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Friday, July 08, 2005

I suppose it's inevitable with a list like the most memorable sports moments of your life there is going to be a slapping of the head and a "dammit, I can't believe I forgot that" afterwards. And I've got a doozy that demands attention, plus some comments on objections lodged in what turned into a great comment thread.

This stuff is all based on my memories and recollections, so some things that are omitted are due to ignorance, like the famous victory over North Dakota in 1998, which everyone tells me was no-contest louder than the Denver game. In 1998 I knew nothing of college hockey and thus missed that particular game, something for which I am forever regretful. Please stop telling me about it, as the fact that I missed it brings me pain. The first Michigan hockey game I would ever watch would be the semifinal against New Hampshire the next week. I am too young for Wangler to Carter.

The overtime Penn State game was indeed a great game but didn't contain one signature moment (unless you are a paranoid PSU fan, in which case the debatable Bryant Johnson incompletion qualifies). Maybe Marlin Jackson ripping a sure touchdown away from Johnson, but I don't think it's top ten material.

The Minnesota comeback certainly did have a signature moment, when John Navarre (of all people) thundered his way into the endzone flanked by about 1500 pounds of offensive line manbeef in the slowest 57-yard touchdown run of all time. A friend immediately called me to exclaim "did you just see that?" So that's a pretty good one. But it didn't dramatically shift the fortunes of Michigan. At that point it was just faint hope. Anyway. Three additions that cannot be denied, to follow.

8.5 Brabbtasm.

Not one person thought that Brabbs would make it. There were approximately 110,001 people watching Michigan play Washington, and not one person thought Brabbs would make it. Except maybe his mother. His dad may have told his mother "he'll make it," but if so that was a courteous lie.

At least it wasn't a 59-yarder. It was a slightly more plausible 44-yarder that Brabbs would obviously miss after Rick Neuheisel had sent 12 men out to defend 11 on the second-to-last play of the game--after a timeout. And at least there was an attempt at all after a questionable fourth-down conversion that was sort-of-caught and then fumbled and then recovered. All for naught, though, because after a comedy of errors throughout the day, there was no way that he would make it.

There was a snap. There was a kick that was not blocked. My eyes pivoted towards the fans in the north endzone, the approximate place where the kick would land after going wide by eight to twelve feet. They looked strangely happy. I looked down at the referees perched under the goalposts. They raised their arms in the air; I was confused; Brabbs ended his Michigan career as the anti-Hayden Epstein--he made no field goals except the one that really, really mattered.

6 (tie) Hello, Heisman #2

Can't reasonably distinguish this from Desmond, now can I?

2.5 Go on, Keano

I spent the summer of 2002 in verdant Galway, Ireland. The plan was to go there, find a menial job of some sort, and have a good time. Unfortunately, when I applied for said menial jobs they said "Do you have any experience?" and I said "At picking things up and putting them down? Do you need experience for that?" and that was that. The working holiday transformed itself into a doing nothing at all holiday. This was quite pleasing to me but annoyed my mother greatly.

My idleness allowed me to watch just about every game of that year's World Cup, including the titanic day when both the USA and Ireland were in action against world heavyweights Portugal and Germany, respectively. I settled in to the couch, torn over whether I should make the approximately 20 minute trek into town to drink by myself and watch soccer at nine in the morning. I decided against it, partially because I anticipated that the day's results would be depressing. Both the USA and Ireland were heavy underdogs. Each team was missing midfielders thought to be critical to the entire enterprise. The USA was absent both Claudio Reyna and Chris Armas to injury while Ireland was without the services of talismanic midfielder Roy Keane after he had a decidedly un-Irish spat with manager Mick McCarthy (<-- MOST IRISH NAME EVER). Portugal had one of those guys who just go by one name, Figo. Germany had the brutally effective goaltending of Oliver Kahn, a name that US soccer fans would come to know far too well in a couple weeks. Prospects for joyous carousing seemed dim. Prospects for swearing sufficiently to end up deported seemed high. Home was best.

Three minutes in to the USA-Portugal game, however, American striker Brian McBride (everything you ever need to know about McBride: US soccer fans call him simply "McHead") got on the end of a corner kick and fired a blistering header at the Portugese goal, which was blocked. The rebound fell serendipitously to midfielder John O'Brien, who, as the lovely Irish announcers said, made no mistake. The USA was ahead a mere three minutes in. In the 28th minute a deflected Landon Donovan cross would make it 2-0. In the 36th minute McHead would score on a gorgeous diving header. Even though Portugal clawed one back before halftime, home had entirely lost its appeal. I force-marched myself into downtown Galway and a pub that was getting packed in anticipation of the Ireland-Germany match. I arrived just in time to see US defender score a beautiful goal... into his own net. The US held on to win 3-2, though, and my plan was half complete.

The Ireland game did not start as swimmingly. Miroslav Klose (<-- not Irish) scored in the 18th minute; afterwards the Germans sat back and played cynically, hardly advancing out of their half of the field and suffocating Irish attacks, content to kill 70 minutes of gametime. The Germans played so to stereotype that I began to formulate a new theory of soccer: teams reflect their national character. Thus the ruthless efficiency of the Germans. Thus the magical skill of Brazilian soccer--they play the game like it is Carnivale. Thus the thuggish undertone of teams like Ecuador, teams composed of players who grew up with a knife in their back pocket.

Ireland's situation grew increasingly desperate. They needed a draw to avert the possibility of Cameroon and Germany knowing that a lifeless nil-nil draw would advance both teams. Such a match would certainly play out if Ireland lost here, leaving the boys in green with almost no hope of advancement. A draw would almost guarantee advancement, as anything except a rather high-scoring tie in the Cameroon-Germany game would put Ireland through to the second round as long as the Irish took care of group minnows Saudi Arabia, who had lost to Germany 8-0. All they needed was a tiny sliver of light.

Germany was not forthcoming with that sliver. Time and again Ireland would pressure, and Oliver Kahn would bail them out. Damien Duff--a soccer version of Mike Hart, slippery, somewhat magical, incredibly short--would advance and cross. Someone would get a shot on. Kahn would snuff the chance out, sometimes incredibly. Ireland began making the flailing offensive substitutions a trailing team makes in a soccer game, hopeful moves that seldom amount to anything. Niall Quinn, a creaky 34-year-old target forward in his last international tournament, came in. (The role of the 'target forward' is to play McHead, basically. They get on the end of crosses to fire headers at goal or knock down balls booted from far upfield to their shifty waterbug cousins, something that is called a 'flick on' in the wonderfully expressive language of soccer.)

Ireland's substitutions availed to nothing, though. Deep into the second half, two minutes into the three minutes of stoppage time, Ireland was dead in the water. Any moment the referee's whistle would blow and Ireland's World Cup would be functionally over. Some anonymous defender lofted one last desperate long ball to the top of the 18-yard box.

Quinn rose up, holding off his defender. His head met the ball. A flick on.

Suddenly Robbie Keane was in space, the ball was heading right for him, and Kahn was rushing out. Someone in the pub cried out "Go on, Keano!" The Germans had cracked the door the slightest of inches and somehow Quinn had put the ball in the only place that he could and Keane had made the only run that he could, chested the ball down, and there it was: the titanic Kahn oncoming, the ball dropping softly to the turf, and Keane lashing out at it. Keane had no time to direct the ball; he just had to get rid of it lest Kahn come right on him and gather the ball up. Ball met foot, and then ball met goalie. That bastard Kahn had gotten a piece of it! The shot glanced off of his hand, deflecting slightly, turning our hope into a cruel mockery of same.

Then, joyously, impossibly, the shot hit the crossbar, rolled along the top of the net for a tantalizing fraction of a second, and nestled safely home. The pub--and, I am quite sure, the nation--exploded. I hugged a confused looking Indian man and several Irish lads of the tough-lip, short-haired persuasion. A second roar went up when the final whistle blew mere seconds after the restart. Ireland had escaped.

After the game, I wandered out into downtown Galway. Seemingly everyone had decided to screw work and sit outside, drinking and laughing on the banks of the Corrib. I did so, sitting by the river, watching the waves roll by, and thinking that the beautiful game was beautiful indeed.