The hardest part about filling out this piece? Choosing only ten pictures from the hundreds and even thousands of legendary sports photos that have, over generations, been snapped.
So much has to go right to create a sports photo that is remembered years and decades after it is taken. The lighting has to be perfect. The individual behind the camera has to snap the photo at the ideal moment; a quarter of a second off, and the picture isn’t what it could have been.
Memorable celebrations. Poignant moments. A football star relaxing in a chair. All are included in this list.
These are the 10 most iconic American sports photos of all time.
10. The Greatest Game Ever Played
The NFL is the undisputed king of North American professional sports in the summer of 2014. That was not always the case, however, and it wasn’t when the Baltimore Colts and New York Giants met at Yankee Stadium in December 1958 for the NFL Championship.
The Giants outscored the Colts 14-3 in the second half to erase what was an 11-point deficit. With the score deadlocked after four quarters, the game went into overtime, a first in the history of the NFL Championship Game.
No NFL Championship Game/Super Bowl has since been decided by Sudden Death.
The Giants punted after going three-and-out, and Baltimore marched down the opposite end of the field. Alan Ameche then, on the final play of the game, ran into the end zone from the one-yard line to win the title for the Colts.
9. Chuck Bednarik
Sports, particularly pro football in this instance, aren’t always beautiful. They are often gruesome and downright difficult to behold for those watching in the stands and on television.
Two Pro Football Hall of Fame inductees collided on November 20, 1960 to make for a moment that showed the harshness of what is now truly America’s Game. Known for being a tough tackler, a Philadelphia Eagles defensive star leveled New York Giants running back Frank Gifford with a devastating hit. Bednarik celebrated the blow while Gifford lay prone on his back.
Nobody could have known at that time that Gifford would miss a year and a half of football because of that shot.
8. Olympic Heartbreak
American distance runner Mary Decker missed the 1976 and 1980 Summer Olympics through no fault of her own. Injuries kept her out of the ’76 Games, while the United States boycotted the 1980 Olympics which were held in Moscow.
Decker, the favorite to win the 3000 meter run at the 1984 Summer Olympics held in Los Angeles, found herself running side-by-side next to Zola Budd of Great Britain. Decker and Budd collided, and the American crashed to the track surface. In tears due to her Olympic dream having been crushed, Decker had to eventually be helped off the track.
7. Broadway Joe
New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath made headlines when he famously guaranteed that his team would upset the Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III. That the Jets did, defeating the favorites 16-7 to win what is the only title to date in the history of the franchise.
Some would point to the picture of Namath raising his index finger in the “We’re No. 1” gesture as he ran off of the field at the conclusion of that Super Bowl as being the better photo. The picture of Namath reclining two days before the Big Game is everything that made Broadway Joe all that he was. A man days away from playing in the most important game of his life didn’t have a care in the world.
That’s Namath in a nutshell.
6. Miracle On Ice
It’s completely cliché to say, and it also happens to be 100 percent accurate. Sports bring out emotions from athletes and from fans more than any other form of entertainment out there.
The United States defeating the Soviet Union in the 1980 Winter Olympics wasn’t just a great underdog story. That was a result that was never supposed to happen, and that the US achieved maybe the greatest upset in hockey history on home ice made the day just that much more special for all wearing red-white-and-blue in the arena.
Pure joy. That is what was captured in this picture of the US players celebrating the “Miracle on Ice.”
5. Silent protest
1968 was one of the most tumultuous years of the 20th century. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated. Civil Rights protests occurred throughout the country. Cities burned.
Turmoil not withstanding, the ’68 Summer Olympics went on. American runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos competed in the Final of the 200 meters, with Smith winning Gold and Carlos earning Bronze. The two men, sporting black gloves over one of their hands, raised their fists in the so-called “Black Power” gesture.
Sports and politics often don’t mix, but it’s sometimes powerful when they do.
4. Carlton Fisk
There will, every year moving forward, be future Boston fans born into this world who will never have known what it was like to live through “The Curse” that saw the Red Sox go nearly 90 years without winning the World Series. That supposed curse had not been broken in 1975 when Carlton Fisk stepped up to the plate in the bottom of the twelfth inning of Game 6 of the World Series.
With the Red Sox facing elimination at home versus the Cincinnati Red Sox, Fisk launched a shot down the left field line. As an entire ballpark watched in anticipation, Fisk verbally and physically willed the ball fair.
It worked. Fisk’s iconic home run won the game for Boston, but the Reds would go on to win Game 7 and the series.
3. Bobby Orr
Sometimes, the stars align to make for a sports moment that is seemingly meant to live forever.
Plenty of players have, throughout history, netted goals to clinch Stanley Cup championships. Not all of those tallies ended title droughts of nearly four decades, and certainly not all of them were buried by all-time legends.
The goal scored by Bobby Orr to win the Stanley Cup for the Boston Bruins in their series versus the St. Louis Blues is not, for non-Boston fans, all that special. Orr was tripped as the puck crossed the line, however, causing him to fly through the air with his arms stretched out. A statue commemorating that hockey moment for the ages resides outside of TD Garden, the home rink of the Bruins.
2. Say Hey
Sometimes, a single still photo fails to capture the true greatness of a moment. That’s the case as it pertains to the catch made by Willie Mays in the first game of the 1954 World Series.
The picture doesn’t show where Mays began his run. It doesn’t let you see the amount of ground made up by Mays as he tracked the ball into straightaway center field. That photo doesn’t show Mays immediately spinning and throwing the ball back toward the infield in order to prevent a run from scoring.
It is, nevertheless, baseball’s greatest picture, taken at the perfect time right as the ball is set to land into the glove of the Hall-of-Fame center fielder.
1. The Phantom Punch
It is the most famous single punch in the history of professional boxing, largely because so few saw it actually happen in real time.
Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston met in May 1965 for a rematch of a February 1964 contest that ended in controversy when Liston refused to come out of his corner for the seventh round. Midway through the first round of the rematch, Liston lunged forward to attempt to hit Ali with a jab. Ali, while dodging the Liston punch, connected with a lightning-quick retaliation known as an “Anchor Punch.”
Liston crumpled to the ground before laying flat on his back.
Ali, never one to keep quiet and perhaps even a bit surprised to see Liston felled by the single punch, stood over his conquered victim. “Get up and fight, sucker!” Ali yelled as he gestured in a moment that was captured by photographer Neil Leifer.
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