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The Jaws Of Victory

Hilarious horsehide hoot about a bottom-of-the-barrel Little League team that's raised from dead last with the arrival of a female pitcher (Tatum O'Neal) and a beer-swilling coach (Walter Matthau).

If at first you don't succeed, failure may be your style. Winning a championship is portrayed as the best feeling one can experience. It is portrayed as the ultimate measure of accomplishment to be acknowledged as the best in that sport for that year. Winning may not be everything, but it's a damned sight better than getting your ass kicked. The Catch. The Shot Heard Round the World. The Miracle on Ice. The greatest moments in the history of sport. You can almost see the players leaping, hugging, screaming with joy as everyone is showered with champagne and announces his imminent departure for Disney World.

But something’s missing: It’s the pitcher who gave up the game- winning homer, hanging his head as he walks off the field to destroy a water cooler. It’s the injured veteran struggling through his last game only to come up a yard short. It’s the dejected goalie slumped in his crease after giving up an overtime goal in the Stanley Cup. It’s the loser. While the winners are showered with praise for their athletic prowess, no one properly humiliates the losers for their boneheaded screwups.

Some losers aren’t born…they’re made by officials. The U.S. has never lost in Olympic basketball, no matter what the scoreboard said in 1972. The U.S. led 50–49 when time ran out. Somehow, officials awarded the Soviets a do-over. The commies blew it, but a non-Olympic official demanded that the pinkos get another chance, and the U.S.S.R. scored for a 51–50 red victory. To this day, the U.S. refuses to claim their tarnished silvers. Adding insult to injury, U.S. coach Hank Iba was mugged that night, losing $370.

Near the end of a snowy game in 1982, the Dolphins and Patriots were scoreless with Patriots kicker John Smith about to try a 33-yarder. Patriot coach Ron Meyer told stadium worker Mark Henderson (a convicted felon) to drive a snow sweeper out to clear a spot for the kick. While the Dolphins watched in disbelief, Smith’s boot was good, and the Pats robbed Miami 3–0. Ironically, the crime Henderson had been convicted of was…burglary.

England beat West Germany in 1966 for its only World Cup title thanks to an overtime “goal” that hit the crossbar, bounced straight down, and straight into infamy. Despite protests, Soviet referee Tofik Bakhramov allowed the goal. Old World War II wounds may have been a factor—when asked to explain his call, Bakhramov said: “Stalingrad.”

You can go down swinging, or just beg for mercy. It’s hard to tell when this 1916 college football blowout got out of hand, considering the John Heisman-coached Jackets led 63–0 after the first quarter. Quote of the day: One Cumberland player told a teammate who had just fumbled, “You dropped it. You pick it up.” The final score was Georgia Tech 222, Cumberland 0.

At the 1999 Winter Asian Games, Kuwait was first drubbed by China 35–0, before facing hockey powerhouse Japan. The lone bright spot: #99 Al-Ajmi Salem—the ‘Gretzky of Kuwait’—scoring the country’s first-ever goal. “It was a great moment for Kuwait hockey on an otherwise dark day,” said coach Bruce Smith, whose team was outshot 136–3. Saddam must’ve smiled. The final score was Japan 44, Kuwait 1.

The Skins had beaten the Bears 7–3 two weeks earlier, but Chicago’s Bill Osmanski took off on a 68-yard touchdown run on the second play of this 1940 NFL championship. Nine other Bears scored, and the refs eventually asked them to stop kicking extra points because they were running out of footballs. The final score was Bears 73, Redskins 0.

Lisa Leslie was already a phenom in 1990 when her high school took on South Torrance, who started the game with six players—and two fouled out. With her team using a full-court press and letting her take all the shots, Leslie had 101 points in the first half. Protesting “our girls have feelings too,” the South Torrance coach yanked his team at halftime and went home. The score was Morningside H.S. 102, South Torrance H.S. 24.

Sometimes you just have to snatch a defeat from the jaws of victory. The 37–0 Tyson, overweight, overconfident, and undertrained, stepped into the ring against 43 to 1 underdog Buster Douglas. By the 10th round Mike was lying flat on the canvas, and a once-and-future fatso was the heavyweight champion of the world. Tidbit you didn’t know: Midway through the pummeling, Tyson’s face started to swell—but Tyson’s cocky corner men hadn’t bothered to bring ice. They filled a condom with bucket water and applied it to Mike’s face, but the damage was done.

In Philadelphia, they call it The Miracle in the Meadowlands. On November 19, 1978, the Giants led Philly 17–12 with 1:23 left. On first down, QB Joe Pisarcik fell on the ball. Second down: Offensive coordinator Bob Gibson called a hand-off (huh?) to Larry Csonka. Then, unbelievably, Gibson called another run. Pisarcik screwed up the hand-off, and Philly picked up the fumble and ran for a touchdown. Gibson was fired the next day, but he’s lucky—nobody remembers his name.

Everybody in New England knows Bucky Dent and his homer that sent the sad-sack Sox packing for yet another winter. What people don’t remember is the choke Boston pulled to get there. The All-Star break found the Sox up by 111/2 games. Eventually, New York tied the division with a four-game sweep that Sox fans called The Boston Massacre. Still, it all came down to Bucky Bleeping Dent and the Mike Torrez gopher ball he knocked over the Green Monster. Torrez later said, “Somebody has to be the hero, and somebody had to be the goat.” Hey, Mike—nice horns.

Jean Van de Velde was an unheralded nobody until the 1999 British Open. At the 18th tee on the final day, he held an apparently foolproof three-stroke lead. But then, as one commentator said, “His golfing brain deserted him.” A few minutes later, after taking seven shots that visited grandstands, water, and almost everything else in his path to the cup, he lost to Paul Lawrie in a playoff. Afterward, Van de Velde protested, “Who’ll remember in 100 years?” Jean, that’s why we’re here.

Nobody has tortured the Knicks as much as Reggie Miller. In a 1994 playoff game, he torched New York for 25 fourth-quarter points, giving Spike Lee the famous choke sign. But the big choke came one year later, when the Knicks gagged up eight points (and one steal) to Miller in the final 16.4 seconds, giving Indy a 107–105 win. “They happen to luck up and win one and you should be humble,” groused Knick John Starks.

No matter how good the players are, no matter how strong the will to win, sometimes God just hates you. Imagine the worst team ever. Then imagine them beating the Spiders 19–3. Owner Frank Robison, who also owned the St. Louis Browns, shipped all his talent—including Cy Young—to St. Louis. Shafted Spiders fans stayed away in droves (total season attendance: 6,088). During the year, Cleveland lost 24 games in a row and dropped 40 of their last 41. They finished the year 20–134, only 35 games out…of 11th place. (84 out of first.) The league was so disgusted that at the end of the season, they voted the Spiders out of existence.

The king of gridiron futility, Prairie View lost 80 consecutive games. What made the Panthers’ streak even more pathetic is that they ended it in 1998 against lowly NAIA school Langston University. (They’d begun it by losing to Langston in 1989.) After the glorious 14–12 squeaker that ended the streak, safety Quincy Fuller got emotional: “Now we will live forever.” Yeah, in infamy, you schmuck.

Thanks to the Clippers, the NBA draft has become a premiere tragedy. Each year GM Elgin Baylor takes his seat among the NBA losers and prays for another top pick to take the Clippers nowhere. During their 16 years in L.A., the Clips have lost more than twice as many games as they’ve won (410–870), including a memorable ’86–’87 campaign when they went 12–70, and the lockout-shortened ’98–’99 season, which the Clips ended at a miserable 9–41.

Not everyone gets their own curse, but the Andretti family is deserving: Between patriarch Mario, sons Michael and Jeff, and nephew John, they’ve enjoyed 31 years of Indy futility since Mario’s lone winner’s circle back in ’69. Typical race: In 1992, when Michael was 10 laps from a win, with both his dad and brother in the hospital after crashes, an engine belt broke.

Red Sox fans have it easy. Try living in a town with two teams that can’t win. They may have been decent this year, but the White Sox last won the World Series in 1917. The Cubs are truly lame, making their last appearance in the series in 1945, where they lost to the lowly St. Louis Browns. To find a Cubs championship, you’ve got to go back to 1908. That’s a combined 175 years of futility. “How do the owners of the Chicago Cubs get through it?” Donald Sterling, owner of the L.A. Clippers. once asked. Hey, Cubs! The Clippers feel sorry for you.

Athletes may have been the stuff of legend, but they definitely went out with a whimper. Sure, he’s one of the best quarterbacks in NFL history, but Marino finished with the worst performance of his life, a 62–7 shellacking by Jacksonville in last year’s playoffs. The Jags were leading 38–0 before Marino even completed a pass. He fumbled once, threw two interceptions, and ended up passing for just 95 yards. He had to beg Jimmy Johnson to let him back on the field for the second half. Next stop, Canton—but that was one hell of a speed bump.

One of baseball’s greatest careers came to an ugly end as The Babe, offered one measly dollar to play for the Yankees, signed on for his last season with the lowly Boston Braves. The Sultan of Swat, as one teammate put it, could “hardly run, and couldn’t even bend down to pick up the ball.” By the end of June 1935, batting .181 with six home runs, Ruth was released. The saddest part? Babe had signed with the Braves at least partly because they’d promised him the manager’s job. He never got it.

Ali’s final fight, a 1981 shoving match with Trevor Berbick, could not have been more pathetic. Ali was a month shy of 40, overweight, and already suffering from neurological problems. His physician, Ferdie Pacheco, called it “nothing short of criminal.” In the seventh round, an embarrassed Berbick told the referee “He’s hurt!” and stopped punching. Ali lost by decision, and later admitted that his last fight should have been the Rumble in the Jungle—seven years earlier. “I didn’t do that bad,” The Greatest decided after the fight. That pretty much says it all.

Still admired and feared by opponents, Howe played in all 80 games and the All-Star game during his final season, at the amazing age of 52. No doubt about it, Howe is one of the two or three greatest players in NHL history. Unfortunately, he chose to leave the game as one of the silliest. Determined to become the only hockey player to play in six decades, the 69-year-old Howe suited up with the minor-league Detroit Vipers in 1997 and “skated” one 47-second shift, never even touching the puck. The worst part? Tough call, but probably Gordie Howe emerging with the rest of the Vipers from an inflatable green snake head onto the ice.

The AFL got its kicks back in Super Bowl III with Joe Namath’s Jets victory, and the AFC followed with great Miami and Pittsburgh teams in the 1970s. After that, things got ugly. From 1982 and 1997, the NFC won 15 of 16 Super Bowls: Bears 46, Patriots 10; 49ers 55, Broncos 10; Cowboys 52, Bills 17. John Elway’s Broncos ended the streak with wins in ’98 and ’99, but Kurt Warner’s Rams could have the NFC on another run.

We’ll give Wilt his props: If he was half the man he claimed, he’s got Bill Russell (and the rest of us mortals) trumped in the babe category. And Wilt crushed Bill in individual stats, averaging 28.7 points and 28.7 boards in head-to-head meetings to Russell’s 14.5 and 23.7. But Russell made a career out of letting Wilt rack up the points while the Celtics kept raising banners in Boston Garden. Russell’s Celts went 87–55 against Chamberlain’s Warriors, 76ers, and Lakers, and 7-1 in the playoffs. It’s enough to drive a guy to Viagra.

Not since JFK has anyone had more reason to hate grass than Lendl. Despite being ranked No. 1 in the world for 270 weeks, Lendl never got his hands on the silver plate, despite seven trips to the semifinals. Eventually he just skipped Wimbledon, telling reporters that he was “allergic to grass.” Then he showed up on a golf course two days later.

We may have invented the game of baseball, but in Little League, our tykes always get crushed by tiny Asian thugs. Since 1967, we’re a sad 3–22 against the Far East in the Little League World Series. Sure, Japanese kids may only be able to look forward to a career with the Yakult Swallows, but it still sucks.

With four seconds left in Super Bowl XXV and the Bills down 20–19, Scott Norwood tried a 47-yard field goal that a sports announcer described best: “It’s high enough…It’s deep enough…No good! It’s wide right!” At the parade in Buffalo, Norwood gave a weepy speech as fans screamed “We forgive you!” The next season, after shanking three field goals and an extra point in one game, he got the boot. While the Bills lost three more Super Bowls, Norwood went home to Virginia—to sell insurance.

To be fair, reliever Calvin Schiraldi blew a Game Six Red Sox lead so solid that the scoreboard at one point mistakenly flashed CONGRATULATIONS RED SOX. But in the 10th inning, tied 5–5, Mookie Wilson dribbled an easy grounder that mystified Bill Buckner, scooting through his legs. Game: Mets. With death threats and daily abuse from pissed-off Sox fans, Buckner was eventually forced into exile in Idaho.

Playing for Colombia in the 1994 World Cup, Andres Escobar inadvertently scored a goal into his own net in a 2–1 loss to the U.S. Ridiculed endlessly across his homeland, one night Escobar confronted a group of his deriders. As he got into his car to drive away, one of them pulled out a gun and emptied six shots into him, reportedly punctuating each shot by shouting “Goal!” Now you know why nobody screws with the drug cartels.

Besides Lorena Bobbitt, nobody’s damaged the male gender more than Bobby Riggs. When he faced Billie Jean King in 1973, 40 million people watched the 55-year-old get crushed by the 29-year-old King, 6–4, 6–3, 6–3. Afterward, Riggs—who said “I love women. I think every man should have two of them”—hopped over the net to congratulate her. Nice try, Bobby, but you committed the ultimate sin: You got your ass kicked by a girl. Sort of.

The Agony of Defeat / Crappiest Champions Ever. Maxim [Print + Kindle] . November 2000 / May 2007.


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