Most Unlikely Chokes in Sports History

Bleacher ReportContributor IIIFebruary 16, 2012

Most Unlikely Chokes in Sports History

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    Athletes falter under the pressure of important games and moments every day, everywhere from Little League fields and high school gyms to Yankee Stadium and the Staples Center.

    Confronted with great expectations, they are outplanned, outsmarted, outhustled or straight-up outplayed, joining the untold many who have choked away what could have been—what should have been—a sure thing. 

    Some choke jobs are so unexpected that they boggle the mind: record-breaking and bewildering folds under the bright lights that rise above the shock value of the others.

    When opportunity presented itself for these ten teams and athletes, they ran in the opposite direction.

    Here are Bleacher Report's Most Unlikely Chokes in Sports History.

10. Kyle Brotzman (2010 v. Nevada)

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    Over the last decade, the Boise State Broncos football team has successfully changed its image from "that team from Idaho with the Smurf Turf" to a perennial BCS contender.

    Year in, year out, the Broncos insert themselves into the BCS picture, beating an Adrian Peterson-led Oklahoma team in one of the greatest college football games ever played (the 2007 Fiesta Bowl) and returning to the Fiesta Bowl three years later to defeat TCU in a battle between non-BCS schools.

    Entering the second-to-last week of the 2010 season, Boise State appeared on the verge of another trip to a BCS game and potentially a berth in the National Championship Game. The Broncos were undefeated, with wins against Virginia Tech and Oregon State, teams that would finish the season Top 25, and needed to beat Nevada and Utah State to close out their perfect season.

    Behind quarterback Kellen Moore, who would finish the season with 35 touchdowns and the nation's best passer rating (182.6), the team seemed poised to make another splash in college football's controversial postseason.

    Nevada was no slouch, entering this WAC matchup at 10-1 and angling for its first conference championship since 2005 (when it tied with Boise State, despite losing to the Broncos 49-14). 

    Boise State stormed to a 24-7 halftime lead, but Nevada came out of the locker room on all cylinders and, with future San Francisco 49er Colin Kaepernick at the helm of the Wolf Pack offense, ripped off 17 unanswered points to tie the game with 5:14 remaining.

    The Broncos struck back quickly, scoring a touchdown on a 79-yard Moore pass to running back Doug Martin to retake the lead, only to have Nevada drive right back down the field to tie the score.

    The Broncos' vaunted offense got the ball back with 13 seconds remaining and, after one 54-yard pass from Moore to Titus Young, kicker Kyle Brotzman trotted out for the potential game-winning field goal from 26 yards.

    Brotzman had recently passed Jason Elam as the WAC's all-time leading scorer and would become the nation's all-time leading scorer later that season—a title he still holds today. He hadn't missed a field goal from within 30 yards all season.

    But Brotzman's career accomplishments would forever take a back seat to what was going to happen next at Mackey Stadium in Reno.

    The Broncos' normally-reliable kicker sailed the game-winner wide right, allowing the game to head into overtime. In the extra period, Brotzman again missed a chip shot on Boise State's first possession, this time hooking it wide left.

    The Wolf Pack wasted no time, hitting the game-winning field goal to end Boise's BCS dreams, leaving Brotzman to spend the rest of his days as the game's (and season's) goat, even fielding death threats from overzealous fans.

9. Boston Red Sox (2011 AL Wild Card Race)

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    After a miserable 2-10 start, play .659 baseball between April and August 31? Check.

    Six All-Stars, including 2 starting position players? Check.

    Five starters with an OPS higher than .800, including three over .900 ? Check.

    Two front-line starting pitchers that registered a combined 3.21 ERA and 1.15 WHIP? Check.

    One of the league's best closers—if not entire bullpens—until the final week of the season? Check (and Check)

    1.5 game lead over the Yankees in the AL East going into September? Check.

    Nine game Wild Card lead over the Rays heading into September? Check.

    Unfortunately for Red Sox Nation, none of these accomplishments could keep the BoSox from self-destructing during September, when they went 7-20 and missed the playoffs, registering the biggest final-month collapse in baseball history.

    The icing on the cake came when Jonathan Papelbon blew a ninth inning lead in Baltimore on the final day of the season, forcing the Sox to watch Tampa Bay come from behind to beat the Yankees and take the Wild Card.

8. Dennis Eckersley (1988 World Series, Game 1)

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    The Oakland A's entered the 1988 World Series as heavy favorites over the seemingly undermanned Los Angeles Dodgers. On top of their stellar offense and one of the league's best pitching staffs, the A's had a most dangerous weapon lurking in the bullpen, ready to close out every game.

    Dennis Eckersley was in the second year of his reclamation project at the hands of A's skipper Tony LaRussa. Eckersley had been a starter throughout his career, even throwing a no-hitter for the Indians in 1977, but had entered rehab for alcoholism in 1986 and seemed on the downside of his career. LaRussa and the A's took a flyer on him in April 1987, intending to use him out of the bullpen, but Eckersley soon became the game's most dominant closer.

    In 1988, the Eck racked up 45 saves in 51 opportunities to go along with a 2.35 ERA, 0.867 WHIP, and 70 strikeouts in 72.2 innings pitched. Earning an All-Star nod, second place in Cy Young voting, and fifth place in MVP voting, he was beginning the second phase of his career, which would later earn him election into Cooperstown.

    In the A's sweep of Boston in the ALCS, Eckersley saved all four games and was named ALCS MVP. He then appeared ready to put an exclamation point at the end of an Oakland victory in Game 1 of the World Series at Chavez Ravine. But the Dodgers had other ideas.

    Eckersley relieved Dave Stewart at the outset of the bottom half of the ninth inning with the A's leading 4-3. He quickly retired Mike Scioscia and Jeff Hamilton, but then walked Mike Davis to set the stage for one of the national pastime's most legendary moments.

    Kirk Gibson's game-winning two-run home run would never have happened had Eckersley not been outsmarted by Gibson and the Dodgers' advance scouts.

    Before the now famous 3-2 pitch, Gibson stepped out of the box to recall longtime scout Mel Didier, who told him that Eckersley went with his backdoor slider on a full count.

    Sure enough, the Eck tried to drop in the backdoor, and a hobbled Gibson launched the ball into the right field bleachers at Dodger Stadium, etching himself in the game's lore.

    Although the Dodgers were only up 1-0 in this best-of-seven series, the A's never recovered and the Commissioner's Trophy returned to Los Angeles for the first time in seven years, and the fifth time since the team relocated from Brooklyn.

7. Portland Trail Blazers (2000 NBA Western Conference Finals)

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    After storming back from a 3-1 deficit to even the 2000 NBA Western Conference Finals at three games apiece, the Portland Trail Blazers found themselves up by 16 over the Los Angeles Lakers with seconds remaining in the third quarter of Game 7, and then again by 15 with about 10:30 left in the fourth.

    On the verge of upsetting Shaq and Kobe's No. 1 seed Lakers, the team that would soon be known as the Jail Blazers saw it all slip away on the Staples Center floor.

    In little more than six minutes, the Lakers ripped off a 15-0 run to tie the game at 75.

    L.A. then took the lead 79-77 on a lay-in by league MVP Shaq just before the two-minute mark, but the Blazers briefly tied it up on a goaltending call against Shaq on a Rasheed Wallace jumper.

    Unfortunately for 'Sheed, Damon Stoudamire (pictured) and the rest of the Blazers, the Lakers' relentless attack continued, starting quietly with two Kobe Bryant free throws before going into high gear.

    Before Portland could blink an eye, the Lakers were up 85-79, and wouldn't relinquish the lead again.

    After downing Portland 89-84, the Lakers went on to beat the Indiana Pacers in the NBA Finals four games to two, winning their first of three consecutive championships, while the Blazers haven't escaped the first round of the playoffs since their epic collapse in Los Angeles.

6. Houston Oilers (1993 AFC Wild Card Game)

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    Up by 32 points in the third quarter of a 1992 AFC Wild Card Game against the Buffalo Bills and seemingly on their way to a Divisional Round matchup with the AFC Central rival Pittsburgh Steelers, Warren Moon and his Houston Oilers suffered a meltdown of epic proportions.

    Moon threw four touchdowns in the first half, as the Oilers' run-and-shoot offense appeared to be too much for the Buffalo defense to handle. Bills backup quarterback Frank Reich (subbing for the injured Jim Kelly) compounded the Bills' problems by throwing a pick-six early in the second half to put Houston up 35-3.

    What happened next was unthinkable, and remains the greatest comeback in the history of the NFL.

    Behind Reich, backup running back Kenneth Davis (in for Thurman Thomas, who left early in the game with a hip injury), and a spectacular performance by wide receiver Andre Reed, the Bills reeled off 35 unanswered points to go up 38-35. They would eventually win 41-38 in overtime to keep their march toward a third consecutive Super Bowl disappointment (a 52-17 pasting at the hands of the Dallas Cowboys) alive.

    No team had ever given up a 32-point lead before the Oilers, and no team has given up such a large lead since.

5. Dallas Mavericks (2007 NBA Western Conference First Round)

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    The Golden State Warriors narrowly slipped into the 2007 NBA Playoffs, going 42-40 in the regular season and claiming the Western Conference's number 8 seed by two games over the Los Angeles Clippers. Don Nelson's squad was rewarded with a first round matchup with the Dallas Mavericks, defending Western Conference champions and number 1 seed after being nearly unbeatable (67-15) in the regular season.

    Mavericks coach Avery Johnson played right into his former mentor Nelson's hands, trying to go small to compete with the speed of Baron Davis and the "We Believe" Warriors, instead of exploiting his size advantage.

    The result was the first victory by a No. 8 seed over a No. 1 seed in a seven-game series in NBA history (the Grizzlies did it last year to the Spurs), and a dejected Dirk Nowitzki and company walking off the court with nothing to show for the best regular season in franchise history.

4. Greg Norman (1996 Masters)

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    By the time he teed off on Thursday at the 1996 Masters, Greg Norman already had 80 career wins, including two Claret Jugs, and had also placed second two times each in the Masters, U.S. Open and PGA Championship.

    The Shark shot a 63 on that first day, tying Nick Price's course record, but nothing could prepare him or the rest of the golf world for the wild weekend that lay head of the Aussie golfer.

    Norman followed his Round 1 triumph with scores of 69 and 71, entering Sunday with a six shot lead over Nick Faldo. He proceeded to completely fall apart before the Augusta National gallery and millions watching on television, shooting a six-over 78 and losing to Faldo (who registered a 67) by five strokes.

    Norman's performance still stands as the largest Sunday collapse in Masters history, and he never got a chance to don the green jacket, never winning another major championship again.

3. Gary Anderson (1998 NFC Championship Game)

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    The 1998 Minnesota Vikings went 15-1 in the regular season, and the team seemed ready for a run to the Super Bowl behind an explosive offense with weapons like Randall Cunningham, Randy Moss, Robert Smith and Cris Carter.

    Minnesota led the league in total offense with 556 points scored, a season record at the time (the 2007 Patriots and 2011 Packers have since eclipsed that mark).

    After stomping on the Arizona Cardinals 41-21 in the divisional round, the Vikings hosted the upstart Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship Game at the Metrodome.

    With a seven-point lead late in the fourth quarter, Minnesota coach Dennis Green trotted out legendary kicker Gary Anderson to ice the game with a 38-yard field goal to send the franchise to its first Super Bowl since they lost four during the 1970s.

    In his 17th year in the NFL, Gary Anderson had performed a feat that no other kicker in the history of game had accomplished: He registered a perfect season, connecting on all 35 field goals and 49 PATs he attempted.

    But this Sunday, Anderson would be anything but perfect, shanking the apparent gimme to the left, giving the Falcons the opportunity to tie the game and eventually win on a successful field goal by their Anderson—Morten Anderson—in overtime.

    The Falcons, and not the heavily favored Vikings, went on to Super Bowl XXXIII, where they would ultimately lose to John Elway's Denver Broncos, and much of the blame for the Vikings' loss lay on the shoulders of their formerly perfect kicker.

2. Mike Tyson (1990 v. Buster Douglas)

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    Heading into his February 1990 fight against James "Buster" Douglas, Mike Tyson was undefeated (37-0) and the undisputed heavyweight champion of the world, holding the WBC, WBA and IBF belts.

    His previous fight against Carl "The Truth" Williams lasted only 93 seconds, with Tyson recording a controversial TKO.

    Douglas, on the other hand, was just 29-4-1 entering the fight, and was expected to be just another in the long line of Tyson's victims. But, instead of becoming one of Iron Mike's punching bags, Douglas recorded the biggest upset in the history of professional boxing.

    A grueling battle developed over the course of the fight, with Tyson eventually knocking Douglas down in the eighth round, only to see Douglas get back up and return to dominate the ninth.

    In the tenth round, Tyson came out swinging, but Douglas waited for his opening, landing a right uppercut followed by four more punches, knocking Tyson down for the first time in his career, and registering the knockout to become the new champion.

    After the fight, Tyson fought just four more fights before doing prison time in Indiana after a rape conviction.

    He returned to boxing in 1995, but his legend never approached the same heights after he was exposed as mortal in his loss to Douglas, the journeyman fighter who would lose his titles just eight months later to Evander Holyfield.

1. New York Yankees (2004 ALCS)

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    Yankees fans will spew venom about this choice, trying to convince me that the Red Sox' regular season collapse in 2011 was somehow worse, no doubt making more than one reference to beer and fried chicken.

    No matter how it's framed, that argument couldn't be more incorrect.

    Going into the 2004 ALCS, the Yankees had owned Boston for more than eight decades, racking up 26 championships to Boston's zero since the infamous Babe Ruth trade following the 1919 season. While the Yankees ascended to the throne as the greatest franchise in American sports, the Red Sox suffered heartbreaking World Series defeats four times during those years (in 1946, 1967, 1975, and 1986), and the Yankees dropped them from the playoffs in 1978, again in 1999, and then in terribly dramatic and heart-wrenching fashion in 2003.

    The Yankees' domination of Boston didn't end there. The modern day Bronx Bombers won their seventh consecutive AL East crown in 2004 (the Red Sox won the Wild Card), took the first two games of this ALCS rematch at Yankee Stadium 10-7 and 3-1, then blasted Boston in Game 3 at Fenway Park by a score of 19-8, taking a 3-0 series lead—a lead that no team in the history of baseball had ever surmounted.

    Until the 2004 Boston Red Sox, that is.

    Over the next four nights, the Red Sox pulled a rabbit out of a hat, weaving together epic come-from-behind, extra-inning victories in Games 4 and 5 (featuring two blown saves by the previously invincible Mariano Rivera, Dave Roberts' stolen base, and the coronation of Big Papi as the greatest clutch hitter in Red Sox history), a legendary performance in Curt Schilling's bloody sock game (Game 6), and an unexpected Game 7 blowout.

    The Sox took the series, making baseball history as the first team to win a series after being behind 3-0, and then swept the St. Cardinals to take home their first championship since Woodrow Wilson was in office.

    And the whole experience was made sweeter by the fact that the Sox started their historic run by turning their previously one-sided rivalry with the Yankees on its head.