The Long Road to the Super Bowl

It’s never easy getting to the Super Bowl, but the journey was especially circuitous for many of this year’s participants.

Let’s start with the coaches. Kansas City’s Andy Reid has his fingerprints all over the league: seven of his former assistants are head coaches, but he’s only reached the Super Bowl once before–with the Eagles–and many blame his clock management for their loss to New England. Before last weekend, he was 1-5 in conference championships, and many have also pinned those losses on some of Reid’s questionable decisions. That being said, the first word that comes to mind when thinking about Reid is “beloved.” All around the league, coaches, players, and owners adore the guy. You could see it after the game last Sunday, as Reid was trying to make his way to his family and kept getting stopped by players to give him a hug. “I don’t know a coach that deserves it more,” said former Chiefs and Eagles head coach Dick Vermeil.

On the other sideline is Kyle Shanahan, son of Super Bowl winning coach Mike Shanahan, who handed his son the NFC Championship trophy last weekend. Kyle is only 40 years-old, three years removed from taking control of the 49ers, and already, Super Bowl ghosts follow him. He was the Falcons offensive coordinator in Super Bowl LI, when he kept dialing up pass plays even after Atlanta had a 28-3 lead. 31 unanswered points later, Tom Brady was hoisting another Super Bowl trophy. He seems to have learned his lesson, though: Against the Packers in the NFC Title game, Shanahan called 42 runs and only nine passes.

And who was taking those handoffs for San Francisco? That would be Raheem Mostert, who became the first player in NFL history to rush for over 200 yards and four touchdowns in a Conference Championship. He had been cut by six NFL teams before landing in San Francisco, and he has the date of each time he got the news he was being let go written on his phone. He looks at that list before every game, and will surely be looking again before the Super Bowl.

Then there’s the Chiefs’ Patrick Mahomes. One year ago, he arrived like a comet, dazzling the NFL with stats never before seen by a passer. He flamed out in the playoffs, sparring with Tom Brady and ultimately fell short in overtime. Brady found him after the game in the locker room and told the young quarterback to learn from the loss. Last weekend, it looked like another disappointing Conference Championship was in store for the Chiefs, down 10-0 early in the first quarter. Then, Mahomes started connecting with his receivers, and three touchdown passes and one amazing scamper to the end zone later, he’d punched his ticket to Miami. He’d learned from his loss.

There are so many other players who took the long road to the Super Bowl. The Chiefs’ Tyrann Mathieu has overcome addiction and injuries. A few years ago, many thought Richard Sherman would never return from a high ankle sprain. Jimmy Garoppollo played college football…where? The franchises, too, weren’t supposed to be here. Four years ago, the 49ers won two games. The Chiefs haven’t made a Super Bowl since 1970.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said that it’s not the destination, it’s the journey. When it comes to playing in the Super Bowl, it’s both.

The Super Bowl festivities begin on Opening Night this Monday at Marlins Park and will be televised on NFL Network.

(Chris Graythen / Getty Images)

Zion Was Worth the Wait

Following in the illustrious footsteps of Kobe and LeBron, Zion Williamson’s career has seemed predetermined–a straight line to NBA stardom and potential greatness. He became a household name in high school with his viral dunks, a star at Duke, who towered over his ACC opponents, and the first pick for the New Orleans Pelicans in the NBA Draft. Then he got hurt and missed the first half of the season, proving–yet again–that nothing comes easy.

On Wednesday, Williamson made his NBA debut against the San Antonio Spurs. It’s too early for a coronation, but Zion’s debut unquestionably felt special. It felt like the beginning of a new chapter in NBA history. Every generation a player comes along who goes on to define their sport. Patrick Mahomes appears to be one of those players in the NFL and newly-minted Hall of Famer Derek Jeter was one, too. And now comes Zion, who announced himself with an outburst of 17 straight points in three minutes of Wednesday night’s game. In that short time, he nailed three pointers, grabbed rebounds, and took total command of the game. Even though the Pelicans came up short, the Zion era has officially begun and it was certainly worth the wait.

Zion and the Pellies take on the Denver Nuggets tonight at 8 PM EST.

Quinn Rooney / Getty Images

Osaka Has a New Good Luck Charm

Going into the Australian Open, Naomi Osaka, the number three seed and defending champion, didn’t seem to have too many roadblocks in her way. She’s healthy after recovering from a shoulder injury in October, and has finished strongly in recent tournaments. The only problem? Her dad’s going to be watching from her box.

Osaka’s dad has never watched her play in a Grand Slam. That’s been his decision, she says, because having him there makes her nervous. She constantly looks at him and gets caught up in what he may be thinking. So he has chosen to stay home and root for Naomi from afar.

In her first-round match over Marie Bouzkova, Osaka’s father had the best seat in the house to watch his daughter win in straight sets, 6-2, 6-4. Afterwards, the 22-year-old tweeted a simple message, free of any lingering doubts: “I feel so happy.”

Scripture

Here are the best reads from this week that capture all the different aspects—tribes, relics, myths—that show why sports aren’t just like a religion. They are religion.

How a Former Bank Robber Saved Her Football Star Son from a System Unkind to the Mentally Ill

By Vince Beiser • Los Angeles Magazine

Antonio Carrion was once the best receiver in Los Angeles, landing in the pages of Sports Illustrated before graduating high school. His mother, however, missed those glory days. She was in prison for a series of bank robberies in Southern California. Years later, after she had been released, she found her son sleeping on the streets, struggling with schizophrenia. That’s when she started fighting to get him help—and to make up for lost time.

Cooler on the Other Side: The Extraordinary Life and Legacy of Stuart Scott

By Bryan Curtis • The Ringer

Five years after his all-to-soon death, Bryan Curtis enlists the help of Stuart Scott’s family, friends, and colleagues to remember the legendary sportscaster’s remarkable life in this oral history.

Alex Honnold Takes Us into the Great Indoors

By Caroline McCloskey • GQ

After the success of Free Solo, the Academy Award-winning film which documented mountain climber Alex Honnold’s free climbing summit of El Capitan, there’s a new, hip sport for those of us who are far removed from the majesty of Yosemite Valley. Enter the growing world of rock climbing gyms, and the community that has sprouted up around them.

Mike Stobe / Getty Images

One Last Curtain Call for the Captain

As Derek Jeter was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame this week with the second-largest share of the vote in history, there have been many retrospectives written about The Captain’s 20-year, 3,465 hit, and five World Series career. “From the moment Jeter pulled on pinstripes,” writes The Ringer’s Michael Bauman, “it seemed as if he’d been anointed as some kind of legend in the making.” Jeter’s brilliant career, for sure, had its storybook moments—the Mr. November home run, the 3,000th hit, the final walk off—but as we discussed with the Super Bowlers above, our sports stars rarely take such a simple and direct path to glory.

After being picked sixth in the 1992 MLB draft, Jeter hit .210 in his first season in the minor leagues. In his next one, he committed 56 errors. He was called up to the Big Leagues in 1995, went 0 for 5 in his first game, and was sent back down to the Minors a few weeks later. When he was struggling in Spring Training before the 1996 season, George Steinbrenner was so worried about Jeter’s play that he almost traded a promising reliever named Mariano Rivera for a veteran shortstop to take Jeter’s job. He didn’t, and on Opening Day, Jeter hit a home run. He went on to win the Rookie of the Year award and the Yankees went on to win the title.

This summer, when Derek Jeter is standing on the stage in Cooperstown, thousands of Yankees fans across the world will look back on his diving stops, his clutch hits, and his curtain calls. They’ll remember that the game always seemed to come so easy to him. We think the Captain will remember the tough times as being just as important.

Elsa / Getty Images

Old Testament

The Final Walk-Off (2014)

By J.R. Moehringer • ESPN The Magazine

The entire 2014 MLB season was one giant tribute to Derek Jeter. Before games in rival ballparks, team owners paid tribute to The Captain with words of gratitude, a check for his foundation, and an array of  gifts from a bucket of crabs from the Baltimore Orioles to a kayak from the Tampa Bay Rays to cowboy boots from the Texas Rangers (presented by former president George W. Bush). The tour was known as “The Long Goodbye,” its slogan “RE2PECT,” and in this essay for ESPN Magazine, J.R. Moehringer captures what the farewell tour said about sports and celebrity in America.

Last Words

“I try to relax as much as I can. Playing this game, I’m not afraid to fail. I don’t like it, and after I do it I don’t want to talk about it, but I’m not afraid of it, so every time I’m in a situation I try to think about times I’ve been successful and I try to relax.” –Derek Jeter