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Unlikely Sports Heroes of 2016

Like an underdog, every sports fan can appreciate an unlikely hero.

What a year 2016 was for unlikely heroes, too. The absolutely loaded calendar of events offered plenty of chances for heroes to etch legacies for themselves.

Basketball had plenty between college and pros. The Super Bowl doesn’t get decided without one. Outside of traditional sports, the Olympics in Rio saw many rise to the occasion.

Oh, and this was the year of the Chicago Cubs.

Without further ado, here is a look at the unlikely sports heroes of 2016.

The clash between the Carolina Panthers and Denver Broncos, the almighty 50th Super Bowl and Peyton Manning’s riding-off-into-sunset moment…was decided by a kicker.

Fans remember the 24-10 outcome, an almost boring affair for those who don’t like defensive-minded contests.

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What they might not recall is Manning and Cam Newton combining for two interceptions.

Denver kicker Brandon McManus didn’t have any such problem. The man almost outscored the Panthers on his own, knocking through all three of his attempts. Add in an extra point and he tied the Panthers.

Not bad for an undrafted free agent out of Temple.

Fans had to know a Cinderella or two would make the list.

How about Paul Jesperson of NIU? Even if folks don’t remember Jesperson’s name, they surely remember the half-court shot at the buzzer that sank Texas.

The shot with 2.7 seconds left allowed NIU, an 11th seed, to down the favorite, sixth-seeded Texas.

NIU would go on to lose in the next game, but the best shot of the bracket will live on forever.

When one thinks of the Stanley Cup triumph for the Pittsburgh Penguins last year, names such as Sidney Crosby, Phil Kessel and many others come to mind.

Bryan Rust, at least before the playoffs, wasn’t a name many would mention.

Rust, all of 24 years old, played in 55 career games and scored five goals over his first two years in the NHLthen proceeded to play in 23 games in the postseason while scoring six goals. Three of those goals came over the final two games of the Eastern Conference Finals.

It makes perfect sense, too. Championship pushes require someone like Rust stepping up and striking while the attention is elsewhere.

One of the most impressive upsets of the NCAA tournament last year wound up orchestrated by a member of the Yale Bulldogs, just like everyone predicted.

The honors went to Makai Mason, who dropped 31 points as his No. 12 Bulldogs moved past the No. 5 Baylor Bears.

For perspective, that was Mason’s highest output of the year, his first year playing starter minutes.

In a bracket littered with noteworthy, unexpected performances, Mason’s was one of a few that truly came out of nowhere and stunned onlookers.

The world of horse racing was never going to have an easy time living up to the Triple Crown triumph of American Pharoah.

Creator sure tried.

The Steven Asmussen-trained horse didn’t have to worry about the season’s favorite contender, Nyquist. This absence didn’t make Creator’s triumph in the Belmont Stakes any less impressive.

There, Creator bested favorites such as Exaggerator (trained by the Desormeaux brothers), Destin (Todd Pletcher), Stradivari (Pletcher again) and Cherry Wine (Dale Romans).

While not a Triple Crown, Creator came out of almost nowhere to steal one of the biggest races of the year.

What makes an unlikely hero? Besting a legend at their own game? Winning the first gold medal for your sport in your country’s history?

Why not both?

Helen Maroulis did this in Rio, becoming the first woman from the United States to secure a gold medal in wrestling.

Maroulis, 24, took down Saori Yoshida, 33, the three-time defending champion.

Incredibly, Maroulis wasn’t even sure if she would make weight beforehand.

I think Im about to be the biggest failure at the Olympics, Maroulis said, according to Nick Zaccardi of NBCOlympics.com. I dont even know if Im going to make weight.

Maroulis doesn’t have a future in fortune tellingand that’s quite fine.

It all seemed too predictable.

If the Cleveland Cavaliers were going to somehow overcome the Golden State Warriors, it was going to happen via an unbelievable performance from LeBron James. Yawn, really, because LeBron carrying a team and perhaps getting let down seemed the usual.


Kyrie Irving had something to say about this narrative. While a great player, Irving hadn’t shown enough to suggest he was going to be the complementary piece needed for a title.

Most notably, Irving shot 32.1 percent from deep on the 2015-16 season. In the Finals? Irving bumped it to 40.5 percent.

And everyone remembers his clutch three in Game 7 to end it.

Katie Ledecky has some company.

In Rio, Simone Manuel became the first female African-American swimmer to register a victory in an individual event thanks to a gold in the 100-meter freestyle.

Manuel is teammates with Ledecky at Stanford, so it is like a case of iron sharpening iron. At 20 years old, Manuel has just started what is sure to be an epic career.

Now a household name, there won’t be anything unlikely about Manuel’s next dominant performance.

An unlikely hero can show up at the last minute as well.

Such is the case with Michelle Carter, the first American woman to seize gold in the shot put event.

Carter etched her name into the history books on the final throw.

She had silver in the bag regardless but knew history was at hand and took down two-time gold medalist Valerie Adams.

That was a big throw, Adams said, according to Karen Rosen of TeamUSA.org. You can never underestimate The Stone Builders Rejected anybody, especially Michelle. Shes one of these people that can pop out anything, especially in the last round.”

When the competition tips the hat, a hero cements their status.

Really, the entire Cubs team could classify as an unlikely hero for obvious reasons.

Forced to narrow it down, though, who could look past Dexter Fowler as one of the best examples?

Fowler, 30, only hit 13 home runs during the regular season. So of course, the veteran stepped to the plate and led off Game 7 with a homer to set the tone and break the curse.

Kicking off the shattering of a 108-year drought with a homer sent 410 feet? Heroic.


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