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2011 in Sports: Bud Shaw's Weird Year in Review

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Denver quarterback Tim Tebow's pastor reportedly said the reason for the Broncos' success in 2011 wasn't luck or teamwork. "It's favor," Wayne Hanson said. "God's favor."

In college basketball, the St. John's Red Storm recruited the son of a Nigerian minister. The player's name? God's Gift Achiuwa.

Texas Rangers' star outfielder Josh Hamilton said God told him he'd hit a home run in Game 6 of the World Series. Despite Hamilton's two-run homer, the Rangers lost in extra innings.

"There was a period at the end (of the sentence)," Hamilton clarified. "(God) didn't say you're going to hit it and you're going to win."

The wife of baseball slugger Albert Pujols said she initially blamed God for an unsatisfactory offer from the St. Louis Cardinals but she forgave Him. After all, Deidre Pujols said, the story ended happily with her husband signing a $254 million deal to play in sunny California.

"It's just like God to put us on a team called the Angels," she said of the Pujols' new team, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim.

Manny Ramirez, one of the greatest hitters and biggest flakes in baseball history, retired in 2011 after another positive steroid test meant he'd face a 100-game suspension. Said Ramirez, "God knows what's best (for me)."

Despite so much divine intervention, the sports world in 2011 was filled with the usual bad behavior, head-scratchers, chaos, hypocrisy and grand overstatement:

• Wake Forest baseball coach Tom Walter donated a kidney to a freshman player but only after Todd Hairston, the school's associate athletic director for compliance, made sure with the NCAA that a donated kidney didn't qualify as an "extra benefit."

• Harvey Updyke, an Alabama fan accused of poisoning Auburn's century-old oak trees at Toomer's Corner, called a radio station and owned up to his crime. Sort of. "I'm extremely sorry for what I've been accused of doing," said Updyke, who named his children Bear Bryant and Crimson Tyde.

• Baseball announcer Tim McCarver said during a broadcast, "It's a five-letter word. S-T-R-I-K-E." When the mistake was called to his attention by radio host Dan Patrick, McCarver said, "That's why I'm bad at Scrabble."

• A man who threw a hot dog at Tiger Woods during the Frys.com Open claimed the movie Drive inspired him to do something "courageous."

• The 1-4 Philadelphia Eagles locked the doors on the media one day after practice. The show of unity by the struggling 1-4 team left something to be desired when they discovered they'd not only locked out the media but also starting quarterback Michael Vick.

• The Lingerie Basketball League announced it would launch an inaugural season with teams named the Beauties, Glam, Starlets and Divas. League rules include a 60-second opportunity to score a bonus point called -- you might have guessed -- the "Red Light Special."

• "We're bringing 53 men to the Apocalypse and we ain't bringing flowers." -- Baltimore Ravens LB Terrell Suggs prior to a Sunday night game in Pittsburgh. Suggs' statement raised a burning question for Miss Manners: "What exactly is the appropriate host gift for an Apocalypse?"

• Illinois Rep. Bobby Rush (D) said the NCAA, the governing body for college athletics, was like the Mafia. He called the organization "one of the most vicious, most ruthless ever created by mankind."

• Reporter Guan Weijia of China's Titan Sports, called NBA commissioner David Stern "the demon of all demons and he is Satan who is the king of demons in this labor dispute."

Note: Probably not a good idea to ask Bobby Rush or Guan Weijia to deliver your eulogy.

• A sign that the Apocalypse is coming -- with or without flowers: promoters matched disgraced former baseball players Jose Canseco and Len Dykstra in a celebrity boxing match, but only because Dykstra was a late-minute replacement for White House dinner crasher Tareq Salahi.

In a women's bout, Nadya "the Octomom" Suleman was scheduled to fight Amy Fisher.

Other losers: anyone who paid $19.95 to watch.

• A Wyoming high school football coach gave his players a sarcastic questionnaire in an attempt to make the point that there are no excuses for not showing toughness at all times. The questionnaire topic: possible reasons for getting their feelings hurt. One choice: "I have woman-like hormones." Others choices included homophobic and more sexist language.

Coach Pat Lynch's survey also asked for the name of the "little sissy filing (the "hurt feelings") report. There was a place for a "girly-man signature."

Lynch resigned as coach but kept his teaching position.

He's a guidance counselor.

• "I hate (ESPN's) Skip Bayless more than any person in the world." -- Charles Barkley, interviewed on The Dan Patrick Show...at a time when Kim Jong Il was still alive.

• The Irony Award: a Canadian beauty queen faced criminal charges for her part in the Stanley Cup street riots in Vancouver last summer. Sophie LaBoissonniere, charged as a part of a group that broke into a drug store, earned a title at the Miss Coastal Vancouver pageant.

Miss Congeniality.

• Overreaction of the Year (to an event that offended one person and one person only: Jets' defensive tackle Sione Pouha objected to a TD celebration in which a Buffalo receiver mimicked an airplane crashing to make fun of Jets' receiver Santonio Holmes' own "airplane" touchdown celebration:

"...That airplane thing, in my opinion, was kind of a dagger considering the circumstances of remembrance of what we just had on Sept. 11. That’s a sacred moment for a lot of people and it’s a very sobering moment.”

• The NFL fined Pittsburgh safety Troy Polamalu $10,000 for using a cell phone on the Steelers' sidelines during a game against Jacksonville. His crime? After suffering a concussion, he called his wife to let her know he was OK.

• Former Mets' pitcher Doc Gooden admitted in an interview with ESPN's E:60 he missed the Mets' World Series parade in 1986 and instead watched it on TV. Not with a friend. With a drug dealer he barely knew.

• "Tweet is for losers. And what I mean by that, if you wake up in the morning and you're worried about what I'm doing, you a damn idiot." -- Charles Barkley.

• Hank Williams Jr. likened President Obama and John Boehner playing golf to "Hitler playing golf with Netanyahu." Williams lost his affiliation with Monday Night Football because of the controversy. Later he said, "I have always respected the office of the President."

• Baltimore Ravens' offensive lineman Michael Oher tweeted: "Can somebody help me out? Who was Steve Jobs!" after Jobs' death in October.

Oher Tweeted that on his IPhone.

• A race car driver was fined $30,000 for losing his composure and making an obscene gesture. His name? Will Power.

• Basketball player Ron Artest changed his name to Metta World Peace.

• Actor/comedian Albert Brooks tweeted this shortly after: "(L.A.)Dodgers file for bankruptcy. (Owner) Frank McCourt changes name to Metta World Bank."

• “You’re a hater, and you’re just unattractive inside.” -- Tennis player Serena Williams to a U.S. Open umpire.

• Steelers' linebacker James Harrison said of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, "If he were on fire, I wouldn't (urinate) on him." Harrison apologized. No clarification on whether the apology means he would.

• Bryant Gumbel on his HBO show said NBA commissioner David Stern has always seemed "eager to be viewed as kind of a modern-day plantation overseer, treating NBA men as if they were his boys."

He did not explain why anyone would be eager to do so.

• Wide receiver Roy Williams sued an ex-girlfriend for the return of a $76,600 engagement ring he mailed along with a DVD after she turned down his marriage offer. Who proposes by DVD and UPS? Roy Williams.

• "Honestly, I’m not saying this to disrespect him in any way." -- Ravens' receiver Derrick Mason, who called NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell a "joke" in a radio interview, then appeared on ESPN's First Take wearing a T-shirt that said "A JOKE."

• The Peoria Chiefs, the Chicago Cubs Class A team, staged a "LeBron James NBA Championship Replica Giveaway" after the Miami Heat fell short in the NBA Finals against Dallas in part because of James' poor play in fourth quarters.

When anyone affiliated with the Cubs is calling you a loser, you've hit rock bottom.

• Former baseball player and sometimes celebrity boxer Jose Canseco partnered with MyFanLine.com to charge people $50 a minute to talk to him on the phone.

• When St. John's scouted 6-9 forward God's Gift Achiuwa, recruiters were careful not to confuse him with his brother.

God's Will.

• Worst Tweet of the Year: Pittsburgh Steelers running back Rashard Mendenhall apologized in a blog post for a tweet following the death of Osama bin Laden.

"It's amazing how people can HATE a man they have never even heard speak. We've only heard one side..."

• A San Francisco Giants' equipment manager testified in accused steroid user Barry Bonds' perjury trial that Bonds' hat size grew from 7 1/4 to 7 3/8 between 2000 and 2002 despite him shaving his head.

• "If you look at Trump's record, he is only interested in things he can control." -- Donald Trump, on why he would only become a partner in the New York Mets franchise if he could call the shots.

• “I really believe that the NFL would fall apart without me. That may sound cocky, that may sound arrogant, but I am telling you the truth.” -- agent Drew Rosenhaus to 60 Minutes.

No. It doesn't sound cocky or arrogant. It sounds like a case of mistaken identity.

He must think he's God.

Related: Bud Shaw's Year in Review (2010)

Bud Shaw is a columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer who has also written for the Philadelphia Daily News, San Diego Union-Tribune, Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The National. You can read his Plain Dealer columns at Cleveland.com, and read all his mental_floss articles here.

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Big Questions
Who Was Heisman and Why Does He Have a Trophy?
Brett Deering/Getty Images
Brett Deering/Getty Images

On Saturday night, one of three finalists will be named this year's Heisman Trophy winner. But before anyone brings home the hardware, let’s answer a few questions about John Heisman and his famous award.

Who Exactly Was John Heisman?

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His name is mostly associated with the trophy now, but Heisman (right) was a player, coach, and hugely successful innovator in the early days of football. After playing for Brown and then Penn as a collegian from 1887 to 1891, Heisman became a coach at a series of schools that included Oberlin, Buchtel, Auburn, Clemson, Penn, Washington & Jefferson, Rice, and, most notably, Georgia Tech.

For What Football Innovations Does Heisman Get Credit?

Just some little trivial stuff like snapping the ball. Centers originally placed the ball on the ground and rolled it back to their quarterbacks, who would scoop it up and make plays. When Heisman was coaching at Buchtel (which later became the University of Akron), though, he had a 6’4” QB named Harry Clark. Clark was so tall that picking the ball up off the ground was wildly inefficient, so Heisman invented the center snap as an easy way to get the ball in Clark’s hands. Heisman also innovated the use of pulling guards for running plays and the infamous hidden-ball trick.

Any Other Shenanigans on Heisman’s Resume?

You bet. When Heisman found a way to gain an edge, he jumped on it no matter how ridiculous it seemed. When Heisman was coaching at Clemson in 1902, his team traveled to Atlanta for a game against Georgia Tech. Although Heisman was known for being a rather gruff disciplinarian, the Clemson team immediately started partying upon their arrival.

When Georgia Tech’s players and fans heard that the entire Clemson squad had spent the night before the game carousing, they prepared to coast to an easy win. When the game started, though, Clemson roared out of the gate en route to a 44-5 stomping.

How did Clemson crush Tech when by all rights they should have been ridiculously hungover? The “team” that everyone had seen partying the night before wasn’t really Heisman’s Clemson squad at all. He had sent his junior varsity players to Atlanta the night before to serve as drunken decoys, then quietly slipped his varsity team in on a morning train right before the game.

What Kind of Coach Was He?

Heisman worked as an actor in community stock theater during the summer – he consistently received rotten reviews – and allegedly spoke in a brusque, yet bizarrely ostentatious manner. Georgia Tech’s website relates a story of one of Heisman’s speeches he would break out on the first day of practice while describing a football: "What is this? It is a prolate spheroid, an elongated sphere - in which the outer leather casing is drawn tightly over a somewhat smaller rubber tubing. Better to have died as a small boy than to fumble this football."

How Did His Name Get on the Trophy?

After leaving his head-coaching job at Rice in 1927, Heisman became the athletic director at New York’s Downtown Athletic Club. In 1935 the club began awarding the Downtown Athletic Club Trophy to the nation’s top college football star. (Chicago’s Jay Berwanger won the first trophy.) Heisman died of pneumonia the following fall before the second trophy could be awarded, and the club voted to rename the prize the Heisman Memorial Trophy Award.

Did He Ever Really Throw that Iconic Stiff Arm?

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Possibly, but Heisman didn’t have the ball in his hands all that much. Even though he was a fairly small guy at just 5’8” and 158 pounds, he played as a lineman throughout his college career.

The famous “Heisman pose” is actually based on Ed Smith, a former NYU running back who modeled for the trophy’s sculptor in 1934. Interestingly, Smith went years without knowing that he’d modeled for the famous trophy. His sculptor buddy Frank Eliscu had just needed a football player to model for a project, and Smith volunteered.

Smith figured Eliscu was just doing some little personal sculpture and remained totally oblivious to his spot in football history for the next 48 years until a documentary filmmaker called Smith to interview him about the Heisman in 1982. Smith initially had no idea what the guy was talking about, but he eventually remembered his modeling days. In 1985, the Downtown Athletic Club gave Smith his own copy of the Heisman, and in 1986 he even received recognition on the televised ceremony. He looked at the four finalists – Vinny Testaverde won that year – and quipped, "Whoever wins the award, I feel sorry for you, because you're going to be looking at my ugly face for a long time." [Pictured Above: Auburn's Bo Jackson in 1985.]

What’s a Heisman Trophy Worth on the Open Market?

Quite a bit. A number of Heisman winners have eventually sold their hardware, and the trophies fetch quite a bit of loot. O.J. Simpson got $230,000 for his, and several others have gone for six-figure prices. The most expensive trophy that’s changed hands was Minnesota back Bruce Smith’s 1941 award; it fetched $395,240.

How Did Steve Spurrier Change the Process?

SEC fans are going to be floored by this one, but the Ol’ Ball Coach did something really classy when he won the Heisman in 1966. Instead of taking the trophy for himself, Spurrier gave it to the University of Florida so the school could display it and let the student body enjoy it. Florida’s student government thought Spurrier’s generosity was so classy that they paid for a replica for Spurrier so he’d get to have his own trophy, too. Since then both the school and the player have received copies of the trophy.

So Heisman Must Have Been the World’s Greatest Sportsman, Right?

Well, not really. Heisman was on the victorious side of possibly the most gratuitously run-up score in sports history. In 1916 tiny Cumberland College canceled its football program and disbanded its squad, but it had previously signed a contract to travel to Atlanta to play Heisman’s Georgia Tech team. If Cumberland didn’t show up, they had to pay Georgia Tech a $3,000 penalty, which was quite a bit of cash in 1916.

Rather than forfeiting the money, Cumberland scraped together a team of 16 scrubs and went to take their walloping from Heisman’s boys. For reasons that still aren’t totally clear – some say it was to avenge an earlier baseball loss to Cumberland, while others claim Heisman wanted to make a statement about the absurdity of the old system of using total points scored to determine the national champion – the legendary coach showed Cumberland’s ragtag band no mercy. Tech went up 63-0 in the first quarter, but Heisman kept attacking until the final score was 222-0. There are tons of hilarious stats from the game, but the funniest is Georgia Tech rushing for 1,620 yards while Cumberland only squeaked out negative-96 yards on 27 carries.

This article originally appeared in 2010.

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#TBT
Thin Ice: The Bizarre Boxing Career of Tonya Harding
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Al Bello/Getty Images

In 2004, the Chicago Tribune asked Tonya Harding about the strangest business offer she had received after her skating career came to an abrupt end in the mid-1990s. “I guess to skate topless,” she answered. In 1994, the two-time former Olympian became infamous for her ex-husband’s attempt to break the leg of rival Nancy Kerrigan. Although Harding denied any knowledge of or involvement in the plan—which ended with Kerrigan suffering a bruised leg and Harding being banned from the U.S. Figure Skating organization, ending her competitive pursuits—she became a running punchline in the media for her attempts to exploit that notoriety. There was a sex tape (which her equally disgraced former husband, Jeff Gillooly, taped on their wedding night), offers to wrestle professionally, attempts to launch careers in both music and acting, and other means of paying bills.

Though she did not accept the offer to perform semi-nude, she did embark on a new career that many observers found just as lurid and sensational: For a two-year period, Tonya Harding was a professional boxer.

Tonya Harding rises from the canvas during a boxing match
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Following the attack on Kerrigan and the subsequent police investigation, Harding pled guilty to conspiracy to hinder prosecution, received three years’ probation, and was levied a $160,000 fine. (Gillooly and his conspirators served time.) Ostracized from skating and with limited opportunities, Harding first tried to enter the music scene with her band, the Golden Blades.

When that didn’t work—they were booed off stage in Portland, Oregon, Harding’s hometown—she disappeared from the public eye, offering skating lessons in Oregon before resurfacing on a March 2002 Fox network broadcast titled Celebrity Boxing. Using heavily padded gloves and outsized headgear, performers like Vanilla Ice and Todd Bridges pummeled one another on the undercard. In the main event, Harding used her physicality to batter and bruise Paula Jones, the woman who had accused then-president Bill Clinton of sexual harassment.

This was apparently the boost of confidence Harding needed. “I thought it was fun knocking somebody else on their butt,” she told the Tribune. Boxing, she said, could be an opportunity to embrace her self-appointed title as “America’s Bad Girl.”

Harding looked up a boxing promoter in Portland named Paul Brown and signed a four-year contract that would pay her between $10,000 and $15,000 per bout. The 5-foot, 1-inch Harding quickly grew in stature, moving to 123 pounds from her 105-pound skating weight. Following her win against Jones, Brown booked her a fight against up-and-coming boxer Samantha Browning in a four-round bout in Los Angeles in February 2003. The fight was said to be sloppy, with both women displaying their limited experience. Ultimately, Browning won a split decision.

Harding rebounded that spring, winning three fights in a row. Against Emily Gosa in Lincoln City, Oregon, she was roundly booed upon entering the arena. “The entire fight barely rose above the level of a drunken street brawl,” The Independent reported.

Of course, few spectators were there to see Harding put on a boxing clinic. They wanted to watch a vilified sports figure suffer some kind of public retribution for her role in the attack on Kerrigan. Following her brief winning streak, Harding was pummeled by Melissa Yanas in August 2003, losing barely a minute into the first round of a fight that took place in the parking lot of a Dallas strip club. In June 2004, she was stopped a second time against 22-year-old nursing student Amy Johnson; the Edmonton, Alberta, crowd cheered as Harding was left bloodied. Harding later told the press that Johnson, a native Canuck, had been given 26 seconds to get up after Harding knocked her down when the rules mandated only 10, which she saw as a display of national favoritism.

Harding had good reason to be upset. The Johnson fight was pivotal, as a win could have meant a fight on pay-per-view against Serbian-born boxer Jelena Mrdjenovich for a $600,000 purse. That bout never materialized.

Tonya Harding signs head shots on a table
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There was more than just lack of experience working against Harding in her newfound career. Having been a longtime smoker, she suffered from asthma. The condition plagued her skating career; in boxing, where lapses in cardiovascular conditioning can get you hurt, it became a serious problem. Although Harding competed again—this time emerging victorious in a fight against pro wrestler Brittany Drake in an exhibition bout in Essington, Pennsylvania, in January 2005—it would end up being her last contest. Suffering from pneumonia and struggling with weight gain caused by corticosteroids prescribed for treatment, she halted her training.

In an epilogue fit for Harding’s frequently bizarre escapades, there was remote potential for one last bout. In 2011, dot-com entrepreneur Alki David offered Harding $100,000 to step back into the ring, with another $100,000 going to her proposed opponent. Had it happened, it probably would have gone down as one of the biggest sideshows of the past century. Unfortunately for Harding, Nancy Kerrigan never responded to the offer.

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