This year in sports may not rival the sheer, dizzying intensity of 2016, but it still gave us plenty to think about. The Ringer is looking back at all the best moments on the court, field, and gridiron to pick out our favorites. Here are the highlights that stood out from the first half of the year:
January 2: USC Beats Penn State in the Rose Bowl
Paolo Uggetti: They say the grass is greener at the Rose Bowl than at any other football stadium. As I stood on it just a few minutes before the 2017 game ended, the matchup in front of me was more visually appealing than the Pasadena pageantry surrounding the stadium. What started as a back-and-forth shootout between USC and Penn State with the Nittany Lions in control and 1:50 to go. But in those last two minutes USC — which was down 14 at one point in the fourth quarter — scored 10 points to win the game thanks to a defensive stop, an interception, and this ridiculous throw from Sam Darnold:
The game-winning field goal sent half the place into pandemonium.
Just minutes before, the trophy had already been taken to the Nittany Lions sideline. Some USC fans had already left the building. But in a hot flash, USC went from a tough loss to a thrilling victory in one of the most exciting Rose Bowls in recent years. This time, the beautiful scenery and manicured grass was only a backdrop to the on-the-field entertainment.
January 9: Deshaun Watson Beats Alabama
Zach Kram: To appreciate Watson’s feat, it’s first worth remembering just how dominant the Alabama team he beat was. The Crimson Tide stormed through their first 14 opponents in the 2016 season by an average of 27.9 points; dating back to the previous season, Nick Saban hadn’t lost in 26 games, and his team rated by advanced metrics as the strongest in the sport’s history (or at least since World War II).
That pattern appeared no different in the championship rematch against Watson and Clemson, as Alabama rolled to a 14–0 start and held a 10-point lead entering the fourth quarter — an advantage that Saban’s Alabama teams had never previously squandered. But Saban’s Alabama teams had never previously allowed a quarterback to play quite like Watson, either: The Heisman Trophy runner-up threw for 420 yards and accounted for four touchdowns and no turnovers, and he picked apart Bama’s talented but tiring defense in the fourth, when Clemson scored 21 points.
The surge culminated with the Tigers’ 99th play of the night — a number no other Alabama opponent has reached this century — when Watson took a snap from the 2-yard line, rolled to his right, and targeted walk-on receiver Hunter Renfrow for a literal last-second, championship-winning touchdown. It may have represented a mere blip in Alabama’s dynastic run, but for a night, a college football hero toppled the king.
January 11: Joel Embiid Choke-Celebrates T.J. McConnell
Justin Verrier: The Year of Embiid began with him nearly choking out a teammate.
After young T.J. McConnell, the most Ecksteinian of NBA players, hit a 360 turnaround jumper at the buzzer to beat the Knicks, Embiid, as he so often does now, elevated the moment with social-media-friendly showmanship. Not only did Embiid immediately chase after McConnell as soon as the shot went in, but at some point amid the ensuing fracas, the 7-foot leviathan spotted his teammate mean-mugging and decided that the only way to express his delight was to grasp the spritely point guard by the neck and scream into his face.
The moment not only led to one of the most enduring photos from the past year in sports, but the Instagram post Embiid made in the aftermath set the template for his many, many high-level trolls to come: There’s a shot at an opponent (“#KnicksTape”), a shout-out to the Process, a (softer-than-usual) dig at a teammate (“My mf point GOD!!!!”), and the trademark geotag (“Shirley Temple”). Embiid has sharpened the schtick since, most recently at the expense of Karl-Anthony Towns, but I’ll always remember this photo as the moment when the NBA’s biggest cult hero went mainstream.
January 15: Aaron Rodgers Tosses a Clutch Pass to Jared Cook
Justin Sayles: It’s easy to forget because of the Super Bowl, but last season’s playoffs were dreadful. For evidence, just look at the quarterbacks some teams trotted out: The Dolphins started Matt Moore. The Raiders were forced to play Connor Cook. The Texans likely would’ve beaten the Patriots if not for Brock Osweiler’s turnovers (and general Brock Osweiler–ness). Even some of the league’s best — Tom Brady, Russell Wilson, and Ben Roethlisberger — turned in largely ho-hum January performances.
But there was one bright spot in that wasteland: Aaron Rodgers, already in the midst of one of his best stretches after fulfilling his “run the table” guarantee, went into full human-cheat-code mode when the calendar flipped to 2017. And that run included the best throw in a career littered with how-did-he-do-that highlights.
There’s a moment in the play above — which came on third-and-20 with 12 seconds left and set up Mason Crosby’s game-winning field goal — when Rodgers perks up as he rolls out, knowing he can hit tight end Jared Cook. But watching the replay, it’s hard to imagine anyone besides Rodgers being confident about that throw. Praise due to Cook, whose sideline footwork should be mentioned in the same breath as Mario Manningham’s, but that play is all Rodgers’s wizardry: a blend of expert precision, schoolyard athleticism, and a drive to will his team to victory no matter the down, distance, or circumstance.
As this season’s playoff picture solidifies, it’s hard not to get wistful while rewatching this play. Two years ago, we had Rodgers’s Hail Mary. Last year, we had this miracle. This postseason, we’ll be looking for a different playoff savior.
January 26: Dillon Brooks Egregiously Flops Against Utah
Matt James: Some of the most memorable moments in sports are the culmination of an entire season or career, but the moment that sticks with me most from 2017 occurred in a Thursday-night Pac-12 college basketball game in January. It was not the conclusion of a riveting story line. It wasn’t even a moment that was particularly consequential to the outcome of the game. Oregon’s Dillon Brooks flopped on a foul call and his entire body betrayed him. If it wasn’t the most egregious flop in basketball history, it was at least the most physically baffling.
I’ve watched this clip as many times as a conspiracy theorist has watched the Zapruder film and, similarly, I still can’t figure out exactly what happened. Brooks’s actual momentum sends him back four quick steps. Once he regains his balance, he decides he’s going to lie to us all. He instinctively heaves his body backward but forgets that the second half of any flop is the part where you’re supposed to end up on the ground. Instead, our drama gets an unwarranted fourth act — an improvisation that makes no sense. Inexplicably, he’s airborne once more. This beautiful lie culminates with an homage to a Fred Astaire heel-click.
Being witness to a truly unique moment in sports is rare. This moment was not lost on the Utah crowd. They booed Brooks mercilessly.
January 28: Serena Williams Wins the Australian Open While Pregnant
Jordan Coley: In January, Serena Williams won her seventh Australian Open, at the age of 35 while eight weeks pregnant. I stayed home from work the week after Thanksgiving because my little cousin gave me a cold. There are impressive athletic feats, and then there are exploits so fitting, so cinematic, so iconic that we find ourselves talking about them many years after they’ve occurred. Willie Mays’s over-the-shoulder catch in Game 1 of the 1954 World Series, 37-year-old John Elway’s head-first dive in Super Bowl XXXII, Michael Jordan’s “Flu Game” — all moments that have etched themselves onto our eternal conscious. 2017 gave us Serena Williams not dropping a single set en route to her 23rd Grand Slam — while with child! I can’t wait for her to tell her kid about it.
January 29: Roger Federer Wins the Australian Open
Chris Almeida: A lot of things about the men’s singles final of the Australian Open didn’t look quite right. The quality of the television feed was too high. The shorts were too tight. The competitors’ seeds, 9 and 17, looked like misprints. After slowing for years, 2016 was the season when Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal finally ran out of gas. The golden age of their rivalry was long passed, their meetings in major finals resigned to daytime reruns on the Tennis Channel. But somehow, after months away from the tour, the two materialized in Melbourne to beat back the field.
What followed was, if not the best tennis match of the year, certainly the most compelling. It went the full five sets, because of course it was going to go the distance. The first four went back and forth, and the fifth began with Nadal lurching forward, crushing Federer’s spirit and breaking his serve as he had so many times before. Then, a twist: There was a 26-shot rally, a flash of the new, flattened Federer backhand, a challenge, a ball mark cleanly on top of the right sideline. It was a storybook ending: At 35, Roger Federer was on top of the world again. Then, of course, the rest of the year happened.
February 5: The First Three Quarters of the Super Bowl Almost End a Dynasty
Danny Heifetz: Yes, the Falcons blew a 28–3 lead, but watching them build it was the best sports moment of the year. Before the improbable comeback, before Tom Brady’s jersey was stolen, before New England achieved Force powers, the Patriots’ mythology cracked before our eyes. For those who live in New England’s shadow, Tom Brady’s tears are nectar, as are the tears of his worshipers. While the Patriots have lost Super Bowls before (I know, I’m a Giants fan), the Falcons battering Brady and pouring on points was something new. The Patriots weren’t just losing; they were getting embarrassed. It was delicious.
My hubris would come back to haunt me, but for three quarters I watched the Patriots dynasty die. I’ve never felt so alive.
February 5: Julian Edelman Snags a Ridiculous Catch in the Super Bowl
Jack McCluskey: Patriots fans know absurd Super Bowl catches all too well, because those catches have always seemed to go against New England. David Tyree made the Helmet Catch, then never pocketed another ball. Mario Manningham laid out, pulled it in, and tapped his toes, all in double coverage. Jermaine Kearse helped put the Seahawks ahead late with a ludicrous juggling, tumbling act.
This year, it was the Pats’ turn to produce an unbelievable, made-for-DVR — pause-rewind-play, pause-rewind-play — catch. That’s just what Julian Edelman did in Super Bowl LI, at once: (a) preventing a potentially game-sealing Atlanta interception, (b) adding to the building momentum as New England tried to cap its comeback from 28–3 down, and (c) picking up a chunk of yardage to keep the chains moving and further deflate the Falcons defense. Watching it again (and again, and again) in super-slow motion, I’m still not sure how he was able to adjust to the deflection, subtly body the defensive back away from the tumbling ball, pick the ball off a flailing Falcon’s ankle, juggle it momentarily, and keep his hand underneath it as he settled to the turf in a pile of defenders. It was truly a worthy addition to the annals of absurd Super Bowl catches, and finally one that won’t cause spoiled Pats fans (myself included) to cringe when the highlight rolls.
February 5: The Fourth Quarter of the Super Bowl Gets Wild
Robert Mays: When Dont’a Hightower tore his way into the Falcons backfield and jarred the ball from Matt Ryan, I’m still not sure anyone believed. There was 8:24 remaining in Super Bowl LI when the Patriots linebacker forced a fumble that his team then recovered at the Falcons 25-yard line, but New England still trailed by 16. From the press box, the reaction was more of a collective chuckle. Ah, well, that’s cute.
When Julio Jones bent the universe to his will a few minutes later, somehow snagging a ball that was sailing out of bounds near New England’s 20 while also tapping both toes on the turf, any hope for the Pats seemed lost. All day, the Falcons had been the better team, and the just outcome felt all but assured. A chip-shot field goal would put the game out of reach, Atlanta would have its first Super Bowl, and that catch — which I’ve watched three times from three angles and still don’t understand — would be the game’s defining moment.
When Trey Flowers sacked Ryan two plays later, a sliver of light reemerged. But it wasn’t until Julian Edelman’s telekinetic catch that it all started to feel possible. The play took me out of my seat, and when we realized the ball never hit the ground, I stayed there, shaking my head. Maybe 10 minutes of real time had passed since Jones made one of the most important catches in football history, and already it had become a footnote. But that’s how the final eight and a half minutes of Super Bowl LI went. Every impossible moment was followed by another, and watching from a few hundred feet away in Houston, it barely seemed real. The greatest comeback ever was almost too great to comprehend.
March 1: Northwestern Basketball Utilizes a Full-Court Pass Against Michigan to Go Dancing
Julie Kliegman: You’d be forgiven for thinking that the most important Northwestern men’s basketball player is Julia Louis-Dreyfus. But you’d be wrong: The most important Northwestern men’s basketball player is Nathan Taphorn, who helped the Wildcats secure their first-ever NCAA tournament berth with a ridiculous, full-court, buzzer-beating inbound pass against Michigan in March.
After that play, my alma mater proceeded to win its first-ever tournament game and then managed to hang tight against Gonzaga. The ’Cats are known for producing a sex-toy scandal, acclaimed NFL quarterback Trevor Siemian, and the best rapper of our time. They’re also known for hosting the first NCAA tournament final in 1939. A mere 78 years later, they went dancing themselves, thanks to one surreal pass.
March 8: Barcelona Erases a 4–0 Deficit Against PSG
Ryan O’Hanlon: The wildest thing about this game is not that Barcelona came back from a 4–0 deficit with a 6–1 win to advance past PSG in the Champions League’s Round of 16; not that they also came back from a three-goal deficit after Edinson Cavani scored a should’ve-been-killer away goal in the 62nd minute; not that Barcelona then scored all three of those goals in the final seven minutes of the game; not that Neymar played, in the words of The Guardian’s Sid Lowe, “among the best [seven minutes] anyone has ever played”; not that Neymar is now playing for the club he razed with his right and left feet; and not that the guy who scored the game-winner was described by Barcelona’s then-manager, Luis Enrique, as someone who “couldn’t score even if the net were as wide as a rainbow.” No, the wildest thing about this game is that, other than converting a penalty in the 50th minute, Lionel Messi barely had anything to do with it.
March 24: Chris Chiozza’s Buzzer-Beater Sends Florida to the Elite Eight
Shaker Samman: Here is a take: Besides the World Cup, there is no event in sports that lends itself to drama as well as the NCAA tournament. Thanks to the one-strike-and-you’re-out model of March Madness, it doesn’t matter which teams play, or what’s expected of them. The potential for excitement is everpresent. Florida’s Sweet 16 matchup against Wisconsin was no different.
The Gators led by eight with two minutes left in regulation before a rabid Badgers comeback, finished by a running Zak Showalter 3 that sent the game into overtime. Down 81–79, Florida’s Chris Chiozza sank a layup to even the score. When the Gators got the ball once more, down 83–81, it only seemed right that he get the ball again. He caught the inbound at a full sprint and darted up the court, evading Wisconsin’s press. With under a second left, he released — falling upward more than jumping. Swish. 84–83, Florida.
March 31: Mississippi State Ends UConn’s 111-Game Winning Streak in the Final Four
Ben Glicksman: Watch Morgan William’s reaction after sending a 15-foot floater to the basket in the clip below. The pause, the sharp turn, and then the deliberate steps back toward the other end of the court. This is what it looks like to not only derail one of the great dynasties in sports history, but also to detach oneself from the moment instantly, as if delivering one of the most improbable upsets of all time carried the emotional weight of winning $5 on a scratch-off lottery ticket.
UConn entered the 2017 Final Four on a 111-game winning streak, dating back to November 17, 2014. It had obliterated Mississippi State in the prior season’s Sweet 16, rolling 98–38 in a contest in which William went 1-of-8 shooting for two points. Head coach Geno Auriemma’s squad was the closest thing sports at any level had to an invincible entity. It was felled by a point guard nicknamed “Itty Bitty,” who’s listed at 5-foot-5 but is really closer to 5-foot-2.
Legend has it that after David toppled Goliath, he removed the giant’s head to show what he had done. William was cooler than that. The smallest person on the court made history and then simply walked away, content to let the significance of Mississippi State 66, UConn 64 stand on its own.
April 7: The U.S. Women Win the International Ice Hockey Federation Championship After a Boycott
Kjerstin Johnson: By overtime, it was still anyone’s game. In a fierce three periods, America and Canada had matched each other’s goals, 2–2, in what had become an annual IIHF showdown between the world’s best two hockey teams. With just under 10 minutes left in OT, forward Hilary Knight of the NWHL’s Boston Pride knocked in a goal. It was the seventh American victory in a decade, the fourth overtime in as many years, and it might never have happened at all.
On March 15, one week before IIHF training camp began, the U.S. Women’s Hockey Team issued a statement saying that it would not attend the competition unless its demands for better pay, programming, and marketing from USA Hockey were met — negotiations now a year in the making.
The team received an outpouring of support from around the sports world, including Alex Morgan, Mike Eruzione, the Big Four leagues, and eventually, 16 U.S. senators. But the real show of solidarity came from the recruits whom USA Hockey failed to drum up (including U16 and high school players) and who joined the women’s team in forfeiting the chance to play in one of hockey’s biggest international arenas.
Less than 70 hours before the championship began, the women walked away from negotiations with more equitable and fair compensation. Their four-year deal included the creation of an advisory group to develop and fund youth hockey teams for girls. Their win over Canada was another notch in their sterling track record. Their win off the ice established another kind of legacy altogether.
April 29: Anthony Joshua Beats Wladimir Klitschko
Zach Schwartz: Two of the most sought-after heavyweight boxers on earth squared off in an open soccer stadium holding 90,000 people. Wladimir Klitschko’s reign at the top was in its twilight, while Anthony Joshua’s boxing career was rocketing toward its peak. It was magnificent.
The first four rounds passed without either fighter getting themselves into any danger. Then all hell broke loose. Joshua began Round 5 with the speed and fury you usually see from an NFL edge rusher. He battered Klitschko, landing blow after blow. Joshua appeared to empty the tank trying to finish Klitschko, but Klitschko parried the punches and began to land his own shots. Suddenly it was Joshua who looked stunned and exhausted. The Englishman was now just trying to make it to the end of the round. Joshua looked fatigued as Klitschko built a large lead on the judges’ scorecards, but then Joshua began to recover around the 10th and started taunting Klitschko.
Round 11 should live forever in English folklore. Joshua clipped Klitschko early and brought Wembley Stadium back to life. A minute later he hit Klitschko with a vicious uppercut and followed it with a barrage of punches that planted Klitschko firmly on the canvas. As the ref checked Klitschko, Joshua stood, waiting, trying his hardest to hide his smile. When the fight resumed, Joshua knocked Klitschko down again. Klitschko valiantly climbed back to his feet, but it was over. Joshua calmly commenced with cutting off the ring and landing a final flurry of punches, which forced the referee to step in and save Klitschko. The camera shook. All 90,000 in Wembley celebrated the 27-year-old former brick layer, who became the IBO and IBF champion of the world.
May 29: A Predators Fan Throws a Catfish Onto the Ice During Game 1 in Pittsburgh
Megan Schuster: This year’s best sports moment involved interstate travel, “possession of an instrument of crime,” and a dead catfish being shoved down some dude’s pants. That’s right: 2017’s best sports moment was Nashville Predators fan Jake Waddell smuggling a dead fish into PPG Paints Arena and throwing it onto the ice during Game 1 of the Stanley Cup final.
This may seem like an odd choice — the actual gameplay during the final generated many excellent on-ice moments, as did the playoffs leading up to the Cup matchup. And catfish-tossing happened much more frequently during games in Nashville last year. But the commitment of this one man to throw that fish — buying it in Tennessee and driving it to Pittsburgh because the markets there wouldn’t sell to Preds fans, running it over with his truck to flatten it, vacuum-sealing it, stuffing it in his pants, sneaking it past heightened anti-fish security, and throwing it onto the ice — is the greatest, most ridiculous feat I’ve seen this year.