What's interesting about the top sports stories of the year is how many of them played out away from the playing field. Some of the most compelling and covered stories had nothing to do with touchdowns or homers, 3-pointers or slap shots. And the most impressive performance inside the sports "arena'' might have come from a guy who spends his career sitting down — albeit traveling at 200 mph. Away from the arena, one legend found himself in the middle of a sex scandal that has rocked sports and how they are covered. Another found himself answering questions about a drug test he failed six years ago. Yet another learned the hard way that if you're going to smoke pot, you need to see if anyone is taking your photo. One made news by simply getting a job in football, and another made headlines by losing his job in football. Thankfully, a few records were set and a few memories were made on the baseball diamond, on the tennis court and in the Super Bowl to remind us that sports are not all about scandals. So with that, check out our list of the top 10 national sports stories of 2009.
1. Tiger's fall from grace
Whether you agree or disagree that Tiger Woods' personal life is for public consumption, you cannot ignore the tsunami it has spawned. This story started as a fender-bender and became one of the most shocking in recent sports memory. A car accident early the day after Thanksgiving has evolved into allegations that the seemingly upstanding Woods, married with two children, has lived a double life that includes affairs with at least a dozen women. One of the most famous people in sports is now on indefinite leave from golf, and the way the media cover athletes has been changed.
2. A-Rod steroid scandal
Back in the day, we heard rumblings about Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Roger Clemens using performance-enhancing drugs. But in January, there was finally proof of a major-league All-Star using the "juice.'' And it wasn't just a star, it was the game's best player, who many swore had played cleanly. The Yankees' Alex Rodriguez, Sports Illustrated revealed, tested positive for steroids in 2003. That story, along with his admission, stripped the last shred of innocence from fans. Now there isn't an athlete on the planet we would be surprised to learn is a steroid user.
3. Johnson wins fourth straight NASCAR Sprint Cup championship
Jimmie Johnson is a one-man dynasty. How impressive are his four straight titles? Aside from him being the first NASCAR driver to pull off the feat, he was also the first driver voted the Associated Press athlete of the year. Ignoring critics who argue that driving a car doesn't make someone an athlete (for the record, I strongly disagree with those critics), AP voters determined that the feat was so impressive, it was better than every other sports performance on the planet in 2009.
4. Favre keeps on ticking
Another NFL offseason, another series of will-he-or-won't-he-retire-again stories about the great Brett Favre. But just when fans were over the whole mess, Favre added spice by signing with the Vikings, the archrival of the Packers team with which he became a legend. With the Vikings, No. 4 returned to Green Bay to beat his old team and didn't stop there. He has the Vikings headed to the playoffs while he gets serious consideration for league MVP honors. Most thought Favre, 40, still had gas left in his tank, but no one thought he would still be considered among the game's elite quarterbacks.
5. Phelps goes bong
Michael Phelps was an American hero after winning eight swimming gold medals in the 2008 Olympics. At 23, Phelps had established himself as the greatest American swimmer ever. He had the world in the palm of his hand. Then it went up in smoke. Literally. A grainy photo taken from a cell-phone camera appeared on the cover of the British tabloid News of the World in January and showed a depressing image: Phelps taking a hit of marijuana out of a bong. Phelps played the dumb-kid card, was suspended from swimming for three months and lost his Kellogg's endorsement. But mostly, he lost his status as America's favorite son.
6. Federer becomes the greatest
What a comeback season for tennis great Roger Federer. Helped somewhat by an injury that sidelined nemesis Rafael Nadal, Federer regained his No. 1 ranking and chased down a record many thought unbreakable. Federer completed a career Grand Slam by winning the French Open in the spring. Then, in an epic five-set victory over Andy Roddick in the Wimbledon final in July, Federer won his 15th major title, surpassing Pete Sampras' male singles record of 14. By the end of 2009, Federer, at age 28, could reasonably lay claim to being the greatest tennis player ever.
7. Yankees return to glory
It's hard to believe it had been nine years since the New York Yankees last won the World Series. But with a dominating performance against the Phillies this year, the Bronx Bombers ushered in a new Yankee Stadium with yet another championship. After winning the American League East over the rival Red Sox and upstart Rays and then winning their 40th American League pennant, the Yankees steam-rolled the defending World Series champion Phillies in six games for their 27th world championship, most among North American pro sports teams.
8. Steelers' drive for the ages
The Steelers were heavy favorites to beat the Cardinals in Super Bowl XLIII in Tampa on Feb. 1. But with just more than two minutes left, the Steelers were down by three points and facing first and 20 at their 12-yard line. That's when Big Ben Roethlisberger put together the greatest winning scoring driving in Super Bowl history that ended with MVP Santonio Holmes making a tiptoe catch in the corner of the end zone with 35 seconds left. The 27-23 victory gave the Steelers a record sixth Super Bowl victory.
9. Vick returns to NFL
In 2007, one of the NFL's best players pled guilty to federal charges related to a dogfighting ring, was suspended by the league and sent to prison for 23 months. Michael Vick's career appeared over, and his reputation seemed ruined. After his release, Vick sought the counsel of former Bucs and Colts coach Tony Dungy and on Aug. 13 signed a one-year deal with the Eagles. Though Vick has not had much of an impact on the field, he has resumed his career and, by all accounts, turned his life around.
10. Weis and Notre Dame
Notre Dame hasn't won a football national title since 1988. Some say the program hasn't been relevant in 10 or 15 years. I disagree. Being the head coach remains one of the plum jobs in sports, and it turned out to be a sour plum for Charlie Weis. Week after week we watched as Weis felt the ground beneath him crumble under the job's pressure. After five years and a 35-27 record, including 6-6 this season and 16-21 over the past three, Weis was dismissed and replaced by Cincinnati's Brian Kelly.