I’ve never fully understood the premise of the ESPYs, ESPN’s annual awards show, which airs for the 22nd time tomorrow night. Sports declare their winners through actual competition, and ESPY recipients have already earned more meaningful awards. Handing out Oscars and Grammys to actors and musicians makes sense. Declaring Adrian Peterson the Best NFL Player does not.
And yet, I have fond memories of the ESPYs, as I was fortunate enough to attend the show in 1997 and 1998. While it has since moved to the West Coast, at the time it was held at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. The hour or so before the show started was sports heaven for my 10- and 11-year-old self. I snagged autographs from players like Tim Duncan, Keyshawn Johnson, and Lisa Leslie. I brought a small notepad for this purpose, but when several players were standing together I ended up with multiple signatures on the same piece of paper.
My favorite is the single slip from ’98 that has Nomar Garciaparra, Mia Hamm, and Ryan Leaf. I got my picture taken with Hamm and you can see Nomar, her future husband, in the background, proving that they met at the ESPYs and not a promotional event later that year, as an internet search will lead you to believe. (Watch out, TMZ, I’m coming for you.)
Perhaps realizing even then that my Leaf autograph wouldn’t hold up, I approached Peyton Manning. Seeing my pen and paper, he politely said, “You don’t want my autograph. You want his,” and pointed to a younger version of himself. I had accidentally approached Peyton’s brother Cooper. A few years ago I met their dad, Archie Manning, and told him about my mix up. He seemed as amused listening to my story as I imagine you are reading about it.
I also remember the hosts, comedians Jeff Foxworthy and Norm MacDonald, though I did not recall MacDonald’s edgy opening monologue, probably because the jokes went over my head at the time. I was more entertained by the “This Is SportsCenter” commercials they played during breaks.
I certainly don’t feel the ESPYs are must-see TV. Tomorrow night’s winners have already won—the best teams have won championships, the best players have won MVPs, and cross-sport comparisons are kind of silly. But to have been there as a kid is one of my favorite sports memories.