Iconic Moments That Changed Teams’ Fortunes Forever
Every moment of every day a single action by an athlete, a conversation with an agent or decision within a front office can change the fortune — good and bad — of a franchise.
While even the most seemingly insignificant occurrences outside of actual games can be the catalyst for a butterfly effect that completely alters a team’s outlook in the short-term or long-term, it is the in-game incidents that strike a visceral cord in players and fans alike.
In honor of the passing of former San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Dwight Clark, the catalyst for one such iconic moment, let’s look back on some of the most iconic games and moments that propelled a team in an entirely new direction.
San Francisco 49ers (1982) – The Catch
No doubt, the most pivotal moment in the history of the San Francisco 49ers’ franchise came during the 1981 season late in the NFC Championship game.
Today, the iconic play – known simply as “The Catch” – has transformed into a thing of legend and is still widely regarded as one of the greatest moments in NFL history.
The 1981 season was already considered to be a success, as San Francisco’s 13-3 regular-season record was the best in franchise history. It was also the first time the team had reached the playoffs since 1972, getting to the NFC Championship Game at Candlestick Park against the Dallas Cowboys on Jan, 10, 1982.
Successful as the season was, it appeared that the good times would come to an end one game shy of the Super Bowl, as the Cowboys held a 27-21 lead with the Niners backed up all the way on their own 11-yard-line and 4:54 left in game.
But young 49ers quarterback Joe Montana led the team on a march down the field, eventually setting them up with a 3rd-and-3 from the Cowboys’ 6-yard line and :59 seconds left.
The 49ers called for a “Sprint Right Option” with Montana rolling out far to his right. But with nowhere to go, and his primary option covered, the Cowboys defense was quickly closing the gap for a sack. Off his back foot, Montana let a high, arcing throw fly toward Clark in the back of the end zone, a throw so high that many still believe it was meant to be a throwaway. But Clark rose high and somehow pulled it in while staying inbounds.
The stunning catch gave San Francisco a 28-27 lead and a Dallas fumble moments later clinched the game, putting San Francisco in its first Super Bowl, which it would go on to win, 26-21, over Cincinnati.
Clark’s miraculous catch would be the catalyst for what would become a 49ers dynasty, winning another four Super Bowls through the 1994 season. Clark passed away after a long battle with ALS in June, 2018.
San Antonio Spurs (1996) – The Admiral’s “Lucky” Break
David “The Admiral” Robinson was truly an enigma of the professional sports world.
The 7-foot-1 center out of Navy served for two years after graduation before entering the NBA Draft, where the 24-year-old was still drafted No. 1 overall in 1989 by the San Antonio Spurs.
Robinson was a beast in the paint – an unstoppable scoring and rebounding machine. His Herculean efforts still weren’t enough to push the Spurs past the Western Conference Finals.
Things only got worse when got worse when entering the 1996-97 season, when a bad back kept Robinson out of the first 18 games.
He returned in December, playing all of six games before breaking his left foot in a home game against the Miami Heat.
Robinson’s injury, coupled with two-time All-Star Sean Elliott missing a majority of the season with a slew of injuries himself, left San Antonio with an abysmal 20-62 record, the third worst in the NBA that season.
The third-worst record turned into the steal of the century at 1997 NBA draft, as the Spurs beat the odds to land the No. 1 pick, which they used to pick up future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan.
The rest is history.
Duncan proved to be the perfect successor to The Admiral and then some. Duncan, aka The Big Fundamental, played and acted like The Admiral’s younger brother with his eerily respectful demeanor (only Timmy Dunks can pull off such a level of politeness that it’s borderline offensive), as he led the Spurs to the playoffs in each of his 19 seasons.
In those 19 seasons, the worst fate Duncan’s team suffered was a first-round exit, which happened all of three times.
Duncan also led the Spurs to six NBA Finals, winning five of them. As for Robinson, his serendipitous break got him two championships.
New England Patriots (2001) – Drew Bledsoe’s Bad Break
Philadelphia’s axiom “Hinkie died for our sins” is not just accepted amongst 76ers fans, it’s expected to be agreed upon by all.
New England Patriots fans are no different in acknowledging that former quarterback Drew Bledsoe was the sacrificial lamb for the team’s almost unimaginable wealth of success the past two decades.
Drafted No. 1 overall in the 1993 NFL Draft, Bledsoe lived up to the hype, leading the Patriots to Super Bowl XXXI in the 1996 season, their first appearance in over a decade.
Bledsoe had one Super Bowl appearance and three Pro Bowl seasons to his name, which made him plenty deserving of the then-record 10-year deal worth $103 million he signed prior to the 2001 season.
Then, in the second game of the season, Bledsoe took a crushing hit to the chest by Jets linebacker Mo Lewis. The blow resulted in a freak accident – a sheared blood vessel – that doctors said could have killed him.
This horrible moment for New England’s franchise quarterback resulted in the first appearance of the relatively unknown young quarterback named Tom Brady.
Fast forward to the end of the 2001 season and that unknown quarterback was hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy as the Super Bowl MVP.
Fast forward nearly two decades later and what seemed absolutely certain to be the worst thing that could happen to Pats ended up unleashing the most dominant leader of a dynasty in all of sports.
It began as a bizarre, freak injury to New England’s beloved franchise quarterback that essentially ended his playing days in Foxboro and turned into an unproven backup’s rise through the years to become one of the most famous, accomplished athletes of all time.
Pittsburgh Pirates (1992) – Putting a Finger On The Problem
Before the name “Barry Bonds” was inextricably linked to performance enhancing drugs, it was considered one of the greatest (and unquestioned) in all of sports.
His Hall-Of-Fame-worthy* career began in Pittsburgh, where a much less muscle-bound Bonds crushed it for the Pirates for the first seven years of his career.
As positive of an impact as Bonds had on the Pirates in his time there, it was one teeny-tiny move – or lack thereof – that very likely altered the course of Pittsburgh’s MLB franchise forever.
The worst part of all is that this single moment came on the very last play of Bonds’ career with the Pirates. For our Pittsburgh people, it may be best to just save yourself the heartache and skip on down to the next item (we promise you’ll like that one more).
It all went down in 1992, the third straight year Bonds and the Pirates clawed their way through the playoffs to reach the National League Championship Series. It was also the second straight year they were pitted against the Atlanta Braves to fight for a spot in the World Series.
A thrilling series deadlocked at 3-3 set the stage for an unforgettable Game 7 in Atlanta that made for one of the craziest playoff moments in professional sports.
It was a defensive war that left Atlanta scoreless and Pittsburgh leading 2-0 heading into the bottom of the ninth.
Righty Doug Drabek had only allowed five hits in his first eight innings, so manager Jim Leyland sent him out to finish the job. A leadoff double followed by an error and walk quickly loaded the bases.. A series of unfortunate events resulted in a pitching change and the bases again loaded with two outs and a 2-1 score.
When unknown Atlanta pinch-hitter Francisco Cabrera came up to bat, Pirates center fielder Andy Van Slyke told Bonds, who was in left, to move in a few steps, anticipating where Cabrera might hit the ball. Bonds not just ignored the suggestion, he offered Van Slyke a one-finger signal, and not to indicate that he was calling for the fastball.
Sure enough, Cabrera ripped a shallow single to left field, precisely where Van Slyke had suggested it would go, giving the Braves’ Sid Bream on second base just enough time to beat Bonds’s slightly off-line throw home — after Bonds had to run to where the ball was hit.
The Pirates lost 3-2 in devastating fashion and Bonds ditched Pittsburgh, leaving the team even more devastated… and we mean DEVASTATED. The next two decades consisted of a bleak 20-year streak that left Pittsburgh thirsting for another taste of the postseason that remained unfulfilled until 2013!
Golden State Warriors/Oklahoma City Thunder (2016) – Feat Of Klay
There were a few things that set the Golden State Warriors on the track they took to become one of the most unstoppable dynasties in NBA history.
One of those defining moments was the decision to keep point guard Steph Curry and let go of Monta Ellis which, two MVP awards later, has proven to obviously have been the right decision.
Pivotal to the Warriors’ continued success turned out to be one game played by the other half of the Splash Brothers, Klay Thompson, who set the tone in 2016 that the Warriors weren’t a one-hit wonder, while completely changing another team’s direction.
The Bay Area had just celebrated its first NBA championship in 2015, and was looking to claim another after an unprecedented 73-9 record for the 2015-16 regular season.
Golden State made quick work of their first two playoff matchups, tossing the Houston Rockets and Portland Trail Blazers aside in five games each. Then they had to face a hungry Oklahoma City Thunder team – led by the Kevin Durant/Russell Westbrook two-headed monster – starved for another shot at the finals.
Trailing the Thunder 3-1, the Warriors took Game 5. In Game 6 it was up to Klay Thompson to carry the workload, and he’d have to do it on the road again. Thompson turned on another gear, shooting lights out with one stunning shot after another to the tune of a playoff career high 41 points.
Thompson’s record-setting 11 threes in a playoff game evened the series at 3 and took the wind out of Oklahoma City’s sails. The Warriors claimed Game 7 to make their second straight Finals appearance and, although they would end up infamously blowing a 3-1 lead of their own to the Cavaliers, there was a “personal” victory that was far more consequential.
Having only reached the NBA Finals once in the stacked Western Conference, league MVP Kevin Durant made the shocking decision to not only leave the Thunder but join the team that ensured he would reach that final stage.
It was the best of all possible worlds for the Bay Area and a nightmare’s nightmare for the 405, who lost their franchise superstar to the team that crushed him.
All it took was one season for the Warriors and Durant to win their first championship together, and as their already stacked team rose to even more godlike heights, OKC had to pick up the pieces and figure out how to remain relevant for a real shot at a championship run as a small-market team.
If you can’t beat them, join them. It may not be the popular move, but it’s hard to argue its effectiveness.
Pittsburgh Steelers (1972) – The Immaculate Reception
The Pittsburgh Steelers’ Immaculate Reception was as bizarre, thrilling and heartbreaking as it gets in football.
It was the AFC divisional playoff game between the Steelers and Oakland Raiders that lifted Pittsburgh out of complete irrelevance and thrust them into the team into the NFL spotlight.
The 1972 NFL season was far more than just a “good season” for Steeler Nation. Hall of Fame quarterback Terry Bradshaw was entering his third season and the whole team played to a level they never had before, finishing with an 11-3 record, their first season with 10-plus wins in franchise history.
Having not reached the playoffs since 1947 – that’s a quarter century, folks – simply reaching the postseason was an overwhelming success.
Great as the regular season was, it looked like the Steelers were going to be one and done in the postseason, as a defensive war at Three Rivers Stadium favored the Raiders late in the game. After a scoreless first half, only Pittsburgh had managed to scrape together two field goals.
Then, with 1:17 left in the game, Raiders quarterback Ken Stabler ripped a 30-yard touchdown run that appeared to seal a 7-6 Oakland victory. But with 22 seconds still on the clock, a miracle happened.
Bradshaw was given a play to pass to a rookie receiver playing in his first NFL game (surely a recipe for success). Oakland’s defense broke through Pittsburgh’s offensive line and rushed Bradshaw, forcing him to scramble and heave a prayer in the direction of halfback John Fuqua, who collided with Raiders defensive back Jack Tatum.
The ball went flying backwards (and offscreen on TV), where fullback Franco Harris was perfectly positioned to take the ball in stride and torpedo his way from the 45-yard line past an off-kilter defense into the end zone.
The controversial play, which very well may have been illegal according to the rules of the time depending on who the ball actually hit first, is still questioned today, but that won’t change the fact that the Steelers walked away with a 13-7 win and into the AFC Championship.
It also sparked the first playoff moment of eight straight appearances, and they didn’t all end in just “appearances.” The end of the 1979 NFL season marked the Steelers FOURTH Super Bowl championship in eight years.
Once could say that the Immaculate Reception was the conception of a holy dynasty of black and gold.
Sacramento Kings (2002) – Rigged
For all of the NBA haters out there, the bizarre horror show that was Game 6 of the 2002 Western Conference Finals between the Sacramento Kings and Los Angeles Lakers is the crown jewel.
“The refs are terrible! They ruin the game!”
True, the concept of what constitutes a foul or travel seems to be murkier by the year, but not even the worst refs in today’s game deserve the type of backlash like the convicts who ran the sham of aught two.
When it comes to conspiracy theories, the mountain of evidence to support disgraced NBA referee Tim Donaghy’s claims that the refs fixed Game 6 is glaringly obvious.
What is so terrible about the highly suspect officiating of this series was that even if it was just a bad day on the refs’ part, the lump sum of bad and missed calls was so overwhelming and egregious that none of them would have ever reached the NBA in the first place had a game like this been on their officiating resume.
The fateful game, conveniently located in Los Angeles’ Staples Center, pushed the series to a Game 7 and eventually landed the Lakers in the Finals. It hit its tipping point when the teams entered the fourth quarter knotted at 75.
Time for the zebras to takeover. And come up in the clutch they did (for the home team, at least).
Through the first three quarters of play, the Kings put the Lakers on the line for 13 free throws. When the final buzzer sounded, the Lakers had put up 40 total free throws!
It would be one thing if Sacramento earned it, but the disparity in calls was stunning. Along with those 27 trips to the charity stripe, Sacramento bigs Vlade Divac and Scot Pollard both fouled out (for those less familiar with basketball, even one player fouling out in the NBA is an extremely rare occurrence).
On the other end were the no-calls on Los Angeles, highlighted by one of the most baffling whistles in history when Kobe Bryant elbowed Mike Bibby in the face, resulting a trip to the free throw line… for Kobe.
The greatest season in Kings history (save for the 1950-51 Rochester Royals championship) tragically ended in heartbreak and the team never recovered, while the Lakers solidified their dynasty. What could have been the beginning of Sacramento’s time in the limelight instead pushed them into their never-ending downward spiral.
New Orleans Saints (2006) – Steve Gleason’s Shining Moment
The New Orleans Saints experienced a franchise-defining moment in 2006 that was unlike any other. Hopefully, it will be a moment that, despite the emotional high experienced at the time, no other franchise ever will have to endure.
Before the moment that made Saints special teamer Steve Gleason a cult hero in Nola, there was the devastation brought on by Hurricane Katrina, which struck New Orleans in August 2005.
The Category 5 hurricane remains the deadliest and costliest hurricane in United States history. Along with the rest of Nola, the Saints were displaced from their city, leaving them to split their home games between the Alamodome (San Antonio, TX) and Tiger Stadium (Baton Rouge, LA).
It was an ugly season with the team’s 3-13 record enough to make some major changes, including the hiring of head coach Sean Payton and signing quarterback Drew Brees.
After an impressive start to the season, winning the first two games on the road, Nola’s Superdome, which had been used as a “shelter of last resort” for those unable to evacuate the city one year prior, was finally ready to host the Saints again.
Week 3 may as well have been the Super Bowl with the amount of hype surrounding the game. At last Nola had something to root for, a slice of normalcy had returned. Better yet, they were playing their bitter rival, the Atlanta Falcons.
The crowd was roaring for their team, as the Falcons started the game, especially as the team’s revamped defense forced a quick three and out.
Backed up in his own red zone, Falcons punter Michael Koenen prepared to clear the ball when Steve Gleason dove out, blocking the punt for his teammate Curtis Deloatch to scoop up and carry into the end zone.
The Superdome erupted with a raw emotion that has not left the stadium since. The block sent the team and fans into a frenzy that didn’t stop until they walked away with a 23-3 win.
New Orleans would finish with a 10-6 record, but the passion was back in the city. Since that moment, the Saints’ rise to prominence has been undeniable behind.
With Brees at the helm, the Saints won the Super Bowl three years later and their home games at the Superdome have come to be considered one of the toughest road games in the NFL for visiting teams.
To show just how important that exact moment truly was, in 2012, the Saints unveiled Rebirth, a statue depicting Gleason’s iconic block. It’s all the proof needed to show how man can change an entire community.
Connecticut Huskies (1990) – The Shot
When basketball programs rise to a prominent status in the NCAA, there seems to be a particular threshold that, when passed, cements the team as a real “basketball school” in the nation’s eyes.
It’s hard to imagine that, at one point, the Connecticut Huskies were not even close to being a household name. That was exactly the case when legendary head coach Jim Calhoun was still new to UConn and relatively unknown in his own right.
The Huskies had made just a few NCAA Tournament appearances in the 30 years before 1990, but that all changed in Calhoun’s fourth season at UConn.
After leading the Huskies to two winning seasons and the NIT title in 1988, Calhoun showed he was truly turning the program around, as UConn managed an incredible 31-6 season, winning the first Big East regular season and tournament titles in school history, but the new Beast of the East, a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, wanted more.
Making the tournament alone was huge for the Huskies. Then they won the first round, then the Round of 32, then they reached the Sweet Sixteen. That’s when senior guard Tate George got his moment to be a hero.
Having blown a 19-point lead and trailing 70-69 to the Clemson Tigers with exactly one second left on the clock, the Huskies needed a full court heave and a prayer to even get off a shot, but it wasn’t “a shot” that UConn got, it was “The Shot.”
Scott Burrell threw a Hail Mary that somehow reached an outstretched George with three defenders nearby. Still, George caught the ball facing his team’s bench on the wing.
With a defender tightly guarding him, George pulled down the full-court pass while landing on one foot and, in one fluid motion, jumped back up for a tightly-contested turnaround jumper released a fraction of a second before the horn sounded.
It was a prayer that George literally released from his fingertips as the clock expired. He nailed the bucket, sending the Huskies to their first Elite Eight since 1964.
This moment was the beginning of a meteoric rise that made UConn a near-constant presence in the NCAA Tournament. The Huskies have since built on that success to boast a pedigree that includes five Final Four appearances and four national championships among a slew of top tier NBA talent.
If not for this shot on a national stage of such high caliber, UConn’s rise to the top would almost certainly have been far more grueling and uncertain if it even happened at all. Considering Connecticut lost their Hartford Whalers relatively soon after, Tate George’s impact on UConn Huskies basketball has made him an unrivaled hero in the state’s sports lore.
Boston Red Sox (2004) – Stealing a Series
There may be no greater, more improbable comeback in baseball or sports history than what the Boston Red Sox managed to pull off against the New York Yankees in 2004, putting the keystone into the most historic rivalry in all of sports.
It looked like New York, nearing the end of their core’s indestructible dynasty, were on their way to making their seventh World Series appearance in nine years (just the thought of that is nails on a chalkboard to baseball fans not rooting for the pinstripes) after going up 3-0 against the Sox in the ALCS, winning Game 3 19-8.
By the bottom of the ninth inning of Game 4, it looked like the Yanks were going to make a clean sweep of their rivals, leading 4-3. New York had the game’s most dangerous closer in Mariano Rivera at the mound. Three more outs and it’s over. The Red Sox’s 1918 “Curse” would continue into its 87th year.
Leading off the ninth was first baseman Kevin Millar, who got on base with a walk. Boston decided to get some legs in place of Millar and put in speedster Dave Roberts to pinch-run.
For a bit of insight on Roberts, he had begun the season with the Los Angeles Dodgers before being traded to Boston for a minor league player at the July 31 trade deadline. Having only played 45 games with his new team, it’d be a disservice to not note the added pressure of the already nerve-racking scenario.
Rivera had Roberts’ number, checking him at first three times and almost picking him off the third time. Roberts was undeterred and took off for second base on Rivera’s first pitch to Bill Mueller. Yankees catcher Jorge Posada fired a throw to Derek Jeter, whose tag was just a heartbeat late to nail a fired-up Roberts.
That stolen base set Roberts up for the tying run when Mueller knocked a line drive single up the middle. Nothing was going to stop Roberts, who was already sliding into home by the time the ball made in back to the infield, tying the score at 4-4 before a frenzied Fenway Faithful.
The momentum carried the Red Sox to an improbable comeback in 12 innings on a David Ortiz walk-off homer, then three more improbable wins to become the first team in MLB history and third in North American sports history to win a series after being down 3-0 (the other two being NHL teams).
The Red Sox would end up winning eight straight games, sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals to win the World Series for the first time since 1918. Not only did Boston finally get the monkey of its back and end an 86-year World Series drought, it catapulted them back into the forefront of the league and set the franchise up for another pair of World Series titles over the next 10 years.
After a historic Yankees run, the Red Sox have returned as strong as ever, renewing the rivalry and cementing Fenway Park as a place players want to go to win pennants.