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A Sporting Chance

Patrick Merewether

All right, then. Just how long has it been since your Denver Broncos rose from the slough of despond to win a pair of Super Bowls? A thousand days? How long since the icon John Elway hung up his cleats and Terrell Davis went into traction and Shannon Sharpe decided that the Aussies are all barbarians? A thousand years?

It only seems that way, of course. Thanks to retirements, retrenchments and a nearly biblical scourge of injuries, the Broncos' 1999 season has become the definition of "worst-case scenario." The fans can only pray that the new millenium brings better things along with Pat Bowlen's new stadium.

Sunday, January 31: Lest we forget, that was the day Elway and company took the whuppin' stick to Dan Reeves's overmatched Atlanta Falcons and won their second straight Lombardi Trophy, 34-19. In the wake of the tumultuous sports year that followed, it does seem like a very, very long time ago. In 1999, after all, Joe DiMaggio died and Michael Jordan retired with 35,000 points and six NBA titles. After four seasons of sliding downhill at the University of Colorado, Slick Rick Neuheisel slipped away from Boulder to become head football coach at the University of Washington. Imagining that the game and the public loved them, major-league umpires rose up in a revolt that failed. A 31-1 shot named Charismatic won the Kentucky Derby, Barry Sanders abruptly quit the Detroit Lions, and former CU wide receiver Rae Carruth was indicted for first-degree murder in the shooting death of his pregnant girlfriend.

Wayne Gretzky, a condition of life in the NHL for two decades, turned in his skates. U.S. Open winner Payne Stewart was killed in a bizarre airplane mishap. Peerless Chicago Bears running back Walter Payton succumbed to liver cancer at 45, the great center Wilt Chamberlain, who'd averaged fifty points per game, to a heart attack at 63. In this cruel year, we lost Jackie Robinson's teammate and friend, former Dodgers shortstop Pee Wee Reese, as well as Houston Comets point guard Kim Perrot and 24-year-old race-car driver Greg Moore. At a May 1 Indy Racing League event in North Carolina, three spectators died when crash debris careened into the grandstand, and in College Station, Texas, twelve Texas A&M students were killed when a huge structure of bonfire logs collapsed.

Denverites felt an especially keen pang the day Bob "Chopper" Travaglini, the longtime trainer of the Denver Nuggets, died in his hospital bed.

The late, great hope of the Golden Buffaloes to finally beat Nebraska again expired in the gloaming on the day after Thanksgiving, when a CU placekicker missed the winning chip shot with a few seconds remaining. After mounting a furious second-half comeback, Gary Barnett's Buffs lost the game in overtime. But then, it had already been one very bizarre season. After losing their opener 41-14, to Colorado State, Colorado players were pelted with bottles from the CSU student section. This, in turn, prompted Denver police to Mace and teargas every animal, vegetable and mineral in sight.

Even greater weirdness abounded. By year's end, bad-boy Broncos linebacker Bill Romanowski had been stung in a prescription-drug scandal and paid out more than $45,000 in league fines for various assaults on opposing players. On August 2, pro golfers Lee Janzen and Scott McCarron made back-to-back holes in one in a tournament at Barrington, Rhode Island. And by late November, two of Denver's five pro-sports franchises found themselves in corporate limbo, where they remain. After unhappy shareholders of Ascent Entertainment Group, owners of the NHL's Colorado Avalanche, the NBA's Denver Nuggets and their new joint home, the Pepsi Center, killed a deal to sell all three entities to Missouri billionaires Bill and Nancy Laurie for $400 million, Denver financier Donald Sturm stepped in with a $461 million offer. But that deal, too, fell through after Sturm and Denver mayor Wellington Webb got into a nasty beef over contract language and franchise permanence. The Avs are contenders for a second Stanley Cup, and the revamped Nuggets, with franchise player Antonio McDyess back in the fold, are having their best season in years. But they're orphans in a storm.

Some happier news: On June 29 in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, an eleven-year-old golfer named Tom Flanagan, playing his first round ever on a regulation golf course, stepped into the tee box on the first hole, took a swing with his $14 junior graphite driver and put the ball into the cup, 108 yards away, for a hole in one. "I just thought it was a really good shot and not that important," the boy said. "Now I know." The management at Belle Terre Golf Course promptly gave Flanagan a lifetime membership.

Two weeks earlier, 87-year-old Joe Dean became the oldest bowler to roll an officially sanctioned 300 game.  

The year had gotten off to a sad start on January 3, when former heavyweight Jerry Quarry, who once fought Floyd Patterson and Muhammad Ali, died at age 53. The cause? "Dementia pugilistica" -- brain damage inflicted in the ring. On January 4, the University of Tennessee football team upset Florida State 23-16 in the Fiesta Bowl to win the largely mythical "national championship." But all was not well in Knoxville, at least not at the university library: It was revealed that only 27 percent of Tennessee football players graduate, and of those, some cannot read even a children's book.

Also in January: Kansas City Chiefs coach Marty Schottenheimer was ousted after going 7-9, Georgetown hoops coach John Thompson retired after 27 years on the job, and Mike Holmgren, mastermind of the Green Bay Packers' recent Super Bowl runs, moved on to the Seattle Seahawks -- another headache for Broncos fans.

Meanwhile, none but the most fervent basketball junkies seemed to give a hoop last January when a lockout threatened the entire NBA season. As it happened, the players' union caved, the tall guys played a fifty-game slate and, without much ceremony, the San Antonio Spurs won the first championship of the post-Jordan era. Quick now: Who did the Spurs take out in the finals? If you answered "New York Knicks," you are a fan of no mean stature and win a pair of size-sixteen Nikes.

The more compelling basketball story of last winter -- at least in these parts -- was the unprecedented rise of the CSU women's team, led by a pair of brilliant seniors, Becky Hammon and Katie Cronin. By the time March Madness rolled around, the twice-beaten Rams were ranked behind only Purdue, Tennessee and Louisiana Tech, and the sharpshooting Hammon had broken Keith Van Horn's Western Athletic Conference scoring record. Alas, Tom Collen's troops fell in the NCAA Tournament to UCLA, 77-68, bringing to an end the best season ever (33-3) by a Colorado collegiate basketball team.

Less noticed: The unsung Metropolitan State Roadrunners got all the way to the NCAA Division II title game before Kentucky Wesleyan knocked them out of the hunt.

A hoopster of another sort, the cross-dressing, coiffure-obsessed defensive specialist Dennis Rodman, left the dismantled Chicago Bulls for the Los Angeles Lakers. Seven weeks later The Worm was fired, having shown up late for practices, misplaced his socks and sneakers and inflicted upon teammates the ongoing soap opera of his marriage to someone who calls herself Carmen Electra.

On March 8, the great DiMaggio died after working extra innings against cancer. Ever graceful in the outfield and beautifully tailored in the saloon, the Yankee Clipper set one record that will never be broken -- the 56-game hitting streak of 1941. But baseball aficionados love him for another set of numbers: He hit 361 home runs in his career while striking out only 369 times. Club management couldn't get Joltin' Joe's bronze plaque erected in Yankee Stadium's monument park fast enough. He joined select company: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle and Miller Huggins.

The 1999 baseball season would eventually belong to the Yankees, who won their 25th championship of the waning twentieth century. But first it would belong to Yankee ace David Cone, who pitched a no-hitter. And it would belong to the almighty Home Run. This year, the Cubs' Sammy Sosa and the Cards' Mark McGwire resumed the assault on the record book they started so memorably in 1998, and on one astounding Friday night, McGwire teammate Fernando Tatis did something no major-leaguer had ever done: He hit two grand-slam home runs (eight RBI!) in one inning, both of them off unfortunate Los Angeles pitcher Chan Ho Park. In July, the national pastime belonged to three sublime Hall of Fame inductees -- Nolan Ryan, George Brett and Robin Yount.

Here in Denver, the game fell on hard times, and those inflated Coors Field attendance claims began to look a little phony as the season and the fans slipped away. The Rockies' new skipper, World Series winner Jim Leyland, found managing (and losing, losing, losing) at altitude so unnerving that he took to sleeping on a cot in his office at the ballpark. Then he quit. The Rox's last-place season in a nutshell? On May 19, the Cincinnati Reds knocked out 28 hits at Coors Field and defeated the locals 24-12.

The 2000 edition of the club, under new manager Buddy Bell and new general manager Dealin' Dan O'Dowd, will feature at least seventeen new players, and the Blake Street Bombers are no more. Andres Galarraga sat out the season in Atlanta with cancer, left-fielder Dante Bichette is now a Red, and third-sacker Vinny Castilla has gone to Tampa. That leaves two-time league batting champ Larry Walker to carry all the water.  

On April 20 and in the weeks that followed, no mere sport was worthy of our attention. Once disaffected Columbine High School students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold opened fire on their classmates, then themselves, the life and culture of an entire city were profoundly changed. In token of the massacre, which took fifteen lives, the Rockies postponed two home games against the Expos, the Avs delayed their playoff series against San Jose, and the Nuggets canceled a home game. In the stunned aftermath, all Denver pro teams affixed commemorative patches to their 1999 uniforms.

Those looking for scant comfort in the face of tragedy at last had this: On December 4, the Columbine Rebels beat favored Cherry Creek 21-14 to win the state 5A football championship. Fittingly, the winning players gave the trophy to Adam Kechter, the thirteen-year-old brother of slain Columbine player Matt Kechter.

Still, life went on after April 20 because it had to. The feel-good stories of the summer included American Lance Armstrong's victory in the Tour de France (he'd come back from testicular cancer) and the U.S. women's soccer team's thrilling World Cup win -- via a nail-biting shootout against China before 91,000 fans at the Rose Bowl. Superstar Mia Hamm and a few other players were already major heroes to thousands of little girls who play soccer, but the World Cup win represented nothing less than a milestone in the history of women's sports. When Brandi Chastain, who scored the winning goal, tore off her jersey in ecstasy, the manufacturers of Nike sports bras were the immediate beneficiaries, but the long-term effects of the victory could be felt for years to come. First priority: an American professional league for women.

Speaking of women, tennis great Steffi Graf won the French Open again, then retired. But the world seemed more interested in her budding romance with resurgent star Andre Agassi. On the other hand, the retirement of the world's most successful female jockey, Julie Krone (3,500 winners), was completely ignored by the media because it came the same day as Gretzky's momentous announcement. At least horse racing itself got a little ink in December, when the splendid jockey Lafitt Pincay Jr., aka The Pirate, rode his 8,834th winner at Hollywood Park in Los Angeles. That broke a 29-year-old record set by his close friend and mentor, the great Willie Shoemaker. In his 35-year career, Pincay has survived scores of spills, suffered twelve broken collarbones and, like most great race riders, battled to maintain his weight. At 53, he works out relentlessly and ingests only 850 calories a day. For Pincay, a mid-afternoon snack consists of half a peanut. Upon witnessing the record, Lafitt's fellow riders carried him from the winner's circle on their shoulders.

In boxing, Denver's own world lightweight champion, Li'l Stevie Johnston, twice defended his title with honor, but he still can't get what he wants -- a bigtime fight in his hometown. Oscar De La Hoya, the Golden Boy, remained the game's most popular personality, but the pulp-fiction elements of this long-troubled sport overshadowed even him: In March, heavyweight champ Evander Holyfield was clearly beaten by British challenger Lennox Lewis in Madison Square Garden, but crooked judges (notably, one Jean Williams) called it a draw; Lewis won the rematch. Meanwhile, the ever-troubled former champ Mike Tyson -- who has had exactly eight fights in the last eight years -- hit Orlin Norris after the bell in Las Vegas in October, which resulted in a "no contest" declaration and his $9 million purse being held.

This gave rise to the undisputed sports quote of the year, courtesy of Nevada boxing commissioner Luther Mack. "We have to take a strong stand," Mack said of the Tyson incident. "We have to make sure we protect the integrity of boxing." Yes, and the Russians mean to protect the integrity of the Chechens.

In the face of a year stuffed with mendacity and misery and loss, we can look to Brandi Chastain's midsummer exultation for a lift, to Pincay's hard-won triumph, even to the imperial reign of the New York Yankees, which has lasted for an entire century. In the end, though, let us consider the feat of one Tramer Ray, an eighteen-year-old high school senior from Medicine Lodge, Kansas. On April 17, three days before the Columbine massacre, Ray played both games of a doubleheader against Chaparral-Attica. But it is the third inning of the second game that he will long remember, because in that inning alone, he hit two grand slams and a three-run homer. In doing so, Tramer tied two national high school records, and his eleven runs batted in broke a third. Said the conquering hero: "I didn't know I did all that."  

Just as well, young man. Just as well.


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