Greg Cote

After a year of enormous loss in South Florida sports, 2016 left us smiling in the end

A Miami Marlins fan pays tribute to late pitcher Jose Fernandez before the start of the game against the New York Mets on Wed., Sept. 28, 2016, at Marlins Park in Miami.
A Miami Marlins fan pays tribute to late pitcher Jose Fernandez before the start of the game against the New York Mets on Wed., Sept. 28, 2016, at Marlins Park in Miami.

The news came as a summer shocker. It was July 6. Dwyane Wade was leaving the Miami Heat — leaving us — and it was sudden and unfathomable and surreal. We never imagined it would happen. Not D-Wade! It was a blindside hit right at our hearts.

Then, less than three months later, we found out what the rawest heartache and shock really felt like, a loss beyond the measure of any scoreboard.

It was Sept. 25 when South Florida awoke to the incomprehensible news. There had been an overnight boating accident off Miami Beach, and three young men were dead. One of them was Miami Marlins ace pitcher Jose Fernandez.

The Dolphins’ home opener under new coach Adam Gase happened to be later that same day and was played as scheduled to a palpably reserved, stunned crowd. There was a moment of silence.

I’m not big on heavenly metaphors or the idea of divine intervention, but I would note that the day we suffered the reeling shock of Fernandez’s death also brought what would be the first Dolphins’ victory in the season that would end — finally — the franchise’s eight-year playoff drought and lift beleaguered Dolfans.

It was a wrenching year of loss for South Florida sports, but then it left us smiling, and we needed that.

After losing Wade to the Chicago Bulls following 13 years as Miami’s most loved athlete, and after a week’s mourning and a community’s outpouring over the tragic fate of Fernandez, it was as if we’d been gifted this Dolphins season because we’d suffered enough for one year.

It wasn’t just the Dolphins, either It was a year when football struck back in South Florida.

The bookends on the year? We awoke last New Year’s Day to Clemson’s resounding victory as the Orange Bowl hosted its first College Football Playoff semifinal, and ended the year last night with Florida State’s thrilling 33-32 triumph over Michigan in the 83rd OB.

In between, Gase’s revived Dolphins ended a playoff drought, Mark Richt’s first year as Hurricanes boss ended in the school’s first bowl victory in 10 years, and local second-tier college teams FIU (Butch Davis) and FAU (Lane Kiffin) made news with big-name coaching hires.

Nationally, the three biggest sports stories of 2016, according to The Associated Press ranking, were the Cubs winning the World Series for the first time since 1908, the death of boxing and cultural icon Muhammad Ali, and LeBron James delivering an NBA championship to Cleveland.

And, yes, South Florida could claim a piece of all three to some degree — or at least a special interest in each. Consider: Cubs All-Star first baseman Anthony Rizzo, Fort Lauderdale-born and an alum of Douglas High, was instrumental in helping Chicago make its history. Ali’s fight game and legend were raised on Miami Beach, first as Cassius Clay, in the old, wonderfully decrepit 5th Street Gym. And LeBron, of course, led the Heat to four consecutive Finals and two championships in 2010-14, back when we loved him, before we didn’t.

So much more made it a particularly eventful year in SoFla sports. A rough chronology beyond what we’ve already mentioned:

Continuing blood-clot issues ended Chris Bosh’s Heat season (again) and likely his Heat and NBA career as team would not rule him medically fit for the current season.

Hurricanes men’s basketball reached the Sweet 16.

The Marlins’ Dee Gordon was suspended 80 games for using PEDs.

Larry Tunsil fell to the Dolphins in the first round after a bizarre draft-night turmoil involving a video and a bong.

Miami street-fighting legend Kimbo Slice died.

Serena Williams, from Palm Beach Gardens, won Wimbledon for her 22nd tennis major, tying the modern women’s record.

The Marlins’ ageless Ichiro achieved his landmark 3,000th career major-league hit.

The Dolphins unveiled a refurbished, renamed Hard Rock Stadium that was awarded the 2019 season Super Bowl.

The Panthers, following the best regular season in franchise history but off to a slow start this season, panicked and fired coach Gerard Gallant.

Broward high schools won five state football championships including a third in a row by St. Thomas Aquinas.

The Dolphins’ Jay Ajayi had not one, not two, but three 200-yard rushing games.

A kid born in Pompano Beach and from Boynton Beach High, Louisville quarterback Lamar Jackson, won the Heisman Trophy.

And the Panthers’ calendar-defying, near-45-year-old Jaromir Jagr moved into second place in all-time NHL points scored.

As we take in the entirety of 2016 in South Florida sports, though, three stories tower above the rest for their emotional impact on us — us as fans and as a community:

We hurt to lose Dwyane Wade.

We wept to lose Jose Fernandez.

But, oh, what swept in to console has us smiling into the new year because — glory, hallelujah! — the Miami Dolphins made the playoffs!

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