The five most memorable sporting events I attended in 2019.
5) Tigers 47, Tulane 17 (October 19) — Some stars are born, some are raised, and some actually explode into the limelight. Kenneth Gainwell — merely a redshirt freshman — imposed himself on a helpless Green Wave defense in this battle of AAC West rivals (both 5-1 entering the contest). Gainwell became the first FBS player in 22 years to rush for 100 yards (104) and catch passes for 200 (203) in the same game. (He’s the first Tiger to top 100 in both categories.) It was the fifth straight game for the aptly named Gainwell with 100 yards rushing. With a nod to Gainwell (and zero turnovers), Tiger coach Mike Norvell acknowledged his team’s offensive performance as being close to perfect for one night.
4) Redbirds 14, Iowa 2 (August 18) — Just like J.D. Drew (in 1998) and Oscar Taveras (in 2013), Dylan Carlson arrived in Memphis as a can’t-miss slugger, bound soon for the St. Louis Cardinals’ outfield. I caught my first glimpse of the then 20-year-old prospect in a Sunday matinee at AutoZone Park. And he lived up to the hype, homering in the first inning and adding a triple in a blowout win over the first-place Iowa Cubs. Another prize outfielder in the Cardinal system — Harrison Bader — homered twice, suggesting a return to the groove that landed Bader the everyday centerfield job in St. Louis in 2018. The Redbirds completed a four-game sweep of the Cubs.
3) Tigers 102, Tulane 76 (February 20) — It’s hard to score 40 points (a point per minute) in a college basketball game. In almost a century of Tiger basketball entering the 2018-19 season, only seven players had achieved the feat, and none twice. Senior guard Jeremiah Martin pulled it off twice in the month of February
. Less than three weeks after scoring 41 (in a single half) at USF, Martin dropped 43 on an overmatched Green Wave team at FedExForum. A player who averaged but 2.7 points as a freshman scored the most points by a Tiger since Larry Finch established the program record with 48 on January 20, 1973. (Martin’s 43 are the fourth-most in Tiger history.) Oh, and the pride of Mitchell High School also became just the 10th Tiger to dish out 400 career assists.
2) Tigers 54, SMU 48 (November 2) — ESPN’s College GameDay
made Memphis the center of the college football universe for the first time, but that was merely a breakfast-and-beer party on Beale Street. The game that followed was, simply put, the biggest victory in Tiger football history. In front of a sellout crowd (59,506) at the Liberty Bowl and a prime-time national audience via ABC, the 24th-ranked Tigers upset the 15th-ranked SMU Mustangs to seize first place in the AAC’s West Division. Senior wideout Antonio Gibson scored touchdowns on a 50-yard pass reception, a 97-yard kickoff return (to open the second half), and a 78-yard run on his way to setting a new Memphis record with 386 all-purpose yards. This was as good as it’s ever been for Tiger football, and the entire country knew it.
1) AAC Championship: Tigers 29, Cincinnati 24 (December 7) — This was the third "biggest football game in Memphis history" in five weeks at the Liberty Bowl. And in what proved to be Mike Norvell's final game in an extraordinary four-year stretch as Memphis coach, the Tigers won in scintillating fashion. They fell behind four times. And they came back to take the lead four times, ultimately on a six-yard screen pass from Brady White to the game's MVP, Antonio Gibson. The 2019 Tigers were a team that wouldn't be denied. For their efforts, this lone victory checked off three "never before" boxes in the Tiger record book: 12 wins, a championship-game victory, and a berth in the prestigious Cotton Bowl.