Rocco wins by losing

June 23, 2008

I don’t know what’s more impressive. The fact that a 45 year old Rocco Mediate stood toe to toe with Tiger Woods in a memorable 19-hole playoff at the U.S. Open, or the way he did it. Rocco was in the moment. He smiled. He chatted up his caddie. He seemed to be enjoying himself the whole time. Let’s remember, going up against Tiger Woods in a golf playoff is like playing Michael Jordan one on one in basketball, or getting in the ring to fight Muhammed Ali. Tiger’s the best, maybe ever. He’s supposed to be in the hunt for major tournaments. Rocco Mediate has never really sniffed a major tournament in his career. He’s battled injuries and inconsistent play for most of his years on the PGA Tour. Yet there he was staring the most dominant athlete in the world dead in the eye and he darn near did the near impossible. Rocco was gracious enough to grant me an interview recently. He told me the experience was the best of his golf career. This coming from a guy who lost. Rocco Mediate didn’t win the U.S. Open, but he did win legions of new fans including yours truly. I hope more pro athletes (including Tiger) take a page out of Rocco’s book and enjoy the moment more. Smile, for goodness sake! Way to go, Rocco!

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I grew up in Upstate New York, so I was never emotionally attached to the game of hockey. I’ve always respected the game and its players, but it was never something that got me all worked up. I must say, though, the playoff run turned in by the Penguins this spring was nothing short of inspirational. Sure, it was a fairly easy run through the Eastern Conference, but the Stanley Cup Finals was a true test of their character. After the Detroit Red Wings won the first two games by a combined score of 7-0, all looked lost. But, the Pens circled the wagons, dug deep, and made the Wings earn their eleventh Cup title. Sure, this is a team loaded with skill players, but we also saw a team with heart and grit. Witness the game five miracle win with the Red Wings ready to celebrate on their home ice. Two nights later, down 3-1 with less than two minutes to play, the Pens get a power play goal from Marian Hossa, and then make a mad dash for the equalizer which they almost got. This team will look quite different next year, but I don’t think anyone will forget the inspirational run by Pittsburgh’s pro hockey team. Penguins fans, I know you already know this, but you have a team you can be proud of.

You had to be there to believe it.

Game five. Third period. The Penguins were a shade over 34 seconds away from their season coming to a close. The Detroit Red Wings had a 3-2 lead and the crowd at the Joe Louis Arena was going crazy chanting, “We want the Cup!”

As I looked up at the big screen from where I was sitting in the press box, I could see the Stanley Cup being brought out of its protective rolling box on the network feed.

I remember thinking that I was about to go on live television and deliver some disappointing news: The Pens come up short, Detroit wins the Cup. So, I decided to at least savor the moment.

When a team wins the Cup, it’s one of the wildest celebrations in all of sports. Since there’s no guarantee of seeing something like that again in person, I decided to soak it all in. My plan was to watch the Wings celebrate for a few minutes and then make my way downstairs.

Then, it happened.

Henrik Zetterberg couldn’t clear the puck with an empty net staring him right in the face. Here come the Penguins.

Goalie pulled, extra attacker on the ice. One shot, save. Another shot, save. Then, somehow, some way, Max Talbot was able to squeeze the puck past Chris Osgood to tie the game.

It was like someone had stuck a pin in the top of the arena. The cheering stopped. The towels were no longer waiving. I could hear a few “Oh, no’s” and a few other things not suitable for print being uttered throughout the crowd.

And there was Max Talbot jumping up and down getting hugged by his teammates. Tie game. Overtime. No Cup celebration for Detroit.

Right after the goal was scored, I remember looking up at the scoreboard. It still said Red Wings 3, Penguins 2. Not even the scoreboard operator wanted to believe it. After several agonizing minutes, a “3” was finally put on the board.

Now, Petr Sykora’s game-winner halfway through the third overtime was certainly memorable. But as long as I live, I’ll never forget the atmosphere when Mad Max got the equalizer. Regardless of whether or not the Pens win this series, Talbot’s goal was one for the ages.