The 40 Biggest Chokers in Sports History

Timothy Rapp@@TRappaRTFeatured ColumnistNovember 3, 2011

The 40 Biggest Chokers in Sports History

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    Traditional proverbs be damned—it's all about whether you win or lose. Which means it's all about how you finish.

    Fail to do so, and you'll be remembered as a choker. An athlete can accurately be labeled as a choker for two reasons:

    1. He or she routinely come up short in the biggest games or when the game was on the line. They weren't "clutch."

    2. He or she wasn't a career choker, but so famously blew it in a crucial game that the moment forever defines his or her career, fairly or not.

    Not even Henry Heimlich could have helped these athletes. Be forewarned: This slideshow is accompanied by gagging noises and faces slowly turning blue.

    To the chokes!

40. Phil Mickelson

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    You never want this written about you:

    In the five-year span between 1999 and 2003, he had six second-place or third-place finishes, and he holds the record for the most second-place finishes in U.S. Open history with five.

    Or this:

    A magician with cards and, on occasion, with every club in his big, black bag, Mickelson—a.k.a. Lefty, a.k.a. World No. 2, a.k.a. the Best Player Never to Have Won a Major—is currently pulling off the neatest trick of all.

    Mickelson has won four majors in his career and is a fan favorite, so he goes low on this list. But it is undeniable that for years, he was known as a great golfer that couldn't win the big one.

39. Matt Hasselbeck

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    Hasselbeck wasn't a career choker, but when he made this proclamation in the 2003 Wildcard Round against the Packers, well, he probably set himself up for one of the most embarrassing chokes of all time.

    And I'll never forget it.

38. Patrick Ewing

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    Ewing was derided for years in New York for coming up short in the playoffs, to the point that even Mike Lupica defended him.

    He was a great player, but when it came time to prove it in the playoffs, he rarely ever did enough.

    Great player. Great guy. But not clutch.

37. Karl Malone

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    Bill Simmons doesn't think he was clutch:

    We're not accepting any Karl Malone arguments - he was an incredibly consistent player, but someone who could never make his team better when it mattered. We have 17 years of evidence to back this up. I'm glad his stats were great, and I'm sure we'll have people pushing his case in the years and decades to come, but if you wanted to win a title from 1985 to 2000, Karl Malone would not have been one of your first ten picks.

    Yup, I think that pretty much sums it up.

36. Michelle Kwan

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    For those of you not up-to-speed on your figure skating news, here was ESPN's take on Kwan:

    Though she has been generally considered to be the world's best figure-skater for the past five years, Kwan was twice upset by American teenagers in the Olympic Games -- first by Tara Lipinski in 1998 and then by Sarah Hughes earlier this year. In both cases, she was obviously tight and failed to skate anywhere near her best, failing to win even though the judges were clearly dying to give the four-time world champion the gold.

    It's hard to call a woman who won a silver medal in 1998 and a bronze medal in 2002 a choker. But when you are judged as the best, anything less is deemed a choke.

35. Vladimir Guerrero

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    In 171 playoff at-bats over 44 games, Guerrero has managed only two home runs and a .664 OPS.

    To put that into perspective, his career OPS is .931.

    Yikes.

34. Joe Pisarcik

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    Probably not fair to only put this one on Pisarcik, but he was the quarterback on the play who ultimately fumbled this one. Why they didn't take a knee, I'll never know.

33. Scott Boswell

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    I don't understand much about cricket, but this was apparently a horrific choke. See for yourself on the video, and learn for yourself in this explanation from The Guardian:

    Two overs costing 23 runs isn't that rare in one-day cricket but when they consist of nine wides - eight in the second over, including five on the bounce - then it is a rare feat indeed. Scott Boswell had been man of the match when Leicestershire beat Lancashire in the semi-final, so it was no surprise when he was selected ahead of Devon Malcolm for the Lord's showpiece against Somerset. But under the pressure that comes with a major final Boswell's chest-on, round-arm action disintegrated and Somerset cruised to victory. A month later Boswell was released from his contract.

    That just sounds bad.

32. Gary Anderson

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    "He will always be known as the guy who was a part of screwing up the Vikings trip to the Super Bowl, even though he had this magnificent season."

    That pretty much sums it up. So does this, from Sports Illustrated:

    He never missed a field goal, hitting 39 straight. And he never missed an extra point, going 67-for-67. The first kicker in NFL history to go an entire season without a miss.

    Until the biggest kick of his career.

    Amazingly, agonizingly, the person with more field goals than any kicker in NFL history, 420 for his career, hooked one barely wide left as Minnesota closed in on a trip to the Super Bowl.

    That kick would have given the Vikings a 10-point lead late in the fourth quarter and put the game out of reach. Instead, the Falcons drove for a late touchdown and won in overtime.

31. Ernest Byner

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    A brutal way to lose the 1987 AFC Championship Game.

30. Patty Sheehan

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    This one hurt. From USWomensOpen.com:

    At the Atlanta Athletic Club, it looked as if 1990 would finally be the year. Early in the third round, Sheehan had a seemingly insurmountable 12-stroke lead over Betsy King. How could she lose? But it was a wet week. Three days of rain caused repeated delays and forced the field to play 36 holes the final day.

    Sheehan, then 36, was exhausted, and her concentration wavered. She played the last 33 holes in nine over par, relinquishing her lead and the championship to King by a stroke.

29. Jim Joyce

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    It was a terrible call, and it cost Armando Galarraga a perfect game.

    At least Joyce was man enough to admit as much.

28. LeBron James

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    You should probably read this article by Tom Haberstroh of ESPN written before Game 6 of this year's NBA Finals. I like this stat:

    They've found that James has scored just 11 points in the fourth quarter in the Finals, which comes to an average of 2.2 points per game in that quarter, down from his average of 7.6 points in the previous three rounds this season.

    Oh, and in case you were wondering about Game 6, CaniusHoops.com breaks that down for us:

    In the 4th quarter of Game 6, LeBron James went 3-5 for 7 points (1-2 from downtown) with 1 offensive rebound and 1 turnover. Not horrendous numbers. The most shocking number to me, however, is that in what was perhaps the biggest game of his career, the most talented basketball player on the planet only touched the ball on 9-of-23 Heat possessions. Two of his five shots came in desperation time (under 2 minutes left), while for the rest of the quarter, James seemed much more interested in being a facilitator than a scorer.

    And we haven't even talked about his final game against the Celtics a season before in the playoffs. People may want to see LeBron and Miami choke, but to this point, he's done nothing but given them their wish.

27. Alex Rodriguez

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    Is Alex Rodriguez a choker, namely in the playoffs? The New York Daily News wondered the same thing:

    He carried the Yankees to their 2009 world championship with one of the great postseason performances of all time, seemingly ridding himself forever of the label of October choker.

    In the two years since, however, he has hit .180 over 50 at-bats, with two doubles, no home runs and six RBI. For his six Yankee postseasons other than 2009, A-Rod has hit .224 over 143 at-bats with four home runs and 15 RBI.

    Can you be a choker if you were as good in 2009 (.365 average, .500 OBP, 15 runs, six home runs, 18 RBI, two steals, one World Series ring) as A-Rod was? Or was that an aberration caused by the sheer number of playoff appearances he has with the Yankees?

    His numbers outside of his 2009 season don't lie. More often than not, A-Rod has been a postseason bust with the Yankees.

26. Scott Norwood

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    On one hand, a 47-yard field goal is no easy task.

    On the other hand, Scott Norwood had the leg for the kick and had a chance to go down in the history books as the man who made one of the most clutch kicks in NFL history.

    He didn't. The Bills lost their first of four Super Bowls, and history will always remember Norwood as the man who kicked it wide right.

25. Fred Brown

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    Oh, he threw it to the wrong man! He threw it to Worthy!

    We always remember Jordan's shot. But Georgetown still had a chance to win when Fred Brown suddenly forgot what team he was playing for.

    Pressure can do funny things to people.

24. Brett Favre

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    Brett Favre is one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history.

    He was also a repeat choker in postseason play in the second half of his career.

    There was the 2010 NFC Championship game, shown above. There was his terrible interception in overtime against the Giants in the 2007 NFC Championship. There was his overtime heave and interception in 2003 against the Eagles in an NFC Divisional game best remembered for Freddie Mitchell's reception on 4th-and-26.

    Or you could point to his 6-8 playoff record after the Packers won the Super Bowl in 1996 and his 24 interceptions in those games.

    Favre will go low on this list because of his Super Bowl victory and his numerous wins. But you can't deny that, in the second half of his career, Favre simply wasn't very good in the biggest games.

23. Mark Teixeira

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    Mark Teixeira is putrid in the playoffs.

    In 31 games and 121 at-bats, he is hitting .207 with three home runs, 13 RBI and a .322 slugging percentage.

    Ugh.

22. Lolo Jones

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    Go get 'em in 2012, Lolo!

21. Alex Gonzalez

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    Talk about Steve Bartman all you want—the Cubs blew a 3-0 lead AFTER his incident, and all because the Cubs gave up eight runs that inning.

    And Alex Gonzalez could have ended the whole thing after only one run scored if he had fielded that play cleanly and turned two.

    Instead, the Cubs lost, and Bartman became one of the infamous and unfairly-labeled goats in sports history.

20. Gerry Thomas

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    This one is so infamous, the game itself is remembered as "Wide Right I."

    Florida State came into the game ranked top overall, and Miami was No. 2. After this victory, Miami would go on to win a National Championship, while Florida State lost to Florida, finished 11-2 and was ranked fourth in the nation.

19. Dan Mowrey

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    (Go to 12:40 on the video)

    Poor Florida State—Wide Right II happened the next year.

    This time, Miami was No. 2 and Florida State No. 3 heading into the contest.

    Both teams would finish 11-1, though Miami's lone loss would come in the Sugar Bowl against No. 2 Alabama in a game for the National Championship. Oddly enough, Florida State (No. 2) would finish the year ranked higher than Miami (No. 3).

18. Curtis Strange

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    Curtis Strange probably wants to forget the 1995 Ryder Cup. From Sports Illustrated:

    He remembers standing in the 16th fairway with a six-iron in his hands and Nick Faldo in the trees. All he had to do was hit the green to go dormie with two holes to play. He knew that the half-point would win the Ryder Cup for the U.S. and finally justify Lanny Wadkins's controversial decision to make him a captain's pick.

    Of course, Strange pushed the shot far right, and he was shot himself after that. As was the American team.

    It was also the beginning of the end for the U.S. team, which subsequently melted in the heat of a white-hot Ryder Cup Sunday. Strange failed to get up and down from right of the green at the 16th, then missed short par putts at the 17th and 18th holes to lose to Faldo. Strange wasn't the only American to slip up, but due to the way the final matches unfolded, and because he went 0-3 overall as a captain's pick, he was cast as the Man Who Lost the Ryder Cup after the U.S. bowed to the underdog Europeans 14-13.

17. Darius Washington, Jr.

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    Here's your context, from ESPN:

    He seemed on his way during his freshman season of 2004-05, when he averaged 15.4 points per game and a team-best 3.8 assists, good enough to earn Conference USA Rookie of the Year and freshman All-American honors.

    But reality gave him its first hard bite that season in an agony-of-defeat moment few who witnessed it will ever forget. Down two with no time left in the final of the 2005 C-USA tournament, a 19-year-old Washington stepped to the line with three free throws at his disposal. Hit all three, and Memphis would upset sixth-ranked Louisville and advance to the NCAA tourney. Hit two, and the game would continue in overtime. Hit one or none, and the Tigers' NCAA tournament dreams would be over.

    It's hard to be too hard on a freshman in a high-pressure situation. But if you're on the court, it's all about results.

    In other words, a choke is a choke.

16. John Carney

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    How could he do that?

15. Kyle Brotzman

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    The video does a great job of summing this one up.

    And man, oh man, you've really gotta feel for the kid.

14. Dan O'Brien

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    Gee, Reebok, think you maybe got a little ahead of yourselves?

    Reebok built a huge campaign around Dan O'Brien and fellow decathlete Dave Johnson leading up to the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona. Whoops. At the Olympic trials, O'Brien passed on lower heights in the pole vault, missed three times at 15-9 and was out of the Olympics.

    Here's why O'Brien isn't higher on this list—he won gold for the decathlon in the 1996 Atlanta Games. So while he undoubtedly choked in historic fashion in 1992, he at least wasn't a career choker and redeemed himself in 1996.

13. Nick Anderson

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    (Go to the 4:38 mark on the video)

    It was Game 1 of the 1995 NBA Finals when Nick Anderson had his chance to be a hero. Except of course that wasn't what happened. From the Orlando Sentinel:

    Anderson stepped to the line with 11 seconds left and the Magic up three. He missed both free throws, but got his rebound and was fouled again. He missed those, too. Houston ended up tying the game and winning in overtime.

    If Anderson had hit any of them, the whole series against the Rockets could have been altered.

    Instead, the Magic got swept, and are still looking for that first victory. Anderson never quite got over missing those free throws, and he recently told Sentinel colleague Mike Bianchi, "It affected the way I played. It affected the way I lived."

12. Scott Hoch

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    (Go to the 7:18 mark on the video)

    It was sudden-death playoff at the 1989 Masters, and all Scott Hoch needed to do to defeat Nick Faldo and win the tournament was sink a two-foot putt. It would have redeemed his bogey on 17 or the birdie he missed on 18 that would have also won him the tournament.

    And he missed it. And Faldo went on to win the tournament.

    Newspaper men everywhere probably lamented the fact that his last name wasn't spelled "Hoke." Then, they would have had a headline gifted to them from the gods themselves:

    You Can't Spell "Choke" Without "Hoke."

    As it were, I'm sure "Hoch Job at the Masters" probably sufficed.

11. Chris Webber

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    You can't talk about Chris Webber without talking about this timout.

    It will follow him forever.

10. Asafa Powell

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    (Asafa Powell isn't really in this video. That's the point. He does get a mention at the 1:52 mark, however.)

    Somehow, Asafa Powell has only finished fifth in the 100-meter dash in the past two Summer Olympics. Why is that a surprise? Consider this (from The Sun):

    He has broken the 10-second barrier legally more times than any other athlete — 66 — with a personal best of 9.72secs.

    And Powell knows that people are now equating him to a choker.

    Powell admitted: "Other people have been saying that when I go to the championships I freeze up and don't do what I'm supposed to do.

    "My coach has said it's a mental problem but for me a small part of it was mental and a small part was physical because I kept getting injured every year.

    To be the best, you have to beat the best in the biggest races. Anything else is just a fancy statistic.

9. Lindsey Jacobellis

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    "Second to last jump, and she goes down on a showboat trick!"

    It's no small achievement to earn a silver medal, which Jacobellis did at the 2006 Turin Games. But when a gold medal is guaranteed, and you lose it because you pull a trick late in the race that you don't land?

    That's a choke, ladies and gentlemen.

8. Jean Van De Velde

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    When this video is the second thing that comes up in a Google search for Jean van de Velde, well, you know he is remembered for his choke.

    And it was one of epic proportions. Needing only to shoot a double-bogey six at the 1999 Open Championship at Carnoustie, the following happened instead, forcing a three-way playoff with Justin Leonard and Paul Lawrie.

    Lawrie won the playoffs. Jean van de Velde, tragically, won only infamy for his meltdown on the final hole.

7. Jana Novotna

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    This match in 1993 wouldn't be the last choke for Novotna. From Franz Lidz of Sports Illustrated in 1998:

    Two years after swooning and sobbing, "No-No Novotna, the lady from Chokeoslovakia," as she was called by a San Francisco sports columnist, squandered an even more commanding lead in the third round of the French Open. She had six match points for a 6-7, 6-4, 6-0 win over unseeded teenager Chanda Rubin but blew them all, and then missed three more at 5-4 before losing the final set 8-6. Novotna only made things worse by telling the press, "I didn't really feel I had the match under control." At 5-0, 40-0 in the final set! Say what?

    Last summer Novotna stood once more at the threshold of a breakthrough. The scene was again the final at Wimbledon; the opponent this time was 16-year-old Martina Hingis. Novotna outhit and outran Hingis and won the first set 6-2. Hingis squared the match with a 6-3 win in the second before Novotna broke to a 2-0 lead in the deciding set. Novotna was a point away from 3-0 when Hingis took over, sweeping the next five games and winning the set, match and championship 6-3. This time the culprit seemed more a strained abdominal muscle than a mental clutch, but the pattern, alas, was all too familiar.

    Novotna had a great career and was elected to the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 2005. But on the biggest stage, she often came up small.

6. Donovan McNabb

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    On one hand, McNabb is the greatest quarterback in the history of the Philadelphia Eagles.

    On the other hand, McNabb's record in NFC Championship games (1-4) and the Super Bowl (0-1) doesn't exactly suggest he came up big in the biggest games.

5. Tony Romo

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    If you want an interesting look at why Romo may not be as much of a choker as is often suggested, check out this article by Scott Kacsmar of Cold, Hard Football Facts.

    Kacsmar makes a compelling argument that Romo is comparable in the clutch to a quarterback that rarely is derided for his play at crucial moments, Philip Rivers. Still, in games where "Romo had the ball in the fourth quarter or overtime and was either tied or trailing by 1-8 points" in the past two years, Romo is 0-5 (10-18 for his career).

    And one of Romo's defining moments will always be this botched snap against Seattle in 2006.

    I'm a firm believer that Romo is often given a worse rap than he deserves. That being said, he hasn't exactly proven himself to be a consistently clutch performer in his career, and as of now, he deserves to be on this list. 

4. Byung-Hyun Kim

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    Byung-Hyun Kim almost cost the Diamondbacks with two blown saves in the 2001 World Series against the Yankees. From Sports Illustrated:

    Scott Brosius saved the Yankees with a two-out, two-run homer in the ninth, then Alfonso Soriano singled home the winning run to give New York a three games-to-two edge.

    The Yankees were one out away from defeat for the second straight night when they victimized Kim again.

    A day earlier, it was Tino Martinez who tagged him for a two-out, two-run shot in the ninth then Derek Jeter homered in the 10th to win it.

    The Diamondbacks would go on to win the next two games and take the series, but the image of Kim hunched over the mound after blowing his second save in Game 5 will remain a part of World Series lure.

3. J.R. Hildebrand

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    You have to feel just horrible for J.R. Hildebrand. One turn away from winning the 2011 Indy 500, and that happens.

    Ouch. Just ouch.

2. Bill Buckner

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    You know that he famously let a grounder through his legs in Game 6 of the 1986 World Series.

    But what have you been ignoring about the entire situation?

    For one thing, Boston still had a chance to win Game 7, which they failed to do.

    And he was a pretty solid player who finished his career with 2,715 hits and a .289 batting average. He wasn't great, but he wasn't some slouch, either.

    Still, he is on this list because—though he never deserved the scorn he received in Boston for years—he absolutely should have made that play. He choked. And fair or not, that moment has since defined his career.

1. Greg Norman

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    The Shark often sunk himself.

    There was 1986, when Norman led all four majors after 54 holes and only came away with a victory at The Open Championship, including his famous falter at the Masters. In that tournament, Norman led through the first nine holes on Sunday, blew his lead, stormed back to tie the leaders on the 17th hole and promptly bogeyed the 18th.

    There was the following year at the Masters, when he went into a three-way playoff with Steve Ballesteros and Larry Mize. After Ballesteros was eliminated, Norman put himself into position for a birdie. It was all for naught—Mize hit a miraculous 45-yard chip and Norman missed his birdie, losing the tournament again (with a bit more bad luck this time).

    And then there was the 1996 Masters, in which Norman came into Sunday with a six-stroke lead on Nick Faldo. He promptly shot a 78 for the day and lost to Faldo by five strokes, who shot a 67.

    My name is Timothy Rapp, and I put the "grrrr" in Swagger.

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