It’s been said that every human story is played out on the field. It’s unsurprising then, that through sports, we’ve received some of the most important moments in history. During his 1993 ESPY speech, college basketball legend Jim Valvano said of sports, “you should have your emotions moved to tears, could be happiness or joy… If you laugh, you think, and you cry… that’s a heck of a day.” In the spirit of this, we’ve rounded up the 15 greatest moments in sports history.
These moments have done it all, from turning men and women into legends, to unifying entire nations. Big stuff aside, each one of these instances was just unforgettably fun to watch.
The Miracle on Ice, 1980 Olympics
You know it’s a great moment when Disney decides it’s movie-worthy. During the medal round of the 1980 Olympics men’s hockey tournament, the US went full-on David to the USSR’s Goliath. Keep in mind that the USSR won the gold in 1964, 1968, 1972, and 1976. On top of that, the American team lost to the heavily-favored powerhouse just months prior, with a staggering 10–3 result.
Put this drama in the context of the Cold War and a time when American morale was generally low, and you’ve got one of the most inspiring sports upsets in US history. America beat the USSR, a nail-biting 4–3, moving on to win the gold and restoring some much-needed patriotism to the country.
Babe Ruth calls his shot, 1932 World Series
Long before NFL touchdown dances sparked debate on what the appropriate level of cockiness is on the field, Babe Ruth gave us one of the most memorable flexes in sports history, in baseball. It was Game 3 of the 1932 World Series. Ruth pointed to the stands across center field. On the next pitch, the Great Bambino swung for the fences, bulls-eyeing his target, completing the flex with a home run. Someone needs to name a candy bar after this man.
Brandi Chastain’s penalty kick, 1999 Women’s World Cup
Nineties kids and early aughts tweens will never forget Brandi Chastain on the July 19, 1999 cover of Sports Illustrated. On an excruciatingly hot summer day, after 120 minutes of game play, the US and China came to a scoreless draw in the last game of the Women’s World Cup. During a penalty shoot-out, Chastain came through, left-foot kicking that ball into the top right corner of the goal, giving them the 5–4 result they needed to win. As her team ran onto the field, Chastain deservedly threw her jersey off, whipped it in the air, and fell to her knees, giving us the most memorable image in women’s sports.
Rumble in the Jungle, Ali vs Foreman 1974
Boxing doesn’t get enough credit for how Shakespearian and beautiful the sport is. At least it didn’t, until Norman Mailer pointed it out to us through his excellent commentary on the Rumble in the Jungle. When Muhammad Ali got into the ring with George Foreman in Zaire on that fateful October day, Ali was a dethroned former king. Foreman was the undefeated heavyweight champion. After eight rounds of dancing, Ali knocked Foreman out, taking back his crown.
Norman Mailer’s commentary on this fight has been referred to as of equal genius to Ali’s approach on the ring. Of course today, we all know how the boxing legend floated like a butterfly. As writer Allen Bara put it though, Mailer was the first person to “perceive the method in Ali’s apparent madness in the ring.”
South Africa beats New Zealand, 1995 Rugby World Cup
A year into Nelson Mandela’s presidency, South Africa defeated New Zealand in the 1995 World Cup. The whole story sounds like a cheesy over-the-top tall tale. Against all odds, a team of underdogs wins a politically important game, uniting a deeply divided country in the process? It happened. Mandela then presented South Africa’s team captain, François Pienaar, with the Webb Ellis Cup, a famous image of unity and triumph over adversity.
Jackie Robinson’s first game
On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson played his first game with the Brooklyn Dodgers. This electrifying player was the first African-American to play in the majors. A mint condition 1952 Robinson Topps card, #312, can easily set you back a cool $100k. This, of course, is a small fraction of what Robinson’s contribution to the game is actually worth.
Patriots go overtime, Super Bowl LI 2017
Possibly the biggest comeback in Super Bowl history, the New England Patriots overcame a 28-3 deficit over the Atlanta Falcons at the eleventh hour. This game had everything. At one point, a pass by goldenboy Brady even got picked off by the Falcons’ Robert Alford who returned it 82 yards for a touchdown. It was the first Super Bowl to be won during overtime, via James White’s score, and made Tom Brady the first five-ring quarterback in the NFL.If we were rounding up the greatest seasons in NFL history, we must never forget that the Miami Dolphins were undefeated in 1972. It wasn’t one specific game or moment, but the NFL Gods wouldn’t be pleased if this didn’t at least get a mention.
Battle of the Sexes, King vs Riggs 1973
When then 55 year-old Bobby Riggs claimed he could beat any young top-of-her-game female player, a wild and wacky journey started. Everyone remembers that then 29 year-old Billie Jean King made easy work of Riggs, and that she continued to dominate Wimbledon into 1975. Everyone also agrees that The Battle of the Sexes is an important milestone for women’s tennis.
What people often forget is what a nutty spectacle it all was. When the game was televised, the commercial break bumpers even included comedic music and caricatures of the players. Sports is foremost a form of entertainment though, and I’m sure the 50 million who tuned in from the US, plus the 90 million worldwide, enjoyed every moment. Besides, if King hadn’t helped legitimize ladies’ tennis, who knows if Serena’s inner GOAT would have come out.
Tiger Woods wins his first green jacket, 1997 Masters Tournament
Tiger Woods’ win at the 1997 Masters Tournament checked off several achievement boxes. Newly 21, he was the youngest golfer to ever win a Masters. Three months prior to the tournament, Tiger literally couldn’t legally buy liquor or hit the casino. Second, he won with a whopping 12 strokes ahead of runner-up, Tom Kite, which is still the biggest margin of victory in Masters history. And third, those watching the 1997 tournament live got to witness the origin story of a living legend in real time.
Maradona’s two memorable goals, 1986 World Cup
In just one game during the World Cup semi-finals, Diego Maradona scored two of the most memorable goals ever in soccer, one famous and the other infamous. The first goal, now dubbed the “Hand of God,” would absolutely never happen today due to sophisticated replay technology. Maradona scored the goal with his hand, when he meant to do so with his head. The second goal saw the Argentinian soccer star barrel down the field past England defenders before fooling the goalkeeper into leaving his post, so he could cinch his hero status.
Jesse Owens wins four gold medals, 1936 Olympics
During his lifetime, Jesse Owens was the greatest and most famous athlete in track and field. The 1936 Olympics were held in Germany in the midst of Nazi power. An African-American, Owens won four gold medals in Berlin that year: The 4x100m relay, the long jump, the 100m, and the 200m. Suffice to say, Hitler wasn’t happy about this, and that’s a good thing.
Chicago Cubs break the curse, World Series 2016
In 1945, William Sianis, owner of the Billy Goat Tavern, and Murphy, his goat, were asked to leave Wrigley Field during the World Series. Apparently, Murphy was a bit of a distraction. On Sianis’s way out, the Curse of the Billy Goat was placed, supposedly preventing the North Chicago team from ever winning a World Series. Seventy-one years later, the Cubs were in the World Series, game 7, bottom of the tenth. Zero-1 pitch count and 8-7 score. As an infield grounder was scooped up and thrown to the first, the Cubs triumphantly lifted the curse.
Sure, Boston lifted their Curse of the Bambino some years prior, as did the White Sox with their Shoeless Joe Curse. Still, the Cubs’ win was their first in 108 years.
Federer vs Nadal, 2008 Wimbledon Men’s Singles
Often considered the best match ever played, likely because it involved what is often considered one the greatest-ever tennis rivalries, Rafael Nadal beat Roger Federer after almost five hours of play. It’s hard to pick an actual underdog when the two athletes are as talented as these gents are. Since Federer was the “King of Grass” and Nadal, the “King of Clay”, people assumed Federer had the advantage. Even a slight upset is thrilling.
Michael Jordan’s final shot, 1998 NBA Finals
The GOAT’s legendary shot during Game 6 of the NBA Finals is one of several iconic moments in Michael Jordan’s career. This clutch stands out, not only because it was his last shot as a Chicago Bull, but because it earned him his sixth championship. With 10 seconds remaining, Jordan stole the ball from Karl Malone, pulled a crossover on defender Bryon Russell, then gave the Bulls the 87–86 lead they needed to win their third straight title.
Game 3 opening pitch, World Series 2001
After the September 11 attacks, a fatigued New York City postponed that year’s World Series. It returned on October 7, 2001, otherwise known as the latest World Series start date ever. Clad in an NYC Fire Department jacket, President 43, George W. Bush, threw the opening pitch of Game 3 at Yankee Stadium. After seven weeks of devastatingly low morale, sports was back and bringing people together again.
The Arizona Diamondbacks would then win their first ever World Series, ending the Yankees’ three-year streak.