Often, when we think of genius, we picture the concert cellist, the 11-year-old chess master or the pioneering astrophysicist. Rarely do we picture the NFL running back, the Olympic gymnast or the hotshot curling skip. I’m not sure I can change your mind about curling. But on all other counts, I hope to demonstrate that genius is as much at home on the field or court as in the laboratory or lecture hall.
I’m not saying dumb jocks don’t exist. They definitely do. But some of the greatest innovations in sports were created spontaneously, in moments of competitive inspiration, split second decisions where body and mind merged to achieve improbable perfection, feats of the human body that stretch the imagination and defy limitation. You know what I’m saying. Highlight reel stuff that looks awesome in a montage backed by a White Zombie song.
Consider the moments spotlighted hereafter your perfect montage-fodder. Behold 10 Moments of Athletic Genius.
1. The Immaculate Reception – Dec. 23, 1972
Sometimes, genius is as much luck as brilliance. These factors coalesced remarkably in one of the NFL’s defining moments. The Pittsburgh Steelers trailed the Oakland Raiders with 30 seconds to go in the 1972 AFC Divisional Playoff match at Three Rivers Stadium.
With the Raiders up 7-6, quarterback Terry Bradshaw chucked a pass downfield to wide receiver John Fuqua. The ball ricocheted off of Fuqua, possibly also grazing Raiders safety Jack Tatum, before making its way to the grass. Somehow, before it reached its inevitable destination, Steelers fullback Franco Harris reached down into the emptiness and scooped up the ball.
His stride unbroken, Harris burst into the end zone, securing a touchdown, a victory, and Pittsburgh’s first Super Bowl berth. Pittsburgh would go on to win this and three other championship trophies before the 1970s were over.
This single play would not only be the starting point for the decade’s greatest dynasty, it would help to drive the NFL into a new sphere as America’s preferred source of Sunday entertainment. The Immaculate Reception—as it was shortly thereafter coined by Pittsburgh broadcasters—was a vivid demonstration of how uniquely unpredictable, spontaneous and exciting professional football could be. Things happen quickly in football, in short incredible bursts where men bend the rules of physics without warning. With the Immaculate Reception, Franco Harris embodied the flashbulb brilliance that distinguishes our gridiron gladiators.
2. Bob Kurland “Invents” the Slam Dunk – 1945ish
I suppose it sort of seems like an obvious thing to do now, but back in the 1940s, it never occurred to anybody that you could just slam a basketball into the hoop instead of standing back and throwing it. Then again, until the 1940s, there really was nobody built quite like Bob Kurland.
At 7 ft tall, it’s not hard to see why Kurland came up with the idea of the slam dunk. He towered over opponents as a two-time NCAA champion with the Oklahoma A&M Aggies and as a two-time U.S. Olympic gold medalist for his performance in two separate Summer Games.
And for those who question the convergence of athletic and academic genius, it should bear noting that Kurland managed to fulfill his responsibility as student body president for two consecutive years as he led his Aggies to victory.
Though it wouldn’t be accurate to necessarily credit Kurland with the invention of the slam dunk (a matter which is shrouded in historical uncertainty) he is the first to have used it regularly in games. If popularizing the dunk wasn’t enough, Kurland’s defense was also the reason that the NCAA adopted a rule against goaltending.
And considering that the Slam Dunk competition is really the only part of the NBA’s All-Star weekend that anybody watches, I think you could say his impact on the game was revolutionary.
3. Alan Gelfand Invents the Ollie – 1979
There’s skating before the Ollie and after. This was the epochal event in the evolution of technique, a hands-free pop and reversal that allowed the rider to transition direction seamlessly, whether on flat ground or at the edge of a bowl.
History’s first ollie is credited to Hollywood, Florida skater and future Bones Brigade member Alan Gelfand. Navigating the imperfect concrete walls in Hollywood’s Skatepark USA, Gelfand stumbled upon the ollie quite by accident. Gelfand found that the walls at his park were so deeply vertical that his wheels were frequently pulled into accidental rail slides along the protuding upper ridges of the park’s bowls. He wisely determined to maneuver within (as opposed to against) these slides, ultimately innovating a tailkick that would allow the rider to pop off an aerial lip slide without the use of his or her hands.
The result was the ollie, a technique that would facilitate a whole new level of continuity in one’s routine. Gelfand notes that it was roughly a year before any of his fellow skaters even attempted to the move. But once they did, the sport was forever changed. As riders adapted the ollie into their various styles, it became a basic building block for both recreational and competitive skating.
4. King Beats Riggs – Oct. 20, 1973
Bobby Riggs was one of the all-time great tennis players, a former #1, and a luminary of the sport in the 1940s. He was also kind of jerk. In the early 1970s, a semi-retired Riggs offered the unwelcome opinion that women’s tennis was inferior and that even at his advanced age, he could take on and vanquish the game’s best young female competitors.
He challenged the great Billie Jean King to a match. When she declined, he faced and defeated Margaret Court on Mother’s Day of 1973. Witnessing the match, King determined that it was her responsibility to compete on behalf of her gender. This she did in September of that year, agreeing to a showdown with the aging chauvinist at the Astrodome in Houston.
The match began more as spectacle than competition. The nationally-televised event featured much fanfare and pre-match humor. Riggs maintained a certain degree of condescending facetiousness through the early rounds of the face-off but dropped the act as it became clear he might not emerge victorious. But it was too late.
With 30,000 in attendance and another 90 million watching on television, King dismantled Riggs using his own style of play against him. She both out-maneuvered and outsmarted the boastful veteran, effectively shutting his mouth forever. Following his loss, a distraught Riggs reportedly isolated himself in his hotel room for four hours.
King, a gender rights activist and a vocal proponent for equal pay, did more than simply win the match. She led the charge for female athletic credibility, not just in tennis, but in the larger world of sports. She also helped to lay the foundation for the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA). This moment was the slap across the face that so many male athletes, commentators and spectators richly deserved.
5. Nadia Comaneci Scores History’s First Perfect 10 – July 18, 1976
At a mere 14 years old, Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci achieved perfection. This was the moment that gymnastics became the competitive centerpiece of the Summer Olympics, the sport that inspires the greatest wonder, that shatters our expectations of what the human body can do, that places the hopes and dreams of nations on the shoulders of precocious teenage girls.
The 1976 Summer Games in Montreal will forever be remembered as the coming out party for arguably the greatest gymnast ever to compete. With grace, poise, and power, young Nadia Comaneci became the first gymnast ever to emerge from an event with a perfect “10.” Then, she went ahead and did it six more times. Comaneci departed the ’76 games with three gold medals in uneven bars, balance beam, and individual all-around.
She also emerged an absolute superstar of the sport and an international sensation. She followed this performance with two more gold medals in the 1980’s Moscow Games. As her star rose, she fell under increased scrutiny by Soviet authorities, who feared the defection of one of their prized athletic assets. They were right to fear the possibility.
In 1989, years after her coaching team had departed for the U.S., Comaneci followed suit, joining a group of Romanians for a perilous, on-foot escape by the dark of night. Since that time, Comaneci has been a visible leader for both Romanian and international gymnastic associations as well as an active participant in Olympic organizations and ceremonies. She is also basically the reason that female gymnastics is the most popular segment of the Summer Olympics.
6. Jordan Sinks “The Shot” – May 7, 1989
You couldn’t really make a list like this without including Michael Jordan. More or less everything he ever did on the basketball court was brilliant. As for things he did off the court, I personally think Space Jam was kind of brilliant. But I digress…Jordan was a competitor of unparalleled fierceness, a man driven almost entirely by the singular impulse to attain victory, encased in a body so determined to win that it could not be shackled by gravity.
His eye-popping dunks, his torrential bursts of scoring, and his unflinching leadership made Jordan a cultural icon as much as the sport’s greatest star. Arguably, his legend took to the air with a single game-changing moment, so distinctive and memorable that it is often identified simply as “The Shot.”
In May of 1989, facing the Cleveland Cavaliers, and elimination, in the first round of the playoffs, Jordan’s Chicago Bulls trailed for the entirety of Game 5. With six seconds to go, Jordan took a jumper that put Chicago ahead 99-98. Cleveland ran down court and snagged the lead once gain, now up 100-99 with 3.2 seconds on the clock.
The Bulls inbounded to Jordan, who rushed the foul line and, as the clock struck its final second, leapt over poor Craig Ehlo (who is only remembered in history as the victim of Jordan’s genius). As Jordan hit the apex of his jump, he held the ball. It was not until he began to descend back to Earth that he released, sinking a shot that would lead to a Bulls victory, ecstatic celebration, and the eventual ascendancy of a dynasty. Though the 6th-seeded Bulls would not win the championship that year, it would become a matter of inevitability.
His legend growing larger every year, Air Jordan would lead his team to six championships over the next decade, his penchant for staggering heroics first revealed on this day in May.
7. Bo Knows Spiderman – July 11, 1990
Before Bo Jackson, if you were fielding a deep fly ball on an all-out sprint to the warning track, you had few options other than to run square into that wall. Jackson changed all of that.
Bo Jackson was not just a superstar athlete. He was a cultural phenomenon. An athletic talent of earth-shattering proportions, Jackson won the 1985 Heisman Trophy as Auburn University’s star rusher. Naturally, after proving one of the great young talents the sport of football had yet seen, Jackson signed with the Kansas City Royals and began his career in Major League Baseball. A year later, he began his NFL career with the Oakland Raiders.
The only man ever to be named an All-Star in both the MLB and NFL, Jackson quickly became a sports icon and a marketable commodity. Nike’s “Bo Knows” ad campaign played memorably on his multi-sport excellence.
But putting aside all of that, our interest is actually in a play the left-fielder made on an otherwise routine out against the Baltimore Orioles in the summer of 1990. As the story goes, Jackson was making a slow recovery from a separated shoulder and felt certain that a collision with the wall would place him back on the disabled list. He surmised that the only logical conclusion was to run up the wall, forever altering the equation which says that wall+fielder=collision.
8. Rumble in the Jungle – Oct. 30, 1974
The heavyweight championship boxing match dubbed the Rumble in the Jungle is at once one of the most brilliant performances in sports history and in the history of event promotion. Indeed, the first stroke of genius came from boxing hustler Don King, who negotiated the fight, brokered its unprecedented $5 million purse, and promoted the three day festival that led up to an event that somehow actually lived up to its own deafening hype.
Some quick background:
In 1967, Muhammad Ali—arguably the greatest champion to ever toe the canvas—was stripped of his belt and suspended from boxing for his conscientious objection to the War in Vietnam. For three-and-a-half years, Ali was barred from the ring as an undefeated Joe Frazier took possession of his title. When Ali did finally return to the ring in 1970, he got his shot at Frazier but was defeated in a unanimous decision.
Meanwhile, a young powerhouse named George Foreman, emergent from the 1968 Olympics a gold medal winner, tore up the circuit on his way to a showdown with Frazier. He knocked the man down six times in a 1973 bout before judges called the match, eliciting the legendary sportscasting moment in which Howard Cosell proclaimed wildly “Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier! Down goes Frazier!”
The stage had been set for Don King’s great event. In order to secure the massive purse required to get both fighters to sign on, King courted an offer from Zairian dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. Seko agreed to help fund the event provided it be held in his country. He felt the publicity would be good for Zaire. It was.
The October 30th bout remains, to date, widely seen as the greatest fight of all time. It was preceded by a three-day music festival featuring the Fania All-Stars, B.B. King, Miriam Makeba, The Spinners, Bill Withers, The Crusaders, Manu Dibango and, oh yeah, James Brown. (Side note: If I’m going into the ring, I want James Brown to sing me in. I don’t care how it turned out for Apollo Creed.)
For all the hype, the fighters did not disappoint. Far younger and more powerful, the 25-year-old Foreman was heavily favored. At 32, Ali had been separated from his title for seven years at this point. Known for his finesse and quickness, few believed Ali was still that same fighter.
He was not. In fact, he was something so much greater. In every capacity, Ali defeated his stronger opponent with his brain. He abandoned his own style of bobbing and weaving, instead allowing Foreman to work his body on the ropes, guarding strategically against blows to the head. When Foreman, weary of throwing punches, tangled up with his opponent, Ali taunted him relentlessly. He egged him on, angered him, cajoled him into throwing yet more punches.
When Foreman broke to catch his breath, Ali landed devastating right-handed shots to the face. By the 8th round, the unthinkable had become the inevitable. Foreman fell for a nine-count. He regained his footing but the refs had stopped the fight. Ali was, once again, champion of the world.
And the event, held at 4 AM local time to correspond with a U.S. prime time closed-circuit theater release, took the marriage of sport and spectacle to new heights.
9. Carli Lloyd’s World Cup Hat Trick – July 5, 2015
Ever seen a 0-0 tie in a soccer game? That’s an actual thing that really happens. Talk about a depressing sporting event. I’m sure that the goalies are both sitting in their respective locker rooms feeling pretty great about themselves. But everybody else involved in a 0-0 tie should feel like a flaming heap of garbage, including the fans.
You should feel especially bad because Carli Lloyd can do in 15 minutes what it probably takes your whole team half a season to do. In the summer of 2015, the U.S. women’s soccer team faced off with Japan in the World Cup final in Vancouver. I’ll spare you the suspense and tell you that it was never close.
Carli Lloyd rather single-handedly (footedly?) dismantled the Japanese team and became only the second player in history to score a hat-trick within the first 16 minutes of a game. The first two came in under two minutes. Then, just after 15 minutes, Lloyd put her team ahead 4-0 with a shot from half-field that caught the Japanese goaltender unforgivably far off the line.
Talk about a confidence-builder. The U.S. team never looked back, marching to a 5-2 victory and its first title in 16 years. Lloyd was named the FIFA Player of the Year and her scoring outburst remains among the most stellar moments in the game’s recent history.
10. Candy Cummings Invents the Curveball – Oct. 7, 1867
It’s hard to think of an innovation outside of the hot dog that had a greater impact on the sport of baseball than the curveball. And much like the hot dog, the curveball was born when divine inspiration met human ingenuity. It is said that a 14-year-old Cummings first became obsessed with the idea of making objects curve mid-flight while skipping clam shells with his buddies.
When he saw what he could do with a clam shell, he became fixated on the idea of making a baseball do the same thing. For four years, the Brooklyn native experimented in secret while rising through the amateur ranks and eventually becoming the starting pitcher for the Excelsior club in 1867. It was here that he determined to debut his deceptive pitch, particularly as he faced down power-hitting Archie Bush.
Cummings described the results of the showdown in an 1892 article for The Sporting News:
“Snapping the ball with a wrist movement and getting it to spin through the air caused an air cushion to gradually form around the ball, gradually throwing the sphere out of a true course and turning it in the direction of the least resistance. When he struck at the ball it seemed to go about a foot beyond the end of his stick. I tried again with the same result, and then I realized that I had succeeded at last. A surge of joy flooded over me that I shall never forget.… I said not a word, and saw many a batter at that game throw down his stick in disgust. Every time I was successful I could scarcely keep from dancing with pure joy.”
Who could blame him? Cummings had knowingly invented one of the most important weapons in a pitcher’s arsenal. It remains, to date, the preferred way of outsmarting over-eager power hitters. It also helped Cummings secure an average of 31 wins each season for the next four.
And how cool is this? On September 9th, 1876, Cummings became the only major leaguer in history to start, complete and win both games of a double-header. Pretty sure nobody’s breaking that record.
Cummings was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1939 for his stellar career but really, he was worthy of enshrinement for his invention alone.
These are our favorite moments of athletic genius. Feel free to share some of your own!