Five Unsung Boston Sports Heroes of the 2010s

2020 has been a year that most would like to forget, me included. But, in a time of anxiousness, ambiguity, and not knowing what the future holds, it often gives us a chance to reflect on things that we all appreciate, things we didn’t, and everything in between.

Now, I love sports. In the absence of sports being played throughout the majority of the globe during the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020, I’ve decided that I can keep looking at everything around me with pessimism and fear, or that I can have a different outlook at life as it is right now. I choose a path of hope that we will all look back at this moment in time, and be grateful for the things we always assumed were going to be there. One thing that was always a refuge from all of the world’s problems, for me anyways, was sports. Boston sports, specifically over the last 20 years, has not come up short with memorable moments.

You will talk about certain moments 50 years from now with family and friends. You’ll recall where you were when David Ortiz tied the 2013 ALCS with one swing of the bat against the Detroit Tigers with his iconic grand slam into the Red Sox bullpen and threw Fenway into an absolute frenzy.

You’ll never forget the moment Al Michaels proclaimed “Intercepted!” when Malcolm Butler picked off Russel Wilson at the one-yard line in Super Bowl 49, erasing a decade of doubt about whether or not the Patriots had it in them anymore to win Super Bowl championships.

All of those memories we can all recall down to what drink we had, what shirt we were wearing, who was sitting next to us, whose ceiling our hand accidentally hit when we jumped into the air upon knowing that there would indeed be another duck boat parade that would take place downtown in the coming days.

But, for this Boston Week, what I’m going to be bringing up, in no order, are the top five less talked about Boston sports performances in the 21st century. I debated on ranking these. But the premise of this list is that they are not talked about as much as you would imagine anyways, and it’s simply about bringing these performances up at the end of a day and paying homage to them. There can be many reasons these moments and athletes are not as talked about or immortalized in Boston sports folk lore. Whether other athletes naturally took the spotlight away from these performances during crucial moments, if time simply faded the memories of some of these performances in Boston sports history, or combination of both things and contributing factors led to these moments not being discussed in such frequency and reverence, there is no collective metric to this list. This list is an attempt to bring us back into that point and time and trigger “Oh that’s right!” moments from our collective memories to enjoy and reminisce in. If you were on the losing end of any of these moments, well I hope this triggers much sorrow. Here we go:

Nathan Horton’s 2011 Post Season Performance for the Boston Bruins Stanley Cup Championship run

Nathan Horton may not have been skating in the final game in Vancouver when the Bruins hoisted the Stanley Cup, but he was just as much of a reason why the Bruins got to the Stanley Cup Finals as any other player on that roster. A questionable hit, to put it mildly, in game three of the Stanley Cup, by Vancouver’s Aaron Rome, scratched him off for the remainder of the Finals, but his performance throughout the 2011 playoffs is not talked about enough, in my opinion. His overtime game-winning goals in game five and game seven against the Montreal Canadiens in the Eastern Conference quarter finals were amazing. But just as much as his goals were worthy of a highlight reel, it was his vision of the ice against the Philadelphia Flyers and the Tampa Bay Lightning later in the playoffs that showed just how multi-dimensional he truly was. There were a lot of unsung heroes on that team I could have wrote in detail about (Recchi, Ryder, Seidenberg), but Nathan Horton’s contributions in those moments lifted the Bruins to another level that many Boston fans will surely remember and can appreciate about his memorable playoff run. His appearance back at the TD Garden after he was scratched for the remainder of the Finals led to thunderous roars before the puck dropped that night, and that moment of him raising his fists and waving the Bruins towel to rally the thousands at attendance would give goosebumps to the most average of sports fans.

Boston Red Sox Pitcher Joe Kelly’s 2018 World Series Performance

There were some questions about the durability and capabilities of the Boston Red Sox bullpen right before entering the 2018 post season. With the team’s amazing record, there were few things to nitpick at prior to entering the post season, but with that being said, their bullpen would have been a generally agreed upon point of concern. All of that easily went to rest once the Red Sox entered the post season. Joe Kelly was one of those reasons why. As for my Bruins piece, I could have picked from an array of players that are not talked about as much, or that their performance is not held with the same reverence for one reason or another. To say Joe Kelly was dominant in the 2018 World Series is putting it lightly. The Red Sox beat the Dodgers four games to one. Kelly pitched in all five games. He won game four. In his five appearances, Kelly pitched a total of six innings. He faced 22 batters, struck out ten, did not walk a single batter he faced, gave up only four hits, and posted a 0.00 ERA for his five appearances and six innings of work! His 98 MPH fastball was on the lower end of his velocity when he was throwing his four-seamer, constantly reading triple-digits across televisions throughout the country during October. That contributed to multiple Dodgers left with their bats on their shoulders looking at their third strikes on Kelly’s 86 MPH change-ups that he painted like Rembrandt that entire stretch. David Price’s performances will never be forgotten. Nathan Eovaldi’s game four relief appearance, if you want to call a 97-pitch performance a relief appearance, was inspiring. The offensive production from top-to-bottom from the Red Sox, the entire 2018 post season from Betts, Devers, Bogaerts, and Martinez, to name a few, don’t need to be recalled. But make no mistake about it. Joe Kelly brought his Thor hammer for that 2018 World Series and did nothing but impose his will on the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The 2018-2019 New England Patriots Offensive Line

Nobody could tell me that they could see the type of performance that the 2018-2019 New England Patriots offensive line was going to put on against the Chargers, Chiefs, and Rams, on their way to an NFL franchise tying record 6th Lombardi trophy. Nobody could. Don’t tell me you could. The 2018 New England Patriots regular season team and the 2018 New England Patriots playoff team were two separate teams with the same roster. That included, especially, their offensive line. The Pats limped into the 2018 playoffs that year finishing their last four games at 2-2. Part of that was the team overall trying to still find its identity after coming within one score of back-to-back super bowls titles and coming up just short to the Philadelphia Eagles the prior year. But, even when the Pats beat teams that were truly top tier and gave Pats fans hope that there was a possible run for a sixth super bowl title, they also let games get away from them. Their five losses that year came from the Jacksonville Jaguars, the Detroit Lions, the Tennessee Titans, the Miami Dolphins, and the Pittsburgh Steelers. Those five teams finished the year a combined 36-43 and all five failed to clinch a playoff appearance. There was reason for concern entering the 2018 playoffs. Their next three upcoming opponents up to that time would finish the year with a combined regular season record of 37-11. A week prior to playing the Chargers in the divisional round opener, the Bolts accounted for seven (yes seven) sacks on Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson. The Chargers at that point laid claim to one of the best, if not the best, one-two punch pass rush in the NFL for that season. Bolts edge pass rusher Joey Bosa and three-time pro-bowl linebacker Melvin Ingram caused absolute mayhem for the Chargers during their 12-4 season, that nearly led to them stealing the AFC West title from the #1 seed Kansas City Chiefs that year, that could have possibly left the NFL hosting an NFL conference championship game on a soccer field in Los Angeles. Their defense’s wild card performance against an inexperienced, but still very agile and athletic Jackson, did nothing but cement the fact that their defensive pass rush was going to be the number one problem the Patriots needed to prepare for. But, in the most Patriot way ever, did they prepare. The offensive line’s protection of Brady during the Pat’s routing of the Chargers would be the rule, and not the exception for the remainder of the 2018-2019 NFL postseason. Between the divisional round game against the Chargers, the AFC championship overtime win against the Kansas City Chiefs, and the Super Bowl win against the Los Angeles Rams, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, in those three games combined, was sacked one (1) time. The three-game run that David Andrews, Trent Brown, Marcus Cannon, Shaq Mason, and Joe Thuney put on, with contributions throughout from tackle LaAdran Waddle and guard Ted Karras, cannot be talked about enough when it comes to the key factors of the success that led to the Pats sixth Super Bowl title. In addition to the stellar performance of offensive line, superb blocking by tight end Rob Gronkowski and the bull-dozing services provided by Patriots full-back James Devlin throughout the same time was icing on the cake that provided a force-field that Pats fans always dreamed about for our recently departed GOAT. But beyond all of the on-field performances, if you want to know the foundation behind the Patriot’s offensive line, look no further than the organizations longest serving coach, offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia. Scarnecchia had recently retired at the end of January of this year after returning to the Pats in 2016. He had been with the Pats for over 36 years. In addition to being with the Patriots, Scarnecchia also served honorably and finished his career as a sergeant in the United States Marine Corps Reserves. His coaching and mentorship to many Patriots linemen over the years, and particularly this young corp of players, was absolutely instrumental in their development as a unit. I recalled from the Super Bowl 53 DVD some of the words of praise that this unit dressed upon their coach and mentor.

From Scarnecchia, to each individual lineman that threw around Chris Jones, Dee Ford, Joey Bosa, Melvin Ingram, Ndamukong Suh, and Aaron Donald to a dominating playoff performance that any offensive line has ever showcased, the 2018-2019 Patriots offensive line turned a switch from liability to a center of gravity to their team’s success that all Boston sports fans can appreciate.

New England Patriots Wide Receiver Malcolm Mitchell’s Second Half Performance in Super Bowl 51

We all know how surreal Super Bowl LI was between the Patriots and Falcons. It truly was one of the greatest Super Bowls in NFL history. Brady played the second half of his life. Julian Edelman had the most ridiculous catch in the 4th quarter that Pats wondered would ever come their way. James White’s Super Bowl numbers will always be remembered. But there is one contribution from the Patriots offense that will seemingly falter away with time, and through no fault of his own. Malcolm Mitchell was everywhere he needed to be for Tom Brady and the Patriots. Every time Brady threw Malcolm Mitchell’s way, he came up big. Everything had to click for the New England Patriots to be able to overcome a 28-3 deficit against the Falcons. Everything. Keep in mind for all the complexities that the Patriots offense had, add in the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history, and then ask a rookie wide receiver to go out there and seize his moment, Malcolm Mitchell did what few with his age and experience may have been able to do. His six catches for 70 yards may not sound impressive, but it was the moments in which he caught those calls that New England fans won’t forget. With some of the greatest individual performances coming from so many players, Malcolm Mitchell’s contributions to the Patriots Super Bowl win are definitely less talked about and can lay claim to one of the most underrated performances in that game.

New England Patriots Middle Linebacker Dont’a Hightower

Dont’a Hightower isn’t underappreciated. He’s not underrated. But he never truly received the respect that many of his peers did at a time that he came into the league. He has been one of the biggest “big-moment” Patriots of all time… all time. In a defense that is arbitrarily credited to the success of Bill Belichick, many often overlook the importance of the true field general between the hashmarks. To this day, I will argue that if Dont’a Hightower did not tear his pectoral muscle and get placed on on IR during the 2017-2018 season, the Patriots would have beaten the Philadelphia Eagles. His presence on the field, as well as his absence, correlate to the Patriots success or failure. He has always been a consistent presence on a Patriots defense that struggled to find it’s identity for a decade after their last Super Bowl. His arrival, along with Chandler Jones and Jamie Collins, reshaped a Patriots defense hungry for youth, aggression, and dominance. Hightower provided that with a maturity and precision any NFL coach would pray for. Prior to Malcolm Butler’s interception against Russel Wilson in Super Bowl 49, it was actually Hightower’s individual effort at stopping Marshawn Lynch just short of the goal line that gave the Patriots one more chance at a game changing moment. It was Hightower’s strip sack against Matt Ryan in the 4th quarter of Super Bowl 51 that made believers out of the most pessimistic football fans and propelled the Pats to their fifth Lombardi Trophy. Most recently, it was Dont’a Hightower’s pressure on Jared Goff and relentless attacks against the LA Rams offensive line that established him as the premier pass rusher during Super Bowl 53, on either defense that night. He’s one of my favorite Patriots of all time, and there is a reason he is a three-time Super Bowl Champion.

***

During these times of uncertainty, it’s ok to look back. Over the last 20 years in Boston sports, there is much to look back to, and I hope, if just for a moment, this moment of reverence for Boston sports moments of the past was what you needed. It’s what I needed.

 

 

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