The Top 10 Greatest American Sports Moments of All Time
Moments are the best part of sports. Amazing moments can be defined as a breathtaking play or even an entire unbelievable game. Moments remain etched in our minds for decades.
How crazy would it be to whittle down the millions of great moments in American sports to a Top 10? Stupid—that’s how crazy.
Let’s be stupid.
Before revealing my Top 10, let me pay homage to some awesome moments that came close.
Babe Ruth’s “called shot” in Game 3 of the 1932 World Series. Maybe he did, maybe he didn’t? He did.
"The Shot Heard ‘Round the World.” Bobby Thomson’s dramatic 1951 home run off Ralph Branca gave the Giants the pennant over the Brooklyn Dodgers and completed a comeback from being 13.5 games back on Aug. 11.
“Rope a Dope.” In 1974, Muhammad Ali let an unbeaten (40-0, 37 knockouts) George Foreman pound on him with the confidence that Foreman would punch himself out. Ali knocked him out in the eighth round.
Reggie Jackson hit three straight home runs off of three different pitchers in the 1977 World Series. Insane.
Villanova shocked Georgetown, 66-64, in college basketball's 1985 NCAA championship game by shooting 79 percent from the field.
There are also a few moments with substantial historical significance that didn't make the list.
Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947.
Texas Western (now UTEP) put five black players on the hardwood to start in the 1966 NCAA championship game. The Miners beat the heavily favored Kentucky Wildcats.
Also worth mentioning is Hank Aaron hitting his 715th home run to pass Babe Ruth as the all-time leader.
All great moments.
Let’s take a look at the 10 I think were better. Will you think I missed some moments, causing you to think I’m an idiot? Of course. Let me know about those moments you think belong on the list.
Remember and enjoy.
10. The 2007 Fiesta Bowl
Football coaches are notoriously conservative. Playing the field-position game means punting on 4th-and-inches. On Jan. 1, 2007, Boise State coach Chris Petersen proved to be anything but conservative. His daring brought us the 10th-greatest moment in sports.
Petersen led the Broncos to a 12-0 record in his first season, allowing them to crash the BCS party. Boise State faced the big, bad Oklahoma Sooners in the Fiesta Bowl. Even though the Sooners were favored by 7.5 points, Boise State led 28-10 midway through the third quarter. That’s when things got crazy.
Oklahoma’s Adrian Peterson scored from eight yards out with 4:29 left in the third, making it 28-17.
A Garrett Hartley field goal got it to 28-20.
Quentin Chaney caught a five-yard touchdown pass from Paul Thompson, and suddenly Oklahoma only trailed 28-27.
The run of 25 unanswered points ended when the Sooners’ Marcus Walker intercepted the Broncos' Jared Zabransky and ran it back 34 yards to give Oklahoma a 35-28 lead with 1:02 left in the fourth quarter.
Boise moved to midfield and was faced with a 4th-and-18 with 18 seconds left: Time for the play known as “Circus.” Zabransky threw to Drisan James, who lateraled to Jerard Rabb, who ran it the final 35 yards to score. The extra point sent the game into overtime.
On the first play of overtime, Peterson scored from 25 yards out to give Oklahoma a 42-35 lead. The Broncos would have to answer in kind.
On 4th-and-2 from the Oklahoma 5-yard line, Boise State employed more trickeration.
With backup wide receiver Vinny Perretta lined up at running back, quarterback Zabransky went in motion to the left. Perretta took the direct snap, rolled to his right and threw a touchdown pass to tight end Derek Schouman.
Down 42-41, Peterson chose to end the game rather than kick the extra point to send it to a second overtime.
It was time for “Statue Left,” a play designed by backup quarterback Taylor Tharp. Three receivers were lined up to the right, making Zabransky’s fake pass to the right quite believable.
As he pretended to throw the ball with his right hand, he stuck his left hand with the ball behind him, allowing running back Ian Johnson to grab it and run untouched for the two-point conversion and a 43-42 win.
To top off the unbelievable moment, Johnson dropped to a knee and proposed to cheerleader Chrissy Popadics during a postgame interview.
9. Red Sox Comeback Against Yankees
A great moment is magnified when it involves two bitter rivals. When that moment is also historical, it makes my list at No. 9.
The undisputed top rivalry in baseball is between the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox. How could it not be when it involves the “Curse of the Bambino”?
The Red Sox were the dominant franchise in the early years of baseball until selling future home run king and legend Babe Ruth to the Yankees in 1919. The fortunes of the two franchises reversed virtually overnight.
The night of Oct. 17, 2004, saw the Yankees leading the American League Championship Series, three games to none. The Yankees seemed certain to advance to the World Series since no team had ever lost such a series lead.
They would be searching for their 27th championship then, while the Red Sox would again fall short. Standard operating procedure, considering their last series win had been the year before the sale of Ruth. That’s right, no World Series win in Beantown since 1918.
Up came the Sox in the ninth, down 4-3. Three outs away from yet another elimination. Kevin Millar worked a walk off of legendary closer Mariano Rivera. Dave Roberts came in to run for Millar.
Everyone understood that Roberts was going to try to steal second, including Rivera, who threw over three straight times before throwing a pitch. Those throws had a major impact on the ninth-greatest moment in the history of sports.
Following is Roberts' account, via DanAllen.com (h/t Bob Ryan, Boston Globe):
The first (time Rivera checked me out at first base), I felt I got the jitters and then it kind of dissipated a little bit. The second time, the jitters were all gone and I was really into it. After the third pick over was a close play, I think the second one was really close also, and then I felt like I had been there from the first inning on.
At that point, I knew, regardless of a slide step or whatever, once he goes home, I’m going to run on the pitch. If he would have went to the plate the first pitch, I wouldn’t have went. Running that tunnel in October, it’s hard to get loose. But (that series of pick off attempts) kind of helped me out a little bit.
Roberts did steal second, and he scored on a single by Bill Mueller, tying the game. The Red Sox would win Game 4 in extra innings. They would go on to complete the unimaginable comeback and take the ALCS in seven games.
Beating the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series gave Boston its first World Series title since 1918, ending despair that had lasted generations.
A steal of second opened the door to history.
I’ve been going to baseball games for 50 years. Every time I go to a game, I hope to see a no-hitter. It hasn’t happened yet.
I can only imagine the excitement in Yankee Stadium on Oct. 8, 1956, as Game 5 of the World Series unfolded between the Yankees and “’Dem Bums,” the crosstown Brooklyn Dodgers.
The starter for the Yankees that day was Don Larsen, who had been knocked out in Game 2 after 1.2 innings despite being handed a 6-0 lead. His poor performance in that 13-8 loss certainly gave no one the indication that he'd make history in Game 5.
Larsen’s career was mediocre at best, as he compiled an 81-91 record, pitching for seven teams over 15 years. For some reason, though, 1956 was different. He had a record of 11-5, including five complete games in his previous seven starts.
It’s hard to believe now, but perfect games were very rare back then. Larsen’s was not only the first perfect game in the playoffs, it was only the sixth in MLB history to that point. So, in the first 87 years there were six. In the 56 years since, there have been 17 perfect games.
Rarity certainly gives credibility to a great moment. Philadelphia’s Roy Halladay threw a no-hitter in 2010, but Larsen’s gem in 1956 is still baseball’s only perfect playoff game.
7. The Guarantee
The NFL wasn’t always the king of all sports that it is now. The Super Bowl wasn’t always practically a national holiday.
Quick: What year was the first Super Bowl?
Nope, not 1967. When the Green Bay Packers beat the Kansas City Chiefs in 1967 and the Oakland Raiders in 1968, those games were known as the AFL-NFL Championship Games. They were later named Super Bowls I and II after the one that changed it all on Jan. 12, 1969.
The first to be called the Super Bowl: Super Bowl III.
The game featured the heavily favored NFL champion Baltimore Colts and the AFL champion New York Jets.
The Colts were considered so dominant they were favored by a ridiculous 18 points over the Jets. As a 10-year-old with a gambling problem at Brookview Elementary School, I couldn’t find anyone to take the Jets. We finally had to bet on how much the Colts would win by.
The NFL was far and away the better league, and the Colts had rolled to a 13-1 record. Their only loss was 30-20 to Cleveland, which they avenged in a big way by beating the Browns on their home field, 34-0, in the NFL Championship Game.
The Jets, meanwhile, were 11-3 and squeaked by the Oakland Raiders, 27-23, in the AFL Championship Game.
There was no better match of city and athlete than the Big Apple and flamboyant Joe Namath. The brash Namath guaranteed a Jets win three days before the game at a press conference. While we don’t think much of stuff like that now, believe me, in 1969 that was a big deal.
As former Cowboys coach Jimmy Johnson liked to say, "If you want to talk the talk, then you need to walk the walk."
Namath talked, and he walked.
The numbers don’t look like much by today’s standards, but Namath completed 17 of his 28 passes for 206 yards and took home the game’s MVP award as the Jets controlled the game from start to finish, beating the Colts 16-7.
The two leagues had been talking about merging, and perhaps they would have eventually. But the Jets win forced the NFL to view the AFL as more than an annoying little brother and was the ultimate catalyst for the merger.
There were fewer teams in the AFL, so to even things out, the Colts, Steelers and Browns were placed in the American Football Conference.
Super Bowl III pushed the two leagues together, and the NFL hasn’t looked back since.
6. So Close
The Buffalo Bills making it to four straight Super Bowls is one of the greatest feats in sports history. But had the sixth-greatest moment in American sports not happened, they might have stopped at one.
The Bills' first Super Bowl appearance was on Jan. 27, 1991, in Super Bowl XXV against the New York Giants. The Bills were 13-3 that year, the best record in the AFC. The 13-3 Giants beat the 14-2 San Francisco 49ers to get to their second Super Bowl under Bill Parcells.
The Bills were loaded with talent, boasting Hall of Famers Jim Kelly, Bruce Smith, Thurman Thomas, James Lofton and Coach Marv Levy.
Trailing the Giants 20-19, Levy sent placekicker Scott Norwood out to attempt a 47-yard field goal that would have won Buffalo its first major professional championship since 1965. San Diego (1963) and Cleveland (1964) are the only cities with at least two major sports franchises that have a longer championship drought.
Norwood made only one of his five attempts from beyond 40 yards on grass that season. His sixth attempt didn’t do any better as it sailed “wide right” as the clock ran out.
The Bills would represent the AFC in the next three Super Bowls. They never came close, losing those games by 13, 35 and 17 points. Here’s predicting that we will never again see a team play in four consecutive Super Bowls.
Would the Bills have been in the next three Super Bowls if Norwood’s kick had been good? Without wasting too much space exploring an alternate reality, it's reasonable to suggest that they may not have been as hungry year after year had said hunger been satisfied with the kick.
Etching “wide right” into our consciousness forever.
5. Right Through the Wickets
Sometimes great moments involve a mistake rather than a great play. I prefer the great-play moments, but we can’t always choose. The ultimate mistake moment occurred on Oct. 25, 1986.
The historical context can make the moment. On that day, the Boston Red Sox led the New York Mets three games to two in the World Series. They were ahead 5-3 in Game 6, needing three outs to capture their first championship since 1918 and put an end to the aforementioned Curse of the Bambino.
In this case, the “ultimate” mistake was preceded by two decisions and a “minor” mistake, any of which, had they been altered, could have changed history.
Red Sox manager John McNamara left closer Calvin Schiraldi in to pitch the bottom of the 10th inning. The significance of this decision? It was to be Schiraldi’s third inning of work, something he rarely did.
McNamara left veteran Bill Buckner in the game at first base instead of his normal move of replacing him with Dave Stapleton, a much better fielder. Why? McNamara wanted Buckner to be on the field to celebrate the series win.
Wally Backman and Keith Hernandez flied out to start the inning. One out away for the Red Sox.
Gary Carter singled for the Mets, causing manager Davey Johnson to call for Keith Mitchell to pinch-hit for pitcher Rick Aguilera. That took a few minutes, since Mitchell was in the clubhouse, reportedly on the phone arranging his flight home.
Mitchell singled, and so did the next batter, Ray Knight. That scored Carter, making the score 5-4 with Knight on first and Mitchell on third.
McNamara brought in former closer Bob Stanley to replace Schiraldi. The “minor” mistake came on the 2-2 pitch to Mookie Wilson. Stanley threw a wild pitch, scoring Mitchell to tie the game and sending Knight to second.
For the fifth-greatest moment in the history of sports, the incomparable Vin Scully:
“So the winning run is at second base, with two outs, three and two to Mookie Wilson. (A) little roller up along first…behind the bag! It gets through Buckner! Here comes Knight, and the Mets win it!”
After three silent minutes, again Scully:
If one picture is worth a thousand words, you have seen about a million words, but more than that, you have seen an absolutely bizarre finish to Game 6 of the 1986 World Series. The Mets are not only alive, they are well, and they will play the Red Sox in Game 7 tomorrow!
Who knows what might have happened had McNamara brought in Stanley to start the inning. If he had put Stapleton in for Buckner. If Stanley had not thrown the wild pitch.
The other fact that gets forgotten in this is that the game was tied when the ball rolled through Buckner’s legs. Had he made the play, the game would have gone to the 11th with no guarantee the Red Sox win Game 6 anyway.
Red Sox nation was not kind to Buckner, heckling and booing him and subjecting him to death threats. The Red Sox released Buckner on July 23, 1987.
To the nation’s credit, he received a standing ovation at the home opener in 1990 when he returned to the Red Sox as a free agent. On April 8, 2008, he threw out the first pitch of the home opener to celebrate Boston's 2007 World Series title.
4. 'I Don't Believe What I Just Saw!'
We love underdogs. Nobody roots for Goliath, because the little guy slaying the giant always makes for a great moment. Throw in an injured little guy, and you have American sports’ fourth-greatest moment, which occurred on Oct. 15, 1988.
The Oakland A’s, led by the bashing Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire, dominated the American League with a 104-58 record. Over in the National League, the Los Angeles Dodgers somehow won the West, even though no regular hit .300 or drove in 90 runs. They had a .248 team average, for Pete’s sake.
David then went on to beat the 100-win New York Mets in the National League Championship Series, even though the Mets had beaten the Dodgers 10 out of 11 times during the season.
As the Dodgers took the field for Game 1 of the World Series, they did so without their offensive leader, Kirk Gibson. Bad knees, a sore hamstring and a stomach virus knocked Gibson out of the lineup. He led the weak-hitting Dodgers that year hitting .290 with 25 home runs, 90 RBI and 31 steals.
A’s closer Dennis Eckersley, the major league saves leader (45), came on for the ninth to protect Oakland’s 4-3 lead. After getting the first two batters out, the drama began as pinch-hitter Mike Davis came to the plate.
As Gibson got therapy in the clubhouse, he watched the game on TV and heard Vin Scully say that Gibson was nowhere to be found on the Dodgers’ bench. Gibson took that to mean Scully was telling the country that he was unavailable for the game.
Ever the competitor, Gibson had teammate Orel Hershiser set up a tee so he could take some swings and get ready to pinch-hit.
As Davis came to the plate, Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda didn’t want to tip his hand, so he sent .249-hitting Dave Anderson into the on-deck circle to pretend pinch-hit for pitcher Alejandro Pena. He thought the sight of Anderson rather than Gibson would get Eckersley to be cautious with Davis, increasing his chances for a walk.
Lasorda thought right. As Davis jogged down to first base, Anderson returned to the dugout and Gibson hobbled to the plate.
After fouling off pitch after pitch, Gibson worked the count to 3-2. CBS Radio’s Jack Buck:
We have a big 3-2 pitch coming here from Eckersley. Gibson swings and a fly ball to deep right field! This is gonna be a home run! Unbelievable! A home run for Gibson! And the Dodgers have won the game, five to four, I don’t believe what I just saw! I don’t believe what I just saw!
Gibson pumped his fist wildly as he limped around the bases. He wouldn’t make another appearance in the series, but his inspirational swing helped lead the Dodgers to a five-game defeat over the heavily favored A’s.
3. 'The Catch'
The third-greatest American sports moment saw not only momentum, but success, shift from one team to the other in the blink of an eye.
Candlestick Park in San Francisco was the site of the NFC Championship Game on Jan. 10, 1982, as the home team 49ers hosted the NFC team of the '70s, the Dallas Cowboys.
The Cowboys led 27-21 with 58 seconds left as the 49ers faced a 3rd-and-3 from the Dallas 6-yard line. Quarterback Joe Montana was about to prove that his heroics while at Notre Dame were no fluke.
The play was designed for wide receiver Freddie Solomon and had gone for a touchdown earlier in the game. As Montana rolled to his right, he was chased by Cowboy defenders Ed “Too Tall” Jones, Larry Bethea and D.D. Lewis. Just as they were about to run him out of bounds, Montana pump-faked to get the 6’9” Jones in the air.
Montana threw the ball to the back of the end zone, where Dwight Clark was supposed to be. The pass has always been characterized as too high, but Clark and Montana maintain that they practiced it that way. Montana was knocked to the ground and didn’t see Clark catch the ball, but he did see his feet come down in the end zone and heard the roar of the crowd.
Legendary 49ers coach Bill Walsh didn’t see “The Catch,” either. When he saw the throw, he looked down at his clipboard to plan the fourth-down play that he assumed would be coming up next.
The Cowboys, after winning two Super Bowls and losing three in the '70s, wouldn’t return to the Super Bowl in the '80s. The 49ers, however, would go on to win all five Super Bowls they have been in since “The Catch.”
2. The 'Immaculate Reception'
The second-greatest American sports moment involved a play that didn’t just win a game. It changed a franchise forever.
On Dec. 23, 1972, the Pittsburgh Steelers hosted the Oakland Raiders in the AFC divisional playoff game. To that point, the Steelers had endured four decades of losing, with only nine winning seasons.
This was the franchise that drafted hometown boy Johnny Unitas in 1955 and then cut him after never giving him one practice snap. That didn’t work out so well.
The Steelers, looking for their first ever playoff win, trailed Oakland 7-6 with 22 seconds left and the ball on their own 40-yard line. With no timeouts left, it looked like the same old, same old for the Steelers.
Quarterback Terry Bradshaw threw downfield to running back John “Frenchy” Fuqua at the Raiders’ 35-yard line. The ball and Oakland safety Jack Tatum arrived at Fuqua at the same time.
The ball bounced away, and the game seemed to be over until the Steelers’ Franco Harris grabbed it and ran into the end zone, giving Pittsburgh a 13-7 win.
With that, we had the “Immaculate Reception.”
The first controversy over the play involved a rule that said a tipped ball couldn’t be tipped directly from one offensive player to another. It had to hit a defensive player. Most who saw the play seemed to think that Tatum definitely touched the ball and Fuqua might not have.
The second controversy was whether Harris caught the ball before it hit the ground. There has never been a camera angle that gives a good enough view to really tell.
The Steelers lost the following week to the eventual undefeated Super Bowl champion Miami Dolphins. But they went on to win four Super Bowls in five years later in the decade. They’ve since won two more and lost two.
After those 40 years of losing, the Steelers have only had back-to-back losing seasons twice, and they have never had three straight losing seasons.
1. 'Do You Believe in Miracles? Yes!'
The most amazing moments result in you remembering exactly where you were at the time. What you saw. What you heard. As if it was yesterday, even though you know it was 32 years ago.
I was in the Ira S. Wilson Ice Arena on the campus of the State University of New York at Geneseo on Feb. 22, 1980. As we watched the Ice Knights, the PA announcer, Kevin Smith, kept us up to date on the USA-Soviet Union Olympic hockey game.
The last update had the Soviet Union up 3-2 at the end of the second period. Then Smith broke in to tell us the game had gone final.
The arena fell silent. The game waited.
“The Soviet Union 3"—we all assumed the worst—”the USA 4!”
The explosion was immediate and thunderous. It will never be forgotten.
That game changed sports for me forever. No matter how much one team is favored over the other, I know the upset can happen. The miracle.
Coach Herb Brooks’ comments at the end of the movie Miracle are so true: “A few years later, the U.S. began using professional athletes at the Games: Dream Teams. I always found that term ironic because now that we have Dream Teams, we seldom ever get to dream.”
Men among boys? This game is where that concept originated. The Soviet hockey team was made up of grown men, the best hockey players in the world. They had won the Olympic gold in 1964, 1968, 1972 and 1976. During that run, they went 27-1-1 and outscored the opposition 175-44.
In 1979, they beat the NHL All-Stars, 6-0. Prior to the Olympics, they went 5-3-1 against NHL teams. Goalie Vladislav Tretiak, forward Valeri Kharlamov and defenseman Viacheslav Fetisov would end up in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
The USA team was made up of boys—college players from Minnesota and Massachusetts. Buzz Schneider was the only player on the team with previous Olympic experience. A stark contrast to the veteran Soviet Union team.
On Feb. 9, only 13 days before the miracle, the Soviets beat the USA, 10-3, in a pre-Olympic exhibition.
Coach Brooks before the medal-round game: ”If we played ‘em 10 times, they might win nine. But not this game. Not tonight.”
With exactly 10 minutes left in the third period and the game tied at three, the greatest moment in sports history happened.
The moment is magical in large part because of its unlikely hero. Mike Eruzione may have been the captain of this team, but he was also considered one of its weakest players.
His leadership was unquestioned, so much so that Brooks reportedly asked him to be an assistant coach since it looked like he wouldn’t make the team. Eruzione turned him down and then rewarded Brooks’ decision to keep him on the team with the biggest goal in hockey history.
And there’s been no better call in the history of sportscasting…
“11 seconds, you’ve got 10 seconds, the countdown going on right now! Morrow up to Silk, five seconds left in the game. Do you believe in miracles?! YES!”
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