We see the viral YouTube clips and highlights on SportsCenter: A fan, plucked from the stands, makes a miracle half-court shot, a long field goal, or puts a hockey puck into an impossibly small hole. We love those moments because of the sheer difficulty. The reactions of the winners. The unbridled joy. Because we know that maybe one day it could be us who wins a car or money or tuition for a semester.
But every big win has its own story, one that stretches far beyond what we see in those clips. Who were those people before they made the shot and what became of them after? Were the prizes they won life-altering or did they have minimal impact? We also assume that every miracle make was pure luck, but sometimes there was more to it than that.
SI.com reached out to a host of people who recently won contests and collected their stories. Here are the four. There was a shared moment between an average Joe and the most famous basketball player in the world. There was a student who almost never got to collect his prize. There were three women, all competing in the same promotional contest less than four weeks apart, who proved that sometimes the odds don't matter. Finally, there was a homeless young man and a field goal and a moment that will make you believe in fate.
The shot that got LeBron fired up
On an outdoor basketball court not far from the company where he worked, Michael Drysch shot until his right arm ached. Three or four times a week, for three or four hours at a time, Drysch, a 51-year-old computer technician from McHenry, Ill., would take half-court hook shots while a friend rebounded. Only when Drysch didn't have enough strength in his arm to get the ball to the basket would he go home for the night.
The routine started the day after Drysch learned he had been selected out of more than 30,000 people in an online sweepstakes for the chance to shoot for $75,000 at a Miami Heat game on Jan. 25 of last year. He never expected to be picked, and he gave himself a 0 percent chance of winning the money. Of the more than 100 half-court shots he attempted at the court near his work, not one had gone in.
But on a Friday evening in Miami, Drysch became one of the most famous winners of a prize contest ever. The video of him hitting the shot, swishing it after Heat DJ Irie introduced him by saying: "Seventy-five thousand dollars. Alright, Mike, Here we go," has been viewed more than 100,000 times on YouTube and the moment has been replayed by countless news organizations, especially ESPN, which made a commercial out of it.
It went viral not because of the improbability of the shot but also because of what occurred immediately after the ball went through the net. LeBron James had been watching from the bench when Drysch attempted his shot. "When he wound up I was like, `Oh no, there's no way'," James said at the time. "When it dropped, that was awesome. I would have probably air-balled that one in that situation." James was so taken by the moment that he sprinted to Drysch and the joy the two men shared -- a four-time NBA MVP bear-hugging a computer technician to the floor -- immortalized the moment.
It also started the clock on Drysch's 15 minutes of fame. A picture of him celebrating later that night at a nightclub in Miami Beach was tweeted out by Heat owner Micky Arison. The next Monday, Drysch appeared on Good Morning America. His shot and interaction with James was the subject of a New York Times column. When the Heat visited the White House in January to celebrate their second consecutive NBA championship, President Obama referenced Drysch's shot. "LeBron was so pumped up, I thought he was going to give me a hug and knock me over, like the guy on SportsCenter and his half-court shot," the President said. Drysch also appeared in the ESPN commercial, and he changed his Twitter handle to @HalfCourtMikeD.
"It was a good time," he says.
As for how he made that shot, there was a little bit of strategy involved. Just before his attempt, an employee from the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, the organization that would also earn $75,000 if Drysch made the shot, told Drysch to put some backspin on the ball. It went against what Drysch had practiced back in Illinois, but he was willing to give it a try. After all, he hadn't made a single attempt doing it his way.
The money Drysch won allowed him to take eight months off from work. During that time, he traveled to Utah to visit his ill mother -- he used some of the money to buy her a new bed -- and his brother, who was also sick. Drysch bought his sister a new computer and used the rest to pay off debt and other expenses.
He eventually took a new job as a tech specialist in Glenview, Ill. Occasionally someone will recognize him, ask him about his winning shot and about interacting with James, but that happens less and less. He is back to being just another guy entering online sweepstakes, dreaming of a big win.
"I [enter] them all the time," he says. "You never know what could happen."
Thrill of the hitting a half-court shot, followed by agony
Cameron Rodriguez had dreamed of his own bear hug from an NBA superstar.
As he stood on the sideline of the court at Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City last Nov. 18, the 23-year-old from Elk City, Okla., imagined either Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook -- his two favorite Oklahoma City Thunder players -- doing what James had done to Drysch. He thought about that immediately after a team official approached him while he was waiting in line at a concession stand before the game and asked him if he wanted to participate in a promotional contest with a chance to win $20,000 if he made a half-court shot. He thought about it again when he went down to the court early in the second quarter and stood only a few feet from the Thunder bench.
"It's kind of a once-in-a-lifetime thing," Rodriguez says. "Russell is one of my favorite, KD is one of my favorite."
Unlike Drysch, Rodriguez had a basketball background. He was a sophomore forward on the basketball team at Southwestern College, an NAIA school in Winfield, Kan. Still, he says he had not attempted a half-court shot in more than three years. You wouldn't know that after he sank the shot in front of more than 18,000 fans.
As he celebrated, no players rushed toward him, a la James, so he settled for a hug from Thunder mascot Rumble The Bison. That was the first letdown. The second would come the following morning, when Rodriguez spoke with an NAIA official, who informed him that because the prize involved basketball, accepting the money would compromise his amateur status. Rodriguez was given a choice: Take the $20,000 and forfeit his eligibility or give it up and keep playing. "Basketball is what I want to do," he says. "So I figured I'd rather stay [at Southwestern] and get my education and play basketball."
When word of the NAIA's decision got out, "people all over the country were getting mad that they weren't letting me have [the money]," Rodriguez says. The Southwestern athletic department and the NAIA eventually found a workaround. After an appeal, the organization ruled that Rodriguez could use the winnings to pay his tuition. Rodriguez is on schedule to graduate in 2015 with a degree in business administration, and thanks to his winning heave he will have $20,000 less in student loan debt to pay off.
As for not getting a hug from an NBA superstar, Rodriguez did get to meet Yankees closer Mariano Rivera as he left the arena and also 2001 NBA Dunk Contest Champion Desmond Mason. He was asked about his winning shot during interviews on ESPN, CNN, Fox News and Bloomberg Business, among other outlets.
He also became a marked man by his Southwestern teammates, many of whom challenged him to half-court shot contests. "I did pretty well," Rodriguez says, modestly. He then admits that in one of those contests he made four in a row.
The kick .. with a flying purple shoe
After Invictus Igwe graduated from Kennedy High in Granada Hills, Calif., in 2007, he moved out of his mother's home, feeling it was no longer fair for her to support him as she had three younger children to look after. He worked various jobs -- at a Vans store, as a barista at Starbucks, as a fitness instructor at a local YMCA.
Like many 18-year-olds, Igwe didn't have a clue about finances, and he soon found himself with $15,000 in credit card debt. "I wasn't doing bad things," he says. "I just didn't know how to live on my own." He got a higher paying job at an Apple Store, but an employee at his bank told him it would still take five years for him to pay down his debt. "It was so tormenting, it killed me," he says. "I just wanted to get out of debt." To save money, he alternated between sleeping at his friends' houses and his 2010 Honda Civic, which he parked at the Simi Valley Wal-Mart. "I stopped talking to [some of my] friends and just hid away because I was so depressed," Igwe says.
On Oct. 18 of last year, he and his closest friend attended a football game at Simi Valley High. When they took their seats, they overheard a couple asking why a 2014 Chevy Camaro was parked on the field. Igwe learned that he could a text a 777-number for a chance to win the car. He sent the text and a few minutes later, he received call from a number he didn't recognize. The caller told Igwe he had been picked to kick a 40-yard field goal at halftime, which if he made would win him the $24,000 Camaro. "At first I thought I was getting punked," he says.
When he walked onto the field, Igwe didn't look like someone capable of making a kick from that distance. He wore chinos and a pair of purple, size-12 Vans Era Pros. But he had made 50-yard field goals in high school. Leg strength was not his concern, but he was worried that his plant foot would slip, causing him to shank the kick.
Igwe marked off four backward steps and two to the left to form a 90-degree angle, clenched his fists and took a deep breath. He struck the ball cleanly, but he initially thought it would fall short. "In that split second, I was like, 'I just made a fool of myself.'" It didn't help his confidence that as the ball launched into the air so too did his right shoe. It flew off and to the left while the ball headed in the direction of the right goalpost, a purple shoe and a brown ball diverging in the night.
Igwe was wrong; he did have the distance, though barely. The ball hit the crossbar and bounced through the uprights. "I was just in shock," he says. "It's just one of those things you see on TV, but never expect to happen in real life." He ran to the end zone where he was mobbed by some Simi Valley players.
After the celebration died down, Igwe was given a choice: Take the Camaro or pocket $20,000. He took the money. He used it to pay off his debts, to sign a lease on a studio apartment, to start over clean.
"After I made the kick there were some kids at the game who when I told them I turned down the Camaro for the $20,000 were like, 'you're so stupid! Why didn't you take the car?'" he says. "I was like, 'When you get older, you'll understand.'"
Shot, score ... three times!
The MacDonald Auto Group in Sydney, Nova Scotia, sponsors a contest, the Trucks and Bucks Shootout, at home games for the Cape Breton Screaming Eagles, a major junior hockey league team. Three callers to a local radio station are chosen to shoot for one of three prizes -- a car starter, $10,000, or a pickup truck -- between periods at that night's game.
The promotion has been ongoing since 2009, and in the first four years there wasn't a single winner of the two biggest prizes. That is not surprising, given the difficulty of the shots. To win the $10,000, a contestant must shoot a puck from center ice into a hole cut into a board placed in front of one net. The hole is 3.25 inches, which means there is 1/8 of an inch on either side of a three-inch puck.
Even for a seasoned hockey player, it is a near impossible feat. Charles-Eric Legare, a winger for the Screaming Eagles, once attempted the shot 20 times. He went 0-for-20.
What then are the odds that in a three-week stretch earlier this year, two contestants, neither of who had ever played hockey before, made that shot? "I couldn't believe it," says Jim MacDonald, owner of the company sponsoring the contest. "It's a pretty remarkable feat."
The first winner was LeNore Mugridge, a 33-year-old mother of four, who called into the radio station on Jan. 29 and, to her surprise, was selected to be a contestant. Her surprise was followed by alarm: She didn't even know how to hold a hockey stick. She spent that afternoon in her living room with her husband trying to learn. "I watch hockey, I'm a Canadian fan, but that's it. I've never played it or nothing," she says.
After she selected the envelope indicating that she would shoot for $10,000, Mugridge walked out to the ice at the end of the first period. She was wearing a helmet and the awkward way she held a hockey stick conveyed her inexperience. A radio host counted to three, and Mugridge slapped at the puck. It flew off her stick with surprising velocity; later, people would tell her she hit it too hard. "Everybody says that!" she says. "To me it was fine!" Especially when it slipped through that tiny hole and the crowd erupted. "I couldn't believe it," she says. "It was crazy, just stunned."
The second $10,000 winner was a Karie Shaw, a 24-year-old student and mother of two, who made her shot on Feb. 15. Like Mugridge, Shaw had never played ice hockey. The last time she remembers playing any form of the sport was on hardwood floors in high school gym class. Her only strategy for the shot was to stay as low to the ice as possible, presumably so she wouldn't fall down after she struck the puck. Later, she would watch footage of her $10,000 winning shot on the local news, see herself pumping her fists and jumping up and down, and remark at how silly she looked. "I was a little embarrassed," she says.
Mugridge and Lafflin's success was improbable enough, but on the same night Shaw made her shot, another 24-year-old, Megan Lafflin, was chosen to shoot for a new, Ford F-150 truck. The shot required to win that prize is even more difficult. Standing at the faceoff circle on one end of the ice, she needed to land a puck on the small dot inside the faceoff circle on the opposite end. Lafflin's hockey experience is so minimal that she chose to use a lefty stick even though she is right-handed. "It felt more comfortable," she says. "The other one just didn't feel right." Unlike Shaw, Lafflin was totally upright and standing far from the puck when she wacked at it. She did not think it had a chance to even reach its intended target until it crossed center ice. When the puck stopped, Lafflin could not tell that it had landed on the small circle. She only knew she'd won because of the crowd's reaction.
Mugridge says she will use a chunk of her $10,000 to help pay for her children's activities. There are basketball registration fees, choir and band costs. The rest she is using to improve her home. She replaced some rotten floors with new floating hardwood and also purchased a new refrigerator. Next, she will repaint the house and install a fireplace. "This is really going to help," she says.
Shaw plans to use part of her prize money to buy some new furniture and get new brakes and tires for her 2008 Mazda 3. Whatever she has left will be used to buy clothes for her two children and herself.
Lafflin isn't yet sure what she is going to do with her new car. She does not have a driver's license but has passed the written test and plans to take the road test in the near future. She works at Wal-Mart and hopes to begin college within the next two years. She was told she could choose a different car from the Ford Dealership in Sydney, but she is considering selling the $42,729 truck to help pay her tuition.
"It's a big deal," she says. "Definitely a big relief."