I was a freshman at Auburn when it happened.
I was there.
First, a blocked extra point. Then a blocked punt returned for a touchdown. Incredibly, there was a second blocked punt returned for a touchdown. In the space of a few minutes, Auburn had scored 17 points and turned certain defeat into a 17-16 victory.
Soon there was a popular hangout in Auburn named “Punt, Bama, Punt.” Thirty years later, there is a restaurant near Toomer’s Corner named “Seventeen-Sixteen.” It was the greatest comeback victory in Auburn’s football history.
Until this week.
Another generation of Auburn faithful will now be talking about Auburn coming back from a 24-point deficit to beat their hated rival 28-27 in Tuscaloosa. It wasn’t just that the win kept their undefeated season and their chance to play for a national championship intact. No, it was more important than that. It was a win over Alabama, which every native of the State of Alabama knows is the most important thing of all.
I have been on the losing side enough to know how much it hurts. For 10 straight years beginning in my elementary school time, Bear Bryant’s teams put a whipping on Auburn. After the losses, I would beg not to go to school on Monday to face my friends. No matter the excuse, my mother wouldn’t buy it.
The worst was when Auburn had kept it a relatively close game and my Bama friends would pretend to be nice by saying we played a good game. No one likes a moral victory in football. Especially against Alabama.
Sports history is full of great comeback victories. One of favorites was in the 2004 American League Championship Series. The Boston Red Sox were down 0-3 in a best of seven series. They had lost the third game by the lopsided score of 19-8.
No team in baseball history had ever come back from a three-game deficit. It was the ninth inning of Game 4, and the Yankees were ahead by one run. Only three outs until the Yankees would sweep the series against their most hated rival.
The Red Sox tied the game, which went into extra innings. Without giving up, the Red Sox pulled out their first victory. They made history by winning in the 7th game. The Sox went on to beat the St. Louis Cardinals in the World Series, their first in 86 years. For a baseball fan, it won’t ever get better than this.
One of the greatest examples of individual achievement occurred in the 2004 season when Tracy McGrady of the Rockets scored 13 points in the last 35 seconds of a game against the San Antonio Spurs. This included the game winning 3-pointer with just 1.7 seconds left to win the game by one point.
One of golf’s greatest comeback victories was in 1986 when Jack Nicklaus shot a 30 on the back nine at Augusta. He made up a six-shot deficit and passed a half dozen great players to win the Masters at age 46. Middle-aged men worldwide cheered that victory.
Thanks to a movie that can bring the hardest man to tears, the U.S. Olympic Hockey team of 1980 is a comeback that transcends any love for the sport. For the last 10 minutes of the match against the heavily favored Soviet team, all that could be heard in the packed arena was the chant of “U-S-A, U-S-A.”
As the final 10 seconds ticked away, ABC broadcaster Al Michaels gained an immortality of sorts. “Do you believe in miracles?” he shouted, and at the final buzzer he answered for us all, “Yes!”
Sometimes the miracle is not about the score, but rather the individual athlete overcoming personal adversity.
Lance Armstrong came back from testicular cancer in 1996 and won the Tour de France several more times.
Magic Johnson announced to a stunned sports world that he had tested positive for the HIV virus in 1991. After a brief retirement, he returned to pro basketball with the 1992 Olympic Dream Team and the 1996 Lakers. He went on to become a very successful businessman.
Hockey great Mario Lemieux sat out the 1995 season because of Hodgkin’s disease, only to return the next year, playing in 70 games and leading the NHL in scoring.
Michael Jordan was cut from his high school varsity basketball team as a 10th-grader.
Boxing great Rocky Marciano only became a boxer after he was cut from the Chicago Cubs farm system. He couldn’t make it as a baseball player.
Albert Einstein was considered a poor student; he failed to gain admittance to engineering school, and he lamented his “lack of imagination” in a letter to a friend.
Sprinter Wilma Rudolph won the Olympic gold medal, just 10 years after having her legs in braces from polio.
We love inspiring personal comebacks. We love competitive sports comebacks. It is the reason there are still people in the stands when the game is long lost. It gives us hope and cause to really believe that it ain’t over till the fat lady sings.