We got to celebrate a Super Bowl victory, a National League Central Division title and a Big Ten football championship in a 10-month span.
We were treated to the day-to-day excellence of Ryan Braun and the week-to-week brilliance of Aaron Rodgers.
We watched Montee Ball score 38 touchdowns. We rode “beast mode” deep into October. We experienced March Madness with not one but two Sweet 16 teams.
In fact, we might have overdosed on giddiness if not for the NFL and NBA lockouts and the sobering news that Braun reportedly failed a drug test and faced the possibility of a 50-game suspension.
The Journal Sentinel sports staff weighed the good and the bad and identified the 10 most impactful Wisconsin sports stories of 2011. It’s a subjective list, of course, and there’s certainly room for debate.
But here’s how we see the top stories of this most unforgettable year:
1. XLV reasons to love the Packers: The injury-depleted Packers were 8-5 after losing at Detroit on Dec. 12, 2010. They were going into their next game, at New England, without Rodgers, who had suffered a concussion against the Lions.
Asked about his team’s underdog status a few days before the game, a defiant coach Mike McCarthy practically spat out his answer: “We’re nobody’s underdog.”
The Packers would lose a close game to the Patriots with Matt Flynn under center. . . and wouldn’t lose again. They closed out the season with victories over the New York Giants and Chicago Bears and roared into the playoffs as a wild-card team with soaring confidence.
Road victories over Philadelphia, Atlanta and Chicago followed and by the time they got to Dallas for Super Bowl XLV, the focused Packers were playing great football on both sides of the ball.
They beat the Pittsburgh Steelers, 31-25, to claim the franchise’s fourth Super Bowl title and its first in 14 years.
2. Brewers unleash the beast: General manager Doug Melvin made all the right moves and first-year manager Ron Roenicke pushed all the right buttons as the Brewers went 96-66 and won their first division title in 29 years.
Milwaukee beat Arizona in a thrilling five-game National League Division Series before losing to the eventual World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals in six games in the NL Championship Series.
The Brewers got an MVP season from Braun and huge contributions from Prince Fielder, Yovani Gallardo, new starters Zack Greinke and Shaun Marcum and closer John Axford.
3. Packers’ run at perfection: Any concerns that the Packers would lack motivation coming off a Super Bowl year were quickly put to rest in 2011.
Behind an offense that at times was unstoppable and a defense that got turnovers in bunches, Green Bay started fast and never looked back. By midseason the Packers had generated national buzz about a possible 19-0 season.
After getting to 13-0, however, Green Bay was ambushed at Kansas City, 19-14. The Packers bounced back to beat Chicago and took a 14-1 record into the regular-season finale against Detroit at Lambeau Field.
Having clinched home-field advantage, Green Bay was two playoff victories away from Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis.
4. Say it ain’t so, Ryan: At first, it almost seemed like a cruel joke: Just weeks after Braun was named the NL most valuable player, ESPN reported that he had tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug.
Braun? A man who had carefully cultivated a squeaky-clean image and seemingly did things the right way?
You could have knocked over Brewers fans with a feather.
Braun has professed his innocence, but the all-star leftfielder faced long odds in his attempt to avoid a 50-game suspension in 2012. Sports attorney David Cornwell will argue the slugger’s case before a three-person panel in January.
5. A-Rod’s passing fancy: You know you’ve had a good season when you’ve basically locked up the NFL’s most valuable player award by December.
Such was the case for Rodgers, who shredded defenses every week en route to one of the greatest statistical seasons by a quarterback in league history.
With one game left, Rodgers had thrown for 4,643 yards and 45 touchdowns, both franchise records. He also was on pace to break the NFL record for passer rating.
Such was the level of Rodgers’ play that New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who broke Dan Marino’s record for passing yards in a single season, was almost an afterthought in MVP discussions.
6. Braun’s season spells M-V-P: Yes, Braun had all the requisite numbers in ’11. Equally impressive was the way he compiled them – with a flair for the dramatic and a “look at me” swagger in the spotlight.
Example A: His 450-foot home run that sealed the Brewers’ NL Central-clinching victory.
Braun scored 109 runs and drove in 111, batted .332, smashed 33 home runs, stole 33 bases and led the league in slugging percentage (.597) and extra-base hits (77). He then batted .500 in the NLDS and .333 in the NLCS.
He reached base in 28 consecutive games to start the season, was voted an NL starter in the All-Star Game for a franchise-record fourth time and had a 23-game hitting streak.
7. Badgers return to Pasadena: Behind the sensational duo of quarterback Russell Wilson and Ball, whose 38 touchdowns were one off the single-season record held by Barry Sanders, the Badgers were 11-2 going into the Rose Bowl.
Highlights included a resounding victory over Nebraska in that school’s Big Ten Conference debut and a thrilling come-from-behind victory over Michigan State in the inaugural Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis.
The latter earned the Badgers a second consecutive trip to the Rose Bowl; Wisconsin faces Oregon at 4:10 p.m. Monday.
Wilson has completed 206 of 284 passes for 2,879 yards and 31 touchdowns, with just three interceptions. Ball has rushed for 1,769 yards.
8. One year, two lockouts: Maybe we didn’t understand all the issues – it’s hard to identify with billionaires and millionaires fighting over slices of a very big pie – but we did sweat the lockouts in both the NFL and NBA.
In the case of the NFL, the 136-day lockout ended July 25, when the players approved a final labor settlement, paving the way for a new 10-year collective bargaining agreement.
The NBA lockout dragged on through the fall and endangered the 2011-’12 season. The main issues dividing the players and owners were the division of revenue and the structure of the salary cap and luxury tax.
On Nov. 26, the players and owners reached a tentative deal, including a 66-game regular season with games commencing Dec. 25.
9. Double dose of Madness: There’s nothing that makes us forget about winter’s last gasp quite like our favorite college basketball team making a run in the NCAA Tournament.
This year, we got the rare double dip, with Marquette and Wisconsin both advancing to the Sweet 16.
The Golden Eagles upset Syracuse to make it back to the Sweet 16 for the first time since the Dwayne Wade-led Final Four run of 2003. But MU then hit a roadblock in the form of second-seeded North Carolina and exited on the losing end of an 81-63 blowout.
Wisconsin beat Belmont and Kansas State to advance to the Sweet 16. The Badgers went cold from the floor in the Southeast Regional semifinal, however, and lost to Butler, 61-54.
10. Braun makes long-term commitment: It’s rare when a budding baseball superstar passes on the chance to take advantage of free agency, but that’s what the 27-year-old Braun did when he in essence decided to become a lifelong Brewer.
In April, he signed a five-year, $105 million contract extension through the 2020 season, with an option for 2021.
Melvin admitted he was “caught off-guard a little bit” when Braun and his agent, Nez Balelo of CAA Sports, approached the club about the extension.
Braun’s $45 million extension signed in 2008 already was the biggest contract in franchise history.