorrow and embarrassment years later.
The Atlanta Falcons had a 28-3 lead over the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LI only to lose in overtime. (Photo: Kevin Jairaj, USA TODAY Sports)
“The biggest reason why this is so disappointing is that this is a tournament that I dreamt of winning as a kid, that I spent hours practicing. I mean, countless hours practicing, dreaming of winning this tournament,” a shell-shocked Mickelson said after his 72nd-hole meltdown at Winged Foot cost him the 2006 U.S. Open title.
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“Had it right there in my hand, man. It was right there and I let it go,” said Mickelson, who, 14 years later, still hasn’t won the one major he craves. “I just cannot believe I did that.”
You’re not alone, Lefty. Far from it.
In honor of Donald Trump’s petulance, here are 10 times athletes could have changed history if the game or series ended before it was actually over:
1. Mickelson, 2006 U.S. Open
If ever there was a time for Lefty to win the U.S. Open, Winged Foot was it. He had won the previous two majors – the 2005 PGA Championship and the Masters – and his short game that week was spectacular. He began the fourth round tied for the lead and was ahead by 1 stroke on the 18th tee, needing just a par to win.
But his decision to hit driver off the tee set off a chain reaction of bad events, and Mickelson would wind up making a 6 on the hole and losing the Open to Geoff Ogilvy by one shot.
2. Atlanta Falcons, Super Bowl LI
With 8:31 left in the third quarter, Matt Ryan connected with Tevin Coleman for a touchdown that gave the Falcons a 28-3 lead. Atlanta’s defense was smothering Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, and its offense had been both efficient and largely error-free.
What could possibly go wrong?
While the Falcons got tentative and sloppy, the Patriots scored on four consecutive drives to force overtime. They won the toss and went 75 yards for the score, sealing the biggest comeback in Super Bowl history and ensuring that Atlanta would forever be the butt of jokes.
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3. Golden State Warriors, 2016 NBA Finals
A second consecutive title seemed like a given when the Warriors went up 3-1 on the Cleveland Cavaliers. They had beaten the Cavs in the Finals the previous season, and were far and away the NBA’s best team, having won a record 73 games during the regular season.
Plus, they were playing Cleveland, and everybody knows that city’s teams are cursed. The Shot. The Drive. Art Modell. Jose Mesa.
But Cleveland native LeBron James dominated the next two games, as well as the final two minutes of Game 7, to give the Cavaliers an historic comeback. It was the first time an NBA team had come back after being down 3-1, and it was Cleveland’s first title in 52 years.
4. Boston Red Sox, 2003 ALCS
Not only were the long-suffering Boton Red Sox five outs from reaching their first World Series since 1986, the pennant would come at the expense of the loathsome New York Yankees.
Though everyone could see Pedro Martinez was tiring – he’d given up three consecutive hits and had thrown 118 pitches – manager Grady Little decided to leave his ace in to face Jorge Posada. Sure enough, Posada tied the game up with a double and the Yankees went on to win in the 11th.
The poor judgment would cost Little his job. But the Red Sox would end their 85-year World Series drought the following year.
5. Men’s 4×100 freestyle relay, Beijing Olympics
France almost ended Michael Phelps’ quest for a record eight gold medals at the Beijing Olympics as it was getting started.
In Phelps’ second event, the relay, the Americans were trailing at the end of the third leg. Worse, anchor Jason Lezak was swimming against France’s Alain Bernard, the previous world record holder in the 100 meters, and he began the leg more than half a body length behind.
But Lezak chased Bernard down and then lunged ahead of the Frenchman at the finish, somehow managing to out-touch him to give the Americans a victory – and keep Phelps’ gold-medal goal on track.
6. Alabama-Auburn, 2013 Iron Bowl
Alabama was undefeated and an overwhelming favorite to win its third consecutive national title. All it had to do was get by Auburn.
After Auburn tied the game late in the fourth quarter, the Crimson Tide got to the 38-yard line with – thanks to some haranguing of the refs by Nick Saban – one second left. Despite a long history of kicking mishaps, Alabama attempted a 56-yard field goal.
The kick was short. Auburn’s Chris Davis, who had parked himself near the goal line, caught the ball and sliced his way through a sea of Auburn and Alabama players, managing to elude everyone until he reached the opposite end zone. The 109-yard scoring run – technically he was only credited for 100 yards because the NCAA run – not only stunned Alabama, it ended its national title hopes.
“I never got over the returned field goal at Auburn,” Saban said recently.
7. Maximum Security, 2019 Kentucky Derby
Maximum Security was the wire-to-wire winner. Until he wasn’t.
Stewards disqualified Maximum Security after the race, saying he had impeded two other horses when he veered out slightly as he came around the final turn. Maximum Security’s owners sued – sound familiar? – but their lawsuit was tossed out.
8. Kentucky, 1992 East Regional final
The Wildcats forced overtime on Duke, the country’s No. 1 team. Then, with 2.1 seconds left, Sean Woods gave Kentucky the lead with a one-handed layup over the country’s most-hated player, Christian Laettner.
But you’ve all seen the video a million times now. You know how it goes.
STOP THE COUNT! 😎#BBNpic.twitter.com/dNacPLYqqf
Kentucky left Grant Hill unguarded on the inbounds play, and didn’t put anyone in front of Laettner at the other end of the floor. Hill heaved the ball to Laettner, who turned around and scored on a jumper as the buzzer sounded.
9. Vegas Golden Knights, 2019 Stanley Cup Finals
Blowing a 3-1 lead in a best-of-seven series is bad enough. Blowing a 3-0 lead with 10 minutes left in Game 7 is even worse.
Yet that’s what the Golden Knights did against the San Jose Sharks, giving up four goals – four! – in a five-minute power play. Vegas did manage to score again just before the end of the third period, only for the Sharks to win it in overtime.
10. Lindsey Jacobellis, 2006 Winter Olympics
Lindsey Jacobellis had such a big lead in the inaugural Olympic snowboard cross final that all she had to do was stay upright and the gold medal was hers.
But she decided to get cute. And you know what Mom always told you about showing off.
Just short of the finish line, Jacobellis did a method grab and fell. By the time she’d gotten herself upright, the gold medal was gone.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.
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