Benner/Sports and Sports/Recreation

BENNER: 2012 had an abundance of moments to savor

December 29, 2012

If winning and losing are the meat and potatoes of sports, the spices come from the unpredictable outcomes, the ability to rise above adversity, and the comebacks from the depths to reach the heights.

Those made the sports year of 2012 in Indianapolis and Indiana unlike any I can recall.

At virtually every juncture, there was inspiration to be drawn from something unforeseen, from a daunting challenge being overcome, from an improbable comeback.

Let’s start with the Indianapolis Colts, who were all of the above.

There was the total reconstruction of the franchise, from a new general manager to a new coach to a new quarterback to a host of new faces. From week to week, you really couldn’t tell the players without a program.

And then there was, to use his word, the “circumstance” of head coach Chuck Pagano, struck down by leukemia, replaced by venerable assistant Bruce Arians who then led the team into the playoffs, the clinching game perfectly coinciding with Pagano’s return from treatment.

His was the comeback in a season of comebacks (remember those Green Bay and Detroit games?) for the Chuckstrong Colts, a team believed to be too young, too patched together, too Peyton Manning-less to do anything more than mail this season in, in anticipation of better days to come.

But that’s the beautiful thing about sports. There is no such thing as a sure thing. And given the right mind-set and leadership, people can achieve the unimaginable.

Take our little Super Bowl city, for example. Remember, we only got the 2012 game because Dallas and Cowboys owner Jerry Jones swept in and pulled the 2011 Super Bowl out from beneath us.

The North Texas game turned out to be a weather-bitten disaster. Ours was a weather-blessed success beyond the expectations of almost everyone except Mark Miles, Allison Melangton, a who’s-who cast of professional staff and a collection of creative, energized and insanely devoted volunteers.

Knocked it out of the park is what they did, earning universal praise and the NFL’s encouragement to go after another.

Yes, get the right people in the right places, and who knows what can happen … isn’t that right, Indiana Fever? Our perennial bridesmaid WNBA team lost not one, but two starters to injuries, and fell behind in their first two playoff series. But coach Lin Dunn’s team just wouldn’t let “circumstance”—thanks again, Chuck—dictate outcome. And so there they were, hoisting the trophy, in particular the consummate example of class and character, Tamika Catchings.

What were the odds? Ask Hoosier diver David Boudia, not staring up at those daunting Chinese divers in the London Olympics, but staring down their challenge with a steely performance and walking away with a most improbable gold medal.

It was an amazing comeback—there’s that word again—for Boudia who, remember, barely qualified for the finals.

Indeed, the comebacks just kept on coming. Tradition-laden university programs—like Notre Dame football and Indiana basketball—both believed to be living in the long-ago past, rose to the top of the polls and made themselves truly relevant again.

Ditto for the Indiana Pacers, so ignored for so long, compiling the NBA’s fifth-best record and taking the hugely favored and eventual champion Miami Heat to the wall before bowing out in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

IU soccer and Marian University football both claimed national championships. IU soccer did it as the lowest seeded (16th) team to claim a title; Marian won it all a mere six years after starting football from scratch.

A comeback of a different sort: that of professional golf to Indiana. The BMW Championship resulted in a victory for young Rory McElroy, but it was also a triumph for tournament organizers at Crooked Stick, who dealt with enormous crowds, weather challenges, parking issues—and did it all so well the BMW was recognized as the PGA’s tournament of the year.

So many other moments. We had perhaps the raciest Indy 500 in years, won by Dario Franchitti, but only after a last-lap, win-or-crash move by Japan’s Takuma Sato (he crashed). There was that big-hearted Little League team from New Castle, dedicating its World Series journey to a fallen coach. We had Butler University’s epic overtime win over then-No. 1-ranked Indiana.

Inspiring. Improbable. Incredible. It was that kind of year in sports in Indiana.•

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Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs of the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.

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