Reporting David Elfin
While Washington hasn’t been able to brag about a championship pro team other than World Team Tennis’ Kastles or soccer’s D.C. United during the past decade, we’ve still had our share of unforgettable moments during that time.
Incredibly, two of those “do you remember where you were when?” moments took place in the span of less than 72 hours in the sports week that ended this past Sunday night.
Obviously, the first of the two was right fielder Jayson Werth’s walkoff homer in the bottom of the ninth last Thursday that won Game 4 of the National League Division Series against St. Louis and kept the host Nationals’ season going – for only one more night, as it turned out. And the second, of course, was rookie quarterback Robert Griffin III’s 76-yard, record-setting dash that clinched the Redskins’ victory over Minnesota that ended their year-long home losing streak.
Both Werth, as the Nats’ first major free agent signee, and Griffin, whose acquisition cost the Redskins three first-round draft picks and a second-rounder, made Washington sports history before they ever put on a home uniform. Oddly, that’s true of most of the other creators of the top memories of the past decade, all of which had to have happened here ruling out such events as Santana Moss’ two touchdowns on bombs from Mark Brunell at Dallas on “Monday Night Football” in 2005, Alex Ovechkin’s unreal, sliding goal at Phoenix in 2006, Joel Ward’s overtime goal that ousted the Stanley Cup champion Bruins back in April, or Gilbert Arenas’ 60-point explosion at the Los Angeles Lakers in 2006.
Washington’s first unforgettable moment of the past decade happened on the third play of Hall of Famer Joe Gibbs’ return as the Redskins’ coach on Sept. 12, 2004. Clinton Portis took a step left, cut back and scooted 64 yards to the end zone for the first points in a 16-10 victory over Tampa Bay. While that wasn’t the start of a return to glory by the Redskins, Portis, who became best known for dressing up as wacky characters, would power Gibbs and Co. to playoff berths in 2005 and 2007 and finish as the second-leading rusher in Washington history.
Like Portis, Arenas sometimes seemed like he lived on a different planet from the rest of us. So we shouldn’t have been surprised that on a night that he made just six of 24 shots, Arenas turned around the game by blocking a layup attempt by Chicago’s Kirk Hinrich with 2:41 left in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals on May 6, 2005 at Verizon Center. That triggered a 7-0 run which turned a four-point deficit into a 94-91 victory that won the series, giving Washington – which had lost the first two games — its first playoff triumph in 23 years. That still remains the franchise’s lone such success since 1982.
Portis’ University of Miami teammate, Sean Taylor, provided the next indelible moment, scooping up a Mike Vanderjagt field goal try that Troy Vincent had blocked and racing into Dallas territory to set up Nick Novak’s 47-yard field goal that beat the archrival Cowboys in Landover on Nov. 5, 2006. Sadly, Taylor would be shot to death at 24 a little over a year later.
When Arenas got cooking, he was near-impossible to stop. “Agent Zero” was never hotter than in the winter of 2006-07. The highlight was a buzzer-beating three-pointer that finished a 51-point outing and topped Utah on Martin Luther King Day on F Street.
A case could be made for baseball’s return to Washington on April 14, 2005 because we had waited 33 years for that moment, but Ryan Zimmerman’s walkoff homer that beat Atlanta in the bottom of the ninth in the first game at Nats Park on March 31, 2008 was more dramatic because it wasn’t planned for months.
The Caps’ best moments came a week apart in the spring of 2009. Sergei Fedorov was 39 when he got the puck from Matt Bradley in his own zone, zoomed down the ice and fired a high shot from the right circle that beat Henrik Lundqvist and the New York Rangers to give Washington its first postseason series triumph in 11 years on April 28. Just seven days later, Ovechkin’s hat trick trumped one by Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby because it ended with the goal that beat the Penguins to give the Caps a 2-0 lead in the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Appropriately, Stephen Strasburg – as hyped as Ovechkin before him and Griffin, John Wall and Bryce Harper after him during this unprecedented accumulation of young talent in D.C. – delivered the most recent indelible memory prior to the ones that Werth and Griffin just gave us. Just a a year after being drafted first overall by the Nats, the 21-year-old flamethrower beat Pittsburgh on June 8, 2010 while striking out 14, one shy of the major league record for a debut. Strasburg fanned the final seven Pirates he faced before exiting to the roar of the crowd, which is what great moments are all about, after all.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last two Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since last March. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin