Sports contributed plenty of the same old agita this year — bad bets, empty boasts, taunts, tiffs and scuffles, plus the occasional riot — but its fair share of wry smiles, too.
There were courageous losers, random acts of kindness and a handful of wins handled with such grace it made you want to get up and dance.
Whoever called March mad never dreamed a 98-year-old nun would steal the show at the Final Four. In Mississippi, a homecoming queen swapped her tiara for a helmet and wound up kicking the game-winner for her high school team. In Akron, Ohio, LeBron James went back to the future and unveiled a state-of-the-art school for at-risk kids, promising the kind of support he yearned for in the same town as a youngster himself.
And as feel-good moments go, this might have been the most hopeful development of all: teddy-bear throwing became “a thing,” stretching from the west side of Canada to the heart of Europe.
Here are six of the most heartwarming moments of 2018:
LOYOLA’S NOT-SECRET-FOR-LONG SECRET WEAPON
Never mind that Sister Jean Delores Schmidt arrived at the Final Four a few months shy of 99. Or that her last minute of playing time — for her girls’ high school team — was chalked up in the late 1930s. Or that she’s listed in the team media guide (way too generously) at 5-foot, wearing custom-made maroon and gold-trimmed Nikes that would make any baller proud.
Because every time little Loyola of Chicago sprung another upset on its improbable run to the Final Four, Coach Porter Moser and his Ramblers’ postgame interviews were just the opening act. If you really wanted to know how a small Jesuit university kept knocking over rivals twice its size — the tactics AND the theology behind it — you stuck a microphone in front of Sister Jean.
The team’s chaplain, unofficial scout and eternal optimist was a natural on TV. Rarely at a loss for words, she wasn’t shy about crediting faith for Loyola’s surprising basketball bounty, either. She had a wicked sense of humor to boot.
As the season of Lent — 46 days when Christians swear off worldly pleasures ahead of Easter — was nearing its end with the Ramblers still playing, a CBS reporter leaned in:
“What did you give up for Lent?” she asked.
Sister Jean smiled impishly.
“Losing,” she said.
A bobblehead was commissioned. The “Today” show came calling. After the Ramblers lost the semifinal, she spent the next few months recuperating from hip surgery, celebrating a birthday and collecting awards. But she was back in her office by the start of the new basketball season, updating scouting reports and tailoring pregame prayers.
“When we came off the court after the Michigan loss, the players said to me, ‘Don’t worry Sister Jean, we’ll do it again next year,’” she recalled during a recent interview, then bowed her head, smiled and sighed.
‘I DIDN’T THINK, I JUST RAN OVER THERE’
Ty Koehn and Jack Kocon were buddies dating back to Little League. In early June, in the ninth inning of a Minnesota high school baseball sectional final, they stood 60 feet, 6 inches apart.
Koehn, on the mound, was putting the finishing touches on a 4-0 win for Mounds View High. Kocon, at the plate for Totino-Grace High, was the last out in his way.
Three strikes later, Koehn’s teammates raced out of the dugout and began celebrating on the mound. But their star pitcher was somewhere else, standing at home plate with his arms around Kocon.
“I told him I loved him,” Koehn said afterward, “and he’s my brother and our friendship will always last longer than this silly game and its silly outcome.”
A video capturing that moment went viral, but no one who knew the young men was surprised.
“He’s a tremendous competitor,” Mounds View coach Mark Downey said about Koehn, “but he understands there is a bigger picture.”
Koehn’s, teammates understood, too, even if it didn’t stop them from playfully stealing hugs in practice for the rest of Mounds View’s tournament run.
WHAT TO GET THE GIRL WHO HAS EVERYTHING
Winning either contest would have provided Kaylee Foster with the memory of a lifetime. She had a good feeling about one, but not the other.
“I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to be homecoming queen,” the Ocean Springs senior recalled, “but I was pretty sure I was going to make that kick.”
Foster notched both — thanks to years of preparation and one of the more unusual costume changes in sports.
Moments after being crowned in a pregame ceremony, she handed off her tiara and flower bouquet, swapped her gown and heels for a jersey and cleats and wondered if her night could get any better.
Then, with game in overtime and the score tied 12-12 — thanks to a pair of Foster field goals earlier in the game — she split the uprights with the decisive extra point. Afterward, she donned her tiara again and posed for photos wearing No. 15.
Foster’s confidence on the field came as no surprise. She played soccer at Ocean Springs and had kicked for the varsity football team since her sophomore year.
But her win in the pageant wasn’t such a long shot, either. Foster was a member of the homecoming court all four years.
BACK TO SCHOOL
LeBron James struggled just to get to school as a kid. He missed 82 days in fourth grade because his single mother, Gloria, didn’t have a car or another way to get him there.
So even though he makes his living in Los Angeles these days, James made sure to be on hand and on time when the “I Promise School” opened this year. And not just because he was footing the bill.
“I know the ups and downs,” James told the first class of third- and fourth-graders during the opening ceremony. “I know everything they dream about. I know all the nightmares they have because I’ve been there.”
The school, a partnership between James’ family foundation and Akron City Schools, offers year-round programming, family development skills and days that begin at 9 a.m. and end at 5 p.m. It also provides parents of I Promise students with help to earn their GEDs or high school diplomas.
A planned expansion will include grades 1-8 by 2020, but James is already seeing dividends from his efforts. He launched the “I Promise Program” in Akron in 2011 with a handful of community-based events. Young men and women who took part in those programs routinely approach him now to boast about where they’re going to college.
“Half the battle,” James said, “is the kids just having someone that they are like, ‘Oh, this guy believes in us.’”
IT AIN’T OVER ’TIL IT’S OVER
Lineo Chaka of Lesotho was an afterthought as runners toed the line for the women’s 10,000-meter final at the Commonwealth Games last April in Australia.
The 25-year-old had little experience at the distance, and it soon became apparent she was struggling just to complete the race. For her last three laps, Chaka had the oval to herself. So the real surprise was not that she crossed the finish line five minutes behind the winner, Uganda’s Stella Chesang, or three minutes behind the 18th and next-to-last competitor, Scotland’s Beth Potter.
It was the welcoming party waiting for her there.
In a touching display of sportsmanship, Australian runners Celia Sullohern (who finished sixth), Madeline Hills (eighth) and Eloise Wellings (16th) lingered there, clapping and cheering Chaka on, then embraced her after she took her final strides.
“I’d like to think,” Hills said, “that if I had that day, there would be someone standing on the track for me.”
TRY TOPPING THIS, SANTA
Raining teddy bears down from the stands got off to a modest start in a quiet corner of western Canada 25 years ago.
That’s when Kamloops Blazers fans, asked to bring stuffed animals to the game for a donation to local charities for kids, bypassed the collection boxes and instead flung some 2,400 onto the ice after a hometown goal.
The tradition grew modestly in the years after that, usually observed around Christmas and largely at minor league hockey rinks across Canada and the United States. There were occasional, but limited, sightings in the intervening years in places as far-flung as Sweden, Italy and Australia.
But 2018 could be remembered as the year a new competitive spirit took hold around the globe.
Fans of the Calgary Hitmen drew a line in the ice in December 2015 when they tossed almost 29,000 cuddly toys onto the ice. Not to be outdone, Hershey Bears fans put the “Teddy” back in their team’s name for a Dec. 3 game, loosing an avalanche of 35,000 furry creatures onto the rink.
Teddy-bear tossing never quite caught on in soccer, largely because of crowd size and a general prohibition against throwing anything on the pitch.
But when traveling fans of Dutch club ADO Den Haag learned they would be sharing the visiting grandstand in Rotterdam with young patients from a local hospital, they put out an emergency teddy-bear gram on Twitter.
“Children from the Sophia Children’s Hospital will be under us at the away end,” the statement read. “Make an unforgettable day a lasting memory!”
And so they did.