The jump for the ages

Mike Powell knew the milestone was coming.

On July 11, Powell’s world record in the men’s long jump turned 8,351 days old, and his thoughts traveled back to its birth, Aug. 30, 1991. They often do.

The previous world record, etched indelibly by Bob Beamon at the 1968 Olympics, turned 8,351 days old on Aug. 30, 1991. Powell snapped it that night, in Tokyo during a World Championships epic event with Carl Lewis.

Powell has now held the world record longer than Beamon did, and nobody is currently jumping close to it.

“It’s lasted 23 years,” Powell, an avowed stat geek, said in a recent phone interview. “I didn’t think it would last 23 minutes.”

Neither did Beamon on Oct. 18, 1968.


As storm clouds gathered, Bob Beamon bowed, stepped back, leaned forward and accelerated down a runway for his first Olympic final jump at Mexico City’s Olympic Stadium.

“It felt like a regular jump,” he told Sports Illustrated 46 years ago.

Beamon loped 19 strides and launched off the takeoff board like nobody had ever seen. Jesse Owens, peering through binoculars inside the stadium, estimated Beamon leapt vertically five to six feet, according to SI.

Beamon fell to Earth. His white shoes dug into the landing pit, six seconds after his first step down the runway. Momentum carried Beamon to three mini jumps out of the pit. He jogged away, wiggling his arms and receiving one low-five before reaching a bench.

Then he waited.

Bob Beamon #254
Bob Beamon. Mexico City. 1968. (Credit: Tony Duffy /Allsport)

The jump was so long, so unexpected, that the measuring device couldn’t extend far enough to record it. It took about a half-hour to locate and lay out tape to confirm what Beamon figured, that he’d broken the world record of 27 feet, 4 3/4 inches.

Officials announced the mark in meters – 8.90 – but Beamon, not fully versed in metrics, couldn’t fathom it. He has said he thought it might have been a shot put mark.

Teammate Ralph Boston, the 1960 Olympic champion, broke the news to him: Beamon leaped clear past 28 feet, to 29 feet, 2 1/2 inches.

He shattered the record by nearly two feet.

Beamon collapsed to his knees and covered his eyes in disbelief.

Descriptions of the feat have since ranged from a “mutation” performance by a medical expert; to being in “the twilight zone” by Beamon; to what “might be the clearest instance of adrenaline-driven overachievement that the sports world has ever seen” by SI.

Perhaps the best came on Oct. 18, 1968, from one of Beamon’s competitors to SI.

“Compared to that jump, the rest of us are children,” said Igor Ter-Ovanesyan of the Soviet Union, who ceded his share of the world record that day.

Mexico City marked Beamon’s first and last Olympics, nine months before man landed on the moon. He never again jumped 27 feet, partially due to injury.


Beamon has said he expected his world record to be broken “in the next 30 minutes” at the Olympics. The conditions were ripe, jumping at an altitude more than 7,000 feet above sea level. Beamon also benefited from the maximum allowable tailwind for record purposes, 2 meters per second.

But nobody challenged it in Mexico City. In fact, nobody would jump within a foot of Beamon through the 1970s.

Then came Carl Lewis, whose prodigious talent was rivaled by his steadfast confidence that he would one day break Beamon’s record.

Lewis would win four straight Olympic long jump gold medals from 1984 through 1996, along with five more in the sprints. Officially, he never beat Beamon’s mark, but Lewis maintains the record book lies. He and others point to the National Sports Festival in Indianapolis on July 24, 1982.

“Carl jumped 30 feet,” NBC Olympics track and field analyst Dwight Stones said. “I was right there.”

Stones, then a high jumper, said long jumper Jason Grimes approached him in the infield before Lewis sprinted down the runway that day.

“You want to see a 30-foot jump?” Grimes told Stones. “You better watch right now.”

Lewis just about proved Grimes prophetic with his leap, but an official raised a red flag, indicating a foul on Lewis’ takeoff.

“We were crestfallen,” Stones said.

Lewis and Stones both said the official erred in ruling that Lewis’ foot nudged over the foul line, even though it left no mark in the foul area. A foul could only be called if a mark was left, Lewis argues to this day.

Nevertheless, Lewis’ imprint was raked before it could be measured. He insists it was farther than Beamon’s world record, if not 30 feet.

Lewis’ very next jump was legal, and it was the second-longest ever at the time, 28 feet, 9 inches.

“Not getting the record that day worked out better for me in my career anyway,” Lewis says now, still remembering an ABC 20/20 investigative report titled, “The Perfect Jump,” with an Israeli-born physicist dissecting video of his magical foul. “It told me you could break the record if you really, really want to. That day changed the way I look at my career.”

Beamon’s record withstood the challenge.

Lewis won the first of four straight Olympic long jump golds two years later, but it was Soviet Robert Emmiyan who scared Beamon with a 29-foot jump in May 1987.

”When I heard about that, something came over me,” Beamon said in a press conference one week later, according to The New York Times. ”I felt it’s evident my record will be gone soon. I’ve been preparing myself for that day.”

Beamon readied to hand it over to Lewis, who had not set a personal best in five years but was in the midst of a 10-year, 65-meet winning streak.


Mike Powell said he met Bob Beamon twice before the summer of 1991, in 1985 and 1989, according to The New York Times.

Powell, a basketball standout as a boy like Beamon, said he saw the world record holder one more time a month before the 1991 World Championships in Tokyo. He spotted him in the crowd at one of his competitions.

“I remembering saying, I’m going to show Bob Beamon how far I can jump,” Powell said. “I remember looking up in the stands, and he’s leaving! What?!? You’re going to leave while I’m jumping?”

Powell, who says even today that his “whole life story is being the underdog,” took it as a slap in the face.

At the time, Powell was the 1988 Olympic silver medalist and the No. 4 American on the all-time list, behind Beamon, Lewis and Larry Myricks.

Beamon said then he didn’t follow the sport close enough to recognize Powell. They would soon get very acquainted.


Powell rarely has an extended time without seeing highlights of the 1991 World Championships long jump in Tokyo, considered by many the greatest head-to-head duel in track and field history.

“But every single time I see it, I go right back to the moment,” he says now, giddiness still in his voice. “I smell the air in the stadium.”

What does it smell like?

“Have you ever been in the South, and there’s a storm about to come, and the air gets real thick?” Powell asked. “There was a typhoon in the city. So the air was electric.”

Powell came to Tokyo with an 0-15 career record against Lewis, but he felt more confident than ever to finally get on the scoreboard on Aug. 30, 1991.

He led Lewis until the final jump during an event two months earlier, until Lewis summoned a last-gasp leap to win by a single centimeter. It was Lewis’ best jump since the 1988 Olympics.

“I demonized Carl,” Powell said. “When we were in a room together, I always thought we were about to fight. He might not have known I was even there.”

The long jump didn’t start until the seventh day of competition in Tokyo. So, while Lewis focused on the 100 meters the first few days, Powell focused on himself, plodding through the athletes’ village without making eye contact with anyone.

“I already had my game face on,” Powell said. “I was jumping over and over and over again in my head.”

There’s written proof. He was asked to sign an autograph after his final gym workout before the competition.

“Mike Powell, personal best 8.66,” he wrote, using metric as he usually did overseas. Then, he added a new line before putting the pen down. “1991 World Championships 8.95?”

Powell felt sure he would break Beamon’s 8.90m world record. He was less confident he would win the gold medal.

Four nights before the long jump final, Lewis won the 100m in 9.86 seconds, snatching the world record back from countryman Leroy Burrell in what was then the fastest race in history. In long jump qualifying the day before the final, Lewis leaped more than a foot farther than anybody else. He then approached his coach, Tom Tellez.

“Look, I want to go break the world record,” in the final, Lewis recalled, “and I’m never going to jump again. I’m just going to sprint. It’s too hard [balancing sprints, the long jump and “the management” part of his career].”

Track and field meets are likened to a three-ring circus. Throws, jumps and races can run simultaneously. Often, field events take a backseat to sprints. But not in Tokyo. Press box binoculars were fixed on the runway on Aug. 30.

“All the elements were there for a great battle,” Stones said. “I think everybody in the stadium was holding their collective breaths, as was Powell.”

Powell jumped before Lewis in the 13-man order. He gritted his teeth on the runway for the first of his six attempts, set to plow through a swirling wind. His first jump was deplorable, not even 26 feet. He said he was so amped up he was almost hyperventilating.

Lewis went four jumpers later. Unfazed, he leaped 28 feet, 5 3/4 inches, with zero wind. That was farther than Powell’s personal best.

Powell moved into second place on his second jump, but Lewis responded with the longest jump of his career on his third. Lewis improved to 28 feet, 11 3/4 inches, just 2 3/4 inches behind Beamon, but with too much tailwind for record purposes.

Powell, so error-prone he used to be called “Mike Foul” by his coach, was over the board on his fourth. Lewis sat on the edge of the back of the runway to watch from behind.

“I saw [Lewis],” Powell said. “I looked at Carl like, I’m getting you today.”

Lewis then surpassed Beamon’s hallowed record by one centimeter on his fourth jump, but again with too much tailwind, 2.9 meters per second. Lewis’ eyes popped when the distance flashed on the scoreboard.

“If this man gets a legal wind, he might just break Beamon’s record,” Stones said in astonishment on the broadcast.

Lewis had just posted the greatest back-to-back long jumps in history. He put on his sweats and sat on the grass to watch Powell’s fifth.

Mike Powell during the 1991 World Championships in Tokyo. (Credit: Mike Powell/Allsport)

Powell puffed his cheeks, waved his arms like a pro wrestler on a ring walk, attacked the runway and propelled off the board with room to spare. He panged as his body arched back in the air with Beamon-esque height. He gave in to gravity and dug into the dirt with a thud that caused screams from a crowd of some 60,000.

“That explosion,” Stones called it. “That bomb.”

Powell immediately rose from the pit, raising his arms, pointing his fingers and roaring with focused intensity. The wind reading flashed in yellow numbers. A legal 0.3 meters per second.

Powell clapped as he awaited the distance reading. Lewis, in the same sitting position as when Powell embarked on the runway not 30 seconds earlier, stood up.

Then Powell saw it — 8.95 — a new world record. Powell cleared Beamon by two inches with a 29-foot, 4 1/2-inch jump close to sea level, and with very little wind at his back.

“Everything I did during my whole life until that point was encapsulated in that jump,” Powell says now. “Everything in my life that I had not achieved. Every girl that turned me down for a date. Every time I didn’t learn something. That was my moment to show the world.”

Powell heard another sea of screams and jaunted on the track, past advertising boards for Coca-Cola, Philips and Fujifilm.

It didn’t take long to realize it wasn’t a victory lap, though. Lewis, who by then had disrobed his navy blue sweatshirt, had two jumps left.

“[Lewis] was the guy who could sink a full-court shot at a buzzer to win a game,” said longtime track and field writer Dick Patrick, who covered the Tokyo meet for USA Today. “He was like Michael Jordan. Carl was like Tiger Woods, even five shots behind in the last round of the U.S. Open, you still think he could have a chance to win.”

Lewis thought the same. He planned to leap farther than Powell, finally take the world record and retire from the long jump with that 10-year unbeaten streak.

“Zero doubt,” Lewis says now.

Powell agreed.

“I fully expected Carl to come back and jump 29-6, 29-7,” he said.

He almost did. Lewis’ fifth jump was the longest legal jump of his career — 29 feet, 1 1/4 inches — but still behind Powell and Beamon.

Powell — the stat geek and time freak — measured the wait for Lewis’ sixth and final jump on a watch (5 minutes, 31 seconds, reports said). “Please,” he pleaded before Lewis’ finale, bowing his head and folding his fingers in prayer.

Lewis’ last attempt fell short, 29 feet even. Second place for King Carl.

Powell vanquished Lewis, dethroned Beamon and celebrated like NC State coach Jim Valvano after the 1983 NCAA Championship Game.

Powell ran wildly and bear hugged the first stranger he came in contact with — the foul judge.

“You’re going to need a crowbar to get this smile off my face,” Powell said while on the infield.


Bob Beamon’s phone rang around 7 a.m. on Aug. 30, 1991, with the news he had feared for years. Ron Freeman, his 1968 Olympic teammate, delivered it.

“For a moment, I thought Ron had an apple in his throat,” Beamon said then. “Obviously, there was something he wanted to tell me, but he didn’t quite know how to begin.”

Beamon felt confused, not by the record falling, but by who broke it. He had always thought it would be Lewis. (Even though the story goes that Powell’s coach introduced himself to Beamon years earlier by saying, “I’m the guy who’s going to coach the guy who’s going to break your world record.”)

“They said my record would never be broken,” Beamon says now. “I’ve always looked at it as records will always be broken.”

Powell’s whirlwind of voicemails, media and insomnia lasted through that weekend. He broke the record on a Friday night. On Monday, he was back home in California and awake before dawn for a CBS morning show appearance with Beamon.

The pair shared meaningful conversation for the first time. Beamon says he has no recollection of it today, which is interesting, given Powell said at the time that Beamon broke into tears and told Powell that he loved him.

They barely talked about jumping or track and field. Rather, they shared passions for music and basketball.

“I think [Beamon] carried around a tremendous burden for 23 years, and that day was like having a weight lifted from his shoulders,” Powell told SI in 1991. “It felt like he was passing the torch on to me.”


Powell went into the 1992 Olympic year thinking a 30-foot jump might be possible, especially with Lewis there to push him. But neither Powell nor Lewis jumped farther than 28 feet, 7 inches, the rest of their careers.

Powell suffered a back injury in his first serious outdoor meet of 1992. Then it was a hamstring. Then a heel.

Lewis won the 1992 Olympic long jump on his first jump, 28 feet, 5 inches. Powell took silver, again, an inch behind.

Powell defended his World Championship in 1993, without Lewis in the competition.

Then came July 29, 1995. Powell woke to a phone call, not unlike the one Beamon received four years earlier.

Cuba’s Ivan Pedroso had jumped a new world record, he was told, 8.96 meters in the Italian Alpine village of Sestriere. Pedroso was a solid jumper, fourth as a 19-year-old at the 1992 Olympics, but that was nearly a foot past his previous best.

Powell said Sestriere is the best place to jump in the world. It’s in thin air nearly a mile high, with a fast runway and often heavy tailwinds. (Powell’s farthest ever jump was in Sestriere in 1992, 29 feet, 6 inches, with 4.4 meters per second of wind, more than twice the legal limit.)

Italian media quickly questioned Pedroso’s jump, reporting a man standing in front of the wind gauge on the Cuban’s attempts.

There were 60 long jumps and triple jumps at the meet, and 56 exceeded the maximum allowable wind for record purposes. Three of the four legal jumps were Pedroso’s, including the “record” jump at 1.2 meters per second, according to 1995 reports.

Italy’s track and field federation didn’t even bother submitting the jump to the sport’s international governing body for world record ratification, given the circumstances.

Powell kept the record despite that brief scare. His grip on it has only strengthened the last two decades. No man has jumped with seven inches of Powell in the last 23 years.

In 2012, Great Britain’s Greg Rutherford won the Olympic long jump with an 8.31-meter leap (27 feet, 3 inches), the shortest jump to win Olympic gold since 1972.

That regression is an anomaly in a sport where most standing world records don’t last more than a decade or were set by dubious Soviet, Chinese or East German athletes in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

“I have the oldest record in the books, as far as I’m concerned,” Powell said.

Jesse Owens’ career-best from 1935 would have won the 2012 Olympic bronze medal.

“We’re not progressing,” Lewis said. “In what other event could someone who competed 80 years ago still be competitive?”

Of the greatest all-time long jumpers, and analysts such as Stones, it’s Lewis who is most adamant about why the long jump is not what it used to be. He listed several reasons. The best young athletes are gravitating to sprints. There’s nobody in the event setting a standard for others to chase, like Lewis throughout the 1980s.

In the simplest terms, the long jump is hard and everyone has settled into a comfort zone.

“Think about running 25 miles per hour and taking your body in the air and then the ground,” Lewis said. “It is torture. A lot of people can’t take the physical demands, and they can’t take the technical part of it. If you can get through those two aspects, you get to the third stage — the fear factor. To jump far, you have to leave the board in a way that you feel like you could land on your face.”

Many wonder how Usain Bolt would perform with a decent amount of training in the long jump. For years, Powell has thought the Jamaican has all the tools to become the first man to jump nine meters — with the right coaching.

“He could easily do it in a year if I was working with him,” Powell said. “The main thing for him is just getting him to learn how to land. … The long jump is about turning speed into vertical lift — speed times height equals distance. He’s the tallest guy back there [6 feet, 5 inches], the fastest guy ever, and he can jump [search “Bolt dunking” on YouTube]. The only reason he shouldn’t do it is because he could get hurt.”

It is very doubtful Bolt would consider the long jump.

A more curious case is that of German Markus Rehm, who jumped a personal best 7.35m in 2012 and improved to 8.24m this year.

Rehm, 26, jumps off a prosthetic right leg. He won Paralympic gold in 2012 and the able-bodied German National Championships this year. But Germany’s track and field federation left him off its roster for the European Championships, citing a possible competitive advantage.

“It wouldn’t be fair,” if Rehm breaks the world record, Powell said. “But it would be sweet to see.”


Another matter up for debate is this question: Who is the greatest long jumper of all time?

Is it Powell, who had the single greatest jump in history?

Is it Lewis, who had the greatest series of jumps in history, and the longest stretch of dominance, with four Olympic gold medals?

Is it Beamon, the man who set the standard by taking the event into uncharted territory?

Is it Owens, who held the world record for 25 years?

“Who do I think is the greatest of all time? That’s for other people to say,” Lewis said, adding, “If I hadn’t come along, I don’t think the event would have changed.”

Powell said it’s Lewis.

“He was kicking everybody’s butt for almost 10, 12, 15 years,” Powell said. “Carl was the reason why the record got broken because he was the segue between Bob and me.

“But I’m second.”

Beamon said it’s Powell.

“What do you mean by the greatest? What are the ingredients that go into it?” Beamon said. “To me, it’s Mike.”

Lewis and Powell must both live with holes in their careers, thanks to each other.

Lewis is the second-most decorated Olympic track and field athlete ever with 10 medals, including nine golds and four in the long jump.

He doesn’t regret missing the long jump world record as much as he does being left off the U.S. Olympic 4x100m relay team at Atlanta 1996. Lewis hoped to shoot for a record-breaking 10th Olympic track and field gold medal, despite finishing eighth in the 100m at the Olympic Trials.

The U.S. won silver without him, .36 behind Canada, a margin so great that Lewis’ presence wouldn’t have made a difference.

Powell is one of the greatest track and field athletes never to win an Olympic gold medal. His silver medal-winning distance behind Lewis in 1992 would have won every subsequent Olympic long jump competition.

Powell said he wouldn’t trade his world record for three of Lewis’ gold medals. Four? Maybe.

“I’m always going to be upset because I didn’t win the gold medal, and that was my goal,” Powell said.

Lewis feels “horrible” for Powell. Beamon does too.

“When I see Mike, I say to myself, you know, as great as an athlete he was and having the greatest distance of all of us, including the great Carl Lewis, I was wishing that he would have had that opportunity to win a gold medal in the Olympic Games,” Beamon said. “That’s the ultimate. I’m wondering how Mike really feels about that, if he felt like that was the only thing missing from him being recognized as being the great one.”


In two years, Powell will likely pass Owens for owning the long jump world record for the longest stretch of time.

Also in two years, Beamon hopes a documentary in production about his life, “Behind the 8.9,” will come out. It would celebrate Beamon’s longest-standing Olympic track and field record in advance of the Rio 2016 Games. After his competitive career, he did some TV work and became a director of an Olympians museum in Florida.

“I guess I never really retired,” Beamon said. “I am an ambassador to adidas. I have a contract with the IOC. I stay busy.”

Lewis and Powell are still chasing the long jump record – as coaches.

Lewis is an assistant under Leroy Burrell at the University of Houston, his alma mater. Remember, Lewis beat Burrell in the 1991 World Championships 100m, taking back the 100m world record from Burrell.

“My legacy as a long jumper will not be how far I jumped,” Lewis said. “My legacy will be how far the people I coached jumped. I’m putting that pressure on myself.”

Powell teaches at the Academy of Speed in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif.

“I want to see the record broken because I’m a fan of the sport,” Powell said. “If I’m coaching him [the man to break the world record], I’m going to be really happy. My goal is to get somebody.”


Powell and Lewis returned to Japan for a sports summit in March 2013. There, a TV station asked Powell to long jump in an exhibition against “some in-shape, 37-year-old dude,” Powell said.

The request surprised Powell, but he took part anyway, jumped 18 feet and almost hurt himself. Powell was 247 pounds and motivated by the embarrassment.

He’s lost 55 pounds in the last 18 months and dunked off two feet on his 50th birthday last November.

Powell is feeling so fit that he’s training again with an eye on breaking the long jump world record — the Masters world record for age 50 and over. That’s 6.84 meters, or 22 feet, 5 1/4 inches. He’ll go after it in New Zealand early next year.

“I’m going to obliterate it,” Powell said.

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    He smiles at that and shrugs and looks out the window of the bus.

    * * *

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    They walk in together, and Hornaday introduces Johnson. Earnhardt sizes up the kid; Johnson was 21 years old then. And then Earnhadt reaches for a little box and gives it to Johnson. “Here,” he says with no warning or explanation. Inside is a little pocket knife with Dale Earnhardt’s name on it. Johnson is overwhelmed.

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    Johnson begins to turn red, “I mean …”

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    “You know,” Johnson says now, almost 20 years later, “I wonder if he was messing with me.”

    * * *

    Did you see Johnson going crazy?  In the minutes after Johnson won that race at Homestead on Nov. 20, the one that clinched the seventh championship, he lost his mind. He danced. He jumped around. He hugged everyone and everything in his path. He screamed — screamed so loud and with such force that even days later he did not have his voice back.  He had won six championships before this one, and he celebrated those heartily, too. But this was different. This was unchained. This was Spinal Tap’s eleven.

    “I don’t even know who that guy was,” Johnson says as he looks at footage of himself going bananas.

    Shock, of course, had something to do with it. Johnson went into Sunday’s race needing to finish ahead of three drivers — Carl Edwards, Joey Logano and Kyle Busch — to win the seventh championship. And all race long, he could not beat any of the three. They all had better cars. They all had better track position. Johnson’s crew chief, Chad Knaus, had tinkered and gambled and even tried making a few rather desperate changes, but none of it mattered. Johnson just didn’t have enough car. Those three guys pulled away, and Johnson was left sitting in his car thinking of ways to be gracious when the inevitable loss happened. “I knew I wasn’t going to win,” he says. “I accepted it.”

    (All the while, his wife, Chandra, was a mess. Chandra is famous around the track for her relatively serene approach to watching Jimmie race. On Sunday, she admitted, she was in the fetal position).

    And then in the final 10 laps of the race, suddenly, a whole series of wacky things happened. Carl Edwards was in command of the championship when the caution flag came out. Poor Carl Edwards. He’s had a glorious NASCAR career, winning 28 races and more than $80 million in prize money, but something has always blocked him from being THE GUY. There was the time he tied Tony Stewart and lost the tiebreaker. There was the year he won nine races, including the last one, but fell short on points. And then there was this one, the time when he had the championship in his hand but a caution flag came out with 10 laps to go and it all went to hell.

    Edwards restarted on the front row, and he had Joey Logano behind him. Jimmie Johnson was behind Logano. And for the first time all day, Johnson thought: “Well, hey, maybe there’s a chance.”

    Logano, as is his style, made a bold move inside to try and beat Edwards on the restart — nobody in NASCAR restarts quite as aggressively and forcefully as Logano. He went so far inside that his car rolled over the painted area near the interior wall. And it was a winning move — his move would trap Edwards between cars, and there’s no escaping that spot. Edwards knew it, knew his race was over if he let Logano by, and so, in a desperate effort to block Logano, he swerved left. “I was a bit optimistic,” Edwards said ruefully afterward. He bumped Logano, and then lost control, leading to a fiery wreck that ended Edwards’ hopes and shut the race down for 30 minutes.

    “As soon as I got by that wreck,” Johnson said, “I thought, ‘Wait a minute. What’s happening here? I might actually win this.'”

    Well, that was certainly the thought in the Johnson camp, where Knaus was pumping his fist and Chandra was losing her mind and so on. During that 30-minute, red-flag delay, Johnson’s crew, his fans, and the many people around NASCAR hoping to see a bit of history were going out of their minds. It was going to happen! Jimmie Johnson! Seven championships! Impossible!

    And, inside the car, Johnson fell asleep

    “I guess I was calm,” he says, and even now he’s surprised.

    There was one more break to come Johnson’s way — he expected to be lined up in the third position, which would have been him on the inside lane with his championship competitor Kyle Busch on the outside. If there was one thing that was clear all day in Miami it was this: You did NOT want to be in the inside lane. That was the lane where Carl Edwards AND Joey Logano saw their dreams end. “You just can’t hold your speed on the inside at Miami,” Johnson says.

    But, NASCAR determined that Busch, not Johnson, should be in the third spot. Johnson broke free from Busch on the restart and took the lead.

    * * *

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    There’s an irony about NASCAR: It is the ultimate thrill ride — 200 mph on sheet metal and horsepower and all that’s left of your tires — but you don’t get to NASCAR and you don’t win championships through daredevil feats. You get to NASCAR through great racing, yes, but also by building relationships, by impressing sponsors, by pitching the Lowe’s-Budweiser-M&M’s-FedEx-Napa Parts-Chevrolet-Toyota-Ford car and by working within a team. You win championships by driving like the devil when your car is loose and seems to be on a sheet of black ice, yes, but also by understanding what you don’t know and trusting your crew to handle things. You win championships by controlling your car, but also by relinquishing control. It’s the shakiest of balances.

    And balance is what Johnson does better than anyone in the sport.

    So when everyone asks Johnson how he feels after the seventh championship, well, he tries his best, he uses the balanced words that come closest, but really, in a private moment, he will tell you: He doesn’t really know HOW he feels. It’s all too much to take in.

    “All my life,” he says, “I just wanted to race cars. It was never about the numbers. I didn’t want to win seven championships. I didn’t really want to win one championship. I mean, yeah, I wanted to win, but what I really wanted was to drive a race car.”

    Before this race, he said the thing he wanted was to feel like he did when he was a kid, to strip away all the money and all the fame and all the past glory and just feel that thing he used to stay up all night dreaming about, that thing that pushed him to go down El Cajon Mountain just a little bit faster than felt right.

    Did he?

    “When people ask me how I feel,” he says, “I tell them best I can. I want people to share in this feeling i have. … But I don’t tell them everything.”

    * * *

    The second time Johnson met Dale Earnhardt, well, it’s a much shorter story. Johnson was hanging around with some buddies at Earnhardt’s garage when they all saw The Intimidator’s car roll slowly by with its windows pulled up. Suddenly the car stopped, and it backed up, and the window came down.

    “Hey,” Earnhardt said to Johnson. “You work for me?”

    “No sir.”

    “Then get the hell out of here. I don’t need no lawsuits.”

    And the window rolled back up and Dale Earnhardt drove away.

    At the end of that magical race at Homestead, there was one final restart, and after that Johnson heard “Clear” from his spotter, meaning the race and that seventh championship was his. Then came the disbelief and the crazy dancing and screaming and joy and hugs from his wife and children and the greatest compliment a driver could ever get.

    “Jimmie,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. would say to his friend as he pulled Johnson close, “Dad would think you’re such a badass.”

    The fourth wheel

    MIAMI — Carl Edwards has to know that he’s sort of the odd duck in this year’s Chase. Here, you have Kyle Busch, defending champion, force of nature, superstar. There, you have Jimmie Johnson, six-time champion, legend of the sport.  And third, completing the triangle, you have Joey Logano, 26 years old, phenom trying to insert himself into the story, everybody’s favorite young villain, the future of NASCAR.

    And here is Carl Edwards, 37 years old, a former dirt-track driver who ground out 28 victories in an excellent 13-year career but has never quite crashed through, never won a championship, never quite broken out of the pack of those excellent and professional drivers who make up the heart of NASCAR. People who know him probably know him as the guy who does a backflip when he wins. That’s fun. But it isn’t exactly what he wants.

    When you look at a list of the drivers who won the most races without winning a championship, you see this:

    1. Junior Johnson, 50 wins

    2. Mark Martin, 40 wins

    3. Fireball Roberts, 33 wins

    4. Denny Hamlin, 29 wins

    5. Carl Edwards, 28 wins

    Edwards knows this, knows it better than anyone. He knows there’s a difference in how people look at you when you’ve won a championship — knows there might even be a difference in how you look at yourself.

    Watch: NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship (Sunday at 1:30 p.m. ET on NBC, and NBC Sports App)

    “Winning a championship,” he says, “it just means that, you know, you go to bed Sunday night and know, hey, you did it. You beat the best in the world. And we’re the champions … at least until they start racing again. I guess that’s what it comes down to. That’s about the longest a win can last in this sport.”

    Edwards has had his share of championship heartbreak, beginning with his loss to Tony Stewart in 2011. The two were actually tied in points after an epic duel at Homestead, but the championship went to Stewart because he won more races than Edwards that year. NBCSN has shown that race this week, and Edwards admitted that he watched maybe 10 minutes of it. After that, he was so motivated he was ready to jump in a race car immediately.

    There were other close calls, but now, he’s back, and he will not pretend that it’s just another week. When someone asked all four drivers if they were going to try and treat this week differently from other weeks, the other three guys said, “No.” They talked about how you have to treat this race like any other, prepare the same way. Edwards had a different answer.

    “For me,” Edwards said, “I’m going to be honest, this week does feel different. I mean, yes, we do have to go do the same job, like these guys said. But for me, each moment, I almost have to pinch myself, like, ‘Hey, this is really it, we’re getting to do this.’ So this is more excitement for me personally.”

    “Would winning a championship change your self-perception?”

    “Well, yeah, it would be great. I think it would be great … you can print that. It would be great for a different reason for me at this point in my career, though. I’m starting to just realize how difficult this is.

    “As far as self-perception, probably like most race car drivers, I kind of have an ego problem already. So that could put me over the edge, honestly.”

    Edwards’ advantage could be the track. He has won the pole twice at Homestead and has won the race twice, finishing top five five times in his 12 starts. He just won at Texas, which is a similar track that uses a similar tire setup. “There’s not a better race track,” he says. “Statistically, this is as good as it gets for me.”

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    And his dirt-track background sets him up well too. The toughest part of competing in a winner-take-all race is that you have to find a way to win no matter what gets thrown your way. In other races throughout the season, you just do the best you can with what fate deals you. There is always more than one winner in a regular season NASCAR race. There’s the driver that takes the checkered flag, but there are also those who had to overcome numerous problems, mechanical issues, tire trouble, poor pit stops, whatever, and somehow finished seventh or 10th or something like that. Every week, you will hear drivers and crew chiefs say happily, “We got the most out of our car today.”

    But for the four drivers left in the Chase, that’s not really an option on Sunday. It’s all about winning.

    “Carl’s real good at driving through the limits and being able to compensate for something not being right the with the car,” his teammate and competitor Kyle Busch says. “He’s able to make more out of it. So that sets him up pretty well.”

    “I think that comes from his dirt background,” Johnson says. “He’s used to dealing with cars that just weren’t exactly right.”

    “Yeah, that’s nice for people to say,” Edwards himself says. “But this is NASCAR, you have the best drivers in the world, they’re ALL good at making the most of their car. The other three drivers in the Chase are incredible. I don’t really think I have an advantage in that. All of us are good at that.

    “I do feel like, yeah, I like the challenge. I feel like if they would spray the track down with water and said, ‘OK, everybody race,’ I would enjoy that struggle. … But I’ll enjoy this week no matter what. It’s fun. This is what I like.”

    One for the history books

    MIAMI — There is a funny thing about sports dreams. You know, the kind you have when you’re a little kid. You dream about hitting the game-winning home run. You dream about catching the game-winning touchdown pass, or swishing the game-winning basket, or scoring the game-winning goal, or making the putt that wins you the Masters.

    Few of us ever get to do it, of course. But that’s not the funny part.

    The funny part is that the people who DO get to do it, well, they find that it isn’t exactly like the dreams. Take Jimmie Johnson. He has won six NASCAR Sprint Cup Championships. Six. Only two men — Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt with seven — have any idea what that’s like. But to be realistic, even they don’t know EXACTLY what it is like because the sport has grown so much bigger, the money has grown so much bigger, the pressure has grown so much bigger. So many people are counting on you. So many people are rooting against you. Gigantic companies have many millions of dollars at stake.

    And so even though this is all Jimmie Johnson ever wanted — to be the best race car driver — those first five championships felt nothing at all like his childhood dreams. He didn’t even ENJOY them, not in the way we understand the word “enjoy.” Yes, he was very proud of what he and his team did. Yes, he thrilled in the racing, the speed, the challenge, the victories, the opportunities that came with being the best stock-car driver in the world. But it wasn’t fun, if that makes sense. It wasn’t that innocent joy that went along with all those childhood daydreams, that feeling of the world going in slow motion, that intoxicating blur of champagne and happiness and wonder. He would stay up at night, staring at the ceiling, thinking about how he could stay on top.

    In 2013, when Johnson was 38 years old and won his sixth championship, the feeling was closer to what he had hoped. By then, Johnson had let go of a lot of things, a lot of the insecurities. He had stopped worrying so much about pleasing everyone. But even that wasn’t EXACTLY what he had dreamed about.

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    “You’re like, ‘Wow, this is nutty, this is stressful, can I do it?'” Johnson says. “You have all of these things weighing you down. When I won those first few championships, it wasn’t fun AT ALL. There was always more to do, you know? In ’13, it definitely felt different. I felt different. That was the most fun I’ve ever had racing for a championship by far.

    “Still, some days, you wish you could feel that thing you wanted as a kid, you know, that place you see in the movies or hear about in stories, and it is surreal, and the world stops and time stops, and it is perfect.”

    So that’s what this time is about. Johnson is 41 years old. He’s a legend of the sport. He has won six championships and 79 races and more than $150 million in prize money. He has won multiple races every year since he was a rookie. The legacy, if such a thing matters, is secure.

    And so, this race is for him.

    “I feel different going into this championship than I have ever felt before, there’s absolutely no doubt about that,” Johnson says. “As weird as it may sound, I’m more comfortable in my own skin than I’ve ever been. And that’s a major player. I have nothing to prove to anyone, and I don’t care what other people think. I really don’t. I’m racing this weekend for me and my family and my team. I don’t have any outside baggage that’s on me. That was other years. There was plenty of that stuff. None of that matters to me anymore.”

    He endured an odd year. It began like most Jimmie Johnson years do — he won in Atlanta in the second race of the year and followed that up three weeks later with a win at Fontana. And then he and his team went into a bit of slump. In a 15-race span, he finished in the top five four times while finishing 20th or worse six times. He and his crew chief Chad Knaus struggled week to week. There was the talk — which has grown louder the last couple of years — that Johnson was close to the end. “I definitely missed driving up front,” Johnson says.

    Watch: NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship (Sunday at 1:30 p.m. ET on NBC, and NBC Sports App)

    Then came the Chase and it has been absolutely perfect. He breezed into the second round, then won the first race, Charlotte, to automatically move into the third round. He promptly won the first race of the third round, in Martinsville, to qualify for Sunday’s final four. Johnson’s team has had two stress-free weeks to prepare the car for this final race, and while nobody knows if that will make a difference, well, it can’t hurt.

    And Johnson is just enjoying it. “I’m excited,” he says. “And I’m fresh. I don’t know if it will change as we get closer to the race, if the nerves will come. But I don’t think it will.”

    He is well aware, of course, that winning this title would tie him with Earnhardt and Petty for most championships — so aware of it that ever since he won the race in Charlotte he has been wearing a helmet with Petty and Earnhardt’s photos on it and the words “Drive for Seven.” He says that if he could tie those two legends of the sport, it would mean the world to him because it would connect him to history.

    But, again, he promises not to let that inflate into pressure.

    “I never race for stats,” he says. “I’ve never raced for stats, for fame, for money. I’ve just always loved racing. I feel like I’m more in touch with that, in tune with that, than I’ve ever been in my career.

    “I think about those dreams I had as a kid, dreams all of us have in our own way I suppose. I guess I want that moment. I’ve done this for a long time. And I’d love to have that moment.”

    Promises, promises

    MIAMI — Two years ago, Joey Logano showed up for his shot at destiny … and he was scared out of his mind. He doesn’t like to say it that way. He would prefer to just say, “I was nervous. Because I didn’t know what was happening. And I think that’s where nerves are going to come from.”

    He was just 24 years old then and he was trying to join Jeff Gordon and Bill Rexford as the only two drivers to win a championship before turning 25 years old. But it was different for Logano. He’d been preordained to be NASCAR’s next superstar ever since he was a teenager. “Sliced bread,” they called him — as in “best thing since …” — and while he sort of got a kick out of the nickname and the expectations when he was a kid, those things soon felt like an anchor tied to his waist.

    “Sliced bread,” people would mutter savagely every time he finished out of the top five.

    “Sliced bread,” people would taunt him because he won just three races in his first five full seasons.

    “Sliced bread,” other drivers would mock when they felt like Logano pushed his aggressiveness too far.

    Then in 2014, it finally came together for Logano. He won five times. He came to Homestead with a real chance to win the championship … only he readily admits that his head just wasn’t in the right place. “I couldn’t settle my mind down,” he says. “I was thinking about what could happen … or what’s going to happen … what’s the week going to look like … what’s the feeling on Sunday going to be … what is it going to feel like like getting in the car … do I have what it takes?”

    Here Logano smiles. He’s famous for that smile.

    Watch: NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship (Sunday at 1:30 p.m. ET on NBC, and NBC Sports App)

    “I think that’s the big one. ‘Do I have what it takes?’ I didn’t know then. I know now.”

    “What do you know?” 

    “I know the challenge ahead. I’m prepared for that. I’m ready for that, ready for the pressure. I’m more than ready, I’m excited about it. I’m genuinely pumped. It’s like a complete 180 from last time I was here.”

    There are times when it feels like Logano has been racing forever — and he HAS been racing full time since 2009 — but he’s still just 26 years old. He’s five years younger than Jimmie Johnson was when he won the first of his so-far six championships, three years younger than Dale Earnhardt when he won his first of seven. And he’s five years younger than any of the other drivers in the Chase this year.

    And it’s the combination of youth and experience that makes him unique … and dangerous. NASCAR people will tell you: Young drivers go FAST. The great Junior Johnson used to say, “They don’t know no better — they haven’t hit the wall yet.” So younger drivers push closer to the edge than might be prudent out of youthful exuberance and daring. That makes them go extremely fast, yes, but then they tend to burn out (or spin out or get spun out).

    Logano has that speed. But he has more or less stopped burning out.

    “When you’re flirting with the edge, you’re going to step over it from time to time,” Jimmie Johnson says. “And he has. I think he’s figured out how to inch his way up to the edge instead of flying over it like he did three or four years ago.”

    “For me,” Carl Edwards says, “a switch has gone off the last couple of years for Joey. He’s just so fast everywhere. I have a feeling he’s going to be VERY fast on Sunday. He’s hungry. He wants this very badly. You could argue that he doesn’t have a lot of experience or whatever but I’ve been around long enough. I’ve watched how he’s been approaching this. I think he’s got a ton of confidence.”

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    The other three drivers talk a lot about handling whatever adversity comes this week, being patient, always, in the immortal words of NASA legend Gene Kranz, “Working the problem.” Logano talks about these things too, but more he talks about being aggressive … and being aggressive … and when that doesn’t work, to keep being aggressive.

    “Attack all day,” Logano says of the gameplan. “That’s it. It’s the way our team is. It has been for the last three years or whatever. That’s what we found to be successful for us. Race aggressively. Attack every minute. I start the race and say, ‘I’m here to win,’ and I have that ‘I will not get beat’ attitude throughout the race. Whether that’s good or bad, well, it’s different for other people. Probably it’s a lot different. But it works for us.”

    And when you ask him how he will deal with the frustration that might come with a poor pit stop or a car that won’t quite adjust to conditions or the ever-changing conditions of the track, he smiles again.

    “Frustration is OK,” he says. “It’s OK as long as it’s channeled in the right way. But there’s never that feeling of ‘We’re just not going to win today. It’s just not our day. We suck.’ There’s never that feeling. Because I know we don’t suck. I know I’m a very good race car driver. I know I have a very good race team. And I know we can handle this.”

    The Magic Man

    MIAMI — The wonderful thing about the press conference for the NASCAR Championship Four — just three days before the big race — is that you have all four of the contending drivers sitting on the stage side by side. And because they are sitting next to each other, you can get just a small feel for how they feel about each other and their chances and everything else coming into the winner-take-all final race.

    Joey Logano, for instance, is totally pumped up, super happy. Why not? He won last week to become one of the four drivers to have a chance to win a championship Sunday. This is the dream, man.

    Jimmie Johnson seems calm, beyond calm, like he’s done this whole thing a million times before, which is pretty close to true.

    Carl Edwards looks a bit dazed, but in the best of ways. He’s 37 years old now and he has won 28 races and more than $80 million, but he has never won a Sprint Cup Championship. He looks like a guy in a dream.

    And then there’s Kyle Busch. He looks, um, lethargic.

    “Do you guys like each other?” someone asks the group.

    “Kyle,” Logano says, “we’ll let you answer that.”

    Watch: NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship (Sunday at 1:30 p.m. ET on NBC, and NBC Sports App)

    Busch looks out with a bit of a bewildered expression, as if someone has just woken him up from a nap. “I am exhausted,” he would say later. And when asked why, he would say, “I am always exhausted.”

    “Do you like each other?” was the question to the group.

    “Right now, yes,” Busch says. “In about 25 seconds, no.”

    Kyle Busch has the aura now. For so many years, he was the guy with unlimited potential, the impossibly talented driver who won a lot of races but always should have won more. Busch himself bought into the hype. He lashed out. He got into numerous dust-ups. Fans loathed him. He beat himself up continuously. In the words of his team owner Joe Gibbs: “He always felt like he was letting himself and his team down, like he wasn’t living up to his great talent.”

    Last year, it all changed. What a year that was. Busch got into a wreck at Daytona that threatened to end his entire season — for a brief time it seemed like his career might be in danger. Even once the doctors got a handle on his condition, Busch was supposed to be out for a minimum six months. Three months later he was standing — wobbly but standing — in the hospital room when his wife Samantha gave birth to their son Brexton.

    Then he came back to the track … and he was essentially unbeatable. In a beautiful five-week span, he won at Sonoma, at Kentucky, at Loudon and finally at the Brickyard 400 in Indianapolis — his first major victory. He won so much that he easily qualified for the Chase even though he’d missed 11 races. Then he made it to the final four, and he ran away to victory at Homestead for his first championship. In the last few laps, he was singing the theme song for “Vocabularry” — his infant son’s favorite TV show.

    A magical year like that, yeah, it changes a person.

    “No,” he says now, “it doesn’t feel a whole lot different.”

    A magical year like that, um, it sort of changes a person?

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    “Well, look, it hasn’t been terribly different on the racing side,” Busch says. “Personally, with Brexton at home and stuff like that, that’s different. Having him come to all the races, that’s pretty fun. We certainly enjoy the time that we have on the road. But, you know, I’m just me.”

    So, OK, maybe a magical year like that doesn’t change a person — but don’t tell the other drivers that. They see a different Kyle Busch. There was always a saying in the garages about Kyle Busch during those years when he could not quite put everything together: If he ever wins a championship, watch out.

    Now that he’s won one, yes, watch out.

    “He just has so much confidence now, you can see it,” Johnson says. “I mean, he was always a confident guy, but it’s different, I think. Now, he’s a champion. Now, he KNOWS.”

    That is exactly the thing that is apparent as Kyle Busch sits off to the side during the press conference — it’s like he’s separate from the other three. He knows. He’s the defending champion. He’s the closest thing this Chase has to a favorite. He’s the guy in the best position to take over this sport, to be the new Dale Earnhardt, the new Bobby Allison, the new Richard Petty. A year ago, after he won his championship, he boldly said he’d like to win 10 in a row. When people laughed, he made it clear that he wasn’t joking.

    “It’s not about what we did last year,” he says. “We’ve already got that one. It’s in the bag. This is about going out there THIS one. It’s one race. It doesn’t matter what the situation is this week, doesn’t matter what comes your way, you have to figure out a way to win.”

    That, more than anything, might be what makes Kyle Busch the favorite. Right now, there is no stock-car driver anywhere who can make more out of less than Kyle Busch. Just last week in Phoenix, he had a tepid car that was running around 15th for most of the race. Through sheer relentlessness, a few adjustments on the car and a bit of driving brilliance — especially on restarts (Busch is a wonder on restarts) — they somehow finished second and could have won.

    “Oh, Kyle can make some magic,” Johnson says. “And knowing him, I’ll bet he will on Sunday.”

    No more fun and games

    Cam Newton, at his best, is a magical player. He does things that blow minds. He throws 30-yard darts that slip by defensive backs before they can react. He avoids sacks not so much by eluding them as by simply standing up through them, a brick house in the Big Bad Wolf’s wind. Newton takes off running and in the open field he is both halfback and fullback, able at times to split defenders in two the way Gale Sayers could, able at other times to blast through a defender, not unlike the way Neo blasts through Agent Smith at the end of “The Matrix.”

    This is Newton at his height, when the conditions are right, when his team is playing great and the opponent is in retreat and, as the Magic 8-Ball says, “All signs point to yes.”

    This was Newton last year for a 15-1 Panthers team that went to the Super Bowl.

    Something has changed this year, of course. That part is obvious. It isn’t that Newton is playing badly. His numbers are down, yes, and the Panthers are 3-6 and in last place. But he’s still among the top five or 10 quarterbacks out there. And there have been a few familiar moments. He threw for four touchdown passes against San Francisco. He has had a couple of dazzling runs. He has put his team in position to win for the most part, including last week against Kansas City. It isn’t like Newton suddenly forgot how to play football … he’s still Cam Newton.

    But something has obviously changed.

    What? There are a few clear possibilities. The Panthers’ defense was otherworldly last year, forcing turnover after turnover, setting up Newton and his offense with golden opportunities time and again. That has more or less stopped this year. The Panthers are starting inside their own 20-yard line more often. This has affected the Panthers’ offense generally and Newton specifically. He’s thrown only 10 touchdown passes this year. All the numbers are down.

    On offense, the line has been beat-up and inconsistent, and that has knocked Newton off his game. He has thrown off his back foot more often, and that usually leads to bad things. It did last week when the Panthers seemed about ready to put away Kansas City — a retreating Newton threw a pick-six that put Kansas City back in a game that should have been over. Newton has dealt with injuries, too — he missed the game against Tampa Bay, and he wasn’t himself in others.

    Watch: Saints vs. Panthers on Thursday Night Football (7:30 p.m. ET on NBC, and NBC Sports app)

    And, perhaps most of all, teams have been taking their free shots at him at every turn. Newton is 6-foot-5, 245 pounds and a great runner, so teams obviously have to tackle him hard. But there’s no question opponents have taken this to an extreme this season. They have hit Newton late a few times, stolen some shots to the head, unloaded some knockout blows. And, for the most part, there have been no penalties to accompany the hits, possibly BECAUSE Newton is so big and powerful.

    This has driven Newton to distraction. Newton seems to believe the whole world is ganging up on him. A couple of weeks ago, he flatly said that the late hits are “really taking the fun out of the game for me. At times I don’t even feel safe.”

    Newton has a beef. But more to the point here, all of this leads to this rather simple theory that I have about Cam Newton.

    He needs to be having fun to play his best football.

    And this year, he’s just not having any fun.

    Great athletes tend to feed off different motivations. Some want to be loved. Some seem to get a huge kick out of being despised. Some are motivated by fear, others by anger, still others by fame and fortune. Tom Brady, for instance, STILL seems to motivate himself by disrespect (you might have heard that he was selected in the sixth round of the NFL draft) even though it has been years since anybody disrespected him (Roger Goodell aside). Meanwhile, a player like Carolina’s impeccable linebacker Luke Kuechly seems to motivate himself through the daily challenge of figuring out how to break up an offense — it is like a puzzle for him.

    Newton apparently grazes off joy. He wears the hats. He does the dances. He gives away the footballs. The bigger the lead, the more fun he has, the better he plays. The louder the crowd, the more fun he has, the higher he soars. This is part of what makes Newton such a joy; through it all, he PLAYS football the way kids PLAY football. It’s a game. And it’s so much fun when everything is working and everyone has come together.

    This is something people around the Carolina team have noticed for years. There have been times that people inside the organization have wondered if Newton could be serious enough to become a great NFL quarterback. Soon enough they realized that it was the wrong question, realized that being serious doesn’t suit him or his play. You probably noticed how serious Newton looked in the Super Bowl last year. That didn’t turn out well.

    Marty Schottenheimer is one of the many coaches who noted that you can’t have fun in the NFL if you lose. The Panthers are coming off one of their worst losses in recent franchise history, a complete giveaway to the Chiefs. Their playoff situation looks pretty dire — Carolina might have to win out. The key will be getting Newton to start having fun again.

    The remarkable rise of Andy Murray

    For years, there was this fun argument going on about Tiger Woods and Roger Federer. The argument assumed that both men are the best who ever played golf and tennis (an open debate, obviously). And it led to one question: Who is better at their sport?

    The argument never really went anywhere because for every point (golf requires beating the WHOLE field rather than one opponent at a time), there was a counterpoint (one mediocre/bad day in golf does not sink a golfer’s chances, but it can end a tennis player’s tournament).

    For every factor that points to the difficulty of golf (it is so mentally challenging that even the great golfers will miss cuts with some regularity — Phil Mickelson missed 11 in his career) there is another that points to the difficulty of tennis (it is so physically grueling that many of the greatest players — John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg, Martina Hingis, Justine Henin, Mats Wilander, on and on — won their last Grand Slam singles title by the time they turned 25 years old).

    Anyway, it was fun to talk about, even if it never really led anywhere. But there is something that does seem to be emerging about the wonderful dominance of Woods and Federer. You might call the two effects “dishearten” and “hearten.”

    All of this, eventually, will take us to Andy Murray. Hopefully.

    Tiger Woods was such a force in golf that he disheartened his opponents. He broke their spirit. They could not beat him, not when he was on his game, not when he was slightly off his game and, quite often, not even when he was very much off his game. There’s an old Jack Nicklaus line that is even more true for Woods: He knew he would beat you, you knew he would beat you, and he knew that you knew he would beat you.

    FIfty-eight times, Woods was either in the lead or tied for the lead going into the final round. He won 54 of them. He won the first 14 major tournaments he led after 54 holes.

    And how did this uncommon mastery of a sport that is supposed to defy mastery affect other golfers? It crushed them. Sure, there were supremely talented golfers in Woods’ time, several who are in the World Golf Hall of Fame. But let’s put it this way — from the time when Woods broke onto the scene and breezed to the 1997 Masters title to when he won the U.S. Open on one leg, there were 46 major championships.

    Tiger Woods won 14 of them, as mentioned.

    The other 32 majors? Well, 25 different golfers won those 32 majors. Vijay Singh and Phil Mickelson won three. Mark O’Meara, Retief Goosen and Ernie Els won two each. Those five terrific players — four already in the Hall of Fame with only Goosen waiting — won fewer majors than Woods COMBINED. And the other 20 majors were won by 20 different golfers. It’s a clear pattern: Everyone would show up at the majors with the hope that Woods was way off his game. Then, and only then, did they have a chance.

    His magnificence was unassailable. It was meant to be enjoyed and feared but not challenged. The best golfers on earth not named Tiger Woods had to console themselves with the huge sums of money that Tiger brought into the sport and the hope that maybe someday he would stop winning everything and leave some tournaments for everyone else.

    So, yes, Tiger Woods was disheartening.

    Roger Federer, somehow, was the opposite. He was every bit as dominant as Woods — the numbers are even more striking. From 2003, when Federer won his first Wimbledon to 2010 when he took the Australian Open, there were 27 Grand Slam tournaments. Federer won 16 of them, more than half, and reached the final in another six. The only other tennis players to win Grand Slams in Roger’s time: Rafael Nadal, who won six, and five others who managed one each.

    But it was different somehow. There was something magnanimous about Federer’s beautiful game, something that opened up possibilities in the minds of other tennis players. Golfers would see Tiger Woods hit miracle shots out of trouble and make every important putt he looked at and they would think: NO SHOT. But Federer would hit some implausible running forehand winner or spin a drop-volley with such touch that it would not even bounce, and the other tennis players would think: I WANT TO DO THAT!

    That begins with Nadal, of course. He seemed to be just the latest in a long line of Spanish and Latin American clay-court specialists — Sergi Brugera, Gustavo Kuerten, Gaston Gaudio, Albert Costa, Juan Carlos Ferrera — who would show up at the French Open to win and then disappear like top-spinning swallows of Capistrano.

    Nadal, though, was stirred to take his game to a higher place. He has spoken eloquently about how the inspiration of Federer took him there. Nadal has won all four major championships and 14 Grand Slam tournaments in all — he has his place now in the inner circle of all-time tennis greats. His rivalry with Federer might just be the greatest in tennis history. Nadal has controlled it for the most part with shots that kick up high and attack Fed’s backhand like wasps. Still, their tennis has lifted the sport.

    Novak Djokovic was next. He had both Federer AND Nadal to contend with, something that certainly could have left him entirely discouraged. At times, he did indeed seem discouraged. Djokovic does not have quite the grace or touch of Federer nor the ferocious power of Nadal. He found his own path — foot speed, instincts, hitting balls on the rise, imposing return of serve and sheer ambition. He has now won 12 Grand Slam titles, including the career Grand Slam. He has a winning record against both Federer and Nadal. He too has a place in tennis’ inner circle.

    All of which brings us to Andy Murray. He has been around a long time. It is tempting to think that Murray is younger than he is, but he was born in the same month as Djokovic (Murray is actually a week older). He is less than a year younger than Nadal. He played in his first Wimbledon in 2005. He has endured more or less the ENTIRE period of Roger and Rafa and Novak’s dominance.

    He did not just endure that dominance, he was repeatedly smacked down by their dominance. The first 10 times he reached at least a Grand Slam semifinal, he was knocked out by Nadal (four times), Federer (three times) or Djokovic (two times)*. If anyone had good reason to grudgingly accept that he was born at just the wrong time, it was Murray.

    *He was also beaten once in a semi by Andy Roddick, another slap in the face — he couldn’t even be the best ANDY on the court that day.

    And Murray seemed, well, to put it delicately, just the type of person who would grudgingly accept that he was born at just the wrong time. Murray in 2008, when he was 21 years old and had not yet won a single significant tournament (no offense to the Qatar Open) nor reached the final of a Grand Slam event, wrote an autobiography called “Hitting Back.” Nobody was entirely sure WHY he wrote an autobiography at that time, but he did indeed hit back — at British tennis, at the media members who doubted him (he was refusing to even talk to the BBC at the time) and at the unfair obstacles he seemed sure that everyone was putting in his way and his way alone. He came across as a very angry young man, though nobody was entirely sure why.

    Then, maybe the answer why was obvious. Federer was majestic then. Nadal was ascendant. Djokovic won the Australian Open that very year. There seemed to be no room in the tennis world for Andy Murray, and he seemed to know it.

    So what happened from there? The book kept getting updated as Murray began growing up. The paperback version of that book was called “Coming of Age.” And then the book title was updated and titled  “Seventy-Seven: My Road to Wimbledon Glory.” That happened in 2013, after Murray broke the 77-year British drought and won Wimbledon. By then, he was a different tennis player and a different man. He had won the Olympics in London. He won the U.S. Open that year. He had found himself.

    And I would argue that it was, once again, the inspiration of Federer, who inspired Nadal, who inspired Djokovic, who inspired Murray. Andy improved everything about his game. And he did it by building up every single part of his game. He doesn’t really do anything specifically better than the rest of the world. But you know those Sprint commercials where Sprint basically admits it’s not QUITE as good as Verizon, but it’s 99 percent as good for half the price?

    Murray doesn’t quite have Djokovic’s return of serve (no one in tennis history does) or his pure speed — but it’s probably 99 percent.

    Murray doesn’t quite have Nadal’s bullfighter tenacity — win or die with honor — but he’s probably at 99 percent.

    Murray doesn’t quite have Federer’s ability to hit the “gaga shot” that tilts an opponent’s head the same way shaking a pinball machine does — but he’s probably at 99 percent.

    In other words, at least as I see it, Murray created a game that is like an homage to those masters he has been trying to beat. He does a little bit of everything, and he brings along some of that youthful rage and intensity, and here he is: Murray is now the No. 1 player in the world.

    It is unclear if he will stay at No. 1 for very long. Djokovic seems worn down by his own extraordinary rise, but he has still made the final of nine of the last 11 Grand Sam tournaments, winning six of them. Djokovic also dominated the head-to-head matchups between them, winning 24 of 34 matches and eight of the 10 times they played in Grand Slams. It seems a pretty good bet that he will be back, and so this could be just a Murray blip, a fluke of timing.

    Or it could be more. Either way, for Murray to reach No. 1 after all these years is an extraordinary thing.

    When Tiger Woods hit the golf scene, you will remember there was a lot of talk about the generation of golfers he would give rise to, the young golfers who, seeing what he was doing, would find a way to take golf even higher. We might be seeing that with golfers like Rory McIlroy and Jason Day and Jordan Spieth, though it is too early to tell.

    Federer’s impact is clearer. He came into the sport during a lull, just as the Pete Sampras-Andre Agassi era was ending, and he played sublime and previously unimaginable tennis. And his tennis genius has helped create three of the greatest tennis players who ever lived. I’m sure he didn’t mean to do that. But, hey, who DOESN’T want to be Roger Federer?