There are few things in sports that truly shock me anymore.
When you’re a kid, it’s easy to be amazed. The first time you see a buzzer beater, the ball swishing through the net in the glow of the neon red zeroes, it seems — in the literal sense of the word — unbelievable.
The tiniest competitions can take on monumental importance. I remember playing Madden 03’ with my friend Adam back when we were maybe 10. We were playing on the same team — the Eagles, obviously, so we could scramble with Donovan McNabb. We were down a few points — it might have been against the Patriots — with about five seconds left deep in our own territory. So we ran the play where you chuck it to the wide receiver running straight down the left side of the sideline. Half of the time that play ends in an interception. Every once in a while the guy gets his hands on it. This time he caught it, and then, somehow, broke the tackle. That never happens. As he sprinted down the field with nobody else in sight, we were floored. This quickly turned into delirium, jumping and down, rejoicing in the miracle that had just occurred on my PS2.
I remember going to one of those Wizards-Cavs playoff battles with Adam in 2006. Being inside that arena, waving those little white playoff towels with the Wizards logo they handed out to all of the fans, the moment couldn’t have felt any larger. At the end of regulation, with the Wizards down three, Gilbert Arenas pulled up 45 feet from the basket and drilled the shot to send the game into overtime. OK, maybe it wasn’t 45 feet, but that’s how I remember it. I can still picture the chaos in the seconds after. There was another kid a few rows back who practically lost his mind. His mom was trying to go to the bathroom quickly during the intermission, and he was screaming something like “Forget the bathroom!” while jumping up and down and furiously waving his little white playoff towel.
These types of moments always retain some of that awesome quality. But the more times you see something impossible happen, the less impossible it seems. The things that used to leave you with your mouth wide open now just make you shake your head in surprise.
That’s true of everything, not just sports. How much bigger was that waterslide when you were eight? How much scarier was that movie?
It’s not a one-way street of course. There are plenty of things that you can only appreciate when you get a little older. That’s what makes growing up exciting. Still, there’s a sense of loss at the wonder you’re no longer able to grasp so easily.
Every once in a while though, you witness something so improbable, so insane, that you feel like you just witnessed that Hail Mary in Madden ’03 or that buzzer beater from an absurd distance. When it happens, you know right away. Think the Tyree Catch Game, or Heat-Spurs Game 6. And add last night to the list.
I wasn’t looking at the TV when Jermaine Kearse hauled in that 33-yard pass. When the ball bounced off of his fingertips and he fell to the ground, I turned away. The play was over. Except, all of the sudden, it wasn’t over. And then the referee was blowing his whistle and waving his arms and placing the ball at the 5-yard line.
What the hell is going on? Cut to the replay, and my jaw drops. As Kearse lays flat on his back, like a turtle that’s been flipped over onto its shell, the ball bounces, off his legs, then off his hands, and then into his arms. My mind flashes to the Tyree Catch. It’s happening all over again. And then they’re showing the Tyree Catch on the broadcast. Pandemonium. How could this happen twice? How could the two most logic defying catches sink the same team in the Super Bowl? Cut to the faces of the players, coaches, and owners. Mouths hanging open.
But there’s no time to process any of it, because the Seahawks have a first down on the five-yard line down four points with a minute left in the biggest game in sports. They hand it to Marshawn Lynch, and he plows to the one-yard line. The game’s over. It really is happening all over again. The clock’s running down to 30 seconds now and the Patriots aren’t freaking calling timeout! What the hell is Belichick thinking! At least give yourself a chance! And then the Seahawks throw it quickly over the middle, and somebody on the Patriots collides with the Seattle receiver and comes away holding the football. I’m watching with a big group of people, a lot of them Patriots fans, and the room erupts. There’s involuntary jumping, sure. But there’s also diving over couches and tackling and probably a concussion or two.
It’s too much to handle. Brady’s jumping up and down like a child. Sherman looks like he just saw a horrific car accident. Malcolm Butler, the 24-year-old undrafted rookie out of West Alabama who turns out to be the guy that snagged the football, is holding back tears. The Patriots draw an offsides penalty and are no longer snapping the ball in their own end zone. Now it’s really over. A fight breaks out. Then the clock ticks to zero, and it all starts to sink in.
Forget implications. Forget legacy. Forget the big picture for a second. That might have been the greatest Super Bowl of all time. In terms of pure drama, pure disbelief, pure insanity, I mean, what can you even say? The catch — which will certainly earn a catchy moniker in the coming days — and then the interception. All in the span of a few seconds.
Start to place it in context. If Butler doesn’t grab that ball, Brady loses his third straight Super Bowl and hasn’t won one in a decade. Seattle wins back-to-back titles in an era in which that is impossible.
Instead, Brady notches his fourth Super Bowl victory, 13 years after the first. The Patriots enter the pantheon of sports dynasties. Not flash in the pan “dynasties” that rip off a few finals appearances in a short period of time. Dynasties.
All of these things shot through my mind Sunday night. And I thought back to that little white playoff towel, still sitting on the back of my chair in my bedroom back home.