Somewhere along the line, it seems as if being a sports fan stopped being fun. Doubt that? Listen in to sports talk radio, read the local sports pages. Whining, moaning, foaming, raging dominate. But there are old-fashioned feel-good sports tales, too, even if they don’t always get the same sort of attention that grousing about the Twins, Vikings, Timberwolves and Wild does. Here, a look at the stories from the past year that made us feel good about being a sports fan:
1. The Minnesota Lynx. It helps that the Lynx offer a fan-friendly environment (tickets are affordable and the players actually seem to appreciate their supporters), but it’s more than that: the team also might be the best-run franchise in town, with a star, Maya Moore, who is the player in the league. Moore benefits from the unselfish and gritty play of Lindsay Whalen, who is likely the most popular female athlete in the state’s history. The team won the league championship in 2011 and 2013, but was defeated in the Western Conference finals last season — a level of success that has made this team a model for local girls and young women who have dreams of being athletes.
2. Tierney Winter and Kailee Kiminski. At the girls state high school cross country meet in early November, ninth-grader Jessica Christoffer from Jackson County Central High fell from exhaustion — 50 meters short of the finish line. Tierney Winter, a junior from Janesville, and Kailee Kiminski, a senior from Esko, stopped and picked up Christoffer, helping her finish the race. All three were disqualified: a Minnesota High School League rule prohibiting runners from assisting other runners. From a competitive standpoint, the rule makes sense, but many, including Gov. Mark Dayton, were moved by the selflessness of the act. Dayton honored the three for their display of sportsmanship. Winter had a simple explanation for her act: “I wouldn’t want to be left out there if it was me.”
3. Macalester football. Remember “the streak?” From 1974 to 1980, the Macalester College football team lost 50 successive games, a streak that remains a Division III record. (Northwestern holds the Division I record, a paltry 34-game losing streak from 1979 to 1982.) That streak always will be part of the Scots’ football legacy, but this year’s team did its best to change the narrative. Macalester won the Midwest College Conference title, its first outright conference title since 1925, and it made its first-ever appearance in the Division III playoffs. Unfortunately, the Scots were matched up against perennial D-III power Wisconsin-Whitewater and a nice story came to 55-2 end. Still, Macalester finished the season with a 9-2 record. And its players actually attended classes.
4. The return of Justin Morneau. On July 7, 2010, the direction of the Minnesota Twins took a dramatic turn toward the bottom of the standings. On what appeared to be a routine slide into second base, superstar Justin Morneau suffered a concussion. At the time, Morneau was batting .345 and had been selected by fans to be the American League’s starting first baseman in the All Star Game. Over the next two seasons, Morneau sustained a series of injuries and suffered another concussion. The star had become an average player and was traded by the Twins to Pittsburgh in August of 2013. He seemed destined to remain mediocre — until last season. Morneau signed a contract with Colorado, led the National League in hitting and he also made an emotional return to Minnesota when he competed in the home run Derby as part of All Star game festivities. Morneau, who had won the home run Derby in 2008, hit just two home runs in the derby, but the ovations for him were huge. Morneau clearly was touched by the reception, holding his cap over his heart in acknowledging the cheers.
5. Jerry Kill and the resurrection of Gopher football. Recall that 15 months ago, there was a belief by many that Kill should be replaced as the University’s football coach, thanks to his history of suffering in-game seizures. But in the wake of the triumphs of this season, which is ending with the Gophers playng in a New Year’s Day bowl game for the first time since 1962, that tune has changed. Kill’s been named the Big Ten coach of the year, and when ESPN asked college coaches were asked who they’d want their sons to play for, Kill was rated tied for third in the country. He has also become a major spokesman on behalf of people with epilepsy, those he refers to as “my people.’’ He’s donated $100,000 to the Epilepsy Foundation of Minnesota to start the Chasing Dreams Fund, which is to assist schools in the state to set up “seizure smart iniatives.’’ More importantly, according to Vicki Kopplin, executive director of the Epilepsy Foundation of Minnesota, Kill has led to a national understanding of epilepsy. “He’s a national story in the best possible of ways,’’ said Kopplin. “No longer are there questions about whether somebody with epilepsy can handle a high stress job.’‘