The first time I ever heard the word "choke" in reference to athletics, the word had been directed at yours truly.
A lifetime ago, in the waning seconds of a basketball game, I dribbled the ball off my foot, and my team lost. Someone said I choked, and I didn't know what it meant at the time.
Of course, I do now. We all do. But for simplicity's sake, let's go with the Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition.
"Choke: To lose one's composure and fail to perform effectively in a critical situation."
There. I think that covers it.
Is it fair to call a pro or college athlete a "choker"? These guys represent the top one percent of all the athletes in the world. They can do things you and I can only dream of.
Where do we get off, the frustrated hoopsters and armchair quarterbacks of the world, on our barstools and Barcaloungers, criticizing those who provide the very entertainment we live vicariously through?
Do we really have that right?
Maybe. Maybe the purchase of a ticket, or of a DirecTV package, gives us that right. Maybe not.
Either way, here I go with my first online installment of the Heimlich Awards. For anyone familiar with the Heimlich Maneuver, this title should be self-explanatory.
First, the team category.
New York Yankees, 2004
As a lifelong Yankee fan, it pains me to place them on this list, but they belong there just as surely as they belong on any list of all-time great sports teams. The Yanks had a commanding 3-0 lead over the Boston Red Sox in the 2004 ALCS.
That they lost that series—and helped launch the BoSox to the first of two World Series victories—qualifies them for a Heimlich.
Memphis Tigers, 2008
This is the essence of the team choke debate: Does one blame the players, who couldn't make their free throws down the stretch of the NCAA Championship Game, or does one point the finger at John Calipari, who couldn't keep his troops composed enough to hold on to a nine-point lead in the final two minutes?
King Solomon would have broken the Heimlich Award in two and given half to each.
Buffalo Bills, 1991-1994
If you're a Bills fan, I know what you're thinking: If Scott Norwood makes that field goal against the Giants in Super Bowl XXIV, the score is 22-20 Bills, and they don't make the list. True.
Here's some more truth: Norwood missed the field goal (more on him later), and the heavily-favored Bills lost to the Giants, who were playing without Phil Simms.
Dallas Mavericks, 2006
Up two games to none against an inferior Miami Heat team, the Mavericks couldn't close the deal and lost the series, 4-2. You could make the argument that the Heat (particularly Dwyane Wade) received some assistance from the refs, but the Mavs had the title in their hands, and they choked it away.
Houston Oilers, 1992
Ironically, the Buffalo Bills were on the other end of this all-time choke job. Ahead 35-3 in the third quarter of the 1992 AFC Wild-Card Game, the Oilers frittered their lead away and lost 41-38 in overtime.
And now for the individuals.
Jackie Smith, Dallas Cowboys
Every receiver puts the ball on the ground on occasion. Not even the great Jerry Rice was immune from dropping passes, and Terrell Owens has led the league in the category. But Jackie dropped a potential winning TD pass in Super Bowl XIII. Need I say more?
A Heimlich for Jackie, please.
Mike Tyson, former undisputed heavyweight champion
Who had heard of Buster Douglas before he put Tyson's lights out? Tyson's loss to Douglas may have been the catalyst that started his long and spectacular descent from the heights of athletic stardom.
Bill Buckner, Boston Red Sox
The Sox' two World Series victories have gone a long way toward healing this wound. But think of how many routine ground balls Buckner has casually scooped up since Little League, and think of the one that he missed.
Alex Rodriguez, New York Yankees
Someone much wittier than I recently wrote that A-Rod is the Paris Hilton of baseball, except that Paris knows what to do with men in scoring position. That's unfair to Rodriguez, but only a little.
He's a wonderfully, spectacularly, ridiculously talented player who can't get his team to the promised land. He's a first-ballot Hall of Famer right now, but it's probably fair to say, at this point in his career, that A-Rod chokes for a living.
Scott Norwood, Buffalo Bills
Dear, dear Scott. As a Giants fan, Norwood holds a special place in my heart. Hopefully the Bills will win a Super Bowl in Scott's lifetime, so he can one day experience the forgiveness that Bill Buckner has. In the meantime, though, Scott gets the final Heimlich.
Lots of names could go on this list, and the order is always debatable, which is why I didn't use numbers. Anyway, here are a few (dis)honorables: Chris Webber, Thurman Thomas, John Starks, Patrick Ewing. I wanted to include U.S. hurdler Lolo Jones, but I didn't have the heart. Her wounds are still too fresh.
So there you have it: my list of teams and individuals who embody the flipside of heroism—let's call it goatism.
To use our new word in a sentence: The winners of the Heimlich Awards earned their places in history by showing extraordinary goatism in the line of duty.
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