In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic that has killed more than 300,000 Americans and dramatically altered our way of life, the most commonly heard refrain is, “2020 can’t end soon enough.”
It’s no different in the sports world, especially here in Wisconsin.
Sure, there were state sports highlights in 2020. The University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team overcame a ton of adversity to claim a share of the Big Ten Conference title. The Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo won his second consecutive NBA most valuable player award and Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers put himself in the discussion for a third NFL MVP award with a string of brilliant performances this fall. Madison golfer Jerry Kelly won a senior major.
The highlights were few and far between, though, and the COVID outbreak led to lost opportunities for athletes, teams and fans across Wisconsin.
Of course, it pales in comparison to the loss of life, strain on the health-care system and damage to the economy, but thousands of high school and college athletes had their seasons shortened, altered, interrupted or eliminated entirely by COVID restrictions. We were denied a chance to see if UW could carry its strong play into the NCAA tournament, if the Bucks could continue their regular-season momentum in the playoffs, if the UW football team could live up to its lofty expectations, if Madison’s Steve Stricker could win the AmFam Championship and Ryder Cup golf tournaments on Wisconsin soil.
Although the sports world shut down for four and a half months starting in mid-March, there were still many highs and lows in Wisconsin sports. Here are 20 of the most significant (in chronological order):
Jan. 1: UW can’t finish off OregonEighth-ranked UW held sixth-ranked Oregon to 204 yards, the fewest by any Rose Bowl team in 40 years, but uncharacteristic mistakes — four turnovers, nine penalties — allowed the Ducks to escape with a 28-27 victory. UW’s Jonathan Taylor surpassed 2,000 yards rushing for the second consecutive season, but it took him 21 carries to get 94 yards.
Jan. 19: Packers routed in NFC title gameThe Packers struggled to stop the run throughout coach Matt La Fleur’s first season and it finally came back to bite them in the NFC Championship Game. Led by Raheem Mostert’s 220 yards and four touchdowns, the 49ers eliminated the Packers 37-20. So dominant was the 49ers’ rushing game they only attempted eight passes.
Jan. 25: King departs UW
Sophomore Kobe King, UW’s leading scorer in Big Ten play, abruptly left the program, saying it was “not the right fit for me as a player and person.” King briefly transferred to Nebraska and is now at Minnesota State-Mankato. At the same time, UW strength coach Erik Helland was forced out for his use of a racial slur while relating a story from his past to several players.
March 6: Yelich signs extension
Outfielder Christian Yelich, the National League MVP in 2018 and runner-up in 2019, signed a seven-year contract extension with the Brewers, a deal that will keep him in Milwaukee for the next nine years at a cost of $215 million. Yelich later threw a scare into everyone by falling into a deep slump, hitting only .205 in the shortened regular season.
March 7: Share of Big Ten title caps UW rebound
UW started out 6-6 in Big Ten Conference men’s basketball, but traveled to Indiana on a seven-game winning streak. The Badgers made it eight in a row when Brad Davison’s two late free throws sealed a 60-56 victory, giving them a share of the Big Ten title and the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament. The Big Ten and NCAA tournaments were canceled, leaving the red-hot Badgers and Big Ten coach of the year Greg Gard to wonder what might have been.
March 20: Marquette’s Howard All-America
Point guard Markus Howard, Marquette’s all-time scoring leader, was named first-team All-America by The Associated Press after topping the nation with 27.8 points per game. Howard was Marquette’s fifth AP All-American and the first since Dwyane Wade in 2003.
April 27: Packers trade up for Love
Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst traded up four spots in the first round the NFL draft to take Utah State quarterback Jordan Love, presumably as Aaron Rodgers’ successor even though Rodgers, who just turned 37, plans to play into his 40s. After selecting a quarterback, running back and tight end in the first three rounds, Gutekunst drew heavy criticism for ignoring obvious needs at wide receiver and linebacker.
Aug. 16: Major breakthrough for Kelly
Madison’s Jerry Kelly rode a hole-in-one to win his first golf major, the Bridgestone Senior Players Championship at Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio. His lead slipping away on Sunday, Kelly, 53, aced the 177-yard 12th hole to turn a 1-stroke lead into a 3-stroke lead and cruised home from there for his seventh PGA Tour Champions victory.
Aug. 26: Bucks stage protest
Angered by the police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man, in Kenosha, Bucks guard George Hill decided to protest social injustice by sitting out Game 5 of Milwaukee’s first-round playoff series with Orlando. Hill was joined first by his teammates and then by other teams, sparking a three-day shutdown in the NBA playoffs and generating similar protests across the sports world.
Sept. 8: Bucks ousted in playoffs
The Bucks were an NBA-best 53-12 when the league shut down March 9, but never regained their form when play resumed on July 31 and were ousted from the Eastern Conference playoffs in five games by fifth-seeded Miami. Playing in the Orlando bubble, the Bucks went 3-5 to finish out the regular season, beat the Magic in their first-round series but couldn’t get their offense going against the Heat and were eliminated 103-94 in Game 5.
Sept. 13: Adams, Packers win opener
Davante Adams caught 14 passes for 156 yards and two touchdowns in Green Bay’s 43-34 victory at Minnesota in the season opener, kicking off a season-long assault on the Packers record books by the seventh-year wide receiver.
Sept. 18: Another MVP for Giannis
Antetokounmpo won his second consecutive NBA MVP award after averaging 29.5 points, 13.6 rebounds and 5.6 assists per game. The Greek Freak became only the third player to win the MVP and Defensive Player of the Year awards in the same season, joining Hakeem Olajuwon and Michael Jordan.
Sept. 27: Brewers swept in playoffs
The Brewers closed MLB’s truncated regular season with a 29-31 record, but still claimed the eighth spot in the expanded playoffs for a franchise-record third consecutive postseason berth. Alas, the punchless Brewers, who hit .223 during the regular season, were quickly eliminated by the Los Angeles Dodgers, scoring two runs and batting .172 in two games against the eventual World Series champions.
Sept. 27: Packers edge Saints
After scoring 85 points in their first two games, the Packers aced their toughest test of the season with a 37-30 victory at New Orleans. The game was tied 27-27, but the Packers scored 10 straight points, capped off by Rodgers’ 1-yard touchdown pass to Robert Tonyan with 2 minutes left. Green Bay beat Atlanta to go 4-0 the following week and after four games was averaging 38 points and 445.5 yards per game.
Oct. 23: Mertz wows in starting debut
Redshirt freshman Graham Mertz created a national buzz in his long-awaited first start, completing 20 of 21 passes for 248 yards and five touchdowns during a 45-7 rout of Illinois in the Badgers’ delayed season opener. Mertz threw four touchdown passes in the first half as No. 14 UW rolled to a 28-7 lead. Starting in place of injured senior Jack Coan, Mertz completed his first 17 passes.
Nov. 13: Packers great Hornung dies
Paul Hornung, the Golden Boy of the Packers’ Glory Years, died at 84 after battling dementia. A Heisman Trophy winner as a quarterback at Notre Dame, Hornung became a scoring machine as a halfback and kicker in Green Bay and was a driving force behind the first four of Vince Lombardi’s five NFL titles. He was the fourth Hall of Famer from the Lombardi Packers to pass away in 2020, with Willie Wood, Willie Davis and Herb Adderley preceding him.
Nov. 21: Northwestern hands UW first loss
The UW football team’s 2-0 start sparked talk of a national championship, but the bubble burst, as it often does for UW, at Northwestern. With his top two wide receivers out, Mertz had four turnovers as the No. 10 Badgers lost 17-7 to the No. 19 Wildcats. The siege of injuries and COVID issues then hit the running backs as UW lost to two more ranked teams — Indiana and Iowa — due to a lack of offense. UW scored fewer than 10 points in three straight games for the first time since 1990.
Nov. 24: Bucks trade for Holiday
After consecutive playoff flameouts despite having the best regular-season record in the NBA, the Bucks upgraded at point guard, trading Eric Bledsoe, George Hill and three future first-round draft picks for New Orleans’ Jrue Holiday. Unlike Bledsoe, who disappeared in the playoffs the past two years, Holliday has a history of playing well in the postseason.
Dec. 15: Giannis signs biggest NBA contract
Antetokounmpo remained loyal to the franchise that drafted him, signing a five-year, $228 million supermax contract extension and reaffirming his desire to bring a championship to his adopted hometown of Milwaukee. Antetokounmpo’s selflessness and work ethic are unmatched, putting the onus on Bucks ownership to help him reach his goal.
Dec. 19: UW crushes ranked Louisville
No. 12 UW lit up No. 23 Louisville from 3-point range in a record-setting 85-48 victory at the empty Kohl Center. The Cardinals were weakened by injuries and COVID, but the Badgers were 16-for-25 from deep. The 37-point margin of victory was their largest ever against a top 25 opponent. Louisville hadn’t lost by such a lopsided score since 1956.
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