The 7 Greatest Trick Plays in Sports Movie History

13 minute read

If far-fetched premises and sentimentality are the meat and vegetables of sports movies, trick plays would be the dessert. There’s no rule saying that every sports film has to have a trick play, and for some (Million Dollar Baby, The Natural), they would be wildly out of place. Given the right context, however, a trick play can ultimately be what audiences remember the most, perhaps for years and decades after the movie’s release.

There’s no great science to determining the greatest trick plays in sports movie history (though quite often those plays involve some level of science—physics, psychology, biology—themselves). If you start breaking them down too much, it inevitably ruins their magic and makes them depressingly implausible rather than charmingly implausible. That said, there are certain components of the plays that are worthy of examination when putting together a list like this. How much fun is the trick play? Does it work? Could it conceivably work in the real world? How intricate is the play? How much fun does it look like the team performing it is having? How crucial is the play in the team’s ultimate and—however unlikely—inevitable triumph?

The Little Giants unveiled “The Annexation of Puerto Rico” 20 years ago today, on Oct. 14, 1994, but Danny O’Shea’s greatest claim to fame couldn’t quite reach the top of our list. See where it and six other worthy contenders fell in the rankings:

7. Remember The Titans: Fake 23 Blast with a Backside George Reverse

The play that won the T.C. Williams Titans the 1971 Virginia state championship lives right on the border of what one might consider a “trick” play. It doesn’t have a traditionally “fun” name, nor does it brush right up against what many would deem illegal—two prevalent hallmarks of this list. But what it lacks in outlandishness, it makes up for in implausibility. Here’s the situation: Down in the waning seconds of the game, the Titans need a score to win the championship. Coach Ned Yoast (Will Patton) tells head coach Herman Boone that the Titans will, “Have to throw something at” the opposing team that they’re not ready for.

So what does Denzel do? He puts in his former starting quarterback (“Rev”) who’s missed nearly the entire season due to injury (and hasn’t played in months), and then runs a reverse from the team’s own 25-yard-line with the actual starting quarterback (“Sunshine”) as the lead blocker. Because this is a (supremely entertaining) movie where rampant racism can be solved by a few renditions of “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and an early-morning jog to Gettysburg, Rev runs 75 yards untouched into the end zone. Titans win; racism loses. Actually, that is quite the trick, but the play still doesn’t have quite the “wow” factor to launch it into the top six.

6. Space Jam: Michael Jordan Dunk

Leaving aside the idea that virtually every moment of basketball played in Space Jam could be considered a trick play of some sort, one indelible moment reigns supreme: Michael Jordan’s (spoiler alert) game-winning dunk to vanquish the Monstars. The design of the play itself is rather straight-forward: MJ gets the ball near mid-court, and has to score with six seconds remaining.

The way he does this is to jump directly on top of the backside of an enormous Monstar and leap toward the net, quite literally running through the air. The airtime alone is remarkable, but what truly makes Jordan the greatest of all time is that he doesn’t allow the two Monstars who subsequently tackle him in midair to prevent him from reaching the basket. Instead, His Airness simply Stretch Armstrongs his way toward the rim and drops the ball right in there, giving the Looney Tunes a much-needed victory. (Never mind that Bill Murray was clearly wide open the entire time, and that Bill Murray was actually in Space Jam.)

5. D2: The Mighty Ducks: Imposter Goalie

You’re Gordon Bombay. Your team has fallen behind a dominant Iceland team 4-1 through the first two periods of the 1994 Junior Goodwill Games championship game. You’ve gotten the brother of your aging mentor to bring in new Ducks uniforms (of questionable legality) for a lackluster USA squad and crowd-sourced an inspirational “halftime” speech. Your team comes back out on the ice, and things are looking pretty good for the time being. You get a quick goal from Connie Moreau, but Iceland answers right back, so you turn things over to Coach-in-Training Charlie Conway who draws up his alley-oop play for Adam Banks. Somehow, that works and then Luis Mendoza successfully stops for the first time in his speedy career and your squad is down just one goal. Obviously, you’ll want to be turning things over to your best shooter, Russ Tyler, Man with the Knucklepuck. Problem is, the opposing coach, Wolf “The Dentist” Stansson knows he’s the shooter so he’s having his team swarm every time Russ touches the puck.

An average coach would try to exploit that tendency, but you’re Gordon Bombay and you are anything but average. Instead, you call a timeout. You have the team come over to the bench. Somehow you get Russ and your goalie, Greg Goldberg, to strip down and exchange uniforms right there in front of the referees, opposing team and an arena full of fans. No one sees a goddamn thing, because you’re the Minnesota Miracle Man, and performing miracles is what you do. You send the team back out on the ice with Russ Tyler as goalie. No way Iceland gets the puck back and shoots it on net. The Ducks control the puck in their own zone, just winding down the clock as you do when you’re losing a game in the waning seconds. Then you scream, “Now, Guy!” And then it begins. Your squad makes it about halfway to center ice, before dumping the puck off to “Goldberg,” who quickly reveals himself to not be Goldberg at all. Instead, it’s Russ Tyler, the shooter. You knew he was the shooter, but you really know it when Stansson screams, “The shooter!”

Anyway, Averman gives Tyler his stick because it would be way too far-fetched to think that Tyler could shoot with a goalie’s stick, and Tyler winds up and fires away well beyond center ice. The puck flies true—well, true for a knucklepuck, meaning it’s wobbling all over the place—and the Iceland goalie simply waves at the puck as it buries itself in the back of the net. Tie game. Penalty shots. Another miracle for the Minnesota Miracle Man. Damn, you’re good.

4. Happy Gilmore: 18th Hole Obstacle Shot

Happy Gilmore’s greatest weakness was always his short game (well that and his fondness for cut-off button-down shirts), so you had to know that his ultimate triumph over Shooter McGavin would come down to putting. (You’d also know that because putting is how a hole ends in golf, but that’s beside the point.) On his outing to a miniature golf course with Chubbs, Happy goes to his “happy place” and finds a way to sink an impossible putt. When an entire TV tower collapses in front of his ball on the 18th hole of the Tour Championship with Happy needing one putt to win the Gold Jacket, he has no choice but to do it again.

Well, he could just putt around the TV tower and go into sudden death overtime but that’s not the sort of thing that a guy with a golden hockey stick for a putter would do. Instead, Happy winds up and whacks the ball off the front of an old-school VW bug and into a Rube Goldberg-esque labyrinth of flags, grates and tubes on the TV tower. And wouldn’t you know it? The last of those tubes leads right into the hole. As far as trick shots go, that’s a pretty impressive one.

3. The Mighty Ducks: “The Flying V”

It’s no stretch to assert that “The Flying V” is the most iconic trick play in sports movie history. Gordon Bombay’s favorite pet play has always had a few things going for it. First, it’s tied to the team’s name and slogan (“Ducks fly together”). Second, it’s immediately recognizable visually, so much so that when the cast assembled for the 20th reunion of D2 last month, they all lined up for it. Third, it’s got a remarkably descriptive name. And finally, it worked so well in the first movie that it made it into the second—even though it’s easily stopped (thanks for ruining the dream, Iceland). It’s even legal, since Jesse Hall, who leads the V, always has possession of the puck as they cross the blue line. If you ever played hockey as a kid, there’s little chance that you or someone on your team didn’t try to convince everyone else that you could win all your games by just doing The Flying V over and over again.

2. Little Giants: “The Annexation of Puerto Rico”

The main thing working against “The Annexation of Puerto Rico”—which celebrates its 20th anniversary Tuesday— is that it’s not an entirely original trick play. In fact, the “fumblerooski,” as it is better known, was invented by John Heisman himself. The basic idea behind the play is that the center hikes the ball, the quarterback covertly places it on the ground as he (or the running back(s)) runs to the left or right direction, and a nearby offensive lineman grabs the ball and runs the other way to (what theoretically would be) wide-open ground. There have been countless iterations of the play, mostly at the college level, and it was ultimately banned in 1992 as a forward fumble. Rules for Pee-Wee football, however, are different than those for college football, so when Danny O’Shea’s Little Giants found themselves tied with the villainous Cowboys on the game’s final play, Danny realized he had only one option from his own goal line.

Nubie had been touting “The Annexation of Puerto Rico” ever since John Madden came to town, and the Giants finally got to put it to good use. Using Becky “The Icebox” O’Shea as a decoy, Zolteck snaps the ball to Junior who immediately puts it on the ground, then fakes a reverse while Zolteck scoops up the ball, freezes and then starts running forward. The student of football that he is, Kevin O’Shea sniffs it out almost immediately and starts screaming, “Fumblerooski!” at the top of his lungs. Spike, being more dog than tween, pays little attention and goes after the Icebox. By the time someone catches Zolteck (and brings him down with an obvious horse collar tackle), the center has already flipped the ball back to Junior, who carries it another couple dozen yards before flipping it back to Tad, who more or less waltzes into the end zone.

It’s pretty epic, it’s a game-winner and it’s got an awesome, memorable name. People like it so much that they’ve tried to convince people that the Carolina Panthers pulled it off a couple years ago (that play was really more of a trick handoff than the illegal fumblerooski). If a certain baseball movie hadn’t been released three months prior, it would be the owner of the top spot.

1. Little Big League: Hidden Ball Trick (Remix)

In large part thanks to The Sandlot and the glut of other baseball movies in the late ’80s and early ’90s (Rookie of the Year, Major League, Angels in the Outfield among them), Little Big League has never gotten the recognition it very much deserves. It’s a rich film with actual characters—not simply parodies—who have genuine emotions and motives. Just as importantly, in the end, the good guys (the Minnesota Twins) don’t win. That they don’t win is no fault of Billy Heywood (Luke Edwards), possibly the finest manager in baseball movie history. He understands the foolishness of bunting, he can properly motivate his players (Mike McGreevey, Larry Hilbert) and he knew the perfect time to break out an absolutely epic trick play.

The hidden ball trick is nearly as old as baseball itself. The basic principle is that at the end of a play, an infielder holds onto the ball while the pitcher stays off the mound and pretends to have the ball. Then as soon as the unaware baserunner steps off the bag, the fielder tags him out. What the Twins pull off is basically the opposite of that.

It begins with Ken Griffey Jr., the closest thing the film has to a villain. Griffey is pretty spectacular in the Twins’ final showdown with the Mariners: intimidating, cool, arrogant. So when he reaches first base after a walk, Billy decides that now’s the time to unleash the Twins’ secret weapon. Everyone on the field is in on it, from the pitcher to the infielders, to the guys in the bullpen all the way on down to the security guard. After Bowers, the pitcher, attempts one pickoff at first base, Junior declares that he plans to steal “second, then third” and he “might even steal home.”

So when Bowers appears to throw over a second time, Collins appears to dive and miss the ball and the Twins’ bullpen in right field frantically points to the phantom ball, Junior strolls on over to second base. Only Bowers never threw the ball to first base at all, so all he’s gotta do is toss it to the short stop, who tags Junior out and gives him a wink.

The Twins don’t win the game, but the play itself is the culmination of everything the previous 90 minutes in the movie had strove to convey: teamwork, ingenuity and above all else, a desire to have fun. None of those things win a baseball game (clearly), but they do make for a once-in-a-lifetime trick play.

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