by Chris Foss
Aaron Rodgers’ prayer to beat the Lions. Auburn’s “kick-six” against Alabama. Teresa Witherspoon’s half-court miracle shot in the WNBA Finals. These are among the greatest moments in sports. From ownership on down to the players and the fans, the game-winning miracle unifies everyone affected by it like nothing else. For the losing side, agony enshrouds all, as though a loved one has just died. But for the winners, there’s almost no better feeling in the world. It is the deus ex machina. More than the “thrill of victory”, it’s the thrill of seemingly heaven-delivered victory.
The Greco-Roman deus ex machina was, to those ancient societies, a means of bringing sudden endings to theatrical performances. Merriam-Webster defines it as “a person or thing […] that appears or is introduced suddenly and unexpectedly and provides a contrived solution to an apparently insoluble difficulty.” Rather than feeling artificial or contrived, however, the sports version of achieving the seemingly impossible brings all of us—fans, players, coaches, even owners—closer to pure, unfiltered joy than anything else in life. The sports deus ex machina is just as rare as the movie/TV ex machina, and is totally unscripted, both of which make it all the more joyous.
Football and soccer teams play three hours per week. Basketball and hockey teams play no more than seven hours per week. Baseball teams top out at about eighteen hours per week—and a lot of that time for players is either standing or sitting around. A week is 168 hours long, so less than one percent of the week is the game or match. The fan spends at least 99% of their time working, sleeping, or binge-watching their favorite TV show. Athletes are training; coaches are strategizing; owners and general managers are running the team. Until the players take the field, everyone has a different agenda pulling each individual constantly in different directions. Then the stress of the game comes. The athletes, fans, and team employees who go into the games with the best frame of mind thrive off that stress, and enjoy the game as they work toward trying to win it. Many of us, however, spend the game in some variation on dread. Yelling at the referees over a blown call. Swearing when the other team scores. Biting our tongue as the clock ticks away and our team needs a score to cut into the deficit.
Even the end of the game sometimes provides no relief. There’s something relaxing, yet oddly unsatisfying about a blowout win. The game maybe only felt like half a game. Of course, a blowout loss feels the same way, except you feel hollowed out; players feel like their butts have been whooped, while fans want to go find the nearest paper bag and hide inside it. The close games feel more like complete contests. But to every fan, we feel like we’ve been on the short end of the stick more often than we’ve come out on top. (That’s probably because the biggest losses have been the most memorable, but that’s a point to expound upon another time.) Some close wins have a “phew!” feeling to it, almost as if you’ve escaped—like when the opposing basketball team misses the final shot, or when the opposing football team tosses an interception near the goal line. But the joy of those kinds of wins pales in comparison to the deus ex machina—the victory pulled out of the sky.
Basketball and football lend themselves best to this kind of a finish. In these sports, the clock counts down to zero, and the set-piece (i.e. starting from out of bounds in basketball, or from the snap in football) nature of these sports makes for the possibility of craziness at the end. The buzzer beater is basketball’s deus ex machina. Not just any buzzer beater qualifies, however. The player working themselves out of a double or triple-team anywhere on the court is pretty amazing. The buzzer beater off the broken play is fairly remarkable. But the true ex machina is when that buzzer beater comes from way beyond the three-point line, It shouldn’t happen. No way. But every now and then, it does. Think Witherspoon for the Liberty in 1999 (with the streamers already coming down to celebrate the Houston Comets’ presumed WNBA championship), or Julius Erving for the 76ers in 1986, or Devin Harris for the Nets in 2009. And it brings all of us together that root for the team that hit the shot.
In terms of the football ex machina, the Hail Mary never seems planned-for, always seems spontaneous, and it is the quarterback’s version of nirvana. Every one of us who has ever chucked the pigskin in the backyard has practiced the Hail Mary, the last-ditch pass attempt for a quarterback who needs a touchdown from forty to sixty yards—or even farther—out. No one who has ever witnessed a Hail Mary has ever forgotten it, especially on the winning side. The names Doug Flutie, Kordell Stewart, and Aaron Rodgers will always be associated with the Hail Mary. The improbability of completing a Hail Mary creates a feeling of truly snatching victory from the jaws of defeat.
Then there’s the hook-and-lateral, the weapon of special teams desperate for a miracle, or teams who are in need of a touchdown and are out of even Hail Mary range. The hook-and-lateral works so infrequently that it is tried very infrequently. Of course, there are two teams—and one band—that will be forever associated with the hook-and-lateral. There have been a couple of contenders for great hook-and-laterals in recent years, but alas, those were only to tie the game up. When it works and you win, however, you’re bound for that state of all-encompassing joy. Defeat is pretty much certain when you set up for the hook-and-lateral, so what more of a miracle could there be?
These are only the most common deus ex machina plays in sports, however. Don’t forget about the missed field goal taken all the way back for a touchdown (Auburn vs. Alabama in 2013); or in basketball, someone racing down the floor to make the game-winning block a la LeBron James in the Finals, or a series of crazy game-ending plays like Tracy McGrady’s 13 points in 35 seconds against the Spurs in 2004. Everyone has their own variation on the deus ex machina: the ones I’ve discussed above are mine. But what they all have in common are that they—however briefly—unite all of us who fly the flag of that team that pulled out the miracle.
We’re all jumping for joy. The coach’s headset comes off or the tie comes loose and their feet inevitably leave the ground. The players dogpile each other; joined in college by the fans. (Is there anything better than the miracle finish at home, accompanied by a court/field-storming?) Athletic directors, general managers, owners all go at least a little bit crazy as their vagal nerves, already pushed to the limit by the stress of the game, goes straight over the top. Almost nothing in the world can equal the thrill all of you feel when your team pulls off the impossible. God seems to touch the earth at the moment of utopia upon the achievement.
The next day, the 99% of the rest of the week can resume. But for one moment, maybe extended into one night, the deus ex machina of sports can bring us together. And it’s in large part why we tune in to the games. Individual players, stats, and athletic plays aside, once in a while we want to see the improbable, if not the impossible, pulled off. And sometimes—only sometimes, because we don’t want it to be routine and mundane—our prayers are answered, our dreams become reality, and our God touches the playing field.
 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kapFRzy1xHE (Witherspoon); https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kapFRzy1xHE (Erving); https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0afz7lz7KGM (Harris)
 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5-_uYyVlxrk (Flutie); https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5Nt6HjqtJt8 (Stewart); https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r0vVqStvh_8 (Rodgers)—almost as famous is another Hail Mary he threw that season in a playoff game he ultimately lost: see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_fjE1B6VcZE
 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9J_KJCowh5E (Central Michigan went for 2 and didn’t get it); https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FtW6sAcKABs (oh, the poor Saints…)
 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vR7s2m5Z5GA (Iron Bowl); https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-zd62MxKXp8 (LeBron); https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1jbtt6OGLms (McGrady)