Now that we've reached the time of year when there really aren't any big sports games to talk about (don't lie to me, baseball fans; even you know that there aren't any *really* big games until August or September), people seem to be in the mood for predictions about what is to come.
I've decided to buck that trend: to look back. To pause and remember WHY I love sports.
So I give you something special to me personally: my top 10 moments as a sports fan, through the eyes of a college kid from Baltimore.
Unsurprisingly, the list is football heavy; other than the Ravens, we have lacked good sports for most of my time as a sports fan.
Which, of course, doesn't detract from the epicness (it's a word now, even if it wasn't prior to this article) of these moments.
Side note: I was born in 1988; the first major sporting events I can remember came when I was about 8-10 years old, so anything before 1996 is automatically ineligible: I don't remember it.
There are very few things that I hate more in all of sports than quarterbacks.
Quarterbacks suck. All of them. Every single one. They all suck.
Most of all, Peyton Manning, who wears the colors of a team that rightfully belonged to my city, a bitterness that I am too young to have felt personally, but nonetheless still feel to this day.
It infuriates me that Johnny Unitas, Raymond Berry, and the rest of the gang are at all associated with the "Indianapolis" Colts.
On top of that, I hate losing arguments. I hate hearing about how "Peyton is the greatest ever" when I vehemently disagree.
I became a Brady homer in the eternal Manning-Brady debate mostly because:
1) I became a Patriots fan immediately prior to the Super Bowl that they lost to Green Bay, but only because everyone thought Green Bay would win, as they did;
2) Manning plays for MY CITY's team of old.
Very rational reasons, as you see. But then Brady kept winning, and Manning...didn't. And my sports consciousness began to form: players that don't win rings can't be the greatest ever. For me, that has now extended to every sport, not just football.
But then Manning won. And then BABY Manning (Eli, who still sucks, he just had one good playoff run) screwed up Brady's shot to be the undisputed best QB ever in 2007.
Then the Colts went 14-0 to start the year, and I worried that yes, maybe, just maybe, Peyton would actually come through in the clutch.
Maybe I would lose an argument. Maybe the QB I hated more than any other (impressive accomplishment) was actually going to be the greatest ever.
NOPE! Jubilation. Running, screaming, hugging everyone I knew; the best possible thing had happened. My hated figure had choked.
Just as I, uh, knew he would all along, of course.
The Ravens' 2000 season, like my Brady-Manning arguments, shaped much of what I value in sports: defense, defense, and more defense (oh, and the fact that all QBs suck, did I mention that yet?).
And in that season, there was no man more important to the Ravens than Ray Lewis. To be honest, there still isn't anyone more important to the Ravens than Ray Lewis, and while he seems like he will pass the torch to Ray Rice and Joe Flacco in the near future, I am confident that my team, the one I grew up with, is in good hands.
This was the game when you started to sense it. After demolishing the Denver Broncos in the wild-card round of the 2000 NFL Playoffs by a score of 21-3, a game I gleefully attended despite the cold, the Ravens went on the road the rest of the way.
First stop? As the lowest remaining seed, it was hated divisional rival Tennessee.
Going into the game, the Ravens weren't supposed to win. They had split with the Titans during the regular season, but finished 12-4 to the Titans' 13-3.
Coming off a bye, Tennessee was rested and ready to go. The Ravens were heavy favorites in the Denver game, but that was not the case here, and when Eddie George ran for an early touchdown, Baltimore was collectively grabbing its head.
However, the Ravens managed to contain George from there on out, and the game stabilized in a tie, 10-10. However, the Ravens blocked an Al Del Greco field goal attempt, which was caught by Anthony Mitchell... who promptly ran it back 90 yards for a touchdown to put the Ravens ahead, 17-10.
That set the stage for the game ending play made by Lewis. Steve McNair dropped back to pass and threw to Eddie George in the flat.
George bobbled the ball for only a split second, but it was long enough for Ray Ray to pluck the ball out of mid-air... and run all the way to the end zone, winning the game for the Ravens and sending them to Oakland.
You can watch it here.
Well, okay, he didn't really. But DAMN what a hit!
Not only did it come against a quarterback, who doesn't suck by definition or anything like that, but it came against my most hated team's quarterback! Extra bonus points right there.
I can't really describe the feeling of glee that came over me in this moment, but I still get it when I'm watching replays of the hit. Much like I'm sure Steelers fans take great joy in watching Hines Ward crush various defenders with his blocks. Trust me, it's mutual.
The Ravens picked up nine sacks in this game, yet another reason to adore my precious defense...
You can see the video here:
While I am old enough to remember EVERYTHING about the Ravens' 2000 playoff run, that is not the case with the last time the Orioles were any good.
I was born in 1988, and I was 8 years old when the Orioles went wire-to-wire leading the AL East in 1997- I do remember 1996, to a degree, when they were a wild card team.
Needless to say, they were the talk of the town, and even my 8-year-old brain could process the significance of this moment.
I am too young to remember any of what happened in the game specifically. All I remember are snippets of conversation as the game started to draw to a close. "Keep it going!" "Come on, come on..." and then an explosion of noise when the game ended.
Confetti streaming down around me, I must have cheered louder or been deemed the cutest little boy (or something) because a Baltimore Sun reporter interviewed me...very briefly, no more than a minute (though to my young mind it felt much longer) and there I was, I was quoted in my city's newspaper the next morning! Very cool.
I don't remember anything about the game itself, I had to look up that we played the Seattle Mariners and won the series 3-1. And, like the Tennessee game, I could start to feel it.
Something was building, gathering momentum. More and more people were bandwagoning...it was happening.
Of course, the Orioles lost, and have long since faded into mediocrity. My younger brother, who was 6 at the time and also attended the game, has no memory of it.
The fact that the Orioles suck is becoming a running joke, and this year, with all the young guns called up, was supposed to be the year when the Orioles finally turned the corner.
In case you haven't noticed, they are the MLB's worst team by a significant margin.
Oh well, maybe in another 13 years... it's been a long time when a 19-year-old can't remember the last time his team went to the playoffs AND WAS AT THE GAME.
Remember the part where I mentioned that Lewis sent the Ravens to Oakland?
Well, Oakland was maybe the Ravens' most impressive win of the season.
Despite a 34-7 demolition of the ever-irritating New York Giants, the Raiders were really built in the same mold as the Ravens that season: strong running game, good defense, try to keep the score low.
With the Ravens pinned deep in their own territory and facing 3rd and 18, they called a play designed to get the ball out of QB Trent Dilfer's hands quickly, to their best playmaker, TE Shannon Sharpe, and just see what happened.
What happened was that Sharpe caught a short pass, got a critical block from journeyman wide receiver Brandon Stokley (yeah, the same guy who made that lucky catch-and-run for the Broncos against Cincinnati in Week 1 last year), and Sharpe was off to the races, along with the much faster Patrick Johnson, who escorted Sharpe all the way to the end zone, literally pushing him at one point to keep him away from Oakland's faster defensive backs.
The city of Baltimore remembers Trent Dilfer for bringing us a championship, but even during our great run, we all knew he was basically a game manager who was asked to hand the ball off to rookie RB Jamal Lewis and not to screw up (and if necessary just let the Baltimore defense score rather than turn it over himself).
After this play, once we were all finished cheering, the quote that I'll remember forever was very simple: "Well, Dilfer's stats just got a lot better."
And it was true: the man threw a routine slant to Sharpe, who ran it all the way down the field for the score.
Essentially, this moment had everything you could ask for: adulation, joy, screaming, yelling, and of course, hilarity.
I'm not a huge basketball fan. I have my team, the Terps, but honestly, I don't expend a lot of effort trying to watch their games, and I just don't get the appeal of a game that stops so much at the end of a game: the fouls, the timeouts, the fact that buzzer-beaters seem almost commonplace.
But, like in baseball, I haven't sold my college basketball loyalties yet and I have no plans to do so.
I keep tabs on where they are, and while I don't go to school at College Park, you can bet that I have a lot of very close friends who do.
As a result, I'm almost a secondhand fan, and as one of these friends does not look like a sports fan at all, she perennially accuses me of being a college basketball fan vicariously through a 5'4" blonde.
But it came after the Super Bowl win, and I was a bigger fan then than I was now. I got into it- the whole "dun dun da da HEY! YOU SUCK!" chanting, throwing newspapers at the other team during pregame introductions, the whole nine yards.
Every year for the NCAA tournament, I make two brackets (assuming Maryland makes the tournament): one that is my actual bracket, and second, the obligatory Maryland going all the way bracket. That year I only made one.
(I tried making only one in subsequent years, thinking it might be a karma thing, but this did not work, unfortunately.)
It all culminated with an image I'll remember forever: Juan Dixon tackling Lonny Baxter to the floor, and it's featured on the slide and at the end of Maryland's "One Shining Moment" montage, which you can see here.
This was one of those moments where my sports fandom had little personal stock in it, but it brought so much joy to someone close to me that it just didn't matter.
I was overjoyed just to see the reaction on my father's face.
My dad grew up in Baltimore, downtown in a smallish neighborhood with his father (my grandfather), the one I never met because he passed away prior to my birth.
He lived directly above the family's corner grocery store; he's told me on a few occasions about how his dad was always up early in the morning to arrange the grocery store.
He is one of the most hardworking people I have ever met, and while I'm not sure I aspire to be exactly like him, he's responsible for a huge chunk of the man I am today personally, in terms of how I view the world, and in terms of how I treat people in my life.
He graduated from Johns Hopkins, and sports in my family have always been tremendously important.
If you know anything about college lacrosse, you know that Hopkins is one of those perennial powers in the sport, and that they've done well recently.
They won the title again in 2007, led by all-world midfielder Paul Rabil.
However, it was the 2005 title, when the team was led by senior midfielder Kyle Harrison (pictured here), that really stuck in my memory, and the reason goes back to the 2003 Final Four, which was held in Baltimore, so my dad and I attended the game together.
Hopkins ran away with the game against hated Syracuse, winning 19-8, and my dad assured me that "the prophecy is coming to fruition" (his exact words) and that Hopkins would definitely win the next game.
When Virginia did instead, it was one of the rare times where I have seen my father cry. He isn't someone to outright bawl, and he didn't... but that image really stuck with me.
The Hopkins win in 2005 was their first in 18 years, despite their proud history, and my dad was the opposite: jumping, screaming, yelling completely out of date comments like "feed him some wood!" (Lacrosse sticks have long since ceased to be made out of wood, but that's what they were when my dad was in college.)
The joy on his face and in his comment "World Order has been restored!" will stick with me until I'm gone, and I only hope my children, when I have them, have an image of me like that.
For me, it is a very rare thing to legitimately follow athletes, as opposed to teams.
I'm something of a Patriots fan, but as I said, mostly because of the Super Bowl they lost to the Packers... when Drew Bledsoe was still their quarterback.
When Bledsoe got hurt and subsequently left town, I owned a Bledsoe jersey... but my loyalty remained with the Patriots.
I am very sure that when Ray Lewis hangs up his cleats, my loyalty will remain with the Ravens.
Cal Ripken was different. I have no memory of this, but apparently, I used to call him "Cannell" Ripken, for some reason- my 4 and 5 year old self only had one sports team, and remember, in those days the Orioles were respectable.
My dad's first love as a sports fan was baseball, and still is, if you ask him, he'll tell you that he's never truly gotten over the fact that his childhood team, the Colts, play in a different city than his own now. (He remains a Colts fan, much to my disgust.)
But when I was 5, I just rooted for the guy who was a constant, literally, and the guy who I remember as my first sports hero. The one who, at the very beginning of my life, before I have many memories, still made sports an absolutely central part of who I was.
Even as the Orioles faded from excellence, first into mediocrity and then later into baseball hell, my loyalty to Ripken remained, and in the steroid era, he stands as one of those rare athletes never tainted by steroids, never associated with cheating of any kind... and the first sports icon with whom I felt a personal connection.
I did not understand the depth of my loyalty to this man, at first. He retired, I watched his last game, and in his final home game and last he'd ever appear in as an Oriole, watched...as the Red Sox, already eliminated from the playoffs, pitched to Brady Anderson to try and get him out. They did...and Ripken's career ended standing in the on-deck circle.
I've never forgiven the Red Sox for that decision, and while I go to school in Boston country, my hatred for all things related to the Red Sox (Ortiz, Pedroia, Papelbon) they can all go to hell, even though they had nothing to do with this incident.
I hate the Red Sox almost as much as the Steelers, and much of it stems back to this single moment of classless, inconsiderate action- it wouldn't have been a big deal to walk Brady and let Cal hit one more time.
And then...the induction ceremony. I didn't even mark it down on my calendar; when Ripken walked away from baseball, so did I- I have never been much of a fan since; I can't just sell my loyalty to the Orioles, and yet, I am trapped by pathetic attempts of my team to restore some vigor to the franchise... over and over again.
I was so detached from the game that I figured I'd just read about it.
It was one of those moments that makes me a religious man; I happened to turn on the radio of my car while I was driving home from somewhere, but I realized it was the Hall induction ceremony, and the man speaking was Tony Gwynn.
Gwynn was one of the classiest men ever to play the game, and I smiled many times during his speech, and laughed on occasion. I really like the guy.
But he is not Cal. He wasn't the guy I called "Cannel" before I could even speak. He wasn't the guy that made me into and later kept me a baseball fan...by himself.
Ripken's speech will always stay with me, and I had to pull over into the parking lot of a gas station, and just cried. Tears of joy, of nostalgia, of wonder, of PRIDE for my first sports icon.
The guy who played the wrong sport, but will forever stand alone among my personal sports pantheon.
At one point, one of the gas station's employees came over to see what was wrong, after all, I was bawling like a five year old kid.
I opened the window, and all I said was, "Cal's being inducted." The employee, who was about my age, smiled, and he understood.
I never saw the man again, but it was one of those special moments where you KNEW that while he might never have said "Cannel" he probably called him something else. One of those moments that makes me proud of my hometown.
The most glorious day in franchise history, without question, saw the Baltimore Ravens rout those ever-irritating Giants by a score of 34-7.
Most remember the defense, rightly, as the defining factor of that game. However, the defining play of the game was made by the smallest man in a Ravens uniform.
Jermaine Lewis, No. 84, had two months earlier lost his stillborn son Geronimo, and missed a game to be with his family. His first game back, he returned two kicks for touchdowns, and factored heavily in the Ravens' victory that day.
On the game's biggest stage, his was the score that put the game out of reach. HIS was the score that, as a Ravens fan, meant we were going to win this game.
Duane Starks first returned a Kerry Collins interception for a touchdown in the third quarter to give the Ravens a 17-0 lead, but Giants kick returner Ron Dixon brought back the ensuing kickoff for the only Giants score of the day to close the deficit to 10 points.
Then, on the Giants' turn to kickoff, Lewis brought it back 84 yards (his number) to put the Ravens up 24-7, and there was little doubt by this point in anyone's mind that the game was over.
The Ravens' defense played as well as it did all season. Had it not been for a special teams score, one of the league's all-time greatest defenses might well have capped off its year with a shutout.
I watched the game, as I had watched the Tennessee and Oakland games before that, at the house of some family friends, and we did everything: kept the same seats when the Ravens did well, moved around whenever the other team scored to try and fix the karma, and pleaded, hoped, begged our team to win.
And, as we'll all remember forever, our cries of "DE-FENSE! DE-FENSE! DE-FENSE!" never seemed to go unanswered. We have Ray Lewis and Co. to thank for that.
But for this moment to happen, the one where in my heart of hearts, I knew the game was over, and for it to come from Jermaine Lewis's play...
It was one for the ages. It was my first championship, as a fan and a player, and it came at a young age.
I was hooked; football was my sport. I'd grown up in a football-crazy town, one that sells out every game without fail, and it had been passed on by my family and friends and those around me.
This playoff run made me a Ravens fan, and a football fan for the rest of my life.
Then how, you ask, is it not number one?
Two reasons. First, the game, while it had an awesome result, was not an edge-of-your-seat affair by any means as the game drew to a close.
Lewis's kick return came in the third quarter, and with the way the Ravens were playing defense, everyone watching knew that the game was all but over.
Second, there is only one thing to which I feel a stronger connection than sports...
...and that's my country. (Cue "U-S-A! U-S-A!" chants!)
I really don't have to explain to anyone who watched why this is a special moment, even though the US was eliminated subsequently by Ghana in the next round, I was delighted when Ghana lost in the next round, and that's when I knew, even a few days removed, how much this moment meant to me.
I did everything. Learned about soccer (I wasn't even a fan three months ago) rules, tactics, important players, rivalries, which were the strong groups at the World Cup, traditional powers, upstarts, long shots, first African World Cup.
EVERYTHING I could learn. I wanted to believe. In 2002, when Maryland won the NCAA tournament, I couldn't have told you what the World Cup was, and in 2006, when the US got a measly one point and then went home, I resumed life as normal, kind of miffed that my country had sucked, but I'd completely forgotten about it other than reading an odd newspaper article here or there within the next couple of days.
And with this team, it felt like you could will them to do anything. It might not have been the best strategy to keep going behind, in fact, that's a big reason why they had an early exit, as anyone will tell you, but Americans love a comeback, and the US had a lot of them, even if one of them benefited from Robert Green's "Hand of Clod" and even if a comeback against Slovenia was taken away on a bad call.
Throughout the group stage, I coaxed them, coached them, WILLED them to score. To make it up.
At one point in the Slovenia game, hoping against hope because they were down two goals, and later in the same game shouting at the referees louder than I thought possible when Edu's goal was disallowed. Everyone I talked to knew what had happened, we were all furious.
Still, as the Algeria the game wore on, everyone got the sense- the US was clearly the better side in this match. They had more possession, more time on attack, more chances than did the Algerians.
Movement off the ball was fantastic, and especially after Jozy Altidore and Dempsey both missed, people started to get a little bit itchy. Still, Slovenia had not scored to equalize, and despite superior play the US could not seem to finish.
Things got really desperate in the 78th minute, when Michael Bradley put a redirected free kick on target, but the goal just wouldn't come. It looked like Team USA, so full of promise and expected to get out of the group, was going to go down, despite showing up and playing its best game when the chips were down.
The Algerians, themselves in need of two goals, managed to set up a good attacking sequence early in stoppage time, and keeper Tim Howard stopped an Algerian header... then had brilliant distribution getting the ball to Donovan, to set up the most important goal in the history of American soccer.
I was watching in a room of about 20 people here at college, where I now sit, by long standing American tradition, wide awake and procrastinating on work at 4:30 in the morning, and I jumped up, couldn't say anything more than GOOOOOOOAL for at least 30 seconds, and proceeded to hug everyone immediately at hand. Even people I didn't know; I just didn't care. I didn't know how to express my emotions.
I'm tearing up just remembering it, and when someone sent me a reaction video earlier tonight, what inspired me to write the article, I sat there crying, reliving it, remembering, and above all cherishing America's magical moment.
As I said, I feel a stronger connection to my country than sports. But add the two together, and you have a moment unlike any in American history since the Miracle on Ice, before I was born.
Unlike the Miracle, this goal didn't lead to a gold medal... but it's still my country. And damn, I really do love it here, even if I forget sometimes.
So thank you, Team USA, for making the celebration possible, and for one moment uniting all of us with one word: