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The year that was - sports surprised in ’06

    Joey Cheek grabbed a seat at the head table after the greatest race of his athletic career, very much aware that all those folks in front of him, with their cameras and microphones and notepads, would be hanging on his every word.
    What did Cheek do with his moment in the spotlight at the Turin Olympics? Let’s spice things up with a multiple-choice quiz:
    A) He jumped on top of the table and unleashed an obscenity-filled rant about being the greatest speedskater in the history of the world.
    B) He used the time to rip a rival, rattling off all sorts of perceived slights that showed a lack of respect.
    C) He screamed out a shameless marketing ploy that lined his wallet with a wad of Benjamins. ‘‘Hey, everyone, I’m going to Disney World!’’
    And the answer is ... none of the above.
    Instead of those tried-and-true tactics, Cheek announced to a stunned gathering that he was giving away his Olympic bonus — all $25,000 — to help refugees of a devastating war in Africa.
    ‘‘I do a pretty ridiculous thing. I skate around in tights,’’ he said. ‘‘But because I skated well, I have a chance to bring exposure to bigger things.’’
    In this era of self-aggrandizing, where every act seems calculated to land a spot on SportsCenter (did someone say T.O.?), Cheek’s selfless act might have been the biggest stunner of the year.
    Not that there weren’t plenty of surprises across the sporting landscape. The Pittsburgh Steelers rode a Bus all the way to a Super Bowl title. The Atlanta Braves failed to make the baseball playoffs for the first time since Dubya’s daddy was president. The University of Florida — deep in the heart of football country — won a national championship in men’s basketball, of all things. The New Orleans Saints inspired their hurricane-ravaged city to get back on its feet, returning to the Big Easy in time for an unexpected run to the NFL playoffs.
    As always, the games and those who play them found plenty of ways to veer away from the projected script, which makes it a little easier to comprehend how the World Series could include the Detroit Tigers, just three years removed from a 119-loss season, and not the New York Yankees, whose bloated payroll and all-star roster was only good enough to earn a first-round exit from the playoffs.
    Even those who surprised got a chance to see how the other half lives. After reaching the Fall Classic for the first time since 1984, the Tigers suddenly took on the look of a favorite. Alas, Detroit was shunted aside in five listless games by the St. Louis Cardinals, who barely made the playoffs and wound up having the fewest regular-season wins (83) of any Series champion.
    ‘‘I think we shocked the world,’’ Cardinals center fielder Jim Edmonds said.
    So did Cheek after winning the 500-meter Olympic speedskating crown, providing a welcome respite from the ugly Americans in Italy.
    Skiing star Bode Miller flopped badly on the slopes and hardly seemed to care, partying the nights away like he had a bunch of medals around his neck. Two of Cheek’s teammates, Chad Hedrick and Shani Davis, captured gold in Turin but made more headlines when they went public with their enmity for each other. Lindsey Jacobellis cost herself a sure win in the wild new sport of snowboardcross when she hot-dogged a jump near the finish line and fell, allowing someone else to shred on by.
    Then there was Cheek, who used his soapbox to bring attention to the brutal war in Darfur, a region of Sudan where three years of fighting between government and rebel forces have caused the deaths of more than 200,000 people and forced some 2.5 million from their homes.
    He gave a total of $40,000 — later adding the $15,000 he earned for capturing silver in the 1,000 — to Right to Play, a humanitarian organization founded by another speedskating champion, Johann Olav Koss. Cheek urged others to follow his lead, and they did by forking over a half a million dollars.
    ‘‘It’s so incredible,’’ Cheek said.
    Back on the field, the Steelers won their fifth Super Bowl title with a group that hardly matched up to their first four champions — the Steel Curtain dynasty, with its roster full of Hall of Famers.
    Other than Jerome ‘‘the Bus’’ Bettis, the running back whose next stop is Canton, Pittsburgh was a largely anonymous, working-class team that fit right in with its Terrible Towel-waving faithful and iron-jawed coach, Bill Cowher.
    The Steelers had to win their last four regular-season games just to make the playoffs. Then, they beat the NFL’s top teams: Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Denver and Seattle, all away from home. The 21-10 triumph over the Seahawks made Pittsburgh the first No. 6 seed to win the Super Bowl.
    For Bettis, it was a poignant farewell. He finally won his first title — in his hometown of Detroit, no less — then retired to the broadcast booth as the league’s No. 5 career rusher.
    ‘‘This is why I started 13 years ago,’’ Bettis said. ‘‘Along the way, I amassed a lot of yards and a lot of Pro Bowls, but none of that was significant because it wasn’t the team goals. The team goal has always been to win a championship, and now I have a championship.’’
    The Braves have plenty of championships, though most of them are of the regular-season variety. Beginning with the worst-to-first season of 1991, they put together an amazing run of 14 straight division titles — unmatched in any of the four major sports.
    The streak ended with a resounding thud in 2006. Atlanta didn’t even get a chance to do its usual postseason flop, plodding to the finish in third place, 18 games behind the New York Mets in the NL East.
    ‘‘It does feel as bad as I thought it would,’’ said John Smoltz, the only guy who was there from the first division title to the last. ‘‘Not the fact that we’re not in. It’s the fact that we’re not even close.’’
    Florida had been close before in men’s basketball, getting all the way to the title game in 2000 before losing to Michigan State. Still, the Gators were used to playing second fiddle on their own campus to the football team, which dominated the Southeastern Conference for years under swashbuckling coach Steve Spurrier.
    That lack of status didn’t stop Billy Donovan from building a power of his own. Ten years after the ‘‘Kid’’ arrived in Gainesville — ignoring the advice of his mentor, Rick Pitino — the Gators reached the top with a resounding 73-57 win over UCLA, the grandest name in the sport. As if to show just how unorthodox this journey was, Florida was led to its championship by Joakim Noah, the son of a French tennis star.
    ‘‘This is the best I’ve ever felt in my life,’’ Noah said. ‘‘You work so hard for these moments. They’re so worth it.’’
    Florida wasn’t even the biggest surprise at the Final Four. That distinction belonged to George Mason, a commuter school in suburban Washington that became America’s team with its run to Indianapolis.
    But no team was more inspiring than the Saints, who fled New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and were forced to play their entire 2005 season on the road.
    With much of the city still in ruins but the Superdome having undergone a hurried, $185 million renovation, the Saints returned in September for their first post-Katrina home game. They brought along Reggie Bush, who inexplicably was passed over by Houston in the draft and fell to a city that needed all the good news it could get.
    Although a sport played by millionaires has done little to relieve the actual suffering in devastated areas such as the Lower Ninth Ward, the Saints have done their part to make the Big Easy feel a little better about itself. After going 3-13 last season, they won the NFC South and earned a first-round playoff under rookie coach Sean Payton and a potent lineup led by Bush and quarterback Drew Brees.
    ‘‘It meant a lot to them when the Saints didn’t leave in their time of need,’’ Bush said. ‘‘When the people of New Orleans needed something to look to for confidence and something to be proud of, they looked to the Saints.’’
    Even with all the drug scandals, inflated egos, out-of-control salaries and spiraling ticket prices, one team — the Saints — and one speedskater — Cheek — showed sports still has the power to amaze and inspire.
    Maybe that’s the biggest surprise of 2006.

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