12/29/21: The biggest Chicago sports stories of 2021

The moments that mattered the most to Chicago sports fans

12/29/21: The biggest Chicago sports stories of 2021
(USA Today Sports)
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Good morning, frents.

And welcome to the final Midway Minute of 2021.

Before we get to the 10 biggest stories in Chicago sports this year, I want to offer my condolences to everyone who loved and respected ESPN 1000 reporter Jeff Dickerson.  Jeff died of complications from colon cancer on Tuesday at the unfathomably young age of 44.

My path didn't cross long with Jeff's as I only covered the Bears for The Northwest Herald in 2006 and 2007. But I fondly remember a few conversations on a train ride before a big Devin Hester game in St. Louis and afterward a few airport lounges around the country. I always admired the professionalism that Jeff brought to Halas Hall and marveled that he did it without the ego and insecurity that many others in the business (myself included) are saddled with. He had a rare gift and I remained in awe long after I became only a listener and fan.

ESPN 1000 is going with an all-local lineup today to pay tribute to JD today and I recommend you check out all the Twitter tributes you can. Rich Campbell's thread is amazing — up to and including the last tweet involving another former Bears reporter we still can't believe is also gone. Here's also a link to Waddle and Silvy's show from Tuesday night.

Jeff is survived by 11-year-old son Parker, who has now lost both parents to cancer in a two-year period. You can support his future education and athletic career at this GoFundMe.

RIP Jeff. You will be missed.

There's no good way to segue into the rest of this, so let's just jump in.

The year 2021 was a strange one for Chicago sports.

It began with an empty United Center and two quarter-full ballparks because of the pandemic that halted sports in 2020.

It ended with capacity Bulls crowds cheering a resurgent team whose only real challenger so far has been the pandemic that still impacts everyone.

Between those goalposts was one team fulfilling big expectations in the playoffs (Sky) and another falling a few rounds short (Sox).

The Cubs and Hawks said goodbye to championship core members, but couldn't quite commit to saying they were in full rebuild mode.

The Bears sent hopes soaring with the drafting of a potential franchise quarterback, then brought them crashing back down with the bad leadership and vision that has defined the team for almost four decades now.

There was rarely a dull moment in the city and it wasn't hard to find things to fill a Chicago sports newsletter. Culling those moments to a top 10 was a little more complicated, as was ordering them. The Bears always suck up all the oxygen in the town, but does a 5-10 team really deserve to rank ahead of a group that hung their first banner or a baseball team that won over 90 games?  

In the end, I gave preference to the winning moments and feel-good stories from Chicago squads. Because what are we really doing here, otherwise?

One note: Each story is followed with my take from the next day's Midway Minute.

10. Loyola beats Illinois in NCAA tournament

(USA Today Sports)

Illini basketball fans might still be sore over the committee putting both local schools on an unfair crash course just to get a sweet Round of 32 storyline.

Loyola fans, however, don't have that problem. That's because the Ramblers socked the Illini in the mouth from the start en route to a 71-58 win in Indianapolis.  The victory was proof that the 2018 Final Four run was no fluke. It also helped Porter Moser get a new job in Oklahoma and sent Loyola toward the Atlantic 10.

From March 22, 2021:

"The Ramblers' domination of the Illini on Sunday was so thorough and inarguable it was a complete validation of everything that (Porter) Moser has built in Rogers Park. Illinois may not have played like a No. 1 seed, but it also didn't just beat itself. Loyola ran its own game from the opening tip and didn't flinch once. No one who watched it will forget it any time soon."

9. Carlos Rodon throws a no-hitter

(USA Today Sports)

Rodon's career resurrection didn't last as long as the Sox needed, but his first half was incredible. The peak performance came in just his second start of the season as he no-hit Cleveland and came two outs away from a perfect game. It was the 20th no-hitter in White Sox history.

From April 15, 2021:

"Rodon located his slider from the outset and maintained his velocity all night. He threw 75 of his 114 pitches for strikes and his fastball was still hitting 99 in the ninth. The first 25 Cleveland batters weren't successful and it took an errant Rodon slider finding Roberto Perez's foot in the dirt to erase a bid for the 24th perfect game in baseball history.

"But no matter. Rodon laughed off the misfortune to get the final two outs for the no-hitter and he later said only one thought was going through his mind as Yoan Moncada made the 5-3 putout to end the game.

"'I can't believe this is happening.'"

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8. Investigation reveals Blackhawks inaction during sexual assault allegation

(USA Today Sports)

The Hawks had a busy 2021 with the departures of Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook and the additions of Seth Jones and Marc Andre-Fleury. Jeremy Colliton was also fired after an awful start and Jonathan Toews returned after missing the previous season with a fatigue-related illness.

All of those storylines, however, paled in comparison to the reckoning the Hawks faced after former player Kyle Beach sued the team after former video coordinator Bradley Aldrich sexually assaulted him during the 2010 season.

The lawsuit prompted a team-ordered investigation that resulted in GM Stan Bowman leaving the organization and former coach Joel Quenneville resigning his position with the Florida Panthers. New team president Danny Wirtz has his work cut out for him as the team attempts to rebuild trust with a fanbase that had already been reeling after several years of missing the playoffs.  

From October 27, 2021:

"Make no mistake. The calculus that John McDonough and the rest of his crew ultimately made in the spring of 2010 was a massive failure.

"Big enough to be studied in business and leadership classes as a direct example of what not to do.

"Presented with a disturbing allegation that warranted further investigation, Blackhawks leadership instead chose the immediate and easier path with a gamble the incident would never come to light."

7. Bears trade up to draft Justin Fields

(USA Today Sports)

This may one day end up being the unmistakable top Chicago sports moment of 2021, on par with Michael Jordan being selected third overall in 1984.

That's what we hope anyway. But we're not there yet.  Fields' rookie season has been rocky as Matt Nagy and Ryan Pace's missteps at Halas Hall left him with a steep learning curve. Fields has also made mistakes of his own while also leaving us with some jaw-dropping highlights that reinforce our belief he can be the one.

From April 30, 2021:

"I think I've gone through an entire range of emotions since Roger Goodell said Fields' name in Cleveland. I'm both excited and scared, nervous and happy. After getting off the four-year Mitch Trubisky roller coaster, we're hopping straight back on to another ride without any time to let our stomachs settle.

"And yet this is exactly how it's supposed to happen in the modern-day NFL. Ryan Pace saw the opportunity to make a franchise-altering pick and took it without letting his past failures dictate the move. We've been after him to take more swings at the position and, well, the windups don't come much bigger than this."

6. Bears' Arlington Heights bid puts Soldier Field on notice

It was the purchase agreement heard 'round Chicagoland. In late September, Scott Powers' late-night tweet indicated the Bears had submitted the winning bid to buy the 326 acres that Arlington International Racetrack sits on.

Will the Bears one day reside in a modern-day NFL stadium in the suburbs and leave the lakefront home they've called their own since 1971? There's still a long way to go in this soap opera, but the story began in 2021.

From September 29, 2021:

"This isn't technically a done deal just yet. The purchase agreement allows the Bears to study the project's feasibility and time for the sale to get approval from the local governments. It all seems like a formality, but the next bump-free project in this state will be the first.

"But the Bears just promised $197.2 million of their Butkus bucks for the plot of land, which is something way more than just a vague promise. If this were 20 years ago, I'd say that maybe the city of Chicago would step in and try to do enough to keep the team, but that ship seems like it has long since sailed. There's no plot of land with a city zip code that can deliver as much as Arlington and the Bears aren't going to settle after seeing the paradigm-busting stadiums that were built in the last decade.  (To quote my favorite movie: 'How are you going to keep them down on the farm when they've seen Karl Hungus?')"

5. Matt Nagy survives the entire 2021 season

I'm just going to be short and sweet about this one: I'm looking forward to never writing about Matt Nagy again.

(And yes, I'm assuming that Nagy will survive these next two weeks, but I think it's a safe one.)

From December 21, 2021:

"It's all over but the shouting and we again must wonder why the McCaskey family has allowed the Nagy era to last this long. While an interim coach may not have been able to drag this roster much farther, it's doubtful he would've done much worse.

"And given Derek King's impact on the Hawks roster across town, it was certainly worth a shot at giving someone with different ideas the reins of the franchise.

"Nagy is instead on the longest gallows walk in Chicago sports history, hitting double-digits in losses with — check notes, no that can't be right— three games still left to play."

4. Cubs burn it all down at trade deadline

The signs that the Cubs might be making a significant pivot began at this time last year when Yu Darvish was shipped to San Diego for a handful of low-level prospects.

But the dismantling didn't officially occur until a terrible June swoon forced Jed Hoyer to go full Red Wedding on the Cubs' championship core. The fun started with Anthony Rizzo being sent to the Yankees, followed by Javier Baez landing with the Mets and Kris Bryant heading to the Giants. (Hoyer also sent Craig Kimbrel to the Sox for Nick Madrigal and Codi Heuer, a move that did not have the anticipated payoff for the South Siders.)

Time will tell if Hoyer can pull off a better era transformation than Stan Bowman did with the Blackhawks, but there's no denying that July 30 was one of the least memorable days to be a Cubs fan.

From July 30, 2021:

"All good things come to an end," said Rizzo as he made a surreal exit that included an onfield press conference and an ovation from fans who didn't get the chance during Thursday's 7-4 loss to the Reds. (Both Rizzo and Bryant sat and neither received a pinch-hit opportunity.)

"The newest Yankee — man, that's weird to type — is right, of course. Particularly in baseball. The 27th out always comes. The best backyard games get called on account of darkness."

3. Sox win AL Central, star in Field of Dreams game

(USA Today Sports)

The Sox spent most of 2021 in the spotlight and had a solid chance to land at the top of this list. That didn't quite happen after Houston exposed their shortcomings in the ALDS, but they did get a star turn in MLB's first game at the Field of Dreams in Dyersville, Iowa.  Tim Anderson's walkoff into the corn ended up being the team's best highlight as they won their first division title since 2008.  It's something to tide us over for a better future we hope will still arrive.

From August 13, 2021:

"Thank god Anderson took that game back for the Sox and provided an all-time ending. While Hendriks' blown save wouldn't have totally ruined the night, it definitely would've soured the experience a bit (particularly for those Sox fans driving four hours back down I-80 in the middle of the night). I'm still ticked the Hawks couldn't fly the W over the Wings at Wrigley in 2009."

2. The Bulls come back

(USA Today Sports)

The Bulls had a busy offseason, but drew a lot of criticism after handing DeMar DeRozan a three-year contract worth more than $80 million.

Five months later, DeRozan looks like one of the best free-agent signings in city history. The guard has played at an MVP level while forming a backcourt tandem with Zach LaVine that has put the Bulls back near the top of the Eastern Conference. After more than half a decade of wandering in the wilderness, the Bulls have become must-see basketball every night.

From November 16, 2021:

"Who saw any of this coming?

"Certainly not any of the national pundits or league executives who called DeRozan's three-year, $85 million deal the worst of the offseason.

"And probably not the majority of even the most optimistic Bulls fans. Most of us were just going to be happy if DeRozan found an agreeable number of shots and a way to fit in with Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic."

1. Sky win their first WNBA title

(USA Today Sports)

To the victors go the spoils.

Sixteen years after arriving in the city, the Sky finally got their breakthrough moment with a run to the WNBA Finals and a series win over the Phoenix Mercury.  The entire season was set in motion with the offseason signing of Candace Parker, but it took the whole team — from Kahleah Copper to Courtney Vandersloot to Allie Quigley — to bring the 'chip home.

From October 18, 2021

"Here's the thing I kept coming back to on Sunday night: We've never seen anything like the celebration scene following the Sky's win.

"Oh, we've seen plenty of titles. The Bulls, Hawks, Sox, Cubs and even the Bears (that one time 36 years ago) have taken care of that.

"But none of those teams were made up of one-half the population that hasn't seen themselves reflected on our championship courts and fields."

Other big Chicago sports stories in 2021 (in no particular order):  

  • Steve McMichael announces ALS diagnosis
  • Zach LaVine and Stefanie Dolson win gold in Tokyo
  • Toni Kukoc and Marian Hossa inducted into Hall of Fame
  • Minnie Minoso finally gets Cooperstown call
  • Carter Hawkins hired as Cubs GM
  • Cubs throw combined no-hitter in Los Angeles
  • Deaths of Tony Esposito, Roland Hemond and LaMarr Hoyt
  • Red Stars reach NWSL final, coach resigns afterward
  • Illinois football wins 9OT game in Happy Valley
  • Brian Kelly ditches ND for LSU
  • Yermin Mercedes Mania takes over South Side (briefly)
  • Marc Andre-Fleury wins No. 500 in a Hawks uniform

And that's a wrap for the year! Thank you to everyone who read Midway Minute in 2021. Have a safe and healthy New Year's celebration and I'll see you again on January 2 with the Bears preview newsletter.

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