There are iconic moments in sports that are indelible enough to seep into the public’s collective consciousness. These incidents contain their own majesty and mythos, instantly creating a sense of place for those witnessing them live and leaving photographic and video imprints on those who did not. Brief descriptions or bona fide nicknames conjure images in the mind: Bobby Orr flying. Cartlon Fisk waving the ball fair. The Miracle on Ice. The Immaculate Reception. The Shot Heard ‘Round the World.
Then there are the sports moments that are legendary for less impressive reasons: those involving copious amounts of alcohol.
These boozy incidents disrupt the regal narrative of sports pageantry while creating a mythos all their own. Not all of them end great, but the ones that do defy logic. After all, drinking can have an impact on the human body, whether it’s excessive amounts of alcohol disrupting your motor skills or last night’s overindulgence punching your forehead from inside your skull. Greatness shouldn’t be the net result, but it occasionally happens — and the ones we celebrate tend to involve a game with high stakes or a player who’s a known commodity on and off the field of play. If an athlete achieves a certain level of fame, even their liquored-up missteps can become enshrined in subversive glory.
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(Game) Day Drinking
Charles Barkley doesn’t shy away from admitting that he played several games hung over during his storied NBA career. But there was one incident where the Hall of Famer wound up taking it too far, albeit due to weird circumstances. In 1992, after years of playing on a Philadelphia 76ers team that appeared to be spiraling downward, the Round Mound of Rebound wanted to be traded. One day, it looked like he got his wish — his agent informed him he was being dealt to the Los Angeles Lakers. Boozy revelry ensued, and it didn’t take long for the tipples to take their toll. He was in a not-that-great state when his agent called him again and informed him the Sixers nixed the trade (oops). This meant he was still a Sixer, and they had a game that night (double oops). Barkley managed to get to the arena, suit up, and play that night while still feeling the effects from his undue celebration. The exact game where this happened is unknown, and Barkley’s on record admitting he has no recollection of the game itself. As such, it’s very possible that he could have played horribly that night — according to Basketball-Reference.com, he did have three games where he statistically stunk up the joint that season. But that does leave 79 other games on the schedule where Barkley did Barkley things. Since we’re talking about legends, let’s just assume it’s one of these better contests.
It’s one thing to behave this way over the course of one game. It’s another thing entirely to have a career partially defined by such misadventure. Enter Hall of Famer Bobby Layne. The former Detroit Lions quarterback had a habit of showing up on game day either drunk or hung over, and it’s alleged that he’d down a shot of whiskey at halftime to keep the edge off. His habit was an open secret — so much so, he had to explain to people that his prominent Texas drawl wasn’t liquor-induced slurred speech. His championship-caliber career suggested he knew what he was doing when he imbibed, as he helped guide the Lions to the NFL Championship in 1952, 1953, and 1957. The Lions have had zero titles and exactly one playoff victory since that 1957 title — an unfortunate tidbit that may drive hardcore Lion fans to drink.
Booze as Perceived Necessity
Strictly speaking scientifically, alcohol does not keep you warm. It gives you the sensation of warmth because it causes your blood vessels to dilate, which increases the volume of blood carried to your skin. However, that same process also cools the blood and increases perspiration — two things that drop your core body temperature.
It seems that nobody shared this information with Hall of Fame Green Bay Packer guard Fred “Fuzzy” Thurston prior to the 1967 NFL Championship Game, a freakishly cold contest that’s better known as the Ice Bowl. The temperature at kickoff was roughly minus 15 degrees, with a wind chill factor of around minus 35 degrees by modern standards. Faced with playing in such extreme cold, and with a trip to Super Bowl II on the line, Thurston prepared for the game by downing 10 shots of vodka in an effort to literally “warm up.” All science aside, it worked in practical terms — Thurston played well, the Packers won the game, and, two weeks later, won their second straight Super Bowl.
Athletes haven’t been the only ones in the arena of sport who have turned to booze to ward off the chills. It happened in the broadcast booth, too. The most infamous incident involved the incomparable — and some would say insufferable — Howard Cosell, a man notorious for drinking during his Monday Night Football (MNF) broadcasts. In November 1970, the MNF crew was in Philadelphia to cover a game between the Giants and Eagles. The wind chill was below zero, and the open press box at Philly’s dilapidated Franklin Field offered little protection from the elements. The story goes that Cosell braced himself for the cold night by slamming back several vodka Martinis at a pre-game dinner. He over-prepared. During the first half, Cosell was so drunk, he was pronouncing Philadelphia as “Fulladlufya” in front of a live national audience. He then threw up all over color commentator Don Meredith’s cowboy boots right before halftime and was pulled away from the booth for the second half. As bizarre as this incident was, it wasn’t the weirdest thing that happened in the MNF booth that season; the previous week in Dallas, renowned play-by-play announcer Keith Jackson called a sequence of plays with his pant leg literally on fire thanks to an errant cigarette butt flicked by — who else? — Cosell.
When Greatness Awaits With a Headache
Stories of athletes overperforming while hung over captivate on a different level. These legendary tales draw their power over the course of two days, and the previous night’s exploits become a key part of the narrative. This can add an epic quality to an already incredible tale.
Case in point: David Wells, the portly New York Yankees pitcher who famously threw a perfect game in 1999 as he dealt with a head-pounding hangover. The fact that he pitched the 15th perfecto in MLB history in agony is a great tale on its own, but it’s so much better with context. First off, Wells’ frame made him look like a regular guy you’d meet at an old-school Manhattan bar like McSorley’s at 1 a.m. He was also known to enjoy a good party. The night before the game — or, more accurately, the early morning of the contest — Wells was talked into throwing down with the cast of “Saturday Night Live” after the show. The good times left him sleep-deprived and hurting like hell, even after he took the mound. By the time the hangover started loosening its grip around the fourth inning, Wells was in total control. He’d end up striking out 11 batters en route to forever cementing his name in baseball lore.
Wells’ story may take the prize as the most legendary sports tale involving alcohol — especially for New Yorkers. But at the risk of alienating my Manhattan-based editors, I feel compelled to place the crown on the gradually balding head of Green Bay Packers wide receiver Max McGee. With a slightly doughy complexion and hairline that visually aged him beyond his 34 years, he looked more like your 10th grade biology teacher than a pro football player. This makes it even more delightful when you learn about his exploits the night before Super Bowl I, when his Packers were slated to play the Kansas City Chiefs. He was a seldom-used backup wide receiver who only caught four passes during the regular season, so he wasn’t planning on seeing much action during the game. He was also in Los Angeles in the swinging year of 1967. He took advantage of his assumption and location by ignoring coach Vince Lombardi’s strict curfew orders and traipsing around L.A.’s groovy scene with two flight attendants until the wee small hours. When he stumbled into the hotel at around 6:30 a.m., he ran into Packer quarterback Bart Starr, who was up early after a good night’s sleep. Prior to game time, McGee told Packer wideout Boyd Dowler not to get hurt because he was in rough shape. Naturally, Dowler got injured in the first quarter, thrusting a shopworn McGee into the game. Wearing another teammate’s helmet — he left his own in the locker room — he heeded the call by catching seven passes for 138 yards and the first touchdown in Super Bowl history; an iconic 37-yard grab that he snagged with one hand while bending sideways. When he wasn’t building his legend on the gridiron, he was on the sidelines completely owning the previous night through anguished facial expressions. For sports buffs and fans of ridiculous booze-fueled exploits, McGee’s pain was certainly our gain.
These incidents are merely a small sample size of a phenomenon that undoubtedly continues to this day. Athletes may be more guarded about it now: Marshawn Lynch, for example, didn’t admit to his pre-game ritual of taking a shot of Hennessey until after he retired. Of course, it doesn’t really matter when the story hits the sports fans’ collective consciousness. Once it does, it tends to stay there forever — most legends do.