One of the great sports years on memories was filled with a phenomenal cast of characters, from the most famous athlete on the planet to a mostly anonymous college running back. Here are the 16 most relevant athletes of 2016.
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The Packers quarterback started his year with a game-tying Hail Mary in the playoffs, had his family's dirty laundry aired out by his estranged brother on The Bachelor of all places, played so poorly to start the 2016 campaign that there were legitimate concerns the game had passed him by (this wasn't like that day Tom Brady had a bad game and the Earth stopped rotating - Rodgers was average for a full 16-game stretch), saw his Packers slip out of the playoff race, confidently proclaimed after a big loss to the Redskins that his 4-6 team would run the table and then proceeded to start making that a reality, getting Green Bay to 8-6 and in control of its own playoff destiny while slowly regaining his status as the world's best football player and making the most unlikely MVP run in recent memory (seriously, if you'd told someone in Week 10 that Rodgers might be the NFL's MVP they'd have said you were as crazy as that one dude on Rodgers' brother's season of The Bachelor. Chad. Don't act like you don't know who I'm talking about.)
It was supposed to be about the guy who went West but the story about the one he left behind has proved far more compelling. Kevin Durant and the Golden State Warriors are all good. Though not the historic 27-1 they were at this point last year, sitting at 25-4 with the best record and biggest point differential in the game is just fine, thanks. But cruise down those standings all the way to seventh place and you'll find the team Durant abandoned, single-handedly being carried by future MVP Russell Westbrook. He leads the league in scoring (31.3 ppg), is second in assists (14.7 per game) and ranks 13th in rebounds (10.5). You'll notice each of those numbers creeps into the double digits, giving Westbrook a chance at matching Oscar Robertson's record - once thought to be unmatchable - of averaging a triple-double for the season. (And nothing against the Big O, but he did that in a completely different NBA era. This would be like hitting 62 home runs in baseball's post-PED era.) He had seven straight in one stretch, the most since MJ in 1988-89, and has 13 on the year. Every other player in the Western Conference has 11, combined. Durant is just another guy on the Warriors - he never wanted to be, or had the opportunity to become, the alpha dog. In OKC, Westbrook is the alpha, beta and gamma and loving every minute.
Forgive the pun but it's unavoidable: Usain Bolt is the most electric athlete on the planet. There's no moment of anticipation as great as those minutes before Bolt races in the Olympics - the crowd in a frenzy, the other competitors going through whatever delusional motions they think can help pull the upset, Bolt strutting around like Muhammad Ali during a Howard Cosell interview, knowing he's the best, knowing you know he's the best, knowing the other guys in the race know he's the best and knowing exactly what's going to happen 9.81 seconds later. (Though, for my money, watching Bolt come out of the curve in the 200 was the most exhiliarting sports moment of the year.) After sweeping the 100/200/4x100 for the third-straight Olympics, Bolt says he'll retire after next year's world championships. Going nine-for-nine already makes him the greatest sprinter ever. Going 12-for-12 puts him into a different stratosphere.
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When Kirk Cousins gets $110 million/$55 million guaranteed this offseason and Matthew Stafford pulls even more on his inevitable contract extension with the Lions, you can trace it back to the NFL's worst quarterback (statistically speaking) whose $72 million/$37 million guaranteed contract with the Houston Texans was the first domino in the creation of a new market for quarterbacks, one that will see the most average of signal callers getting paid Oprah money from here until the end of time (or the end of the NFL, whichever comes first). QBs have always been prized commodities but now they're so important that a team is willing to mortgage its cap space on the off chance that someone who played decently for seven games will become a perennial Pro Bowler. The decision flopped. Since then, Osweiler has lost his job, John Elway has been proclaimed a genius for letting him go (that he offered Osweiler $16 million and simply got lucky the Texans were crazier is forgotten) and, somehow, the Texans are still leading their division while Denver is a playoff long shot. The lesson, as always: Nobody knows anything.
General managers don't hit, pitch, catch, run, throw or decide to use their best closers in a blowout the day before a franchise's biggest baseball game in a century. But when you're the architect of two teams that ended a combined 196-year World Series drought, you get, and deserve, your due. Are there statues of GMs (or presidents of baseball operations, as Theo's business card reads)? There should be.
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The most fascinating character in tennis was Novak Djokovic, who entered the season at No. 1 and then became just the third man in 45 years to win the first two legs of the Grand Slam. More importantly, the French Open title gave the Serb the career Grand Slam that's eluded him for years. And then, after rising to the top of the sport and looking like he was going to challenge Roger Federer's record 17 majors (the French gave Djokovic his 12th), the Serb fell off a tennis cliff. He was upset in the third round of Wimbledon. He fell in the first round of the Olympics. And then, at the U.S. Open, he lost again in a major final to Stan Wawrinka. Andy Murray took over No. 1 and handled Djokovic at the year-end tournament he'd won four-straight times. In reality, Djokovic didn't play all that poorly after the French. He went 20-5, won a top-tier tourney in Canada, went 4-0 at the ATP World Tour Finals before losing to Murray and, oh yeah, made the U.S. Open final - something Murray couldn't do. How Djokovic reacts in 2017 would be the biggest subplot of next season except for the return of the talented Mr. Federer.
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When Nick Saban, who'd already won a national title at LSU before failing in his brief stint in the NFL, took the Alabama job he insisted he wasn't taking, it was practically your civic sports duty to speculate how many national championships he'd win in Bear Bryant's old stomping grounds. Definitely one, but how quick? Two seemed like a good bet? Three? Pushing it. Four? Get real. Even if you said four, you couldn't have believed in the prediction too much. This isn't the '70s. There are ebbs and flows and winning it all in a sport where one loss can end a season is tough to do once, let alone twice. Four times? That's just being greedy. But it's the number Saban and Alabama got to in January with a thrilling win over Clemson in the second College Football Playoff. On New Year's Day, the Crimson Tide will go for Saban's sixth overall title, which would actually tie him with Bear Bryant for the most ever but, since one of those wins came at LSU, would still leave the 65-year-old one behind in Tuscaloosa. That's what 2017 is for.
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In a world where Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. became household names who seemingly popped up on your TV during every commercial breaks, it's odd that the most dominant driver of all is relatively anonymous, even to the sports world. It's his nature. By winning his record-tying seventh NASCAR Premier Series championship in 2016, Jimmie Johnson joins NASCAR Hall of Fame inaugural class inductees Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt at the pinnacle of the sport. Johnson leads all active NASCAR drivers with 80 race victories; no one else has more than 38. And Johnson’s social media game is strong, too: His 2.25 million Twitter followers far outpace the numbers of Dale Earnhardt Jr. (1.82m) and Danica Patrick (1.56m). (With Tom Jensen contributing.)
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The world's highest-paid athlete and one of the most recognizable faces (and six packs) on the planet, had done it all. Premier League champion with Manchester United, La Liga champs with Real Madrid, Champions League victories with both teams, record-setting salaries and transfer fees, multiple Balloon d'Or awards, most goals in UEFA, the Euro Cup and Champions Leagues, most caps for Portugal and dozens of other awards of all varieties. Only an international trophy eluded him. Cristiano Ronaldo got it in 2016, winning the Euro Cup for his home nation although, in a cruel twist of fate, having to watch the ending from the bench after getting sidelined in the final. He'd done enough. For a few minutes, at least, it was nice to enjoy the view.
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"Very tough decision," the Stanford running back tweeted this week, "but I have decided not to play in the Sun Bowl so I can beging my draft prep immediately." A college student with an eye on his own future? Won't someone please think of the children? It's hard to tell whether many people were actually upset with McCaffery for sitting out of a meaningless bowl game or were straw men set up by people who couldn't wait to tell the world how great they thought it was. But anyone who'd argue that McCaffery is selfish, ignoring that a half-dozen coaches (who are already getting paid millions) abandon their teams before bowl games every year, is a fool. Yet in the same way McCaffery's decision should be respected, you'd have to respect the judgment of an NFL general manager who won't want to draft him because he bailed on his team. I'm not saying that's the right opinion - I disagree wholeheartedly - but the debate is a microcosm for basically everything that happened in 2016: People can't celebrate the freedoms that allow McCaffery to come to his own decision while deriding the right of NFL personnel to come to their own. Deep.
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Ledecky was the world's most dominant athlete in 2016 and seemed almost embarrassed by it. She wore a speehish grin when feted over by the American public and couldn't wait to let her relay teammates speak when they did a joint interview. But looks can be deceiving. In the pool, Ledecky was a swimming assassin - leading opponents on a brutal pace they couldn't possibly keep up with and then quickly finishing them off as he kept up her splits while the other seven competitors peeled off, one by one. When she shattered her own world record in the 400m freestyle, she turned around, saw the clock and roared as she pounded the water in excitement. She was still celebrating her epic achievement when the runner-up finally came into the wall, about five seconds later.
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LeBron didn't promise a championship upon his return to Cleveland. He'd learned that lesson after guaranteeing not one, not two, not three titles at the beginning of his sabbatical in Miami. But he didn't go back to the Cavs because he was homesick. LeBron loved there's only one place where he's beloved and that's back in Ohio. It's odd - he should be a role model for every kid of every upbringing. He's handled fame and his career better than anyone could have possibly imagined (it's not easy to live up to the hype that's surrounded you since age 15). But only Ohio has his back. That's what made his mercenary flee to Miami so heartbreaking for the city. It wasn't the ill-conceived "Decision" that made it so hard - that was merely a poor delivery vessel of gut-wrenching news. It was that the hometown kid made good couldn't wait to be anywhere else. So when LeBron returned to Cleveland, a little older and a lot wiser, he tried to keep expectations in check. So did the 1.1 million people who lined the parade route in June.
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The biggest pay-per-view audience in UFC history saw McGregor, the controversial Irishman seemingly born to play the role of an ultimate-fighting heel, tap out in a shock loss to Nate Diaz. It was McGregor's first-ever UFC loss and set up what fight promoters love most: the rematch. It didn't disappoint. McGregor won by decision after a bruising five-round bout that was everything the much-hyped 2015 boxing match between Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao wasn't: brutal, unpredictable, exhilarating and a bit controversial as inevitable debate about the judging was instant and still rages today. The August fight turned McGregor into a crossover star and he began doing what fighters have done for a century - selling the hell out of himself. There were rumors about boxing Mayweather, a stint with WWE, retirement - you name it. "Surprise, surprise [expletive]," McGregor said after the bout, "the King is back."
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It doesn't get more relevant than twerking in a Beyonce video. Serena didn't have a great year on the court (which for her means only one Grand Slam title) but she is as important as ever, offering thoughtful insights into the Black Lives Matter movement, sexism in sports and how her and her sister's experiences growing up in Compton playing a predominantly white sport shaped their view of race. In 2017, she'll continue her quest to become the winningest female tennis player of all time (she's tied with Steffi Graf for most majors in the Open era and two behind Margaret Court for the all-time record) and to make her case as the greatest athlete of all time - period.
"I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color," Colin Kaepernick said after igniting the sports controversy of the year when he quietly took a knee before a San Francisco 49ers preseason game. Some applauded. Some agreed with the sentiment but not the forum. Some pointed out a perceived hypocrisy. Some weren't having any of it. But Kaepernick, an inconsequential backup quarterback who'd fallen from grace at the time of his protest, stood firm. He never let his convictions waver. Over time though, after all the pundits had given their opinions and explained away Kaepernick's thinking without really knowing exactly what he was thinking, it became apparent Kaepernick's protest was far more complicated than the "agree or disagree" referendum that the media had portrayed. When Kaepernick wore a Fidel Castro shirt before a game in Miami, coincidentally just days before the dictator died, the message had been muddled. A man fighting oppression was celebrating a man who oppressed an island nation for more than a half-century? When asked about it, Kaepernick meekly tried to defend some Castro policies. This was the man at the forefront of an important national debate? He sounded like a English major who had a poster of Che Guevara in his dorm room but didn't know why. Kaepernick needn't be a spokesman though. His protest was an action meant to trigger debate, hopefully of a constructive nature. He accomplished the first. One can dream about the second.
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The first time we saw Michael Phelps, he was a lanky 15-year-old competing as the youngest athlete in the 2000 Sydney Games. By 2004 he'd become the greatest swimmer in the world and the toast of Athens. Four years later he set out to do the impossible - eight gold medals in eight races, to break Mark Spitz's record of seven, a mark considered untouchable ever since Spitz's seventh medal ceremony ended in Munich. He did it, reaching the pinnacle of his sporting life at 23. And then the question that bedevils so many athletes or celebrities: What comes next?
Phelps kept up his momentum in 2009 but by the London Olympics in 2012 he looked entirely joyless. He was never going to win eight golds again so anything he did, even four golds and two silvers, seemed like a disappointment (particularly losing his signature 200 fly and coming in a shock fourth in a 400 IM event he once owned). When he finished the meet, he was relieved. It was no shock when he returned but he didn't fully dedicate himself to being his best in Rio until after a DUI arrest sent him to rehab and earned him a Draconian suspension for U.S. Swimming. Then, and only then, did it seem everything came together for Phelps. He could see his path. Fast forward two years, Phelps won five golds and on silver, became the most decorated Olympian at an age when many swimmers have been retired for a decade and did it with a smile on his face. He was the leader of the swim team for the first time - he'd always been a team player but often retreated into his own world during the Games. He was voted flag bearer for an Opening Ceremony he'd never attended until Rio. He was a father figure to the "kids" on the team, including the great Ledecky, for whom Phelps acted as a hype man throughout their week in the spotlight.
Most importantly, Phelps did it all in front of his fiercely protective and loving mother who had done her best to make the Phelps' broken home feel like anything but, the sisters that got him into the sport and cheered him on across the globe, his new wife (unknown at the time - they said they were merely engaged) and their months-old son, who became one of the stars of Rio as he watched the swimming events with his red, white and blue headphones. With family old and new watching, swimming had finally become the second most important thing in Michael Phelps' life. And he never looked happier.
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