By Graham von Carlowitz, Editorial Editor
You know that moment when the athlete who has worked his entire life to earn a championship climbs that mountain and stakes claim to a career well spent, only to ride off in to the setting sun and retire? It happened last year, when Peyton Manning limped his way to one final Super Bowl victory with the Denver Broncos (where “Rocky” mountaintops are plentiful) before announcing his retirement. It happened after Super Bowl XL, when Jerome Bettis and the Pittsburgh Steelers got “one [ring] for the thumb.” John Elway, the president of that Broncos squad, did the same thing in 1997 as the quarterback for Denver.
The archives of football lore can go on, but I’m not trying to beat any dead horses with a stick today. I’d just like to ask one thing: Have American sports peaked? Have they reached that plateau atop the proverbial mountain? Just consider the past year that was.
Last April, the Villanova Wildcats spent a Monday night celebrating a 61-59 victory over perennial powerhouse North Carolina, which had nailed a three-pointer just seconds earlier. It was the first buzzer-beater in a championship game since Jim Valvano’s N.C. State squad did it in ‘83.
Just over two months later, in mid-June, the NBA’s best regular season team ever, the shiny Golden State Warriors held a commanding, no-team-has-ever-come-back-from-this 3-1 series lead against my hometown team, the history-doesn’t-matter-to-us Cleveland Cavaliers. Against every odd you could find, the Cavs led the most unlikely comeback in NBA Final’s history, ultimately toppling the Warriors 93-89 in a rollercoaster Game 7.
Thank God there was a pause in all the excitement — the extensive break between the end of the NBA season and the start of the NFL season is always bemoaned by those who could care less about America’s favorite pastime: good ol’ baseball, the only major American sport active in the sport calendar’s lull.
Which is why it breaks all sports logic that baseball be allowed some excitement — at the expense of the championship-thirsty cities of Chicago and Cleveland, no less. October baseball always promises to remind some people that baseball can boost the heart rate more than your average church ceremony. But for the Chicago Cubs to twist around the Cavs’ fate of days past and come back from a daunting 3-1 series deficit? And to do so in extra innings? No. No. That just doesn’t happen.
But this year, it does, it has, and as evinced in last night’s Super, Super, really Super Bowl, it continues to happen. As a lifelong sports fan, I know I’ve been spoiled. Only 20-some years in and I’ve witnessed some of the greatest competition — better than recent and ancient history. In terms of Super Bowls, at least five of the greatest (perhaps the top five) have been played in the past ten years. This year’s bout — the unlikeliest of affairs that left everyone incredulous, speechless, drool-filled, beside themselves, profoundly awe-struck, wondering whether Tom Brady was a demigod in another life — made me realize a few things.
I don’t care if people think sports are pointless. They’ve provided me with a lifetime of tangible life-lessons (i.e. Never Give Up, as seen in the Patriots’ decimation of the book on how to properly win a Super Bowl). They have supplied my brain with some childhood memories that can never be stripped from me, even when I’m 97 and struggling to spell the word “I.” And, time and time again, they have left me in awe.
I began by citing some folks who left while they were on top. They were the sports equivalent of George Costanza leaving the room after he made people laugh. My sustained awe leads me to ask this odd, yet compelling question: Can it get any better than this? Should we just pack our bags and call it a day? Sports can’t get any better, right?
If sports were a person, would this be their hay-day, only to be followed by some humdrum twilight years? (Note to self: old-people sports might be a million-dollar idea.)
The thing is, sports may never reach the peak of Mt. Everest (save for actual mountain climbers, you guys definitely peaked that high). But they don’t need to. There are thousands of other random mountaintops to be reached, and sports will probably reach all of them in good time.
But still, it does make you wonder. That may have been the best Super Bowl ever, but how long does ever last for?