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The stories behind famous sports miracles

The stories behind famous sports miracles

Few sporting events in history have greater relevance and impact than the Miracle on Ice, but other sports moments have been dubbed “miracles,” as well. These moments share underlying characteristics to varying degrees — a suspenseful build-up, an unlikely athletic feat that defies circumstance and a certain relevance that follows the aftermath — but they also have their own unique identities, which come to life through the memories of the people who lived them.

As Al Michaels called the remaining seconds of the United States’ 4-3 victory over the Soviet Union in the 1980 Olympics, he turned a phrase that set a new bar for how improbable, iconic sports moments are remembered.

“Eleven seconds, you’ve got 10 seconds, the countdown going on right now,” Michaels bellowed. “Morrow, up to Silk. Five seconds left in the game. Do you believe in miracles? Yes!”

Michaels’ call still, 40 years later, causes feelings to stir inside the pit of Ken Morrow’s stomach.

“I hear my name called every time they show that, and what a great call,” Morrow said. “What makes that a miracle? Al Michaels’ call is what makes it a miracle. It’s probably not remembered that way without it.”

Miracle on Ice

When: February 22, 1980
Where: Olympiad Center (now Herb Brooks Arena), in Lake Placid, New York

What you know: A collection of the best U.S. college hockey players stunned the Soviet Union’s group of grizzled, world-class pros in the 1980 Olympics with a 4-3 victory in a medal-round game. Team USA advanced to win the gold medal against Finland, while the Soviet Union settled for silver after beating Sweden.

What you may not know: The victory had a profound impact on the nation’s morale during a turbulent period in the 1980s that was shaped by lingering Cold War tensions, the 1979 oil crisis and the 1979 Iran hostage crisis.

Defense-man Ken Morrow, now the New York Islanders director of pro scouting, was on the ice for a grueling, final 90 seconds as the U.S. held off the Soviets’ late push for a win. Six days after the tournament ended, Morrow played his first game with the Islanders and won the Stanley Cup that spring. He went on to win three more Cups, but still considers Team USA’s victory one of his greatest achievements, because of its global impact.

Related: Why the Miracle on Ice worked

“In my lifetime, I remember where I was when JFK was assassinated, when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon,” Morrow said. “And that’s what this was to most people. They tell me where they were when they watched the game. … I’ve had military people tell me they were on Navy ships and following Russians and sending signals that we beat them. How do you account for that? It really makes you humble. I don’t know if there’s ever been a sporting event that encapsulates so much.”

Minneapolis Miracle

When: January 14, 2018
Where: U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota

What you know: Wide receiver Stefon Diggs hauled in Case Keenum’s pass near the sideline, stumbled and stayed in bounds to score a 61-yard touchdown. The Vikings beat the Saints, 29-24, and advanced to the NFC Championship. It was the first playoff game in NFL history to end on a touchdown as time expired.

What you may not know: Longtime Vikings play-by-play announcer Paul Allen, who said he has never scripted a call, turned to Pete Bercich as the Vikings headed into their final drive and said, “We’re going to need a Minneapolis Miracle.”

From Allen’s view in the press box, he first noticed the Saints’ best cornerback, Marshon Lattimore, was on Adam Thielen, pitting Diggs against rookie safety Marcus Williams.

“Keenum lofts it up … and Stefon started running to the east end of the stadium. That’s when I realized it was a 61-yard Minneapolis Miracle … There is nobody that can ever take that moment away and Vikings fans will remember it forever.”

The pandemonium that ensued still resonates so deeply with Allen.

“For the first time in my career, fans were trying to jump in the booth to high-five and hug us,” Allen said. “And I had the Vikings assistant coaches to the right of me, banging on the glass. People were standing on tables, and all I saw was people with hands on their heads. It’s almost like it was such a miracle moment that everybody was waiting for somebody to parachute in and say it’s not real.”

Monday Night Miracle

When: October 23, 2000
Where: Giants Stadium, East Rutherford, New Jersey

What you know: John Hall kicked a 40-yard field goal in overtime to give the Jets a 40-37 victory against the Dolphins to complete the biggest comeback in franchise history. The Jets scored 30 points in the fourth quarter — 23 unanswered — to rally from a 30-7 deficit, the largest fourth-quarter comeback in NFL history.

What you may not know: Arnold Schwarzenegger called for the Jets to “terminate” the Dolphins, which is just about as New York as it gets. Hollywood’s favorite android assassin was in the booth before the start of the fourth quarter and lofted this prediction: “Wayne Chrebet is going to pull it off. I think as usual the Jets are going to come from behind, you will see … I think the Dolphins have to be terminated.”

Chrebet finished the game six catches for 104 yards and two touchdowns. His second touchdown tied the score, 30-30, with 3:55 to play, but Miami scored on the next drive. With 42 seconds remaining, tackle Jumbo Elliott reported as an eligible receiver and caught a touchdown from Vinny Testaverde in epic fashion. Elliott bobbled the ball before he caught it with a diving snag. It was the only touchdown of Elliott’s career and sent the game to overtime. Al Michaels was also on the broadcast for this game, making it the second miracle game he called, along with Miracle on Ice.

Music City Miracle

When: January 8, 2000
Where: Adelphia Coliseum (now Nissan Stadium) in Nashville, Tennessee

What you know: The Buffalo Bills rallied from a two-score deficit to take a 16-15 lead over the Tennessee Titans with 16 seconds left in the wild-card round of the NFL playoffs. On the ensuing kickoff, Lorenzo Neal, a player who would normally block on a kick return, scooped up a squib kick and handed it to Frank Wychek, who tossed a lateral pass to the deep man, Kevin Dyson, who ran for a 75-yard touchdown.

What you may not know: The call came in before the kickoff for Dyson to run “Home Run Throwback,” which he had never practiced. The guys who had, Derrick Mason and Anthony Dorsett, were injured.

“We all were as nervous as we could be,” Dyson said. “[Neal] should be in the Hall of Fame, but man, there was less than a 50% chance he was going to catch the ball. He had hands of bricks. But he caught it. He’s a gamer.”

More Music City Miracle: Where are the players now, 20 years later?

“I was in utter disbelief the game was over,” recalled Antowain Smith, who scored Buffalo’s only two touchdowns of the day. “We got back into the locker room and we had some guys crying, some guys just there like, ‘Man, I know that didn’t just happen.’ That was just a sickening feeling.”

Wychek’s lateral was one of the first game-changing maneuvers tested and upheld by the current replay system that debuted in 1999.

“It seemed like with them reviewing the play, it was taking an eternity,” Smith said. “And when they said the play on the field stands, it was just like, you’ve never been up so high in one moment and then down all in a matter of minutes.”

Bluegrass Miracle

When: November 9, 2002
Where: Commonwealth Stadium (now Kroger Field), in Lexington, Kentucky

What you know: LSU quarterback Marcus Randall stood on his own 16-yard line and heaved a Hail Mary pass that was tipped into the air by a Kentucky defender and caught by LSU’s Devery Henderson at the 15-yard line. He eluded a tackle and scored the 74-yard touchdown to give LSU a 33-30 win against Kentucky as time expired.

What you may not know: As Randall released the ball, Kentucky players stormed the field. Fans climbed the goalpost. Fireworks blasted above Commonwealth Stadium. Kentucky coach Guy Morriss was soaked on the sideline, courtesy of Jared Lorenzen’s celebratory Gatorade cooler bath.

The only hangup was the Wildcats lost the game on a can-you-believe-it Hail Mary from Randall to Henderson.

The play that made the desperation attempt even possible occurred seconds earlier when Randall completed a pass to Michael Clayton. Pinned at the 9 yard line, Randall hit Clayton for a 17-yard gain to get LSU to the 26. LSU called a timeout to set up the game-winning play — “Dash Right 93 Berlin” — with two seconds left.

Miracle at the Meadowlands

When: November 19, 1978
Where: Giants Stadium, East Rutherford, New Jersey

What you know: Joe Pisarcik fumbled the game’s final handoff to Larry Csonka as the Giants attempted to run out the clock against the Eagles, who had no timeouts left. Herm Edwards picked up the ball on the first bounce and scored a 26-yard touchdown to give Philadelphia a 19-17 victory.

What you may not know: Two plays before the infamous fumble, Pisarcik rolled to the ground, a common way to keep the clock running before kneeling was introduced in 1987, but a skirmish ensued after a hard hit. Offensive coordinator Bob Gibson ordered another run on the final play.

When the Eagles signed Pisarcik as a backup quarterback two years later, he shared with Edwards the chaos that preceded the play.

“When they broke the huddle, there was a conversation of, ‘Well, we don’t need to run the ball,’ but the call from the side was to huddle one more time,” Edwards recalled. “Joe was looking at Jim Clack, the center, and he hiked it a little bit too soon. Joe isn’t ready for the snap.”

Coach Dick Vermeil had his back turned as he prepared a play, in the event the Eagles could get the ball back. He never saw the fumble, according to Edwards.

“It’s almost surreal in the fact that you’re part of a play that, at that point in time … you don’t know the magnitude of it,” Edwards said. “I mean, this thing happened in 1978 and people still talk about it.”

Memorial Day Miracle

When: May 31, 1999
Where: Alamodome in San Antonio, Texas

What you know: Sean Elliott hit a corner 3-pointer with nine seconds left to give the Spurs an 86-85 victory against the Trail Blazers in Game 2 of the Western Conference finals. The Spurs had been down 18 points in the third quarter. Stacey Augmon almost stole the pass, Rasheed Wallace almost blocked the shot, and Elliot balanced on the sideline not to step out of bounds.

What you may not know: On July 22, less than a month after the Spurs defeated the Knicks in five games to win their first championship, Elliott held a news conference to disclose he needed a kidney transplant. Elliott had a kidney disease called focal segmental glomerular sclerosis and found out he needed a transplant in April of the 1998-99 season, but quietly played on. The fact that he even played in that game, let alone delivered the game-winning shot, is remarkable in itself. “I just felt I had a responsibility to the team,” Elliott said during the news conference. ”It’s been something I’ve been living with for a while, so I really didn’t let it creep into my mind that much.” Elliott’s brother, Noel, donated his kidney in August and Sean played two more seasons until he was 32.

Miracle on Grass

When: June 29, 1950
Where: Estádio Independência in Belo Horizonte, Brazil

What you may know: The United States men’s soccer team shocked England with a 1-0 victory in the 1950 FIFA World Cup. Despite being heavily attacked in the opening minutes of the group match, Joe Gaetjens scored in the 37th minute to shock England, which at the time was largely considered to have the best team in the world.

What you may not know: The U.S. team was comprised mostly of amateur, part-time soccer players set to rival England’s team of seasoned professionals. Five of the US players were from St. Louis, including goaltender Frank Borghi, who had previously played as a minor league baseball catcher and drove a hearse for his family’s funeral home. The win was so unlikely that only one American journalist, Dent McSkimming, made the trip to cover the game for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and according to multiple reports, he paid his own way overseas. The audience of mostly Brazilian fans were raucously cheering on the Americans to defeat England so Brazil would not have to play the powerhouse in its final game. It was also the United States’ last appearance in World Cup play until 1990.

Photographs by Getty Images, Illustrations by Joel Holland

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