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COLUMN: October 15, 2022: The greatest day in sports history

Confronting long-lasting nightmares created a perfect storm of sports euphoria that we will never forget

NCAA Football: Alabama at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

I woke up on Saturday, fully knowing the potential of what the day held. There were six top-25 matchups on the slate for college football, and MLB boasted an incredible slate of its own with four Division Series games, three of which that had the potential to end their respective series.

It wasn’t just a day of top flight matchups and postseason games, though. It was a day where multiple underdogs had the chance grab their piece of history; where teams that were doubted had their chance to not just silence the doubters but take down the giants.

The wild card Phillies had a chance to close out a division rival and reigning World Series champion Atlanta Braves at home. TCU, a team that sat at +1000 odds to win the Big 12 in the preseason, had a chance to take sole ownership of first place while Utah sought to beat a top 10 USC team for the first time ever. The Cleveland Guardians were told by virtually every expert that they would finish last in the AL Central, yet here they are, two games away from taking down literal giant Aaron Judge and metaphoric giant he plays for in the New York Yankees. Lastly, the Tennessee Volunteers were looking to get off to their first 6-0 start since 1998, but standing in their way was the Alabama Crimson Tide dynasty led by Nick Saban, a man who has never lost to the Vols at Alabama.

What if I told you everything you just read all happened on the exact same day?

What makes a memorable sports day? There’s a handful of factors at play that can create an unforgettable day within the wide world of sports.

The first is circumstance. From a rivalry game to a showdown between the two best teams in the league, and especially a David versus Goliath matchup, the circumstances and context largely drive the level of importance of the matchup.

The second is the stakes. The stakes often coincide with circumstance. It could be a rivalry game as bragging rights, especially in the world of college football, rules almost above all. It could be also be a playoff game or a game with postseason implications.

The third, and possibly most important, is great games. A great slate of games with all of the aforementioned factors is nothing without the drama and entertainment of multiple back and forth contests that have the viewer on the edge of their seats.

One day in 2011, all of these factors came together.

The 2011 MLB season came down to Game 162, a day now regarded as one of the most memorable in the league’s history. September 28, 2011. The circumstances of how we got there set the stakes for that day. The Atlanta Braves led the NL Wild Card race by 8 12 games at the start of September while the Boston Red Sox led the AL Wild Card race by nine. A colossal collapse by both storied franchises coincided with terrific runs down the stretch by the St. Louis Cardinals and Tampa Bay Rays, setting up four crucial games on the final day of the regular season.

All Boston and Atlanta had to do was win to get in, but we wouldn’t be talking about this day had that happened.

Things looked grim for Tampa Bay early. A Mark Teixeira grand slam opened up a 5-0 lead for the Yankees at Tropicana Field, sending a hush over the packed crowd. Around that same time, Dustin Pedroia hit a solo home run to give the Red Sox the lead over Baltimore. All things were pointing against Tampa in a major way.

Then the fourth thing happened that’s necessary for an all-time great sports day. Unusual performances above—or below—and beyond what’s expected from the norm, both good or bad. Feats so memorable within the context of the situation that nobody will ever forget them.

For the Braves, it was all bad. Jack Wilson, well-known as one of the surest handed shortstops in the history of baseball, boots a ball that allows the Phillies to cut the lead to 3-2 in the seventh. The game would remain the same score until the bottom of the ninth when Braves closer Craig Kimbrel, the man who would win NL Rookie of the Year in 2011 and rocking a 2.00 ERA coming into the game, promptly blows the game, allowing the Phillies to tie it and force extras.

Now for the heroes of this memorable day instead of the goats. First up, Evan Longoria. Longoria was the superstar of the budding Rays franchise, and with the game seemingly out of reach and Tampa down to their final four outs of their season, Longo rips a Luis Ayala fastball deep into the seats in right, cutting the lead to one. We aren’t done with him yet.

About an hour prior to that home run, the Red Sox-Orioles game entered a lengthy rain delay bestowed upon us from the baseball gods, syncing the two AL East games almost perfectly.

The Cardinals would win 8-0 as starting pitcher Chris Carpenter twirled a complete game shutout against the Astros, so now all St. Louis needed was a Phillies win to get in.

Bottom of the ninth, two outs in the Trop, Rays down to their last hope. Enter Dan Johnson. Johnson had appeared in 30 games for the Rays in 2011, and he hit a lowly .108 with just one home run, but skipper Joe Maddon was calling upon him to save the season. He did just that, positing Cory Wade’s pitch just inside the foul pole in right to tie the game. Heroes can emerge from anywhere, but you never forget them when they do.

In the top of the thirteenth, a Hunter Pence flair between second and first allowed the Phillies to come all the way back and take a 4-3 lead. They would close out the Braves in the bottom half of the inning, sending St. Louis to the Wild Card game.

Around, this time, things resumed in Baltimore. Fast forward to the bottom of the ninth, and the O’s are threatening against Jonathan Papelbon. Chris Davis doubled, and a ground rule double from Nolan Reimold tied the game in the bottom of the ninth with two out. As that is happening, Evan Longoria makes a terrific play to tag out Curtis Granderson at third base, keeping the game tied in the twelfth in Tampa. Robert Andino was the next batter for the Orioles, and he lined a single into left field that scored Reimold, winning the game for Baltimore and squarely putting all the pressure on the Rays.

The final score of the Orioles game pops up around Tropicana Field to resounding cheers from Rays fans. Three minutes later, Evan Longoria returns to the plate.

Longoria lines a heater down the line that maybe got 12 feet off the ground over the short wall in left field, sending the Rays to the Wild Card game and the crowd into pandemonium, capping off the greatest day of baseball ever played.

Now take every factor mentioned, crank it up to eleven, and that was this Saturday, October 15, 2022, with a few new wrinkles of its own.

The day began harmlessly. I sat down with my morning coffee, ready to watch Penn State take on Michigan. I am from Ohio. My blood runs scarlet. There’s always a great deal of schadenfreude at play when I watch Michigan, so yes, this result wasn’t what I had hoped for. I turn over to the Braves-Phillies game just in time to catch Brandon Marsh, the unlikeliest hero, put a Charlie Morton pitch deep into the seats in right, giving the Phils a 3-0 lead in a potential series ending game.

MLB: Atlanta Braves at Philadelphia Phillies Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Similar to Penn State, things unraveled in a hurry for Atlanta. The ball of momentum cascaded into a landslide when JT Realmuto lined a ball off the centerfield wall that Michael Harris couldn’t make a play on, and as Realmuto rounded third for an inside-the-park home run, you could sense the hope being gained from the fans at Citizen’s Bank Park and being drained from the Braves dugout.

A three-spot from Philly all but cemented this game, but Bryce Harper’s eighth inning home run off Kenley Jansen swung down the blade of the guillotine emphatically, and off rolled the Braves’ hopes of repeating.

Right around the time that game ended, a certain football game had just gotten underway in Knoxville, Tennessee. Tennessee versus Alabama, a game that, depending on who you ask, means everything or means very little. To an older generation, this game was *the* game in the deep South. Iron Bowl? World’s Largest Cocktail Party? Egg Bowl? None held a candle to The Third Saturday in October, and that’s largely due to Bear Bryant and Robert Neyland.

October 20, 1928, landmarked the first time the game was played on the third Saturday of the month, and so began the storied rivalry’s moniker, and in 1939, it was officially coined. Neyland’s first stint with the Vols saw him go 8-6-1 against the Tide from 1928 to 1940 until Neyland was called to military action in World War II. Upon his return to Tennessee in 1946, Tennessee had failed to beat the Tide in his absence. With Neyland back at the helm, Tennessee regained its control in the rivalry.

Though the namesake of Tennessee’s home stadium was only back for seven years, the Vols had a stranglehold on Alabama from 1946 to 1960, going 10-2-3 in the fifteen year stretch. From 1955 to 1957, Tennessee blanked the Tide, outscoring them 58 to zero. Those were three of the darkest years in Alabama’s near immaculate history, and it forced them to make major changes to the program. That major change was going out and hiring a former Crimson Tide player and then head coach of Texas A&M, Paul “Bear” Bryant.

Bryant inherited a terrible A&M program in 1954, and by the time he was done there, they were a premier program in the state of Texas...that immediately fell back on hard times upon his departure. While that certainly was tough for A&M, it’s like Bryant said when he got hired, “Mama called, and when Mama calls, you just have to come running.”

Bryant was on Alabama’s 1934 National Championship team, and he never lost to Tennessee. In fact, he famously played with a broken leg in their 1935 matchup. Bryant brought grit to Alabama and a hatred back to the rivalry that had slipped away from Tuscaloosa in the years prior. For the first 13 years of Bryant’s time at Alabama, the rivalry regained a heat that was unparalleled anywhere else in the country. Tennessee held a slight advantage over those 13 years, 6-5-1, but, come 1970, that was the last fun for the Vols for quite a while. From 1970 all the way until 1981, Bear Bryant beat Tennessee on every single third Saturday of October. 12-0.

Bryant’s stranglehold over Tennessee ended in his final year in 1982, but his dominance marked the beginning of many streaks in this rivalry, all the way up until now.

It’s safe to say this rivalry lost some importance shortly after Bryant left, and that was largely due to the SEC’s expansion in 1990. It split the two teams apart, and though they still played every year, it lost luster. For Alabama, the Iron Bowl and LSU became more important while for Tennessee, it became Florida and Georgia. The games within their divisions took precedence.

Another big reason for the golden age rivalry losing its shine was Tennessee’s rapid descent into mediocrity in 2007 that also coincided with Alabama hiring their all-time winningest coach, Nick Saban. Saying Saban has been dominant against Tennessee would be the biggest undersell of all the undersells. Saban buried Tennessee, and with it, the rivalry. It just became a game. Tennessee came within one possession of Alabama just twice in Saban’s fifteen years in Tuscaloosa. Saban had never lost to the Vols at Alabama, and his lone loss ever against Tennessee came in 2001 when he was coaching LSU, and even then, he got the last laugh, beating the Vols in the SEC Championship.

That all changed on Saturday.

The circumstance: for the first time in years, 2022’s iteration of the Third Saturday in October was being hyped up as a resurrection of a once fabled rivalry. Tennessee was 5-0 for the first time since 2016, and they hadn’t been ranked sixth or higher in the nation since 2005.

The stakes: a Tennessee win snaps an Alabama win streak old enough for a driver’s permit and vaults the Vols into National Championship discussion for the first time 2001...which also happens to be the only time Tennessee has ever beaten Nick Saban. It also puts a stamp on the new era of Tennessee football, one that is hopefully here to stay for a long time.

The game.

Tennessee jumped out to a 21-7 lead in the first quarter behind three scoring drives that looked so easy, you had to double take to make sure the CBS score bug said Alabama. Alabama drove down the field on their next drive, got inside the red zone but settled for three, but they forced a three-and-out on Tennessee’s ensuing possession. Then came the special teams blunder to end all blunders.

This is when things started to feel...a little different. Tennessee immediately capitalized and made it 28-10, and Neyland Stadium was ROCKING.

Alabama drove back down the field and scored, and a failed fourth down conversion gave them the ball back around midfield, and just like that, the comeback was on. The Tide would tie the game with another touchdown out of half and two-point conversion. Tennessee struck back with an immediate strike from Hooker to Hyatt, but a Chase McGrath missed PAT only left them up 34-28. Once again, Alabama answered, putting together a 12 play drive that finalized with a 2-yard Jahmyr Gibbs touchdown run and Will Reichard point after, and just like that, Alabama had a 35-34 lead nearing the end of the third. A 25-6 run from the Tide not only got them back in the ballgame, but it put them in the driver’s seat.

And then it happened.

Hendon Hooker dropped back to pass on 3rd-and-six, looking for Bru McCoy over the middle. He overshot his man, and for the first time since the Georgia game last November, he was picked off. This set up Alabama with prime field position, and the collective heart among the crowd and those at home sank. We all know how this goes. Alabama is going to score and never give the lead back. Except that’s not what happened. To this defense’s credit, they didn’t get many stops, but they got the them when needed. They forced an Alabama punt, and Tennessee took over deep in their territory.

Remember what we said about memorable performances that go above and beyond the expected and important they are to memorable days? Enter Jalin Hyatt.

Jalin Hyatt was primed for a breakout season last year, or so everyone thought. An early season injury took out all his momentum, and he found himself fourth man on a three man totem pole, struggling to get snaps.

Come 2022, and Tennessee lost Velus Jones Jr. to the draft and JaVonta Payton found himself in the NFL as well. Cedric Tillman was a sure fire star, but it was about who could step up around him that would catapult this offense into the stratosphere. Jalin Hyatt has more than answered the call, and he did so in record fashion on Saturday.

Hyatt had been on the receiving end of Hooker’s first two touchdown passes in the first quarter, and their 60-yard connection in the third regained a lead that Alabama subsequently took right back. One could say Tennessee’s ability to answer the call late in this game against Alabama is what kept them in it, but it was really Hyatt picking up the phone every single time.

Hooker hit Hyatt for his only non-touchdown catch of the day to get their backs off the goal line, and a Jabari Small run had the Vols out to the 22 yard line.

Hooker to Hyatt broke Alabama on Saturday and, consequently, the Tennessee record books altogether. Hyatt’s fourth touchdown of the game set a Tennessee single game record for receiving touchdowns in a game, and he wasn’t done yet.

Alabama answered right away, again, and on Tennessee’s next drive, they did the unthinkable. Hooker and Small had a minor miscommunication on a read handoff, and that left the ball laying on the 11 yard line, free for Dallas Turner to pick it up and waltz into the end zone, putting Alabama up 49-42. The game is over, or at least that’s the code.

On Tennessee’s following drive, they were moving the ball as they had all day, but the drive was on the verge of stalling out just outside the red zone. Hooker dropped back and rolled left on 4th-and-six, and he lofted one towards the checkerboard to Princeton Fant, but it went off his hands and into the waiting arms of Kool-Aid McKinstry who would return the interception all the way back inside the Tennessee 20. Game over. That’s the code.

Not so fast, my friends. There was a reason Fant couldn’t catch the ball and it was because an Alabama defender was draped all over him. Pass interference was called, and new life was jolted back into Tennessee like a defibrillator to the chest, and here comes the code breaker one more time, just for good measure. Channeling his inner Booker T, Hooker found Hyatt for the fifth and final time, tying the game at 49 apiece. Six catches, 207 yards, five touchdowns. An all-time day for Hyatt in an all-time classic in Knoxville.

The game was tied, but in the back of every person watching the game, there was that existential dread. Tennessee left Bryce Young just over three minutes which might as well be an eternity. Young was surgical upon his return from a shoulder injury, throwing for 455 yards and two touchdowns, and now he had a chance to win the game. Very quickly, Young got the Tide in the back end of field goal range with under 40 seconds to play, but once again, to the Vols secondary’s credit, they came up with very timely stops. They forced three straight incompletions, keeping Alabama on the outskirts of Will Reichard’s range, forcing him to try from 50 yards to win the game.

Reichard lined up the kick while 102,000 people inside Neyland Stadium and millions around the country held their breath with another potential Alabama narrow escape on the horizon.

Snap, hold...WIDE. RIGHT. A collective exhale is let out around the country. Missing the field goal wasn’t the worst sin Alabama committed, however. They left Hendon Hooker 15 seconds.

Hooker found Ramel Keyton at midfield with nine seconds left, and after a timeout, Hooker connected with Bru McCoy on an improbable catch with two seconds left.

This set up a 40 yard field goal try for Chase McGrath. No problem, right? He totally didn’t miss an extra point earlier was the only thought going through me and probably a few million others.

It turns out, though, that the C in Chase is for CLUTCH.

It knuckled all the way through, but it went in and absolved every demon Tennessee sought to conquer on this day. FINAL SCORE: Tennessee-52, Alabama-49. The streak is over.

The fans rushed the field and tore down the goal post, which brings us to the fifth and final factor that makes an all-time great sports day: atmosphere. It’s safe to say there has never been an atmosphere in this rivalry’s history quite like Neyland Stadium on Saturday afternoon. Decibel levels eclipsing 125 dB made it the loudest environment ever inside Neyland, and it took its toll on the Alabama players.

“I think we probably just had a lot of anxiety; we didn’t have the same intensity that we had a couple weeks ago,” this was said by Will Anderson Jr, future top five pick in the upcoming NFL Draft. It truly was an environment these players had never seen the likes of and may never see again.

Legend has it the field goal post is still floating down the Tennessee River.

Would you believe this wasn’t the only upset on the day? There were not one, not two, not three, not get the point.

As this game ended, so began the New York Yankees versus the Cleveland Guardians in Game Three of the ALDS.

Prior to the season, Cleveland was given an eight percent chance to reach the Fall Classic, but that’s why they play the games. Conversely, the Yankees had the hottest start to a season they’d had since 1927, and Aaron Judge became the new AL home run king, but injuries and otherwise poor play from every hitter not wearing 99 led to a rocky second half.

Cleveland had just stolen Game Two in New York with their patented “disgusting” brand of dink-and-dunk, elite defense and base-running predicated baseball, and had their young, unproven star, Triston McKenzie toed the rubber for the third game. It was a rocky start for the youngster, as Aaron Judge finally snapped out of his horrid slump, homering for the first time in the series to tie the game at 2-2 in the third.

The Yankees would add a pair of home runs as the game went on, and they led 5-3 entering the bottom of the ninth.

The disgusting brand of baseball reared its head again, though, and before you could blink, Cleveland had two runners on with no outs. Amed Rosario would single home Myles Straw, and a Jose Ramirez single loaded the bases. Josh Naylor struck out, bringing Cleveland’s unlikely postseason hero to the plate, Oscar Gonzalez. Gonzalez hit the walk-off home run in Game Two of the Wild Card series that sent Cleveland to the ALDS, and his bloop RBI single in game two gave the Guardians the lead that they wouldn’t relinquish. Now he was back and could do it again, and you best believe Spongebob did just that.

For the first time since the 1986 Mets, the youngest team in baseball was in the playoffs, and like the friend who always has too much energy, these Guardiac Kids just don’t know when to go away.

For me, this was now a seven hour window of pure, heart-wrenching joy. The Vols win, and now my Cleveland Guardians are one game away from the most improbable of playoff upsets, and though they fell short in the series in the end, they gave us more than anyone ever expected and shattered the window everyone thought wouldn’t open for them for another two years.

But, in the great words of Stone Cold Steve Austin, we’re through yet, not by a long shot.

Night cap rolls around, and the San Diego Padres are one game away from sending the Los Angeles Dodgers packing.

The Dodgers rolled into the playoffs having won 111 games, the most by any team since the 2001 Seattle Mariners and just the seventh time a team has ever won 110-plus games.

The 2022 iteration of the Padres, on the other hand, had been a roller coaster throughout. Superstar Fernando Tatis Jr. had been working his way back from a self-inflicted injury when he popped a positive PED test that got him suspended for the remainder of the season, and the team went through hot and cold stretches down the stretch but made the landmark move of the trade deadline, acquiring Juan Soto and Josh Bell from the Nationals. All while that was going on, the Dodgers juggernaut chugged along, winning the NL West by 22 games over the Padres.

By Game Four of the NLDS, however, no one was thinking about the 22 game lead because it was the Dodgers staring down the barrel of a 2-1 series deficit, on the brink of elimination.

Tyler Anderson gave LA a great start, but when the bullpen took over with a 3-0 lead, the collapse commenced. Austin Nola drove in Jurickson Profar, Ha-Seong Kim doubled home Trent Grisham, and the Padres had two on for Juan Soto, and Soto came through, driving in Austin Nola. 3-3. New game, new life, all Padres. There was something in the water on Saturday.

Jake Cronenworth lined an Alex Vesia pitch back up the middle, giving San Diego a 5-3 lead they would win by, ending the Dodgers season and advancing to the NLDS for the first time since 1998. The Dodgers were big brother, and big brother had won every fight little brother had picked for years, but those hundreds of fights were negated in one fell swoop. This is the rivalry of the West now, and the Padres finally have bragging rights. Sound familiar?

We end the evening at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City. Utah had become the class of the PAC-12, but being the red-headed stepchild they were to the conference, it felt as if they hadn’t proved anything until they beat a good USC team.

Now was their chance. With Lincoln Riley making out like bandits with virtually every productive player at Oklahoma in the transfer portal, USC was loaded and back in the national spotlight. Utah had never beaten a top 10 ranked USC team, but Cam Rising was about to change that. Though Tennessee’s field storming may have been the most memorable from Saturday, it certainly wasn’t the only one.

USC tried to pull away in the first half, but Utah kept creeping back, not letting a pair of 14 point leads for the Trojans grow any further. USC led 28-14 with just over a minute left in the first half, but Utah marched down the field and added seven with 30 seconds left.

The entire second half was a back and forth heavyweight fight with both teams continually landing knockout shots until ultimately Utah landed their best blow.

Utah, trailing 42-35, drove down the field in an uncharacteristically methodical fashion, killing over five minutes of clock in the process. It came down to goal-to-go, and a Micah Bernard 7-yard run on second down got the Utes down to the one yard line. They were unsuccessful on third down, and a USC goal line stand would’ve been an early highlight to a PAC-12 Championship reel, but that isn’t how this story goes.

Cam Rising keeps it on fourth-and-goal and scores to cut the USC lead to 42-41. With the intestinal fortitude of a thousand men, Kyle Whittingham decided to go for two. If they failed, it’s game over. No timeouts, no time left, and an onside kick would feel highly improbable. Rising dropped back to pass but no one got open. Rising decided to do it himself, and he kept it and scrambled in for the two-point conversion, giving Utah an improbable 43-42 win.

Betting odds are meaningless in rivalry games. Tennessee was a home dog to Alabama, irregardless if Bryce Young played or not. Everyone thought the Braves and Dodgers were on a collision course for an NLCS rematch and that the Yankees would walk all over Cleveland, but they all were met with much resistance, two more so than the other, and though Utah was favored at home over USC, every expert still picked the Trojans.

Nobody will believe in you until they actually see you do it, and then few will give you the credit you deserve after. Conquering your demons is such a tall task because they’re exactly that, your demons, but one one fateful night in October, on the biggest stages imaginable, they all did.

Phillies fans paraded around the city, celebrating their first division series win since 2009 while Padres fans are in a state of euphoria they may never come down from. The roar in the crowd in Cleveland had me reminiscing on the moments I got to experience live in 2016 and 2017, and as for Tennessee, seeing a night sky fill up with smoke from cigars lit in favor of the Vols for the first time since 2006 is a moment I will never forget. Sports are a living for some but an escape for all. This is one of those days that I will fondly look back on as long as I live.