The 10 Greatest Moments in Washington, DC Sports History
Washington, DC is considered by many to be the most important city in the world. From a sports standpoint, however, the nation's capital is often overlooked when it comes to discussions as to the most successful and powerful sports cities. With some great franchises calling DC home, is Washington DC's relegation to second-tier status justified?
It is true that there has been a dearth of high-water moments for DC area sports fans over the past 10-15 years. But it was not always that way, not at all.
Over the years, there have been numerous memorable moments for Washington DC sports teams— moments of glory, moments of triumph and moments that have stayed in fans' memories for many years.
After a very long drought, Washington now seems poised to, perhaps, become a player in the sports world once again.
The Redskins just drafted a quarterback who might be the first face of the franchise since Joe Theismann.
The Nationals are young, talented and off to their best start ever.
The Capitals remain one of the NHL's best franchises and just upset the defending Stanley Cup champions.
The Wizards are young and underachieving, but there are promising signs there as well.
Add to that a strong fan base with DC United and other area collegiate teams, such as Georgetown and George Washington, and there is no shortage of opportunities for a magical and memorable moment to take place year round.
DC sports fans, this one is for you. Let's stroll down memory lane and revisit the 10 greatest moments in Washington, DC sports history.
Let's start this off by looking at a couple of honorable mentions.
Honorable Mention No. 1—Joel Ward Buries the Bruins
How is this for fresh?
This moment took place less than 48 hours ago—and what a moment it was.
The seventh-seeded Capitals, massive underachievers during the Alexander Ovechkin era when they were the favorites, finally came through when no one expected them to.
The Capitals, who had been more inconsistent than the weather all season long, were given little to no chance against the second-seeded, and defending Stanley Cup champion, Boston Bruins in their 2012 Eastern Conference quarterfinal series.
But, led by a rookie goalie of all people, the Caps shocked everyone by not just showing up for the series, but taking a 3-2 series lead.
The Bruins would win Game 6 and send the series back to Boston for a decisive Game 7.
There, one of the greatest quarterfinal playoff series ever, got even better. With all six prior games decided by just one goal, it was no surprise to anyone that Game 7, too, would be decided by one goal.
In overtime, former Bruin Mike Knuble blocked a shot, and this turned into a two-on-one that developed so quickly the cameraman barely caught up to the play before magic happened.
Knuble was able to come in and put a good shot on Tim Thomas. The rebound came right out in front, and Joel Ward, who had scored all of six goals all season, banged home the rebound to give the Capitals won of their biggest playoff wins ever.
Why is this just an honorable mention? Because we do not know exactly what this moment will lead to. If the Caps end up winning the Cup, this moment might one day rank much, much higher.
For now, it is the most recent memorable moment in DC sports history—and one to savor for a couple more days anyway.
Honorable Mention No. 2—Darrell Green's Punt Return Beats the Bears
You can easily fill a Top 10 list with just a bunch of plays from the great career of Darrell Green. The Redskins Hall of Fame cornerback is one of the best to ever play the position and was always one of the fastest men in the NFL for pretty much all of his amazing 19-year NFL career.
Despite his amazing speed, Joe Gibbs did not send Darrell Green back to return punts or kickoffs very often, as the risk of injury was too great. But when Gibbs needed a huge special teams play, you could count on No. 28 being called upon.
This punt return during the 1987 NFC Divisional playoffs is Green's best. Its not just because it was the play that propelled the Skins to the 1987 NFC Championship. It was Green's heroic effort on this play that made it special.
Green actually tore rib cartilage on this play—and he just kept on running to pay dirt.
Green's play here, and in the NFC Championship game, helped get the Redskins to Super Bowl XXII—and we will see that game again later on.
10. A Phenom Is Born
Since the Montreal Expos moved to DC in 2005 and became the Nationals, there has not been much for Nats fans to cheer about. Losing became the norm, and reason for optimism was fleeting to say the least.
That all changed in 2009 when the Nationals drafted a pitching phenom from San Diego State by the name of Stephen Strassburg. Never before, and perhaps never again, had there been this much hype surrounding someone who had never thrown a pitch in the big leagues before.
Media credentials had to be passed out just for Strassburg's minor league outings, and ESPN would broadcast some of the innings that he pitched.
It was like all four Beatles rolled into one perfect pitching machine.
By the time Strassburg got to the big leagues, the anticipation was at a fever pitch. Some were calling it the most hyped debut ever. He couldn't possibly live up to the hype—could he?
On June 8, 2010, we all found out that, yes, he could.
In his major league debut, Strassburg plowed through the Pittsburgh Pirates, going seven innings, allowing two earned runs, walking none and striking out a team-record 14 batters.
As far as big league debuts go, it does not get much better.
Alas, 2010 would not end well as Strassburg would require Tommy John surgery, but he has been an absolute monster in the early part of 2012 and shows no signs of slowing down.
The Nationals' future is very bright, and Stephen Strassburg is a key reason for this.
His tremendous debut comes in at No. 10 on this list.
9. DC United's Return to Glory
When the MLS first got off the ground in 1996, DC United was one of the flagship franchises.
DC United was also the most successful franchise in the MLS in those early years as they won three of the first four MLS Cup Championships (1996, 1997 and 1999).
But after the title in 1999, DC United went into a bit of a slump as it failed to qualify for the playoffs three years in a row.
In 2003, though, DC United would show signs of life as it qualified for the MLS playoffs before being eliminated by a 4-0 aggregate in the conference semifinals by the eventual Eastern Conference champions, the Chicago Fire.
Still, the 2003 season was something positive for DC United to build on, and in 2004 DC United created quite an uproar when it drafted 14-year-old phenom, Freddy Adu, with the first pick in the MLS SuperDraft.
As if that was not enough, the United then made history by becoming the first MLS team to hire a retired player to be its coach. Piotr Nowak took over the DC—and the results were immediate.
DC United would qualify for the playoffs as the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. After dominating the MetroStars by a 4-0 aggregate in the conference semifinals, the United would take on the New England Revolution in the conference finals.
In a game many have called one of the best MLS playoff games ever, DC United triumphed over the Revolution 4-3 on penalties, after the game remained deadlocked at 3-3 after extra time. One of DC United's heroes during the PK phase of the game was none other than Freddy Adu, who successfully converted one of the penalties.
In the 2004 MLS Cup, DC United would take on the Kansas City Wizards at the Home Depot Center in California.
Kansas City would jump on top very quickly, but the lead was very short-lived. DC United would score three successive goals, two of them by Alecko Eskandarian (the other goal being an own goal).
This MLS Cup would see quite a bit of controversy along with several firsts, including the first red card issued in an MLS Cup and the first converted penalty kick in MLS Cup history.
History was then made in about the 65th minute when Nowak removed Eskandarian and replaced him with Adu. Though Adu would not score, his energy and speed resulted in some long runs and, more importantly, taking precious minutes off the clock.
In a game, and a season, that saw just about everything, DC United ended up winning 3-2.
After a long absence, DC United were once again MLS champions.
They have not been able to say that ever since.
8. Exorcising the Demons
During the 1970s, Georgetown was best known as being the setting for one of the scariest movies ever, The Exorcist.
In the early 1980s, however, Georgetown's college basketball team burst onto the national scene. Much of this got started due to the emergence of Patrick Ewing as one of the best centers in all of college basketball.
The momentum would reach its apex during the 1981-82 season as the Hoyas would reach the national championship game. There, they would meet up with the North Carolina Tar Heels, coached by the legendary Dean Smith. UNC also had a tremendous team as they were led by guys like James Worthy, Sam Perkins and a freshman by the name of Michael Jordan.
In one of the best championship games ever, North Carolina would defeat Georgetown 63-62. Michael Jordan's jump shot with just 15 seconds remaining gave UNC the lead. With the Hoyas trying to retake the lead, Freddie Brown made one of the biggest mistakes ever seen in a championship game when he threw the ball to James Worthy.
Haunted by this heartbreaking loss, the Hoyas vowed to get back to the title game and set things right.
In 1984, Georgetown would finally rid themselves of the demons from that 1982 title game. Led by Ewing, and a monster performance by Michael Graham, the Hoyas were able to defeat Akeem Olajuwon and the Houston Cougars, who had made their third straight trip to the Final Four, 84-75 in the championship game.
Ewing was named the tournament's Most Outstanding Player. and John Thompson became the first African-American coach to lead his team to the national championship.
Possibly the best moment of all was at the game's end when Coach Thompson gave Freddie Brown a huge bear hug.
The Hoyas and Brown had come full circle—and the ghosts of 1982 were laid to rest.
7. Dale Hunter's Game 7 Overtime Winner Against the Flyers
While the Capitals' Game 7 win against the Boston Bruins just the other night was a great moment, it is not the greatest Game 7 moment in Caps history.
In the immortal words of Yoda, "No—there is another."
The 1987-88 season was another in a long stretch of great regular season runs by the Caps during the eighties. Unfortunately, the Caps had a horrible habit of choking in the playoffs.
The year previously, the Caps had lost, on home ice, in quadruple overtime to the New York Islanders in Game 7.
In the 1988 playoffs, the Caps found themselves down in their Patrick Division semifinal series against the Philadelphia Flyers 3-1. But the Caps found something inside them that had been missing in prior years as they battled back to tie the series and force a Game 7 in Landover, which the Capitals used to call home.
Game 7 started off dreadfully as the Caps found themselves down 3-0. But they would battle back and take a 4-3 lead, only to see the Flyers tie the game and force overtime.
The overtime period between the Caps and Flyers was as tense as anything any Capitals fan can remember, with both teams having real chances to win.
But it would be Dale Hunter, the Caps current coach, who would split three Flyers defenders and pick up a perfect pass from Larry Murphy. Never breaking stride, Hunter came in and beat Flyers goalie Ron Hextall, giving the Capitals the game and the series.
Unfortunately, Hunter's goal was all the magic left in the Caps' hat in 1988 as they would be eliminated in the Patrick Division final by the New Jersey Devils in another seven-game thriller.
So why is this more of a memorable moment than Joel Ward's goal?
I think for two reasons. One, the 2012 Caps did not have to come from a 3-1 series deficit just to get to a Game 7.
Second, the Caps did not have to rally back from a three-goal deficit against the Bruins in Game 7.
Also, the overtime against the Bruins did not last as long as this overtime did. Hunter's goal came after tension, and nervousness, gradually built to an almost unbearable level.
Regardless, Hunter's goal, one of the true iconic moments in Washington Capitals history, comes in at No. 7 on this list.
6. The Fat Lady Sings
As bad as the Washington Wizards have been the last few years, it is hard to remember that this franchise used to be known as the Bullets—and that they actually won an NBA championship back in 1978.
This is actually one of the "moments" on this list that can be more properly described as a series of moments. However one wants to describe it, the Bullets' run to the NBA championship in 1978 is one of the great sports memories for many DC sports fans.
The 1977-78 Bullets were no slouches, not by a long shot. They featured two future Hall of Famers in center Wes Unseld and power forward Elvin Hayes. Bobby Dandridge would evolve into an excellent small forward.
The Bullets would also feature several role players that would play pivotal roles during the 1977-78 championship run. Players like Kevin Grevey, Greg Ballard, Charles Johnson and Mitch Kupchak would all play a major role in what would turn out to be an improbable, yet magical, playoff run.
In the playoffs, the Bullets, hampered by injuries most of the season, started to get players back, and they got hot at the right time.
First, the Bullets swept the Hawks in the first round.
In the next round, the Bullets took out the Central Division champion Spurs, who had finished eight games better than the Bullets in the regular season, in six games.
The Eastern Conference finals saw the Bullets stun the defending conference champion 76ers in six games. Wes Unseld's putback of his own missed shot in the closing moments of Game 6 proved to be the deciding points in the 101-99 victory.
It was about this time, whenever another expert would predict the inevitable demise of the Bullets, that coach Dick Motta declared, "The opera ain't over until the fat lady sings." Indeed, during the NBA finals against the Seattle SuperSonics, this would prove to be prophetic.
The Bullets would blow a 19-point lead in Game 1. In an odd format for the playoffs, though, the next two games would be played at the Capital Centre. The teams would split the next two games and head back to Seattle for the next two games.
While Game 4 was played in Seattle, it was played at the Kingdome, where the Sonics had not played before, as opposed to the Colosseum, where Seattle had won 21 straight. The Bullets rallied from a 15-point deficit in the third quarter to win Game 4 and even the series.
The Sonics would win Game 5 and the series would go back to Washington with the Sonics up 3-2.
Game 6 would see Kupchak, Hayes and Dandridge dominate as the Bullets ran the SuperSonics off the court 117-82.
Game 7 would be played back at the Seattle Colosseum, where the Sonics' win streak stood at 22 games. But led by Dandridge and Johnson, the Bullets would grab a lead and, this time, hold on for dear life as the Bullets won DC's first major sports championship in over 35 years.
The Bullets would return to the finals the following year. But the SuperSonics would get revenge as they took the title in just five games.
Yes, the NBA championship once resided in Washington DC. Believe it or not, it is true.
With any luck it will come back to the nation's capital one day.
5. Joe Juneau Sends the Capitals to the Stanley Cup Finals
As has been mentioned previously, the Washington Capitals have had a disappointing run in the playoffs during their existence—and that is putting it nicely.
The one high-water mark came in the 1998 playoffs. The Caps came in as a No. 4 seed. For once, though, things started to break the Caps' way, and the 1997-98 Caps were probably the most opportunistic team in the history of the franchise.
The conference quarterfinals would see the top three seeds in the East all eliminated. Meanwhile, the Caps would eliminate the No. 5 seed Bruins, and suddenly, the Caps were the highest seeded team remaining in the East.
After eliminating the No. 8 seed Ottawa Senators, the Caps took aim at Dominick Hasek and the No. 6 seed Buffalo Sabres. As good as Hasek was, the Caps' Olaf Kolzig was even better.
The Caps took a 3-1 series lead, but when they lost Game 5, all the talk of past playoff chokes and blown 3-1 series leads started up again.
In Game 6, the Caps fell behind early but fought back and eventually forced overtime. In overtime, a turnover by the Sabres and a remarkable team effort to stay onside by the Caps led to Brian Bellows coming in on Hasek and getting a decent shot at the net.
Hasek stopped the initial shot but could not control the rebound. The puck was lying loose for a few moments, and Bellows took a few whacks at it. With everyone crashing towards the net, Joe Juneau poked the loose puck past Hasek for the overtime winner to send the Capitals to the Stanley Cup finals for the first, and so far only, time.
As we all know, the celebration would be short-lived as the Caps were swept by a very good Red Wings team, who just happen to be the last repeat Stanley Cup champions.
For long suffering Capitals fans, this remains the biggest moment in franchise history.
Will that ever change?
We might find out sooner than we think.
4. The Bandwagon
We now enter the "Hail To The Redskins" section of this article.
The Redskins hold a special place in the hearts of Washington, DC sports fans. They are the most beloved of the franchises in DC, and there is not much debate on that.
Yes, we love our Capitals and Nationals and Wizards.
But the Skins are different.
The first appearance on this list for the Redskins comes in the form of their most recent championship, and the last time a team from Washington, DC won a title in one of the four major sports in the United States.
In 1991, the Redskins started the season with a 45-0 demolition of the Detroit Lions—and the Skins never looked back. Tony Kornheiser began telling folks in DC to line up for the Super Bowl Bandwagon—and he was right.
As the 1991 season rolled on, it became evident that the Redskins were good—really, really good.
Kornheiser kept running articles about the Bandwagon, and cartoons depicting the fictional metaphor showed more and more people climbing aboard.
The Skins started the season with 11 straight wins, and there was talk of an undefeated season. It did not happen, but the Redskins finished the season 14-2.
Statistically, quarterback Mark Rypien had a great year passing for over 3,500 yards.
Ernest Byner rushed for over 1,000 yards.
Two wide receivers, Gary Clark and Hall of Famer Art Monk both went over 1,000 yards for the season.
Defensively, the Redskins were one of the most dominant teams ever. They outscored their opposition 485-224 and racked up three shutouts along the way.
In the NFC playoffs, the Redskins throttled the Falcons 24-7, then crushed the Lions 41-10 in the NFC championship game. This earned Washington a trip to its fifth and, to date, last Super Bowl appearance.
In Super Bowl XXVI, the Redskins dominated a very good Buffalo Bills team that was making its second consecutive Super Bowl appearance 37-24. The Redskins' defense picked off Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly four times.
Mark Rypien threw for 292 yards and two touchdowns and was named Super Bowl MVP.
The win in Super Bowl XXVI marked the Redskins' third Super Bowl championship. It was the first time the Redskins won a Super Bowl title in a non-strike shortened season.
The 1991 Redskins are generally regarded as one of the Top 10 teams ever.
Each year, there seems to be a new team that rises to the top of the NFL and a new bandwagon seems to get going.
In 1991, the Redskins bandwagon was one definitely worth climbing aboard.
3. The Quarter
The 1987 Washington Redskins were not the best of the Super Bowl-winning Redskins teams—but they are the proud owners of the greatest quarter in Super Bowl history, along with the No. 3 moment on this list.
The 1987 season saw a second players' strike in five years. Unlike the prior strike that shortened the season to only nine games, the NFL owners employed a different strategy this time out, utilizing replacement players, or scabs, as the regular players called them.
Though the Week 3 games were cancelled, the replacement players would compete for the next three weeks.
It was during this three-week period of time where replacement players were used that the 1987 Redskins separated themselves from the pack. The Skins won all three replacement games. Coach Joe Gibbs told his regular players not to cross the picket line until the strike was over, even though other teams had many veterans crossing.
This unity really helped the Redskins come together as a team once the strike was over. They would need all the unity they could get their hands on, as there were numerous issues as far as the roster and depth chart were concerned.
One the most contested position battles was at quarterback where Doug Williams had staked a claim to the position after incumbent Jay Schroeder faltered.
The Redskins would finish the season at 11-4 and would win the NFC East. In the playoffs they would first beat the Chicago Bears 21-17 thanks to Darrell Green's amazing punt return for a touchdown (see the honorable mention slide earlier in this article).
In the NFC Championship game, the Redskins would nip the Minnesota Vikings 17-10 when Green was able to break up a pass intended for Darren Nelson in the end zone.
In Super Bowl XXII, Washington would take on John Elway and the Denver Broncos. Doug Williams got the start and became the first African-American quarterback to start a Super Bowl.
The game would get off to a terrible start as the Broncos would score the quickest touchdown in Super Bowl history and would lead 10-0 as the game headed to the second quarter.
It was here that the greatest quarter in Super Bowl history took place.
Williams returned from a first quarter knee injury and threw for four touchdowns—in the second quarter alone.
All told, the Redskins would score an incredible 35 points in the second quarter.
Timmy Smith came out of nowhere and ran for a still-Super Bowl record 204 yards.
At game's end, Williams had thrown for 340 yards and four touchdowns. He was named the MVP. He remains the only African-American quarterback to start and then win a Super Bowl.
The Redskins would win Super Bowl XXII by the final of 42-10. It was the Redskins' second Super Bowl championship in five years.
It is unlikely we will ever see another quarter like the second quarter of Super Bowl XXII. It was one of those "once-in-a-lifetime" moments, a rare event that you know is something special when you see it.
"The Quarter" is the No. 3 greatest DC sports moment of all time.
2. We Want Dallas
In sports there is always a mountain to climb, a challenge to overcome—and a rival to defeat.
Time and time again, we have seen that to get to the top of the mountain, a team or individual will have to figure out a way to defeat another team or individual that has denied them their place in history previously.
The Red Sox had to beat the Yankees to end the curse.
Michael Jordan and the Bulls had to overcome the Pistons to start their own dynasty.
The Edmonton Oilers had to beat the New York Islanders to get their own run of Stanley Cup championships going.
Muhammad Ali had to beat Joe Frazier.
And the Washington Redskins had to beat the Dallas Cowboys to get back to the Super Bowl.
The 1982 NFL season was one of the more odd ones in the Super Bowl era. A 57-day long players' strike would reduce the season from 16 games to just nine. This resulted in the first, and so far only, 16-team tournament for the playoffs. Eight teams from each conference would square off against each other for the right to go to Super Bowl XVII.
The 1982 Redskins more or less came out of nowhere to earn the No. 1 seed in the tournament with an 8-1 record. Their only loss was a 24-10 defeat, at RFK Stadium, at the hands of their hated rivals, the Dallas Cowboys.
The Cowboys would enter the NFC side of the bracket as the No. 2 seed, and it became apparent almost immediately that the two bitter enemies were the class of the NFC.
The Redskins would rout Detroit 31-7 in the opening round and would then dominate Minnesota 21-7 in the second round. It was at the end of this game against the Vikings that fans at sold-out RFK Stadium began a chant designed to tell the whole world who they wanted to play in the NFC championship game:
"We Want Dallas!"
The 1982 NFC championship game would go on to be one of the most cherished memories for Redskins fans everywhere.
The Skins controlled things early, using John Riggins to control the clock and to pummel the interior of the Cowboys' excellent defensive line. Leading 14-3, with about 30 seconds left in the half, Dexter Manley would crush Cowboys quarterback Danny White and knock him out of the game with a concussion.
But it was far from over as Gary Hogeboom came into the game and brought the Cowboys back.
Some huge plays by the Redskins' defense, including a tremendous interception by Mel Kaufman, kept the Skins in the lead at 24-17 late into the fourth quarter. This set the stage for one of the biggest moments in Redskins history.
At their own 20-yard line, and trying to get a drive started to tie the game, Hogeboom had a pass tipped into the air by Manely. It fluttered into the hands of Darryl Grant, who returned the interception for a touchdown as RFK Stadium came completely unglued.
Several more minutes of John Riggins just running the ball straight at the Cowboys' Randy White, and the Redskins had salted away perhaps the biggest victory in franchise history by the final of 31-17.
Though the Redskins had beaten Dallas 26-3 in the 1972 NFC championship game, it was not like this, not even close really as that Redskins team was actually expected to win that contest by many experts.
The victory over the rival Cowboys in the 1982 NFC championship game was a turning point for the franchise, and it would springboard the Redskins to the No. 1 moment in Washington, DC sports history.
1. The Diesel Runs over the Dolphins
We have re-visited so many great moments so far.
But there is one moment that is almost universally accepted by Washington sports fans as the moment.
After the win over Dallas in our No. 2 moment, the Redskins travelled to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California, to take on the Miami Dolphins in Super Bowl XVII. This was a rematch between the two teams who had met 10 years earlier as the Dolphins completed their perfect 17-0 season.
This time would be different.
The game had been a bit of a back-and-forth affair, but as the teams went to the fourth quarter, the Dolphins were clinging to the lead.
Trailing 17-13 in the fourth quarter, the Redskins were faced with a 4th-and-1 from the Dolphins' 43-yard line. Coach Gibbs decided to go for it, and he called a play that is famous in Redskins' history: I-Right, 70-chip.
On the play, Clint Diddier went into motion and then cut back. As he did, Dolphins cornerback Don McNeal slipped to the ground. Seeing this, quarterback Joe Theismann, who had probably saved the game late in the third quarter, hurried the snap.
Theismann would hand the ball to John Riggins, who by then had come to be known as The Diesel. Riggins powered his way through McNeal's attempt to stop him and rumbled 43 yards down the left sideline for what would turn out to be the game-winning touchdown.
It was an incredibly gutsy call by Joe Gibbs and an even better effort from Riggins.
The Redskins would add another touchdown and would claim their first-ever Super Bowl championship with a 27-17 victory.
It was not all about Riggins, though. Many people forget how dominant the Redskins' defense was in the second half of that game as they did not allow the Dolphins to complete a single pass.
But it was Riggins' huge run that left the lasting impression in the minds of all Redskins fans.
For me, the moment was extra special because I was actually at the game. For a 14-year-old to experience a moment like that, live and in person—well, that is probably why I have such a passion for sports and the Redskins and why I enjoy writing about it as much as I do.
But whether you were at the game, or you watched it on TV or you are just reading about it now, the 43-yard touchdown run by John Riggins to win Super Bowl XVII is the greatest moment in Washington, DC sports history.