Column: Another socially distanced Newby Awards for 2021

Dec 30, 2021, 9:55 AM | Updated: 11:59 pm
FILE - Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Urban Meyer watches from the sideline during the first half ...

FILE - Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Urban Meyer watches from the sideline during the first half of an NFL football game against the Atlanta Falcons, Sunday, Nov. 28, 2021, in Jacksonville, Fla. Just 13 games into his tenure, Meyer was mercifully fired by the Jacksonville Jaguars. With Meyer out of the running for coach of the year, and no idea where Bobby Petrino ended up, we'll give this Newby trophy to Ted Lasso. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack, File)

(AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack, File)

We had hoped the Newby Awards could return to a bit of normalcy this year.

Ohhh, how we’d love to stroll down the imaginary red carpet, pretend to dole out some statuettes, and make-believe we’re attending a train wreck of an after-party at Kanye West’s new house before he tears it down.

Sadly, thanks to folks such as wannabe game show host-slash- vaccine quack Aaron Rodgers, coronavirus was renewed for a third season as we were winding down 2021.

So, taking a page from Bill Murray in “Groundhog Day,” we’re sticking with largely the same routine from a year ago.

Masked up? Check.

Socially distanced? Check.

We now present the ninth annual Newby Awards, a mostly tongue-in-cheek look at a year in which sports tried to carry on despite the pandemic — until everyone went on the COVID list.

COACH OF THE YEAR

Urban Meyer seemed a lock for this prize … until he hired a strength coach accused of racism, and signed Tim Tebow to play tight end, and skipped a team flight so he could get in some quality family time with a woman who was not his wife, reportedly berated the assistant coaches he hired as “losers,” allegedly kicked his kicker in a fit of rage and largely forgot everything he knew about winning football games. Just 13 games into his tenure, Meyer was mercifully fired by the Jacksonville Jaguars. Somewhere, Bobby Petrino is smiling, figuring he’s now just the second-worst coaching hire in NFL history.

With Meyer out of the running, and no idea where Petrino ended up, we’ll give this trophy to Ted Lasso.

BEST BASERUNNING

In a totally forgettable season for the Chicago Cubs, Javier Baez managed to make his mark with what was either the most dazzling bit of baserunning we’ve ever seen, or the most boneheaded defensive play in the history of baseball (spoiler alert: take the latter).

The hijinks started on Baez’s routine grounder to Pirates third baseman Erik González, who threw to first for what should have been the final out of the inning. The throw was wide, pulling first baseman Will Craig off the bag, so Baez decided — what the heck? — to head back toward home plate. Instead of just stepping on the bag to end the inning, Craig inexplicably took off after him, creating what was surely the first-ever rundown between first and home. Willson Contreras came around to score from second base, sliding across the plate just ahead of Craig’s baffling throw. Baez, in the meantime, took off back toward first, another throw skipped away, and Baez somehow ended up at second base while the TV broadcaster screamed, “Keep going! Go! Go! You’re invisible!”

El Mago should star in Marvel’s next superhero flick, assuming the villains all play for the Pirates.

DANCING WITH THE STARS

After abandoning Notre Dame for a big-money contract at LSU, Brian Kelly broke out the most cringeworthy dance moves since Elaine Benes cut the rug into tatters on “Seinfeld.” Kelly also tried his hand at acting, going with a Cajun accent that sounded every bit like a Massachusetts native who wouldn’t know the difference between a crawfish and a beignet.

PERSEVERANCE CUP

Souad Nefissa Cherouati didn’t come close to winning a medal at the Tokyo Olympics, but she gets a much-deserved prize for tenacity. The Algerian swimmer dropped far behind the field in the 10-kilometer marathon event, yet never thought of quitting. She finished nearly 18 minutes behind the gold medalist and almost nine minutes behind the next-to-last finisher, swimming alone during most of her more than two hours in the water. “Giving up is the worst that can happen to me,” Cherouati said. “I feel bad, but not as bad as I would feel if I stop.”

Now that’s the Olympic spirit.

Unfortunately, the same couldn’t be said of the 2020 Tokyo Games, which were finally held a year late with no fans in the stands and a largely indifferent reception from a city that had little desire to stage a huge sporting event in the midst of a pandemic. Get ready for more of the same in a few weeks when Beijing unveils its own COVID Olympics, The Winter Edition.

TITLETOWN, USA

Moving to Tampa Bay with his anti-aging pod, Tom Brady guided the Buccaneers to their first Super Bowl title in 18 years — and the seventh championship of an unparalleled career that shows no signs of slowing at 44 years old. Brady’s only wobble came when he stepped back on dry land after a raucous boat parade honoring the champs. That wasn’t the only championship parade on the bay, either. The Lightning won their second straight NHL Stanley Cup.

Honorable Mention to the Drought Breakers: The Atlanta Braves captured their first World Series title since 1995, while the Milwaukee Bucks snapped a four-decade run without an NBA championship.

IN MEMORIAM

Sports lost two of its greatest champions for social justice in 2021. Hank Aaron, who endured racist threats during his pursuit of Babe Ruth’s home run record, passed away in January at the age of 86. Lee Elder, the first first Black golfer to play in the Masters, died in November at 87.

They will be sorely missed. They will never be forgotten.

WORST CANDIDATE

Caitlyn Jenner threw her hat into the political ring and discovered it’s a lot more daunting than throwing a discus or a javelin. The 1976 Olympic decathlon champion finished 13th in California’s gubernatorial recall election, receiving just 1% of the vote.

PROFILE IN COURAGE

Carl Nassib set a powerful precedent when he became the first prominent male athlete playing a major U.S. team sport — the NFL, no less — to reveal he is gay. In a year when the Las Vegas Raiders have dealt with all sorts of distractions, from coach Jon Gruden being forced out over offensive emails to a horrific car crash that led to Henry Ruggs III being cut, Nassib simply played football with hardly any fanfare. He has surely made it much easier for the next athlete to come out. And the next. And the next.

Dishonorable Mention: Aaron Rodgers, the Green Bay Packers’ star quarterback, led everyone to believe he was vaccinated — until the truth came out when he was stricken with COVID-19. Now, he’s trying to portray himself as some sort of outside-the-box intellectual who just wants to lead a thoughtful debate on other ways to deal with a virus that has killed more than 800,000 Americans. Sorry, we’ll go with the scientists on that one, not a QB who isn’t nearly as smart as he thinks he is.

THE NEWBY GRAMMY

For the first time ever, we’ll be awarding a special prize to our top sports-related musician. The winner is … Matthew Kaminski, the witty organist who provided the soundtrack to the Braves’ championship season. The jazz lover’s eclectic taste in music, and his hilarious selections when opposing players come to the plate, set up a game within every game. So, why did he play “I Am The Walrus” for Houston’s Alex Bregman during the World Series? Because the Beatles’ song includes the line “I am the egg man,” which rhymes with Bregman. Sort of.

With that, we’ll let Kaminski play us off the imaginary stage.

Congrats to all the winners and losers.

Enjoy the stay-at-home after-party.

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Paul Newberry is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or at https://twitter.com/pnewberry1963 and check out his work at https://apnews.com/search/paulnewberry

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Column: Another socially distanced Newby Awards for 2021