What made it a year to remember? One last mythic act from an aging superstar. The giggly debut of a preteen golf prodigy. And all the moments in between that touched hearts and chilled spines
BEHIND Jameis Winston, its Heisman Trophy--winning quarterback, Florida State had rolled through the regular season not only undefeated but also unchallenged. No opponent had come within two touchdowns of the No. 1 Seminoles, who won by an average of 42.3 points. Florida State knew, however, that the final BCS title game—in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 6, against an Auburn team that had gotten there thanks partly to a last-second 109-yard return of a missed field goal against Alabama—would be a different type of test.
Was it ever. Auburn raced out to a 21--3 first-half lead. After an FSU comeback, a 37-yard run by Tigers tailback Tre Mason gave the advantage back to Auburn, 31--27, with just 79 seconds remaining. That was plenty of time for Winston, the redshirt freshman, to work his magic. Starting on his own 20, he needed only six plays—the biggest of them a 49-yard completion to wideout Rashad Greene—to march the Seminoles down to Auburn's five. Then, after a pass-interference call put them on the Tigers' two with 17 seconds left, Winston lofted a pass to towering receiver Kelvin Benjamin, who came down with the game-winner (left). On the day Winston turned 20, it was he who gave the gift: Florida State's first national title since 1999.
'Bye, Dan. S'long, Brett
AS RECENTLY as 2011 the odds seemed good that Peyton Manning would forever be stuck at 399 touchdowns. He was 35 years old. Four neck surgeries had cost him an entire NFL season, and he would soon be released by the Colts, the only pro organization he had ever known. He might have called it quits; he was a surefire Hall of Famer who had passed for more TDs than anyone but Brett Favre and Dan Marino.
Manning had other ideas.
On Oct. 19, with 3:15 remaining in the second quarter of the 38th game of his remarkable second NFL life, the 38-year-old quarterback dropped back and found wideout Demaryius Thomas in the near right corner of the end zone. The eight-yard score gave Denver a 21--3 lead over the 49ers and, more important, marked the 509th touchdown of Manning's career, allowing him to pass Favre and become the NFL's alltime leader.
Manning's receivers spent a moment playing keep-away with the record-setting ball, tossing it to one another as their quarterback good-naturedly tried to corral his memento, but soon the monkey business was over. There were, as ever for Manning, more touchdowns to be thrown.
Words for A Loss
IT WAS meant to be a quiet moment, a little pep talk following a tough loss. After his Cumberland (R.I.) American team was eliminated from the Little League World Series, 8--7, by Chicago's Jackie Robinson West, Dave Belisle walked his players to rightfield in Lamade Stadium in South Williamsport, Pa. "Everybody, heads up high," said the coach, whose son, Johnny, had just played his final Little League game. "The only reason why I'll probably end up shedding a tear is because this is the last time I'm gonna end up coaching you guys." Belisle went on: "You had New England jumping.... You want to know why? They like fighters. They like sportsmen. They like guys who don't quit."
Belisle was wearing a mike for ESPN, and unbeknownst to him, his talk was aired live. Video of the speech went viral, and Belisle was invited into ESPN's broadcast booth the next day and appeared a day later on Today.
The speech was a reminder that sports can still inspire for the right reasons—and that not all youth coaches are screaming maniacs. "I'm gonna love you forever," Belisle said in his final words to his players. "You're all my boys. You're the boys of summer."
THE FIRST save was unremarkable: It came on a close-range shot, just 39 seconds into the game, that he easily deflected with his right foot. But Tim Howard was just warming up. The 35-year-old goalkeeper would spend the next 119 minutes of the U.S.'s Round of 16 World Cup match, on July 1 in sweltering Salvador, Brazil, imploring his defenders to stop Belgium's offensive onslaught. More often than not, though, the job fell to him. Each of Howard's saves seemed more acrobatic, more improbable than the last, especially in the second half, in which he faced eight shots without allowing one to rustle the net.
Howard's heroics allowed the overmatched U.S. side to take a scoreless game into extra time, when, finally, the Belgians broke through. They scored in the 93rd minute and the 105th, eventually sending the U.S. home with a 2--1 loss. Despite the defeat, Howard's performance was all anyone talked about. It was quickly immortalized on the Internet—#ThingsTimHowardCouldSave depicted him shielding the dinosaurs from an asteroid, and Taylor Swift from Kanye West—and in the record books. No other keeper in World Cup history has been credited with as many saves in one game as Howard's 16.
DEREK JETER'S seasonlong retirement tour was heavy on ceremony but generally light on drama. For the most part it featured more gifts—a bench made out of bats from the White Sox, a paddleboard from the Angels—than big hits. That all changed on Sept. 25, in the Captain's final game at Yankee Stadium.
Jeter, 40, entered the game batting a career-low .253, but in the first inning he lined an RBI double to left off the Orioles' starter, Kevin Gausman. By late in the game it appeared as if that would be Jeter's only hit of the night, but then David Robertson, New York's usually reliable closer, yielded three runs to allow Baltimore to tie the game at five going into the bottom of the ninth. "You look up there and you see who's hitting third and you're like, Really?" Yankees third baseman Chase Headley would say. "This can't happen, can it?" It could. Jeter stepped in with a man on second. As the fans chanted his name, he ripped the first pitch from reliever Evan Meek to—where else?—the opposite field for a game-winning single.
"It was above and beyond anything that I've ever dreamt of," Jeter said. He had turned the fantastical into the real, one last time.
Most Valuable Mother
KEVIN DURANT had an excellent 2013--14 season: He won his fourth NBA scoring title in five years by averaging a career-high 32.0 points a game, including an astonishing run of 41 consecutive games with at least 25 points. The Thunder forward's finest moment, though, came in May when he stepped to the podium to accept his first MVP trophy and bared his soul in a moving, refreshingly unscripted 26-minute speech that showed it's possible to be both a great basketball player and a humble guy.
Durant thanked each of his teammates and coaches individually and weaved in reminiscences of his modest beginnings in Maryland. "One of the best memories I have," he said, "is when we moved into our first apartment—no bed, no furniture—and we just all sat in the living room and just hugged each other because we thought we made it." Finally, as tears streamed down his face, he thanked his mother, Wanda Pratt. "You sacrificed for us," he said. "You're the real MVP."
GOLF HAS had more than its fair share of prodigies, and yet the sport had never seen one quite like Lucy Li, the braces-wearing, ice-cream-licking, pigtailed 11-year-old who stole the show at this year's U.S. Women's Open at Pinehurst. A sixth-grader who became the youngest Open qualifier by finishing first in a sectional qualifier in California, Lucy missed only one fairway, sank a 7-foot birdie putt on the fifth hole and shot an eight-over-par 78 in the opening round (a lower score than 33 other golfers). She ended up missing the cut after shooting another 78 in the second round, but Lucy more than made her mark, delighting the press with her confidence—she's 5'1" and weighs less than 100 pounds but said she could hit a drive 230 yards—and the personality of, well, an 11-year-old on summer vacation. "It was a lot of fun. I kind of struggled today," Lucy said during her first-round press conference, pausing to lick her ice cream, "but it was great."
Return of the King
FOR A FEW crazy days in July, as the LeBron James free-agency saga raged, every tidbit on the Internet was a clue or a sign: Rumors of Cavs owner Dan Gilbert's Gulfstream being tracked to South Florida; pictures on Twitter of a convoy of moving vans outside James's house in Miami; Instagram photos of James posing with childhood friends from Akron. He had been vilified when he made The Decision to leave Cleveland for the Heat in 2010, but this time there would be no prime-time TV special: James instead announced his return to his home state in a first-person essay for SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. "My relationship with Northeast Ohio is bigger than basketball," he said. "I didn't realize that four years ago. I do now."
By heading home (and saying he was determined to bring a championship to a downtrodden city that hasn't won a title in any major sport in 50 years) King James became more relatable, more likable—more human—than ever. It didn't take long for him to see that, at least in Cleveland, all was forgiven: Less than eight hours after his announcement, the Cavs' 2014--15 season tickets were sold-out.
All Roads Lead to Storrs
ONE TEAM was a band of players who'd stuck around through NCAA sanctions, tournament bans and conference realignment: a group of underdogs on an improbable run. The other was a juggernaut whose coronation seemed inevitable—possibly the best squad in the history of one of college sports' most storied programs.
The UConn men's and women's basketball teams took very different paths to their 2014 national championships. When the men's team, a No. 7 seed led by second-year coach Kevin Ollie and guards Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright, toppled Kentucky 60--54 in the NCAA final on April 7, it became the lowest seed since Villanova in 1985 to win a national title. One night later, in the first matchup between undefeated teams in the women's championship game, the Huskies crushed Notre Dame 79--58 to complete a perfect 40--0 season. (Moriah Jefferson, left, had seven assists.) It was the ninth title for coach Geno Auriemma and for the UConn women's program, which passed Tennessee on the alltime list, and it completed a sweet championship double. Connecticut is the only school to win both the men's and women's titles in the same year. (The Huskies also did it in '04.) It was a reminder that Storrs is the capital of the college basketball universe, in case you didn't already know.