ESPN 100: Never say die

ESPN The Magazine counts down the 100 sports stories that mattered the most in 2006.

Updated: December 27, 2006, 12:57 PM ET
ESPN The Magazine

What were the top 100 sports stories of 2006? Better yet, what sports story mattered the most? Vince Young leading Texas past USC in the Rose Bowl? Zinedine Zidane head-butting France out of the World Cup final? We cringed at T.O.'s turmoil in Dallas, cheered the Bus' final ride with the Steelers, and fell off our chairs when Travis Pastrana landed a double backflip on a motorcycle at the X Games.

But what was the No. 1 story? ESPN The Magazine took on the challenge of finding out. The Mag's editors polled executives, editors and writers across the ESPN family, and the result is the ESPN 100, a list that ranks everyone and everything that mattered in sports in 2006. The entire list will be published in the Jan. 1 issue of The Magazine, available on newsstands Dec. 20.



No. 1: Too Young to die

Heading into a Rose Bowl showdown with No.2 Texas, USC's Trojans had an air of invincibility about them. Then Vince Young led the Longhorns to an upset for the ages — and made it look so easy. It wasn't, quite.

THE HYPE: The Trojans, gunning for an unprecedented third-straight national title, were billed as maybe the best team ever. They dressed two Heisman winners — QB Matt Leinart and TB Reggie Bush — and hadn't lost in nearly three seasons. All of which meant Texas, despite a 19-game winning streak and a Heisman runner-up of its own, was a touchdown underdog. "I felt disrespected," Young says. "They said we shouldn't be there, and I was upset about losing the Heisman. So I told the guys, 'Let's show the world who the national championship is supposed to go to.'" THE TRUTH: What looked like a mismatch turned into the best college game ever, with five lead changes, 1,130 yards of offense — and one clear star. Young ran for 200 yards, scoring 3 TDs, and threw for 267 more. And with 26 seconds left, down 38-33 and facing fourth and five at the 8, the ball and the game were in his hands.

THE CALL: Two weeks earlier, offensive coordinator Greg Davis had asked Young what he'd run with one play left and the title eight yards away. Young said QB draw. Davis countered with Gun Left Jack Menu 2 (see diagram), which sends three receivers downfield, a tight end to the left flat and the running back to the middle to block or catch. It gives Young lots of pass options — and room to run. True to his word, Davis called the play in Pasadena on third and five with 30 seconds left. After Young threw incomplete to wideout Limas Sweed in the end zone, Davis called it again.

THE BREAKDOWN: "Once you get in that Jordan mode," Young says, "you do what Coach wants and put a little of your character in it." As he took a three-step drop, he saw two blitzers, with the defensive backs converging on the receivers. USC had read it perfectly. "I was trying to throw for a first down," says Young. "But I came to my third option and saw a lot of grass, so I took off." With the D bunched to the middle and left, he ran right, untouched into the end zone. He then got to make his favorite call, a QB draw, on a two-point conversion that gave the Horns their final 41-38 margin. "It felt good to stop all the doubters," Young says.

He had made the story of this night his own.


Read his lips

What exactly did Italian defender Marco Materazzi say to provoke French captain and soccer icon Zinedine Zidane — lip readers have given it their best shot.

"Vaffanculo!" — FRENCH LIP-READER MARIANNE FRERE. Vaffanculo IS Italian for F--- OFF

"That [PASS] IS not for FECCIA like you."
— Also MARIANNE Frere. FECCIA is Italian FOR S---

"I wish an ugly death to you and all your family." — UNNAMED BBC LIP-READER

"You're a dirty terrorist."
— a PARIS-BASED antiracism group

"We all know you are the son of a terrorist whore."
— JESSICA REES, BRITAIN'S TOP FORENSIC LIP-READER (TWO BBC LIP-READERS AND FRERE ALL AGREED ON THIS ONE)
No. 2: Zi-Damn!

What did Italian defender Marco Materazzi say to provoke French captain and soccer icon Zinedine Zidane to deliver that fateful if impressive head butt in the waning minutes of the World Cup Final? Speculation ran rampant following the Azzurri's penalty kick win. Some insisted Materazzi went racist, linking Zizou's Algerian heritage to terrorism.

"I did not call him a terrorist," said Materazzi. "I don't even know what the word means." Zidane would say only that Materazzi had insulted his mother and sister. Not so, countered the Italian: "I lost my mother when I was 15, and even now I still get emotional talking about her." There were even rumblings about a nipple twist! Zidane eventually owned up to letting his teammates down. Sort of: "I apologize. But I can't regret what I did because it would mean that he was right to say all that."

While the "experts" were busy reading lips (their best guesses are at right), Materazzi copped to insulting Zidane's sister, then lost no time cashing in, publishing What I Actually Told Zidane, a cheeky list of 249 possibilities that lets readers guess the true zinger. Our favorite: "Since Foucault died, French philosophy has sucked." Touché!


No. 3: L'affaire Landis

He arrived as a fable, with no airs and no posse, an individual artist who wasn't a product of sports-academy fascism or glory-seeking parents. Reared in the forced modesty of the Mennonites, he started pedaling a bicycle just to get somewhere, of all crazy things, and ended up riding his way out of the dual-wall claustrophobia of home and religion.

So when Floyd Landis won the biggest race of all — the Tour de France — he stood on the podium wearing a yellow jersey and a crooked smile, looking as surprised as anyone who had followed his wild trip.

We know what happened after that: a positive test for testosterone, a try-anything stumble through a coat rack of excuses, a spotlighted exile. His unofficial sentence is served in lawyers' statements and online defenses and accusations of sloppy lab practices. Cheater's purgatory is a desperate and hollow place, where echoes of Please believe me rattle around unheeded.

It seems now that Landis was born to shatter the illusion that superhuman efforts can be produced by mere humans. From sprinters, cyclists and home run hitters, we want faster, higher, farther — always more, more, more. The awe of the moment, though, is often surpassed by the dispiriting aftermath.

Assume guilt — is that, ultimately, the sad lesson of l'affaire Landis? Or will assumed guilt yet turn out to be an unjust fate? If Landis does finally become a cautionary tale for those who insist on believing the unbelievable, his fall will have been every bit as improbable as his ascent.
— Tim Keown


No. 4: The year of the Tiger

By the numbers …
$9.9M Winnings in 2006, bringing 10-year PGA career total to more than $65.7M, most ever

18½-9½ Final score of Ryder Cup, in which Tiger-led U.S. team lost for third consecutive time

+12 Score after two rounds at the U.S. Open, first time as a pro he missed cut in major

8 PGA Tour victories, bringing his career total to 54, fifth most ever

6 Consecutive Tour stroke-play wins, matching second-longest streak ever (still active going into 2007)

25 Days before start of Ryder Cup that Irish magazine The Dubliner published phony porn shots of Tiger's wife, Elin

2 Major wins: PGA Championship and British Open, bringing career total to 12, second all-time

1 Immeasurable loss: Earl Woods, 1932-2006


No. 5: Heat Rises

Pat Riley will tell you he thought he was why the Showtime Lakers won all those titles. But he's older now. He lost his mother just before these playoffs and limped through them in need of a new hip. The chase, his addiction, had beaten him down. He needed a win badly. Take my name off the marquee, he said a few years ago. But then Anthony Carter's agent forgot to activate a player option, freeing up money for Lamar Odom — the chip that brought Shaq to Miami. Then D-Wade fell into his lap. Lucky. And suddenly Riley was holding the trophy again — the photo is his screen saver. Know what he says now? That this one means more than all the others combined.
—Dan Le Batard


No. 6: Tragedy of Bonds

When I wrote about Barry Bonds for The Magazine last April, the potentiality of his impact on America seemed far more menacing than it does now; at the time, it appeared Bonds' passing of Babe Ruth was both imminent and meaningful. But things played out much more slowly than anticipated: He didn't pass Ruth until May 28 and, though people certainly noticed, few seemed to care. The idea of Bonds passing Ruth was more troubling than the event itself. Bonds was old and hobbled, no one was watching his ESPN reality show, and Major League Baseball was consciously pretending that this particular hit didn't mean anything at all.

Bonds finished with 26 home runs — overall, he's 21 shy of Henry Aaron's 755 — but he no longer intimidates. ...

Assuming ... he stays healthy, he could pass Aaron as early as July, and the whole "Bonds as a disillusioning metaphor for modernity" thesis will likely resurface. But at the moment, he looks like a lucky dude: Two people have gone to jail because of the BALCO investigation, and Bonds isn't one of them. While mastermind Victor Conte and loyal trainer Greg Anderson simmer behind bars, and the two San Francisco Chronicle reporters who wrote the book on Bonds stare down possible sentences for refusing to give up their sources, Barry is free to pump iron, play with his kids and exist as baseball's most unsympathetic tragic figure of the modern age. Which isn't so awful, all things considered.
— Chuck Klosterman


No. 7: Hometown Hero

"I'm the happiest person on the field. I'm the happiest person in the world. "
-- RB Jerome Bettis, after his Steelers beat the Seahawks 21-10 in Super Bowl XL in his native Detroit. Bettis retired after the game, fifth on the all-time rushing list with 13,653 yards.


No. 8 Unmatched

After 21 years and 60 titles, 36-year-old Andre Agassi retired from tennis following a third-round loss at the U.S. Open. One of the sport's most popular players, Agassi received an eight-minute standing ovation following the match. He will spend his golden years (or at least his 40s) developing luxury-resort properties with wife Steffi Graf. As we wish the pensioners well, let's take one more look at Agassi's Odyssey.

May 1, 1986: Sporting flowing trailer-park locks, an earring and neon Spandex, Agassi turns pro. No, not that kind of pro.

July 5, 1992: Wins Wimbledon.

Fall 1992: Begins dating Barbra Streisand. Suddenly, his hair isn't the main topic of conversation.

Sept. 11, 1994: Is first unseeded player to win the U.S. Open.

Late Fall, 1994: After one too many perms, creeping baldness forces Agassi to shave his head.

April 10, 1995: Climbs to No. 1 after beating Pete Sampras in his first Australian Open in January.

April 19, 1997: Marries Brooke Shields.

Nov. 10, 1997: Ranking drops to 141.

April 9, 1999: Divorces Brooke Shields.

June 6, 1999: Wins the French Open, becoming the only male to win all four Grand Slams and Olympic gold.

Oct. 22, 2001: Marries Steffi Graf. Son Jaden Gil is born that week. Daughter, Jaz, born Oct. 3, 2003.

May 11, 2003: At 33, is the oldest male to be ranked No 1.

Sept. 11, 2005: Loses to Roger Federer in last Grand Slam final, at U.S. Open.

Sept. 3, 2006 : Back pain and No. 112 Benjamin Becker usher Agassi out of his final U.S. Open in the third round. "The scoreboard shows that I lost today," he says. "But what the scoreboard doesn't show is what I feel."


No. 9: Upset Special
By the time of George Mason's March 26 matchup with UConn, the top seed in the Washington Region, the 11th-seeded Patriots had already mowed down postseason regulars North Carolina and Michigan State in the NCAA Tournament. But when Huskies forward Denham Brown hit a buzzer-beater to send the game into overtime, it looked as if the Patriots' magic had run out. Deep into OT, though, GMU was still up by two. Brown pulled up at the 3-point line ... and missed.

Cinderella lived on. Of course, the glass-slippered gal doesn't dance only in March. Here are five other upsets that didn't quite make the cut for the ESPN 100:

March 23: Fourth-seeded LSU shocks everyone's top seed, Duke, 62-54 in the Sweet 16. Departing Blue Devils senior J.J. Redick weeps.

July 1: France stuns Brazil 1-0 on Thierry Henry's volley of a free kick by Zinedine Zidane to advance to the World Cup semis.

Oct. 28: USC's 21-point second-half rally isn't enough to preserve its 38-game regular-season winning streak as Oregon State pulls off a 33-31 stunner.

Nov. 5: A smashmouth defense carries the Bears to a 7-0 start, but Chicago proves no match for the bottom-feeding Dolphins. After Miami's 31-13 win, the 1972 Fins exhale.

Nov. 18: What goes around ... nine days after toppling No. 3 Louisville for the biggest win in school history, unbeaten Rutgers falls to unranked Cincinnati 30-11.


No. 10 Run of the Court
He's just 25, yet many watchers concede Roger Federer is already the greatest player in tennis history. His nine majors, including three of four in 2006, have his Slam sights set firmly on Pete Sampras' all-time record. In fact, the question isn't if Federer will pass Sampras, but by how much:

Open Era Leaders

Player (career)
Slam
Wins
Age
18-24
Age
25-29
Age
30-plus
Pete Sampras (1988-2002) 14 7 6 1
Bjorn Borg (1973-1982) 11 10 1 0
Roger Federer (1998-present) 9 8 1 ?
Jimmy Connors (1972-1993) 8 4 2 2
Ivan Lendl (1978-1994) 8 1 7 0
Andre Agassi (1986-2006) 8 3 3 2

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