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Today in Sports History: December 31st


(Knievel jumps the fountains at the Caesar's Palace. File photo courtesy of UPI)

12/31/1967 - Packers win in Ice Bowl

In one of the greatest, and coldest, NFL games in history, the Green Bay Packers narrowly beat the Dallas Cowboys in the NFL Championship Game. The Packers' win came on a last-second dive by quarterback Bart Starr, who just barely got into the end zone for the score.

To read more about this story, click here for an in-depth Inhistoric article:

12/31/1967 - Knievel attempts Caesar's Palace

Evel Knievel, the American daredevil who became a household name in the 1970's, makes the first major jump of his career. Riding a motorbike, Knievel attempted to jump the fountains outside the newly-opened Caesar's Palace hotel. Knievel accelerated at the ramp and cleared the 50 yards worth of fountains. But as he connected with the downward ramp, something went wrong and he botched the landing. Badly.

Knievel landed with a wobble and was thrown from the bike, which continued to speed forward. The large crowd that had gathered to see him watched in horror as Knievel bounced violently down the ramp, each roll seeming to be more painful than the last. Knievel broke his back, femur, and pelvis, fractured his hip and wrists, and wound up in a month-long coma.

Did Knievel slink away into obscurity? No. Like William Hung, an American Idol contestant who became famous for being a terrible singer, Knievel's accident made him a star. ABC bought the video rights of the crash and proudly displayed it on their Wide World of Sports program. Caesar's Palace was the first of 16 endeavors Knievel would perform for the program. All of them involved jumping over a precarious set of obstacles, whether they were buses, cars, people, fires, rattle snakes, mountain lions, or my favorite: a shark tank.

Knievel wasn't so much talented as he was reckless and crazy, which was precisely what made people watch him. Evel failed so often at his jumps that no one knew if he was going to make it or not, or even if he would live to tell about it. In fact, NASCAR may never have evolved into a megasport had Evel Knievel not shown that there was an audience willing to watch gruesome accidents.

12/31/1972 - Clemente dies in plane crash

On this day in 1972, Pittsburgh Pirates great Roberto Clemente passes away at the age of 38 when the DC-7 plane he is flying in crashes into the Atlantic Ocean, one mile off the coast of San Juan. Clemente, still an active player, was on a relief mission to deliver supplies to the people of Nicaragua, who had just been ravaged by a 6.2 magnitude earthquake. His family did not want him to go until the New Year's Eve festivities were over, but Clemente felt his time would be better spent helping those in need. "It is the least I can do," he told his wife. "Babies are dying over there. They need those supplies."

In an eery premonition, Clemente's six year old son, Roberto Jr., told him that his plane was going to crash just before he left. "I can still remember just feeling that something wasn't right,'' he told the New York Times in 1998. "I told my mother, 'Don't let Daddy go. That plane's going to crash.' She yelled at me. I ran outside. He came out and said, 'I'll come back soon and we'll play catch. I told him, 'You're not coming back.' "

Clemente's body was never recovered, and the most that was ever found of him was a briefcase he had on him at the time. It was determined that the cause of the crash rested in the condition of the plane, which besides being outdated was over 5,000 pounds overweight. Every player on the Pirates roster attended Clemente's funeral except for catcher Manny Sanguillen, who dived into the ocean waters in a desperate attempt to find him.

The Baseball Writers Association of America decided to waive the five-year grace period and voted Clemente into the Hall of Fame in 1973, the first time that had ever been done. Since then, Clemente has become one of the most respected sports icons in history and is considered a legend among Latin American baseball players. And though he went before his time, there is no doubt that he passed away in one of the most dignified ways out there: trying to help people in need on a national holiday.


(Tyrone Willingham on signing day. Photo courtesy of Associated Press)

12/31/2001 - Notre Dame hires Willingham

A landmark moment in college athletics occurs as the University of Notre Dame hires Ty Willingham to be their football coach. Willingham was black, making him just the third African American coach in all of Division I-A football. Amazingly, in an age where African Americans seemed to dominate all aspects of sports, coaching jobs in college football were almost exclusive to white people. The fact Willingham joined the most prestigious football school in the country made his hiring even more significant.

Willingham did not disappoint as the Fighting Irish got off to an 8-0 start in 2002. They peaked as the 4th-ranked team in the country before losing at home to Boston College the following week. Notre Dame lost their final game of the year to USC and were crushed in the Gator Bowl by N.C. State. Still, a 10-3 record in his first season earned Willingham universal praise from his colleagues.

Ty's next two seasons weren't nearly as successful. Notre Dame dropped to 5-7 in 2003 and then to 6-6 the following season. After reviving the football program to a microcosm of its previous status, Willingham was fired on November 30, 2004, after compiling record of 21-15. The decision to terminate him was a controversial one, as it had been the school's tradition to honor the full extent of the coach's contract and keep them for a minimum of five years; Willingham was let go with three years left on his contract.

Willingham's replacement, Charlie Weis, did well at first but struggled heavily in his later years with the team. Unlike Willingham, Weis (who happened to be white) was given a massive extension right off the bat, which some felt was unfair considering Ty got off to an even better start and didn't receive one.

Willingham later became the coach at the University of Washington, but lost that job when his team went a disastrous 0-12 in 2008.

Further reading:

Clemente was killed on a mission of mercy [Los Angeles Times]