In 1966, Clint Eastwood starred in “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” a movie about three cowboys on the hunt for Confederate gold.
Where the phrase for which the movie was named came from is a mystery to this day. Whoever spawned such a term must be cringing in his grave after his expression’s severe overuse.
In no genre of today’s culture is the phrase used more than in sports, where anything from players and coaches to owners, and even fans become the subject of such banter.
Nevertheless, over the past ten years the sporting world followed an unprecedented course; a course that has seen all three components of the worn-out idiom demonstrated to the extreme.
Where there was excellence, there was often greatness and even legend. Where there was shame, there was disgrace and further still, humiliation.
For Americans, an air of dominance surrounded the Olympic Games and everything that came along with it in the proud country. For a century and beyond, the games meant much more than numbers on a scoreboard or a stopwatch.
The Olympics symbolically give anything and everything a country could ever have: hope, pride, arrogance… or despair, embarrassment, and heartbreak.
In 2000, the games in Sydney saw Rulon Gardner display the heart of an American, conquering the odds to win the gold medal for Greco-Roman wrestling. The story of Gardner, a farmer’s boy from the middle of nowhere…er…Montana, rose up to defeat the Russian Goliath, Alexandre Kareline for the title. Good.
At the turn of the century, Tiger Woods was merely a glimpse of the marketing giant, golf king, and societal icon he would become. One of the biggest steps he took down that path came at Pebble Beach in June 2000. Never before had a golfer annihilated the field in a major championship like Woods did at that U.S. Open.
Fifteen strokes. Fifteen strokes. That’s the margin by which Tiger ascended from mortality and into golfing lore. Nobody had ever seen a major title dangled so far away from them by a single player until Tiger led from wire to wire.
And so the legend began to grow. Good.
Roger Clemens was known as the rocket for the torpedo-like speed accompanying his fastballs. In the 2000 World Series, the moniker may have better been served to describe the short time it took for Clemens to go from beloved star to jerk of the year.
The Fall Classic that year saw New York’s two teams, the Yankees and Mets, square off in a modern-day “Subway Series”. Leading the Mets was the well-liked Mike Piazza, the team’s catcher and one of baseballs “good guys”. Clemens was on the mound pitching in game two when he became the epicenter for one of the most peculiar acts the sports has ever seen.
As Piazza swung at a fastball on the inside corner of the plate, he managed to connect with the pitch, sending the ball down the third-base line, while his bat splintered into two pieces. The barrel of the bat caromed off the ground directly at Clemens, who proceeded to pick it up and immediately hurl it at Piazza.
Without any delay, both dugouts had cleared and the tension in Shea Stadium could be cut with a knife. Clemens denied that the toss carried any malicious intent, saying the he thought he was throwing the ball.
It is nearly as painful to read that statement, as it was to hear. Bad.
Never has anyone’s escape to sports been more imperative than in 2001. On Sept. 11, the fateful plane crashes in the unforgettable terrorist attacks left America desperate for anything to attempt to ease the pain. No part of the country needed that outlet more than the city of New York, which incurred the most physical damage.
The city that for long could be thought of as the most powerful in the world had lost all happiness, until two months later when the Yankees gave them something to cheer about.
Led by beloved captain Derek Jeter, the Yankees shocked the Arizona Diamondbacks with back-to-back extra-inning victories in games four and five. In both games, New York trailed entering the ninth inning, only to be saved by two-run home runs off of Arizona reliever Byung-Hyung Kim.
After all the trepidation, the Yankees revived a city and lifted it back on its feet again. Forget that a few days later, the Diamondbacks won the championship in Arizona on a walk-off single by Luis Gonzalez. The jubilation of those two games in Yankee Stadium was enough to bring the joy back to the heart of Yankee Nation.
The examples of a sports team rescuing its city in such dire circumstances are few and far between. Good.
The Yankees were the principal leader for reawakening the country from its sorrows, but they were fare from the only segment of the realm of sports to come to the rescue of a nation.
The NFL resumed play two weeks after the tragedy, and never before had players been humanized like they were in those first games.
Seeing the biggest, toughest group of men of such prominence brought to tears, some even crumbling to their knees on the field during episodes of remembrance showed the country that everyone shared the same pain, and there was no shame in displaying such emotion. Good.
In January 2002, the country was circling around another team of destiny. This time it was the New England Patriots. How fitting at the time, that the team which bore the nation’s colors on its uniform, had returned from mediocrity and against all odds was making a run towards its first Super Bowl championship.
Tom Brady, the sixth-round draft pick from the year before had taken control of the team when he replaced injured quarterback Drew Bledsoe in the second week of the season. Despite his lack of experience and expectations from the rest of the world, Brady and Patriots ran to a 11-5 regular season and eventually a birth in Super Bowl XXXVI.
In that game, Brady’s bunch (yep, went there) were 14-point underdogs to the high-scoring St. Louis Rams, led by MVP quarterback Kurt Warner. After leading much of the game, the Rams tied the game with a Ricky Proehl touchdown with two minutes remaining in the game. That’s when Brady truly became a legend. He marched his offense down the field, setting up an Adam Vinatieri field goal as time expired to win 20-17.
It was the most impressive game-winning drive in NFL history, and once again, the sporting world was the source of a feel-good story to captivate America when they had every reason to feel sorry for themselves. Good.
See the trend of “good” stories prevailing the sports culture in the early decade? Just wait, it’s about to get uglier.