1980 Winter Olympics, 1988 World Series, baseball, Big Red, Cornell, Dodgers, football, Germany, Ghana, group of death, Hockey, Kirk Gibson, knockout stage, Manaus, Miracle on Ice, Portugal, Rockland Country Day School, Round of 16, Team USA, USA, World Cup
No list of my favorite moments that I witnessed would be complete without including sports. I have attended some major league baseball games in person in four different cities including a playoff game, many NHL hockey games, one pro football and one pro basketball game. Then there are many other games I have watched at the high school and college level (including Ed Marinaro breaking the NCAA rushing record). And then there are countless games that I have watched on television in these sports, plus contests in person or on television in other sports like soccer, lacrosse (my alma mater, Cornell, was NCAA champs two of the four years I attended there) and track and field (including an international meet at the Iffley Road Track at Oxford, the same track on which Roger Bannister ran the first sub-four minute mile).
Kirk Gibson’s hobbling to smack a clutch pinch-hit home run to win Game 1 of the 1988 World Series and the U.S. Olympic Hockey Team’s miracle victory over the Soviets in 1980 are two memorable moments in sports that I saw on television. But some of my most memorable moments are from games in college and high school that were played in front of relatively few people and have never made it into the annals of sports history. They happened long before You Tube, Facebook and Twitter. But all of them were feats I never saw any other time.
I have seen many dominant performances by quarterbacks, running backs and pass receivers in football. But a kick blocker? I saw Cornell beat Rutgers because of one man on special teams. John McKeown was an NCAA championship caliber long sprinter. He was also a speedy pass receiver but initially he played on the 150 pound (now sprint) football team at Cornell. (A handful of colleges have football teams reserved for smaller talented athletes.) Eventually the Cornell varsity added him to their roster. Normally, his heroics were on the receiving end of a long Mark Allen pass, scoring three touchdowns on twelve catches. But this day was different.
On October 7, 1972, Cornell beat Rutgers 36-22. There is no doubt in my mind that the Big Red would have ended up on the losing end without Johnny Mack’s efforts. Early in the game, he lined up on one side of the line and blocked a punt deep in Rutgers territory. Later in the first half, he did it again. On their next punt attempt, the Scarlet Knights adjusted and blocked McKeown from getting to the punter. Soon, Rutgers punted again and this time he got through to the kick from the other side of the line. Finally, with the Rutgers punting team completely befuddled, Johnny hid behind a defensive lineman in the center of the line. He timed the snap perfectly, sprinted through the line, past the blocking back and sacked the punter! My recollection is that all of these plays gave Cornell great field position and led to scores.
That collegiate game was witnessed by a few thousand fans and was broadcast on radio, perhaps on local cable TV also (at least highlights). But feats at two high school games with teams I was a member of were witnessed by no more than a couple of dozen people, plus team members, coaches and officials. Still, I know they happened because I was there.
On the day we (Rockland Country Day School) beat the Halsted School in 1970, the opposing hitters could barely touch our pitcher, Ian Kanner. In a seven inning game, he pitched us to victory by mowing down all 21 outs with strikeouts. I did help him a bit, however. Not as alert as I should have been, I let a grounder go through my legs that I should have handled with ease. Undaunted, he finished out the inning and the rest of the game sending hitter after hitter back to the bench, bat in hand.
A year earlier, I had an excellent seat on the bench as the second string goalie for our hockey game against Bergen Catholic. We somehow found ourselves killing off two penalties at the same time, leaving us at a two man disadvantage. Tom McAllister was only a sophomore and far from the biggest player on either team. But he was already an excellent puck handler and good skater. Tom was sent out as our only forward to kill off the penalties. Soon after the faceoff following the second penalty, Tom intercepted the puck, went down on a breakaway and scored. Following another faceoff, he stole the puck again and put the puck past the goalie once more. My recollection is that they were the deciding goals in the game. Only one NHL player has ever scored two short-handed goals in the same game while two men down, but they were on different penalty kills and one of them was when the opposing team pulled their goalie late in the game because they were losing. No one in the NHL has ever scored two goals on the same two man disadvantage.
World Cup Update – end of Group play
Despite a 1-0 loss to Germany in the final game of group play, USA advances to the Round of 16 by a tiebreaker. With Portugal’s defeat of Ghana, USA and Portugal tied in points (4), but USA’s goal differential was three better than Portugal, due to a sorry performance by the latter in their opening game against Germany.
It is difficult to assess Team USA’s performance over the first three games because it was inconsistent and because their path was much more difficult than for most teams. They came in after six months while aware that they were in a “group of death”, and that the supposedly weakest team in Group G, Ghana, had been their nemesis in the previous two World Cups. They also faced more travel than any other squad (in part based on their decision to have their practice location in the south, in Sao Paolo, with all their games ending up in the north).
Furthermore, they had to play one of their games at Manaus in the middle of the Amazon jungle. The fact that it is technically winter in that part of Brazil means little as it is very close to the Equator. The combination of heat and humidity during their match there against Portugal led the referee to call for a break in the middle of the first half so the players on the field could be hydrated.
Four games were played in Manaus. Regarding the first three, only Portugal was able to win its next game, but that was against a Ghana team that was somewhat in rebellion over not having received their promised payout: two of their best players were dropped from the team before the Portugal match as a result. England, Italy, Cameroon, Croatia and USA all went down to defeat the next game.
The fourth game in Manaus was a final group stage game, so we don’t know what will happen next for one of the teams, Switzerland. The other, Honduras, was eliminated, still seeking their first World Cup win. Switzerland will be facing Argentina in the first game of the knockout stage, and they might have too much to overcome, even without having to recover from the toll of Manaus.
If USA faced dehydration in game two, their third game featured the opposite. Heavy rains in Recife since the middle of the night had led to localized flooding and a soggy, though playable field. Rain, alternating between light and heavy, fell throughout the match and affected both teams passing and ball control ability at times, although the German squad still had the superiority in those parts of the game. Fortunately, there was no standing water anywhere on the field.
How would Team USA performed against Germany if they hadn’t played in Manaus in the previous match or had 27 hours less rest? There is no way to find out. Having survived the gauntlet thrown at them, have they grown as a team, ready to take on the world’s best as worthy opponents? Or do they still have a few too many weak spots to be among the elite? Yes, if they fall to Belgium in the next match, their advancement might be considered a moral victory. Team USA will only arrive as a soccer power when it is no longer satisfied or even concerned with moral victories.
Belgium is the better team on paper, but not nearly as superior as Germany or Portugal were, and they lack the impact players on the roster of those two teams that Team USA already faced and held their own against. Belgium came through Group H undefeated and allowed only one goal. But they managed to win by only one goal in each of their matches, facing Algeria, Russia and South Korea, all teams lower ranked than Team USA. Both Belgium and USA are seen as improving squads. The result of the match may come down to which team as improved more and/or which team has come through group play in the best physical shape. If Jozy Altidore is able to return from his hamstring injury, it will give the Americans fresh legs and someone who could make the difference against a stingy defense.
There were three expected “groups of death” coming into the tournament. Outside of those three groups (B, D & G), there were no major surprises and the top seed in each group advanced, with Switzerland the only one to advance in second place as a highly-rated French team came up on top.
Group B saw defending champion Spain sent home. It wasn’t a good tournament for the Iberian peninsula, as both Spain and Portugal drew groups of death and both were unable to overcome defeats by a margin of four goals in their first matches, albeit to excellent teams from The Netherlands and Germany.
Group D provided the biggest upset of all, with little regarded Costa Rica finishing ahead of the teams expected to slug it out to advance: Uruguay, Italy and England. And we have already dissected Group G’s results.
Trying to guard against favoritism for my home country, on paper it would seem that USA has the best chance of advancing from a second place group finish. The warranted suspension of Uruguay’s star, Luis Suarez, for biting an opponent, should greatly diminish their chance of besting Colombia as four of the five advancing South American teams face off in matches today. Overall, it will be interesting to see if the teams that played their games in the cooler southern part of Brazil will have an advantage in this round. (By the way, Belgium played their games in three southern venues.)
Surprising Costa Rica’s fortunes continue to look good, at least for one more round, as they drew the weakest team to advance, Greece. With only Honduras departing after group play, it is the strongest showing ever by CONCACAF (North America, Central America and Caribbean football association), qualifying the maximum number of slots allotted to them (4) and a record three teams advancing to the knockout stage.
Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain. And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible. – 1st Corinthians 9:24-25