- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 25, 2008

What a year.

2008 may go down as one of the most memorable years in recent sports history. From the Giants’ upset of the undefeated Patriots in Super Bowl XLII to Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer’s epic Wimbledon clash to an Olympics filled with record-breaking performances, this past year was full of impressive performances.

So join us as The Washington Times’ sportswriters take a look back at their favorite events of 2008.

A Super upset

I’ve covered 15 Super Bowls, including the dramatic Rams-Titans and Patriots-Rams finishes as well as John Elway’s title in his 15th season. However, I was never as shocked about a Super Bowl I covered than I was in February in Glendale, Ariz.

Maybe it was because I had seen the Redskins thump the Giants in the Meadowlands in December, but I just didn’t see New York sticking with the perfect Patriots no matter how good the pass rush was. Eli Manning vs. Tom Brady? Please. Greg Brady might have a better chance of outperforming Peyton Manning.

But sitting in the stands - otherwise known as the auxiliary press box of University of Phoenix Stadium - I watched Eli grow up quickly and the Giants’ front four dominate the line of scrimmage. As first edition deadline approached, I had three different beginnings to my story in the computer. The game ended right on deadline. I sent the story with the shocking lede and hustled down to the interview area knowing I had seen one of the biggest title game upsets of all time, something that as a lover of history I always will remember.

- David Elfin

A banner night

My first full season covering the Washington Capitals had plenty of memorable finishes, amazing performances and an improbable run to the playoffs. Of all the memorable experiences from the season, the one that sticks with me the most is the national anthem at United Center.

The building was electric - jammed with more than 20,000 spectators excited about the city’s rekindled love with the Blackhawks and for “Tony-O” night to honor Tony Esposito. I had heard of the anthem experience at Chicago Stadium/United Center, but it was something that must be experienced to appreciate fully.

I love going to Canadian barns because nearly everyone in the building sings “O Canada,” but having 20,000 stand and cheer boisterously throughout “The Star-Spangled Banner” was just an incredible thing to consume. The game certainly didn’t go well for the Caps - a 5-0 loss that will be remembered as Olie Kolzig’s last game in a Washington uniform - but all of the festivities before the game, most especially the anthem, was something not to forget.

- Corey Masisak

Super Mario

Sometimes, this line of work provides the best seat in the house. When it happens at the Final Four, so much the better.

Back on April 7, the chance to watch Kansas and Memphis directly opposite the Jayhawks’ bench was entertaining enough. The Tigers’ Derrick Rose and Chris Douglas-Roberts were both enjoying prolific NCAA tournaments, and Bill Self’s balanced team was two days removed from dispatching North Carolina.

The final 10.8 seconds of regulation, though, ensured it was unforgettable.

Nine seconds. Eight seconds. Down 63-60, Sherron Collins brought the ball over midcourt. Seven seconds. Six seconds.

After maneuvering to the right, he found Mario Chalmers. Five seconds. The junior collected the pass and moved toward the top of the key - four seconds - then launched a 3-pointer with a defender draped on him.

It floated toward the basket - three seconds - and finally arced through with 2.1 seconds remaining. When it did, Chalmers secured his place in basketball lore with one of the most memorable shots in Final Four history as the Jayhawks went on to win 75-68 in overtime.

- Patrick Stevens

Seventh heaven

Paul Pierce and LeBron James conjured images of the Larry Bird-Dominique Wilkins shootout in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals last spring.

Pierce and James traded one shot after another, just as Bird and Wilkins had done in Game 7 of the conference semifinals 20 years earlier.

Pierce scored 41 points and James 45. Pierce hit two free throws with 7.9 seconds left to help the Celtics hold off the Cavaliers 97-92 in what would be the storied franchise’s stiffest postseason challenge en route to claiming its 17th NBA championship.

While Pierce and James put on an epic show, their offensive production came in spurts throughout the contest. Pierce was limited to six points in the fourth quarter, while James scored 13.

The fourth quarter is where the comparison to the Bird-Wilkins showdown differed.

Bird, in finishing with 34 points, scored 20 in the fourth quarter, while Wilkins finished with 47 points, 16 in the fourth.

“I’m very aware of the game,” Pierce said. “They don’t ever let you forget it when you look up to the JumboTron.”

James also was aware of the historical implications.

“We both tried to will our team to victory, and just like Dominique Wilkins, I ended up on the short end and the Celtics won again,” he said.

Doc Rivers, the Celtics coach who was a member of the Wilkins-led Hawks in 1988, is pained to this day by that loss. He has never watched a replay of the game, although he did his part for the Hawks in finishing with 16 points and 18 assists.

Perhaps the bitterness from that game dissipated to an extent after he and the Celtics hoisted the championship trophy in June, an outcome made possible by Pierce and Co. outlasting James and Cavaliers.

- Tom Knott

The greatest match

It was the greatest tennis match ever played.

Rafael Nadal, the intrepid Spanish lefty, won the 2008 Wimbledon title, dispatching top-ranked Roger Federer in five sets. But the match will be remembered most for the astonishing level of drama that stretched for nearly eight hours, ending as the last remnants of daylight faded over the All-England club.

There was Federer, who was second only to Pete Sampras in grass-court dominance. And there was Nadal, the clay-court specialist who had throttled Federer at the French Open a month earlier and who had vastly improved his performance on grass. Back and forth they went like prize fighters, enduring a series of rain delays that only served to heighten the tension.

Nadal took the first two sets, and it appeared that Federer’s streak of Wimbledon titles was about to end at five. But the fluid Swiss star came back to win the third in a tiebreak. Then he pulled out the fourth, also in a tiebreak, in which Nadal held two match points. The spectators in London and those at home settled in for a fifth set that somehow exceeded the match’s lofty promise.

With dusk racing in, Nadal gutted out the final set 9-7. He fell flat on his back, embraced his foe, then climbed into the stands to thank the prince and princess of Spain. On that day, Nadal joined the ranks of Spanish royalty, but tennis fans were the ones who were showered with the most riches.

- Tim Lemke

The touch heard ‘round the world

There’s plenty of grousing among Nationals fans about Orioles fans infiltrating Washington’s new stadium with their old traditions, shouting the “O” during the national anthem and generally trying to block out the fledgling Nationals with some Charm City one-upsmanship. But on this night - actually Aug. 15 in the District - everyone in Nationals Park was buzzing about one of Baltimore’s own. The Nationals lost 4-3 to the Colorado Rockies, their eighth defeat in the midst of a season-high 12-game losing streak, while their efforts to sign first-round pick Aaron Crow were melting into final, futile attempts. And no one cared.

That was the night Michael Phelps saved his historic Olympic run, tying Mark Spitz’s record of seven gold medals in a single games in purely magical fashion. When he hunted down Serbia’s Milorad Cavic, out-touching him by one-hundredth of a second with a final swoop of those massive arms, a cheer from the Red Loft bar in center field went up so loudly, everyone in the Nationals Park press box five floors above home plate heard it. We knew exactly what it was for.

I didn’t believe Phelps pulled it off that night. And watching the video again now, I still don’t believe it. But that’s what made this Baltimore kid so brilliant. When he stretched for the wall, you could feel the tremors halfway around the world.

- Ben Goessling

A Bolt of lightning

When he clowned around a few nights before while setting the world record in the 100-meter dash, track experts wondered how fast Usain Bolt could run if he didn’t start show-boating before the finish line.

They found out late on the night of Aug. 20 at the Bird’s Nest in Beijing, a performance that was one of my favorite 2008 memories.

The 200 was always the Jamaican’s goal. He wanted to break Michael Johnson’s 12-year-old record of 19.32 seconds. And he did, his 6-foot-5 frame crossing the line in 19.30 seconds. He became the first man in history to win both races in world-record time during the same Olympics.

While Bolt celebrated, the status of the second- and third-place finishers wasn’t decided until a set of appeals were completed at 12:20 a.m. Beijing time.

An hour later, I was walking briskly through the Olympic Green while doing a phone interview with a D.C. radio station. I missed my shuttle bus back to the lovely Jing-Min Hotel. With an hour to spare - it was now 2:15 a.m. - I went to the McDonald’s to get some dinner before starting to write. Ordering coffee at the adjacent McCafe?

Michael Johnson.

- Ryan O’Halloran

Glory days

Though Tiger Woods’ staggering success at the U.S. Open was far more celebrated, no week meant more to American golf in 2008 than the United States’ emphatic end to Europe’s stranglehold over the Ryder Cup at Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, Ky.

Without the injured Woods in the lineup, nobody gave the Americans much of a chance against a torrid European side that had won in five of six tries dating to 1995.

Throw in the fact that European captain Nick Faldo brought a roster to Louisville that featured the two hottest players on the planet in Padraig Harrington and Sergio Garcia, and American golf fans were bracing for yet another dose of humility from the bunch from abroad.

Instead, what transpired at Valhalla was the feel-good story of the decade for U.S. golf. Propelled around the property by raucous red, white and blue galleries, captain Paul Azinger’s squad bonded like few American teams before it. Led by magnetic rookies Anthony Kim, Boo Weekley and Hunter Mahan, the United States crushed the Europeans 16 1/2-11 1/2. Cementing his place as the game’s fasting rising star, Kim decimated Garcia in Sunday’s opening singles match, defining an event that would see Europe’s power troika of Garcia, Harrington and Lee Westwood finish an astonishing 0-7-5.

-Barker Davis

Reign delayed

It took the first suspended game in World Series history, two extra days and contributions from Geoff Jenkins and Pedro Feliz. It took Chase Utley’s heads-up defense. Oh, and it took Brad Lidge staying perfect.

After all that, Philadelphia got its parade.

How the Phillies wound up winning Game 5 over the Tampa Bay Rays will go into lore alongside the city’s first championship in 25 years and the team’s first since 1980. There were the mud puddles, the delay and then arguably the best three-inning game ever played, with the Phillies walking away with a 4-3 victory.

I was in Philadelphia that night, watching from a center city bar. The euphoria in that town during and after the game - the party on Broad Street in particular - was something I had never seen or experienced before. It was a tribute to how much sports matter to Philadelphia; the city and its people finally were rewarded after waiting so long.

- Stephen Whyno

Men of honor

I look forward to the Army-Navy game every year. I have been following the series since I was a kid growing up in New York, and now it’s one of my favorite perks of covering the Midshipmen.

It doesn’t get much more heated than a 109-year-old rivalry. It’s without question the biggest game of the season for both academies every year - not even the Air Force game is on the same level.

When I first started on the beat, I was curious to see whether the players took it as seriously as the alumni and fans. It’s definitely not overhyped. From Day 1 in Annapolis and West Point, “Beat Army” or “Beat Navy” is drilled into players’ heads. It’s recited during physical training. It’s talked about on campus. It’s even printed on weights.

The players get it. They get that soldiers stationed around the world are watching, and the game means bragging rights for them, too - bragging rights that don’t fade until next year’s game.

Even though it has been one-sided of late, the game hasn’t lost any meaning. The Navy seniors dread the idea of being the class that stops the winning streak, and the Army seniors are equally as motivated to break through.

That’s why the Army-Navy game is great to me. Beyond the history and pageantry, you know the players are going to do everything they can to win.

And the cheesesteaks in Philadelphia are pretty good, too.

- Mike Fratto

Legends departed

Although this was a busy if not especially memorable year for older fans hereabouts, what I remember most is how we lost a big chunk of our past. The deaths of Mickey Vernon on Sept. 24 and Sammy Baugh on Dec. 17 removed two of the towering figures associated with D.C. sports.

Mickey spent most of his 20 baseball seasons with the original Senators, winning two batting titles and playing first base seamlessly. Sammy, of course, was the greatest Redskins player ever and one of the NFL’s earliest superstars. During 16 NFL seasons, he served as a role model for all future quarterbacks worthy of their (ultimately fat) salaries.

That wasn’t all either. At least four other former Senators also went to their eternal rewards: pitchers Bert Shepard, Chuck Stobbs and Walt Masterson of the original club, plus slick shortstop Ed Brinkman of the expansion version.

Because we tend to associate ourselves so closely with sporting heroes, such deaths affect us personally. I hate to bring this up on Christmas Day, folks, but that clock is clicking for all of us.

- Dick Heller

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