On New Year's Day I saw five fans of one college football team (USC) march down Bourbon Street chanting "We're No. 1" at fans of the two teams (Oklahoma, LSU) in the "official" national championship game, and no one could really say anything back.
That probably should have clued me in to what kind of a year was ahead.
As the national columnist for Yahoo! Sports, I didn't get to see everything remarkable that happened in 2004. But I came close, in a year that would qualify as the all-time dream come true for a sports fanatic. I even got paid to do it.
Standout moments from a very full year:
NEW ORLEANS – Utter pandemonium swept the Big Easy, which finally had a home team (LSU) in a championship event and certainly knows how to throw a party. Of course, wet blanket/genius coach Nick Saban hardly cracked a smile, and after the game talked about getting out on the recruiting trail. ("LSU coach leaves celebrating to the experts")
HOUSTON – Muhsin Muhammad got behind the New England Patriots secondary to score an 85-yard touchdown and make the Super Bowl a super game. Carolina's Cinderella dreams ended at the sure foot of Adam Vinatieri who, with his second title-winner in three years, continues to cement his case as the greatest kicker in NFL history. ("Boston team party")
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – It took his father 20 attempts to win the Daytona 500, but Dale Earnhardt Jr. got it done early in his career. Earnhardt was so happy after he jumped out of his car, he looked ready to chug celebratory Buds all night. Then someone reminded him he had a Busch Series race to run the next morning. His face sank. In true Earnhardt fashion, he went out and won that one too. ("Little E's day in the sun")
KISSIMMEE, Fla. – Roger Clemens, "unretired" to the Houston Astros, was signing spring training autographs for fans when one requested he put "five-time Cy Young winner" under his signature. "I'm up to six now," Clemens deadpanned. After breathing life into the Astros, it's now seven. ("Clemens comes full circle")
SAN ANTONIO – Upon winning the national championship, Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun, who never forgets a slight, opened his press conference by calling out a columnist who, in midseason, had slammed him in print. "We were 21-3 [at the time]" Calhoun said defensively. Even in this grand moment, he couldn't forget – flashing the never-ending fire that drove Calhoun to build a powerhouse in the New England woods. ("Calhoun worked hard at making it look easy")
NEW ORLEANS – Women's hoops most dominant program was six-time champion Tennessee, until Diana Taurasi arrived at UConn. In the NCAA title game Taurasi put the finishing touches on a career that featured 139-8 record, three national championships and a 7-1 mark against the Lady Vols. "We're the top program out there," Taurasi said. No one could argue. ("Taurasi is the rocky topper")
NEW YORK – As sweet and saintly as possible, track and fraud star Marion Jones met the national media and declared, "I have always been drug free." She went on to have a worse year than Martha Stewart and, at year's end, was sticking with her story even as the BALCO steroid scandal enveloped her. ("What's to believe?")
ELMONT, N.Y. – Tens of thousands of them had taken the train up from Philly to turn the blue-collar backyard of Belmont Raceway into a Smarty Party as the People's Horse was expected to win the Triple Crown. Then Smarty Jones lost to Birdstone, a 36-to-1 underdog, and the life got sucked out of the place. "God," one guy shouted, slamming his foot down on an empty beer can, "I thought we had it." ("A punch to the stomach")
LOS ANGELES – Kobe Bryant had scored 25 points in an NBA finals Game 1 loss to Detroit, but he needed 27 shots to get it done. Asked about the long-armed defense of Detroit Piston Tayshaun Prince, Bryant gave one of his patented, roll-his-mouth smiles and said confidently, "[Prince] is going to be an interesting puzzle to solve." Detroit won in five. ("The Pistons are exhausting")
PATRAS, Greece – The team that needed a military escort to escape a country so dangerous it had barely practiced used a bicycle kick to advance to the medal round of the Olympic men's soccer tournament. "Iraq, Iraq, Iraq" its fans sang, for a soccer victory that showed the world what they were capable of as well as the fact that there was a non-Saddam homeland to actually root for. ("New joy for a new nation")
ATHENS, Greece – No matter how much Larry Brown wrongly whined about their effort and attitude, the U.S. men's basketball team ultimately was done in by a selection process (and turned-down invitations) that sent a flawed team to the Olympics. No matter what got reported back home, the guys played hard. But lacking a shooter, a true point guard and a backup center, Team USA met its match in the semifinals vs. an Argentina team that simply was better. ("The heart of the matter")
NEW YORK – When Kevin Brown got the hook after four Game 7 outs and five earned runs, he was met with a cascade of boos and not a single handshake or pat on the back from his Yankee teammates. The Boston Red Sox were en route to an epic comeback, and the Yankees' flaws were on full display. The next day the New York Daily News ran a doctored photo of Babe Ruth crying. ("The Big Dig")
SOUTH BOSTON, Mass. – They have a "cinema room" at the Harborlights Nursing Home here and a big crowd of elders gathered in it for every Red Sox playoff game, replete with good luck charms and lifetimes of baseball memories. This World Series – a dull, one-sided Boston sweep – was bearable only because, after 86 years, all of New England, but these most-loyal fans in particular, deserved a title. ("A season for the ages")
There was more, of course. More stadiums, games, interviews, memories. There were controversies surrounding Pete Rose, Barry Bonds and Bob Knight. The NHL's fortunes faded, Tiger Woods' aura of invincibility evaporated, and the legitimacy of Major League Baseball's record book remains an open question.
Which leads us into 2005. The NFL playoffs are taking shape, Shaq and Kobe now are officially enemies, the Red Sox Nation is still on cloud nine ... and college football is as screwed up as ever.
See you at the Orange Bowl.