Varsity Letterman

SportsTalk writers pick their all-time favorite David Letterman sports moments

Letterman at the 2004 Indianapolis 500 (Getty Images)

Before he became a staple of late-night TV, David Letterman was just a kid from the north side of Indianapolis — Broad Ripple to be exact — who grew up in the shadow of Indianapolis Motor Speedway. As a child he revered motor sports, and this later grew into a full-blown obsession with sports in general.

This appreciation for sport was something that Letterman regularly worked into his late-night routine over the years. His shows often used sports and sports’ greatest personalities to connect with a broad audience, and it also helped keep Letterman relevant for over 30 years of broadcasting. But most importantly, it allowed sports fans to see a lighter side of their favorite athletes and helped remind everyone that it is, after all, just a game.

With Letterman’s final show airing Wednesday night, some top NBC SportsTalk writers take a look back at their favorite Letterman sports moments from their various areas of expertise.

POSNANSKI: ‘Me and you’ sports fan Letterman was five-tool host

* * * * * *

Dale Earnhardt’s “Top 10 Reasons It Took Me 20 Years to Win the Daytona 500” (1998)

The joy and jubilation Dale Earnhardt showed after winning the Daytona 500 in 1998 is memorable, but what stands out about his appearance on David Letterman was how much fun he had presenting the Top 10 list (Category: Reasons it took me 20 years to win the Daytona 500). Fans often saw the serious side of Earnhardt and this appearance with David Letterman showed Earnhardt smiling, laughing and even showing off his Daytona 500 leather jacket — truly a person enjoying winning the sport’s biggest race. Where else would you see Earnhardt even mention the Spice Girls? Earnhardt’s best reaction came after he said the No. 2 item on the list and sheepishly bowed his head, shrugged his shoulders and grinned. Check it out.

Dustin Long

* * * * * *

Terry Forster goes from ‘fat tub of goo’ to taco chef (1985)

In June of 1985, for reasons that remain lost in 1985, David Letterman decided that Braves reliever Terry Forster was a good target for some jokes. It’s crazy to imagine a talk show host singling out a lefty specialist from a non-marquee team today — would Jimmy Fallon lampoon Randy Choate today? Would he even know who he is? — but Letterman did in ’85, calling Forester a “fat tub of goo.” This enraged Forester at first but he eventually cooled down and, a few weeks later, actually came on Letterman’s show to talk about sandwiches, potential lawsuits, his weight, drinking beer in the bullpen and the Braves’ poor 1985 season. Then he made beef and chicken tacos. Seriously.

Craig Calcaterra

* * * * * *

Dave’s Mom as Olympic correspondent (1994 and 1998)

Letterman’s Winter Olympic correspondent in 1994 and 1998 proved one of the show’s most popular guests. Dave’s Mom, Dorothy Mengering, was 72 when CBS sent her to cover the 1994 Winter Games in Lillehammer, Norway, for the Late Show. In her reporting, Dave’s Mom offered cocoa to Nancy Kerrigan (twice), sampled cross-country skiing and asked Hillary Clinton if she could take care of Letterman’s speeding tickets. Dave’s Mom reprised her role in Nagano, Japan, in 1998.

Nick Zaccardi

* * * * * *

Peyton Manning’s First Late Show Appearance (1997)

In 1997 Peyton Manning was already a household name even before entering the NFL. One of the top players in the college game while at Tennessee, Manning made his first of many Late Night Show appearances while in New York in 1997 leading up to the Heisman Trophy ceremony. It was the first time America got to see Manning show a lighter side of his personality by cracking some jokes and one-liners that had David Letterman laughing and joking that Manning had his own writers. Letterman also invited Manning to be the first college quarterback to participate in his running feature of non-traditional quarterback skills competitions. Manning was on target with his pass, but Letterman more than held his own.

Kevin McGuire

* * * * * *

Steve Nash works as NBA Finals reporter (2009)

Maybe my favorite thing about David Letterman’s shows — and I loved a lot about his shows — were the segments when they put funny people in unusual settings and let the comedy happen. Like sending 2009 Steve Nash to the NBA Finals (after casually asking if he’d ever been to the Finals) and having him talk to people. Including Robert Horry.

Kurt Helin

* * * * * *

Bobby Knight Explains Why He Tossed That Chair (1987)

Bobby Knight’s reputation precedes him. He is one of the most surly and angry sports personalities that you’ll come across. The reason he eventually got fired by Indiana, where, 15 years later, he’s still a legendary figure? Because he grabbed the arm of a student and lectured him about manners when the student allegedly said, “Hey, Knight.” He’s a curmudgeon of the highest order. And David Letterman, in all his glory, made Knight funny as the latter talked about the infamous chair throwing incident back in 1987. My personal favorite? When he got Knight to admit that the three-point line was created by “a bunch of slow white guys.” Letterman, the G.O.A.T.

Rob Dauster

* * * * * *

Top 10 Thoughts Going Through Luis Suarez’s Mind During ‘The Bite’ (2014)

One of the stories of the 2014 World Cup was Luis Suarez being banned from the tournament for biting Italian defender Giorgio Chiellini in Uruguay’s final group game. If this was the first time Suarez had been banned for biting, you could say “the guy needs anger management classes” and let it slide. But this was in fact the third time he had bitten an opposition player on the pitch. David Letterman sat up and took notice of this. With the U.S. in full World Cup fever, Letterman gave his “Top 10 thoughts going through Luis Suarez’s mind at that moment” and with a little help from Arnold Schwarzenegger it became an absolutely hilarious bit. Combining the comic genius of Letterman and the bizarre actions of Suarez resulted in this superb four-minute segment.

Joe Prince-Wright

* * * * * *

Will Power talks earthquakes and Helio’s hair on his Letterman debut (2014)

Will Power never had the opportunity to make an appearance on David Letterman after losing the IndyCar championship at the last race three years in a row. But the 2014 series champion finally made his Letterman debut last fall as the last IndyCar driver on his show, and showcased some of his usually crazy and humorous wit in talking not so much about finally winning the championship, but surviving a 6.0 magnitude earthquake the night before the second-to-last race of the year in Sonoma. Power wasn’t concerned about racing as much as he was about surviving, and also wondering why his Team Penske teammate Helio Castroneves still managed to have perfect hair. Check out the clip.

Tony DiZinno