In thinking about the last 12 months in sports I couldn’t help but be struck by the moments we didn’t get a chance to witness, and the stories we weren’t able to watch play out. A year ago the challenge was deciding what would ultimately be left off a list of headlines that shaped the year in San Diego sports. Building this year’s top 10, like everything else in 2020, felt quite a bit different.
That, of course, is because of the No. 1 storyline on this year’s countdown. The topic that has impacted seemingly every facet of life, including sports.
What would the Aztecs have done if they’d had the chance to dance? The Gulls were trending upwards when the AHL season ended prematurely. Might they have gone on another memorable postseason run? Could the Sockers have erased the bitter taste of their 2019 postseason defeat? Who knows what the high school, college or professional ranks would have provided local fans.
What we ended up with is list of memories that elicits a complicated array of emotions. There was elation, and hope, and excitement, and plenty of reasons to be proud. But there was also heartbreak, discouragement and frustration.
It was that kind of year, period. Sports was no different.
Here are the top 10 stories that shaped San Diego sports in 2020:
10) Alex Smith’s Comeback
With the NFL’s presence in town an increasingly distant memory, fans in San Diego are left to find other rooting interests. One of those this fall has been Alex Smith, the central character in one of the greatest comeback stories the sport has seen. The Helix High grad suffered a horrific broken leg in November 2018. The injury gave way to an infection that led to 17 surgeries. Smith came frighteningly close to having his right leg amputated.
In spite of the complications caused by the injury, he was determined to make it back to the NFL. This summer doctors cleared him for practice, and on October 11 he returned to game action against the Rams. An unstable quarterback situation paved the way for Smith to appear in seven games. His team has won the last four times he’s taken the field, and enters Week 17 in position to claim the NFC East and advance to the playoffs. This ongoing chapter of Smith’s journey should be enough to secure Comeback Player of the Year honors at the end of the season.
9) An Aztec Football Season Like No Other
Think about it – a San Diego State season opener on October 24, at home, in Carson. Good luck explaining that to someone a year ago. At one point we didn’t think SDSU would play in 2020. The Mountain West got its programs on the field, some more than others. To the credit of Brady Hoke’s program, they got out there enough to play a “full” regular season schedule. Their eight games included an audible, in the form of a last minute trip to Colorado thrown together to avoid a blank spot in their brief window of a season.
In the end the Aztecs grinded their way to a 4-4 campaign. The results on the field left much to be desired, but the fact that they got there as often as they did was an accomplishment in itself.
8) San Diego’s Quarterback Leaves the Chargers Behind
As the years went by with SDCCU Stadium sitting empty on Sundays, one connection between the city and the Chargers remained: Philip Rivers. The departure of San Diego’s quarterback significantly weakened whatever bond or investment remained. Rivers and his family moved out of town, and No. 17 donned a new shade of blue with the Indianapolis Colts. He’s reflected on memories with the organization since his departure, with an obvious fondness for his time in San Diego.
Now he’s hoping to do something he never could in Mission Valley. But if he’s going to add a Super Bowl to his resume, he’ll need some Week 17 heroics. The Colts are on the outside of the AFC playoff picture heading into their final game of the regular season.
7) The Loyal Make Their Mark
Landon Donovan and Warren Smith brought a new level of professional soccer to San Diego in 2020. Loyal SC made its USL debut in early March, and appeared in 16 total matches.
While they were a welcome addition to the San Diego sports scene, their biggest impact in 2020 had little to do with what they accomplished between the lines. The organization quickly developed an important voice for social justice. Donovan’s team wore Black Lives Matter jerseys, which they later auctioned off to benefit The Association of African American Educators.
Their most powerful statements came at the end of the season. Two Loyal players were targets of hate speech in back-to-back matches. The manager spoke boldly about their desire to be a beacon of change within their sport. They backed up those words by walking off the field and forfeiting their final match of the season against Phoenix Rising FC, sacrificing their playoff hopes in support of a teammate, and in the name of acceptance and love.
6) Rocky Retires
January brought a surprise for San Diego State fans, and the departure of one of the city’s most prominent sports figures. On January 8, Rocky Long retired after nine seasons as the Aztecs’ head coach. Long summed his decision up simply, saying ‘it’s time’. He would up at New Mexico, where he served as his alma mater’s defensive coordinator in 2020.
Long took SDSU to a bowl game in each of his nine seasons at the helm. San Diego State won three Mountain West Championships under his watch, and reached 10 wins in four of his last five seasons. Long handed the keys to Brady Hoke, the man who brought him to the Mesa in 2009.
5) The Shocking Loss of an Icon, Kobe Bryant
This one is admittedly a bit difficult to place on a list of this nature. Kobe Bryant’s death was one of the biggest sports stories in all of 2020. The loss of an iconic figure, whose legend transcended his game, surely deserves a place here. Where? That’s hard to know. And the precise placement of it, at least in my eyes, is not as important as its presence alone.
In what has been a difficult year for so many, Kobe’s death felt like the first major blow. It is easy to remember the shock that followed the news on that Sunday morning, and the emotion that swallowed us up once we came to grips with the reality of the matter. The scene outside Staples Center on that day was stunning. The sea of jerseys and signs, the eerie silence broken by chants of ‘Kobe’ and ‘MVP’.
Bryant became a legendary figure over the course of his 20 seasons. It’s not easy to break into the conversation of Laker greats, for a franchise with so many iconic players and personalities, but he did just that. The five-time champ was known not just for his talent, but his relentless competitiveness, work ethic and desire to win. Those characteristics caused athletes across sports to embrace the ‘Mamba mentality’.
Kobe’s loss wasn’t just felt in Southern California, just as is it wasn’t just felt in basketball. His death was mourned throughout the country and around the world. The widespread emotions felt that day and in the weeks that followed, serving as an undeniable testament to his legacy.
4) San Diego State Makes Hoops History
No one could have seen this coming. Brian Dutcher’s program bounced back from a disappointing season, equipped with a trio of impact transfers. Malachi Flynn, KJ Feagin and Yanni Wetzell all opted to finish their careers at San Diego State because they wanted an opportunity to play for a winner, and to play in their first NCAA Tournament. Sadly, they didn’t get that experience – but to no fault of their own.
SDSU began the season unranked, and survived close calls early on against BYU and San Jose State. They garnered attention with impressive wins over Creighton, Iowa and Utah – and entered January with a spotless record. San Diego State met the challenge against its first 26 opponents, authoring its best start in program history. By February 11 they had already cut the nets, as Mountain West regular season champions. They rose as high as No. 4 in the Associated Press Top-25, equaling the top mark in program history.
It wasn’t until a February 22 home game against UNLV that the Aztecs suffered their first setback. They reached 30 wins during the conference tournament, before a loss to Utah State in the championship game. SDSU was in position to earn the program’s first ever No. 1 seed. That opportunity disappeared on March 12, when the NCAA Tournament was canceled because of the coronavirus outbreak. An unsatisfying conclusion to what had been the best season in Aztec basketball history.
3) San Diego’s Shifting Stadium Landscape
San Diego’s history with stadium projects is well told. Since it opened in 2004, Petco Park has served as the outlier. Thanks to 2020, the picturesque venue will soon have company. The Chargers’ shortcomings in developing a palatable plan for a new home ultimately resulted in their departure. That left SDCCU Stadium as a decaying home for San Diego State football, and whatever major concerts, events, or minor league teams chose to inhabit it.
The site, and the surrounding area, was in dire need of a refresh. SDSU and its Mission Valley project achieved what previous efforts could not, passing through the necessary hoops and getting the needed support and approval to break ground. After completing their purchase from the city, the university promptly got moving on the destruction of ‘The Murph’ in order to begin work on Aztec Stadium.
The gradual tearing down of the Chargers’ and Padres’ former home has been a source of nostalgia for San Diegans the last few months. SDSU’s project will completely alter the look of that pocket of Mission Valley. At the heart of it, is San Diego State football’s new home. It is scheduled to open in the fall of 2022, and provide a modern backdrop for events – both sports and otherwise.
That’s not the only such project to pick up steam in 2020. In August Mayor Kevin Faulconer announced plans for a redevelopment project in the Midway district, that will include an overhaul of Pechanga Arena – the home of the Gulls, Sockers and Seals.
2) A Contender Finally Arrives at Petco Park
In a year spent mostly at home, away from crowds, distanced from the games, teams and venues we hold dear – the Padres set off one of the wildest scenes witnessed in San Diego in recent memory. A fanbase, having spent years hoping for a winner, erupted at every crucial swing, and overflowed into the streets in the aftermath of the club’s first playoff series win since 1998. It was pure ecstasy.
Prior to the 2020 season General Manager AJ Preller, in hopes of keeping his head from rolling, made a series of key changes in the Padres’ dugout. The moves included a new manager in Jayce Tingler, and a coaching staff that helped big names like Tatis, Machado, Hosmer and Myers move significantly closer to their potential. It was evident early that this was a very different team. Fernando Tatis Jr. captivated the baseball world and was for a while the frontrunner for National League MVP. Manny Machado resembled the player whose signing in 2019 brought excitement and elevated expectations.
A franchise that for years was void of any personality or defining characteristic beyond its uninspiring track record evolved into the most exciting team in baseball. They avoided the lengthy slumps that sunk previous teams and did enough in the first half of the season to inspire their GM to swing a series of key moves at the trade deadline. San Diego finished with the third best record in baseball, and over 60 games posted the best regular season winning percentage in club history. They earned a Wild Card Series at home, in front of an empty Petco Park, against the Cardinals. The Padres won the deciding game three, with roars swelling outside the stadium gates. The raucous scene in East Village and throughout the Gaslamp did not disappoint. Players like Machado and Tatis shared a rare moment with fans before loading onto the team bus. Car horns and screams echoed through the streets that night, the sounds of joy that had been stifled for so long.
The Padres finally arrived, and it looks like they’ll be in the mix for a while. Preller’s wave of moves in the final week of the calendar year was highlighted by the arrival of a pair of aces – Blake Snell and Yu Darvish. The party is just getting started.
1) COVID’s Continued Impact on San Diego Sports
It’s stunning to consider how life seemed to change in an instant this year. The coronavirus pandemic didn’t appear overnight, but its impact on the sports world did seem to occur in that manner.
It started with Rudy Gobert’s positive test, and the memorable sight of the Jazz and Thunder walking off the floor. The NBA season was on hold. A day later the NCAA Tournament was canceled, and MLB Spring Training paused. The Gulls, Loyal, Seals and Sockers halted their schedules. High school sports seasons ended, the La Jolla Country Day Girls basketball team robbed of an opportunity to play for a State Championship.
The sports world just stopped.
At the time we had no idea for how long. Hope of professional sports’ return in May or June, turned into July and August. Baseball dramatically altered its season. The NBA and NHL concluded theirs inside bubbles. The USL paved the way for teams like the Loyal to return to action. While the rest of the city’s teams remained on the sideline. The 2020 calendar year will end without a sight of the Gulls, Sockers or Seals since March.
COVID’s impact on prep sports has been agonizing, with the spring season wiped off the schedule and the 2020-2021 athletic calendar in a holding pattern. College football and basketball have pressed on, as best they can. But few programs have been immune to the scheduling havoc caused by positive cases that have popped up from one locker room to the next. Even the NFL has had to adjust, although they are nearing the finish line of the regular season with sufficient hope that they’ll make it to Tampa on the first Sunday of February.
Empty seats, masks, and canned crowd noise have become hallmarks of sports in 2020. There will be countless images that with time, distance and healing will – hopefully – appear unusual in retrospect. But in 2020 sports has been at the mercy of a rapidly spreading pandemic. It has impacted every athlete, every team, and every league at every level.
Now there is some optimism thanks to vaccines, and the few victories won by those who have successfully navigated these waters. Hopefully with each new season that begins we move a step closer to normalcy. Back to the way things were before March 11.