Sports history is littered with Butt Fumble-like blunders

ByJon Gold ESPN logo
Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Five years ago, quarterback Mark Sanchez etched himself into NFL lore with one of the most embarrassing plays in NFL history. Perhaps it only remains so memorable because of the nickname the play was given, one of the singularly comical monikers in the annals of sports.

The Butt Fumble.

The infamous mishap occurred in the second quarter of the Nov. 22, 2012, Thanksgiving Day game between Sanchez's New York Jets and the New England Patriots. After failing to complete a handoff because he turned the wrong way, Sanchez barreled ahead -- directly into the ample backside of 300-pound teammate Brandon Moore. Sanchez was knocked back onto the ground as the ball squirted out of his hands. It was scooped up by Patriots safety Steve Gregory, who ran it in for a touchdown. New England wound up rolling to a 49-19 victory.

The Butt Fumble has taken its place among these other bizarre blunders from sports history, boneheaded mistakes over the years -- not unfortunate in-game errors, a la Bill Buckner -- that were so strange they are hard to forget (in reverse chronological order):

Playing to not win, Part I

The South African soccer team learned the hard way that sometimes a tie is a loss. Thinking his team needed just a draw against Sierre Leone in 2011 to qualify for the 2012 Africa Cup of Nations, head coach Pitso Mosimane instructed Bafana Bafana to play for the tie. They even celebrated joyfully after their 0-0 draw before later learning the truth. South Africa, Niger and Sierra Leone ended up tied in the Group 5 standings, and Mosimane mistakenly thought his team would advance on goal differential. However, three-way ties were actually broken according to head-to-head results among the teams, meaning Niger, not South Africa, had qualified for the prestigious tournament.

Celebration gone wrong, Part I

American Lindsey Jacobellis has had a long and distinguished career as a five-time world champion in snowboardcross. But she'll never live down one inglorious moment of braggadocio. Heading toward the finish line of the 2006 Winter Olympics event in Turin, Italy, Jacobellis decided to add a little flair to her finish. With a seemingly insurmountable lead over Switzerland's Tanja Frieden, Jacobellis reached her left hand down and tugged on her board -- a rather routine maneuver called a method grab -- during the race's penultimate jump. But she landed awkwardly and fell, and Frieden slid right on by to secure the gold medal. Initially, Jacobellis tried to play the move off as an attempt to maintain balance, but she eventually admitted to showboating.

"I was caught up in the moment. I think every now and then you might see something like that," Jacobellis, who recovered in time to take the silver, said afterward. "I didn't even think twice. I was having fun and that's what snowboarding is. I was ahead. I wanted to share with the crowd my enthusiasm. I messed up. It happens."

Pool nightmare

Talk about making a splash. The Australian women's 4x200 freestyle relay team did after winning the final at the 2001 world championships in Fukuoka, Japan. Only they didn't wait long enough. Italy's final swimmer hadn't yet touched the wall when Aussie Petria Thomas leapt into the water to celebrate, resulting in her team's disqualification. ''This is a kangaroo court,'' Australian coach Don Talbot told poolside officials. Australian national team? Kangaroo court? This is too easy.

Celebration gone wrong, Part II

Herschelle Gibbs, the first player to hit six consecutive sixes in one over in ODI competition, is regarded as one of the top cricketers in history. But that doesn't make the South African legend immune to crushing disappointment. In a 1999 World Cup match against Australia, Gibbs infamously dropped a catch while moving too quickly to throw the ball up in celebration. The batter, Steve Waugh, continued on to score 120 as the Aussies won by five wickets when a loss would have knocked them out. Instead, both teams moved on for a semifinal rematch, which ended in tie. But by virtue of its superior net run rate in the previous round, Australia advanced to the final, where it defeated Pakistan.

Playing to not win, Part II

Entering the last day of the 1995-96 Premier League season, Manchester City, Southampton and Coventry City each had 37 points, tied for the final relegation spot. After falling behind 2-0 to Liverpool, Manchester City rallied to tie the score at the 78-minute mark. That's when manager Alan Ball made a mistake that will forever be remembered in soccer circles. Told that Southampton had fallen behind in its match, Ball instructed his team to protect the draw. The problem with that strategy was that Southampton wasn't really trailing. Despite the best efforts of City's Niall Quinn -- who was watching the Southampton game on television after being substituted and realized his club needed to win, sprinting through the tunnel to relay the message -- the match ended at 2-2. The three tied teams all drew on that final day, and Manchester City was sent down to the second tier on goal differential.

How not to use your head

Jose Canseco was one of baseball's great sluggers, but he most certainly was not known for his glove. His crowning moment of defensive ineptitude came in a May 26, 1993, loss against Cleveland, when he was playing right field for the Texas Rangers. The Indians' Carlos Martinez sent one back, back, back and -- off Canseco's head. It bounced over the fence for a home run, one of the classic boneheaded plays in baseball history. Canseco himself couldn't help but celebrate the anniversary of the blunder in 2016, tweeting: "23 years ago today I bounced a homer off my head."

Celebration gone wrong, Part III

Other NFL players have suffered from cases of premature celebration -- DeSean Jackson, anyone? -- but no one quite dropped the ball like Leon Lett. In Super Bowl XXVII after the 1992 season, Lett's Dallas Cowboys steamrolled the Buffalo Bills, so the gaffe didn't doom them, but it remains one of the most famous football flubs in history. After picking up a fumble by Buffalo quarterback Frank Reich, Lett scampered 64 yards for the score -- or so he thought. Bills receiver Don Beebe had been sprinting down the field and caught up to Lett just as the Cowboys' hulking defensive lineman held the ball out in one hand to celebrate as he approached the goal line. Beebe poked the ball away from Lett and out of bounds for a touchback, preventing the Cowboys from setting the Super Bowl record for scoring. To be fair, Lett did record a sack and two forced fumbles as the Cowboys won 52-17, so not all was lost.

On thin ice

On April 30, 1986, Edmonton Oilers rookie defenseman Steve Smith had a 23rd birthday that was memorable for all the wrong reasons. It was Game 7 of a second-round playoff series against the Calgary Flames. The Oilers, who were chasing their third consecutive Stanley Cup, were led by the legendary Wayne Gretzky and had the NHL's best regular-season record. With the score tied 2-2 in the third period, Smith tried to make a simple outlet pass from behind his net. Only the puck instead hit goalie Grant Fuhr's skate and bounced into the net for what turned out to be Calgary's winning goal. Edmonton at least seems to have forgiven Smith, who was born in Scotland and raised in Canada: The Oilers won the Stanley Cup three of the next four seasons, and he was on the team's coaching staff from 2010 to 2014.

The gimme that got away

Hale Irwin, one of the great golfers of the 1970s and '80s, is a three-time U.S. Open champion, a 20-time PGA Tour winner and the winningest Champions Tour player of all time. But you can't talk about his career without mentioning one major gaffe, one that may have cost him The Open Championship in 1983. Irwin completely whiffed while trying to backhand a 1-inch tap-in for par on the 14th green during the third round, adding an unfortunate stroke to his total. He also bogeyed the next hole and went on to finish tied for second, a single shot behind Tom Watson.

"To be perfectly blunt," he said at the time, "I don't know what happened. I'm guessing it was a mental lapse. I also have a problem with depth perception, and it was getting dark. But the bottom line is that I made an error that at this point in time is very critical."

That's why he's a kicker

In Super Bowl VII in 1973, with the Dolphins leading 14-0 and two minutes away from completing an unprecedented 17-0 season, Garo Yepremian's 42-yard field goal attempt was blocked by Washington's Bill Brundige. Yepremian was the first to reach the loose ball, but rather than fall on it, he scooped it up and attempted to throw it. To whom, no one will ever know. The ball slipped from Yepremian's hand during his passing motion, and to make matters worse he batted it into the air while trying to grab it. Redskins cornerback Mike Bass was there to pull the ball down, and he ran 49 yards for a touchdown. Luckily for Yepremian, the Dolphins held strong and won 14-7.

"Every airport you go to, people point to you and say, 'Here's the guy who screwed up in the Super Bowl,'" Yepremian, who died in 2015, told ESPN in a 2007 interview. "After a while it bothers you. If it was anybody else he would go crazy, but fortunately I'm a happy-go-lucky guy."

Wrong number

One of the truly great golfers to hail from South America, Roberto De Vicenzo retired in 2006 at the age of 83 after more than 200 international victories. The good-natured Argentinian won The Open Championship in 1967, but he might be better known for one colossal mix-up a year later at the Masters. De Vicenzo, on his 45th birthday, shot a final-round 65 and was tied with Bob Goalby for the lead after 72 holes, which should have resulted in an 18-hole playoff. However, the scorecard he'd signed totaled 66. It turns out that playing partner Tommy Aaron had marked a 4 for De Vicenzo instead of a 3 on the par-4 17th hole. Whoops. By rule, the higher score stood, and De Vicenzo settled for second. He gracefully accepted fault, his own words summing it up and becoming a part of golf lore: "What a stupid I am."

Wrong way, all the way

Jim Marshall was one of the finest defensive ends in his day for the Minnesota Vikings and their Purple People Eaters unit. He was a two-time Pro Bowler in his 20-year career and made 30 fumble recoveries -- one of which remains a staple of NFL blooper reels. In an Oct. 25, 1964, game against the San Francisco 49ers, Marshall scooped up a fourth-quarter fumble and rumbled 66 yards to the end zone -- the wrong end zone. Once he reached the promised land, he threw the ball up and out of bounds to celebrate -- resulting in a safety. Despite the two-point gaffe, the Vikings held on for a 27-22 victory.

"I took my football career very seriously, and to make a mistake, of course, it's something that you don't want on your résumé," Marshall told the Twin Cities Pioneer Press 50 years later. "But mistakes happen. Norm Van Brocklin (then Minnesota's coach) was known to be tough on mistakes, but that didn't cause us to lose the game. And he just said, 'Hey, Jim, just forget about it.' And that's what I remember, and that's what I've been trying to do."

Late to the party

Suriname, the smallest country in South America, doesn't exactly boast an illustrious sporting history. Imagine the people's surprise, then, when in 1960, Wim Essajas became the country's first Olympian. Or, rather, would have been. Essajas, who qualified for the men's 800 meters at the Rome Games, was told the wrong starting time for his opening round by his country's Olympic delegation head. He slept through the event, giving new weight to the phrase "You snooze, you lose." Suriname would take a while to get over it -- the country missed the Olympics entirely four years later. It wasn't until 1968 that an athlete from Suriname, sprinter Eddy Monsels, actually competed in the Games for the first time.

Glutton for punishment

South Africa has a long and illustrious lineage of boxers, but one weighty mistake has been hard to live down. At the 1936 Berlin Olympics, lightweight Thomas Hamilton-Brown lost his opening-round match to Chile's Carlos Lillo. Dejected, Hamilton-Brown went on an eating binge to drown his sorrows, only to discover days later that there had been a scoring error and he'd actually won. One problem: In the interim, he'd put on so many pounds that he couldn't make weight for the next round. To be fair, who among us hasn't tried to bury our disappointment in a sleeve of Oreos or a slice of cake? As they say, fudge not lest ye be fudged.

Unforgettable blunder; unfortunate name

Fred Merkle played 16 major league seasons, was on four pennant winners and finished as high as seventh in MVP voting -- but none of that is why his name is still known nearly a century after he last played. One fateful night in September during the heated 1908 National League pennant race, Merkle singled to give the New York Giants runners on first and third with two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning of a 1-1 game against the Chicago Cubs. Al Bridwell then singled, and Moose McCormick crossed home plate for the apparent winning run. But Merkle, just 19 years old, veered off the base path before reaching second and ran to the Giants' clubhouse. As jubilant New York fans stormed Polo Grounds field, Cubs second baseman Johnny Evers retrieved the ball and stepped on second. Umpire Hank O'Day called Merkle out on a force play, nullifying the run. Amid the chaos on the field, the game was called a tie.

It ended up being a big deal because the Giants and Cubs finished the regular season even in the standings. Chicago would beat New York in the Oct. 8 makeup game, taking the pennant, and then win the World Series (famously, the Cubs' last until 108 years later). Poor Merkle earned the nickname of "Bonehead," and his gaffe was immortalized with a moniker that sounds strange to the modern ear -- "Merkle's Boner."

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