We may remember 2016 for its chaotic political season, tense social discourse and national turmoil, but it was, without question, an exciting year for sports. Hollywood-worthy storylines paved the way for several historic championships. The excitement began in early February with Super Bowl 50, the final game of Broncos’ quarterback Peyton Manning’s career. The future Hall of Famer spent the majority of the season battling injuries and — quite literally — limped his way to the championship. Manning became the oldest starting QB in Super Bowl history. While his 141 passing yard performance was unimpressive, the Denver Broncos defeated the Carolina Panthers, 24-10. With the win, Manning became the first NFL quarterback to win Super Bowls with two different teams (Indianapolis Colts and Broncos), and the first QB with 200 career wins. Manning retired weeks later, ending his career as a champion.
One of the more improbable championships came in early May when Leicester City Football Club shocked the soccer world by winning the Barclays’ Premier League. The Foxes became only the sixth different team to win the Premier League since 1992. Without a salary cap or draft, the league is notorious for favoring the rich teams who can attract the most expensive players. Compounding this disparity is the fact that the bottom three teams each year are demoted to an inferior league, a fate that the Foxes only narrowly avoided just one season prior. From November 2014 to April 2015, they spent 140 days in last place.
Leicester City’s win put an end to the trend of dominance by the rich clubs. The odds of them winning it all were 5,000 to 1 at the start of the season. To put those odds in perspective, the likelihood of Simon Cowell becoming the next Prime Minister of England is 500 to 1.
The next dosage of drama came in June as the notoriously favored Golden State Warriors faced off with LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals. The Warriors were seemingly unstoppable last season, as Stephen Curry’s MVP shooting led them to the best regular season record of all time with 73 wins and only nine losses. James returned from the Miami Heat to Cleveland in 2014 on a mission to deliver the city its first sports championship in 52 years. The Warriors jumped out to a 3-1 series lead, from which James and company battled back to force a Game 7. Game 7 came down to the wire and did not disappoint in entertainment value. A pivotal moment in the game came when James blocked Warriors forward Andre Iguodala’s layup from behind with under two minutes left in a tied game. Cavs point guard Kyrie Irving responded with a 3-pointer to give his team the lead with under a minute left. The Warriors scrambled to recover from Irving’s blow but came up short, giving Cleveland its first championship in over half a century and marking the 2016 Cavaliers as the only team to come back from a 3-1 deficit in an NBA Finals series.
In August, the Summer Olympic Games took place in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. The events started with Michael Phelps, the world’s most decorated Olympian, bearing the USA flag during the opening ceremonies. Phelps’ iconic moment came in the last event of his career, the men’s 4x100m relay, when his butterfly stroke gained Team USA the lead in the third leg of the four-leg race. Phelps came back from a stint in rehab to perform again at the highest level, making his lap even more inspirational. USA held on to win gold, finishing Phelps’ career with a first-place victory, leaving him with 28 career Olympic medals, 23 of which are gold.
Finally, in early November, one of the greatest Game 7s in Major League Baseball history ended the 2016 World Series. The series between the Chicago Cubs and Cleveland Indians had over a century’s worth of history on the line. The franchises held the two longest championship droughts in baseball at 108 years and 68 years respectively. Like the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Cubs came back from a 3-1 series deficit and won it all in an extra-inning thrill ride that left Cubs’ first baseman, Anthony Rizzo, in “a glass case of emotions,” and Chicago celebrating with jubilee.
2016 holds what will be remembered as some of sports’ greatest triumphs and magical moments. Cinderella stories, triumphant goodbyes and historical wins defined one of the most memorable years in sports. The year’s awe-inspiring stories across sports created a sense of unity often missing during these last few months of political and social strife.