There’s only one way to start a column about ‘The Wonder Years.’
Whether you lived in the 1960s or just the 1980s, ABC’s 1988-1993 hit ‘The Wonder Years’ remains one of the best TV shows ever made. It follows the not-especially-remarkable life of Kevin Arnold, an average kid growing up in the suburbs in the late 60s, his family, his friends and the girl of his dreams. If you haven’t watched the show, I recommend you running to Netflix Instant and marathoning the entire thing, being careful to avoid that low rent version of ‘With a Little Help from My Friends’ they use in the open so they don’t have to pay The Beatles and/or Joe Cocker a ton of money.
We’ve put together the 15 best sports moments from the run of the show, featuring everything from dodgeball to Jesus Christ playing high school basketball to Kevin’s sweet vintage Jets jacket. Click through to check them out.
More Sports On TV: Saved By The Bell (part 2) | Full House | King Of The Hill | The Wire | The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air | Parks And Recreation | Married… With Children | 30 Rock | The Brady Bunch | The Three Stooges | The Simpsons | Glee | Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers | South Park | Boy Meets World | Buffy The Vampire Slayer | It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia | Arthur | Community | Arrested Development | Freaks and Geeks | Archer | Family Matters | Adventure Time | The Munsters
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Episode: “Pilot” (season 1, episode 1)
What Happens: What better place to start than at the very beginning? In the first scene of the first episode of ‘The Wonder Years,’ we’re introduced to Kevin Arnold, his butthead older brother Wayne and the queen of idealized television crushes Winnie Cooper during a game of suburban street football. Kevin tries to catch a pass, plays it like George Michael Bluth, has a brief interaction with Winnie about why he dropped it and gets verbally (then physically) berated by Wayne.
The characters are all pitch-perfect from the moment we meet them. Kevin is an average kid who tries hard, but isn’t really great at anything. Wayne is every older brother that has ever lived. Winnie is a complex human being who will only be seen through Kevin’s interpretation. And here we go.
Key line: “1968, I was twelve years old. A lot happened that year. Denny McLain won 31 games, The Mod Squad hit the air, and I graduated from Hillcrest Elementary and entered junior high school…but we’ll get to that. “
Here’s the scene. Warning: It will make you want to watch every episode of ‘The Wonder Years’ in a row.
“Nerdy” Winnie is pretty amazing, as this is the only time we see her. After this, we jump straight to Winnie being Sixties Teen Fox and Kevin never recovers. I like that Winnie gets “uglied up” with the She’s All That theory of glasses and pigtails, and I also love how much those cat eye glasses make her look like Louise from ‘Saved By The Bell.’
Episode: “Mom Wars” (Season 3, Episode 4)
What Happens: A few seasons in, Kevin’s gotten a little better at football. In fact, he’s the quarterback for his NO EQUIPMENT FOOTBALL team, which is just regular tackle football done in a field in the sixties. Kevin comes home with blood on his shirt and his mother freaks out. She tries to take him clothes shopping to distract him from the joys of football, but that’s not how boys and brains work, and it ends up driving a wedge between them. Cutting the cord. Kevin goes straight back to his game, but starts to pick up on how dangerous it is when he gets gang-tackled, splinters a few ribs (assumedly) and has to bandage himself up in shame. Ultimately Kevin realizes that yeah, an overprotective mom sucks, but sometimes it’s nice to have someone at home to worry about your ribs.
Key line: “No-equipment football. We’d been playing it in Shepard’s Park every afternoon, since the cool weather set in. Sure, maybe it looked like mayhem and violence. But to us, it was something more. It was mayhem, violence, and dirt. The stuff laundry commercials are made of.”
The clothes shopping scene is great, even if it was recorded with a toasted and uploaded to YouTube with a calculator:
I can’t remember the moment where I really cut the cord with my mom. I remember having an argument with her in the 10th grade that really changed things. I’d gotten As and Bs every six weeks ever, but whenever I got a B, my parents would grill me about it. “Why isn’t this an A? Did you not try? What happened?” Stuff like that. I couldn’t explain the “they teach us different stuff every six weeks” point well enough, so I brought up the fact that my Mom never even FINISHED high school, so who was she to ride me for getting a B? It seemed like a reasonable thing to say at the time. I hurt my mom badly with that one, and I’ve never totally forgiven myself for it. That might’ve been the forced cut.
Other than that, I was a kid who grew up in the 80s, not the 60s, and there isn’t a lot of danger in me sitting in my room playing Tecmo Bowl.
Episode: “Soccer” (Season 5, Episode 7)
What Happens: A few seasons LATER, Kevin’s football dreams are still going, and he’s good enough to try out for his high school team. Not good enough to make it, of course, because he’s Kevin Arnold. The Charlie Brownest. He gets recruited by the soccer team, led by former disgruntled football coach Pops “The Bear” McIntyre, and decides they’re a bunch of worthless dorks led by a depressed asshole. Plus, it’s soccer in the 1960s, which is even harder to make seem like a good idea than soccer in the 2010s.
The team farts around and starts to build confidence until they run into their opponents, an actual soccer team full of giant, talented athletes. They consider giving up, but Kevin starts to believe in them and gives them an inspirational boost, leading to a shot and a goal … in their own net. Pops wanders up with a smile on his face and actually starts coaching them, and they have a hell of a lot of fun playing soccer in the rain, badly, en route to a 19-0 loss. But hey, it was fun.
Key line: “Kick it that way.”
That’s all we’re using for a key line? Come on, every “key line” in a ‘The Wonder Years’ Sports On TV should be a chunk of a wistful encapsulation speech, right?
Sure, we lost that day. But it was a glorious defeat. After all, all over America, there were teams like ours. Teams that marched bravely into slaughter. Teams that went oh-and-fifteen, and kept on losing. And kept on trying. Not for the league titles… or the silver-plated victory cups. But just for the joy of playing. Together. The thing is… I’ll never forget those guys. Even if they were dorks.
People on TV are always getting too excited about soccer and accidentally scoring on their own net. Has anybody actually done that? Just gleefully run in the wrong direction and scored a goal without anybody on the bench, the other team or in the stands cluing them into it? Is Wrong Way Tannering a soccer game really such an epidemic?
Episode: “Homecoming” (Season 6, Episode 1)
What Happens: Okay, so Kevin sucks at football. That doesn’t mean he can’t help out during The Big Game! Kevin joins Greg Brady, Carlton Banks, Homer Simpson and the countless other sitcom characters who’ve either stolen an opposing team’s mascot, had their mascot stolen, or both.
Dreaded Central High School steals their knight. In retaliation, Kevin steals Central’s beloved owl mascot (a real owl) twice. The first time he almost gets caught by a security guard and dumps the bird in the street. The second time he succeeds and gets away with it but runs into something much more important, releasing the owl and allowing it to be the grand metaphor it was born to be.
Key line: “They say men are children, but sometimes children are men; maybe that’s where the confusion lies… All I knew was that night the world suddenly seemed very big and I felt very small, so I did what I could…1972 was a crazy time. Kids played football, drove cars, went to school, celebrated life; while soldiers, heroes, their brothers struggled to find their way home from war; and young boys watched and grew wiser in their dreams.”
Man, season 6 of ‘The Wonder Years’ is heavy.
There are two homecomings here — one involving high school football, and one involving Wayne’s friend coming home from Vietnam and being called a murderer. Yeah. The serious thing Kevin runs into outside of the football game is this kid sitting by himself naked on a bench crying because “nothing seems to fit anymore” and season 6 Wayne overcoming season 1-5 Wayne to give the guy the shirt off his back. Juxtaposing it with one of the most ubiquitous/unimportant-in-the-scheme-of-things sitcom tropes (team mascot theft) is pretty brilliant.
Also brilliant is the actor who plays Wayne’s friend: Scott Menville, who you may remember as Duane, Kimmy Gibbler’s boyfriend from ‘Full House.’ He also voiced Robin in the various ‘Teen Titans’ cartoons, was the voice of Ma-Ti on ‘Captain Planet’ and was both Freddy Flintsone in ‘Flintstone Kids’ and Red Herring in ‘A Pup Named Scooby-Doo.’ Whatever.
Episode: “Just Between You and Me … and Kirk and Paul and Carla and Becky and John and Susan and Winnie and Eddie and Mary and Cindy and Greg and Danielle and Harry and Rachel and Joshua” (season 2, episode 5)
What Happens: Kevin Arnold faced a lot of hardships as a kid, but none as hard as having to question the woman of his dreams about whether or not she still likes another dude while she’s wearing her field hockey uniform.
Key line: “Grab her. Squeeze her. Kiss her on the lips.” “No!” “What?”
That image sorta speaks for itself. Kevin has to either move on from his idealized version of A Perfect Winnie and let her be happy somewhere else, or he has to be selfish and manipulative and make sure he’s RIGHT THERE when Winnie and that bastard Kirk McCray finally break it off. The field hockey field during field hockey practice is the most dangerous place for a man in love to be, I think.
The other sports moment I should mention here is Kevin’s New York Jets jacket, which would’ve been its own entry a la Danny Tanner’s Giants jacket if ‘The Wonder Years’ hadn’t had so many sports episodes. Of course a kid in the sixties would be a Jets fan, especially if he lived in California, which I’m assuming despite that one time they went to Ocean City. Bobby Brady was the same way. A kid in California rooting for the Jets, even though the The Fearsome Foursome was right there.
Episode: “Loosiers” (Season 2, Episode 9)
What Happens: In a concept that got revisited for one of the best-ever episodes of ‘Freaks and Geeks,’ Kevin gets disheartened about his best friend Paul Pfeiffer always being picked last in gym class and approaches his teacher (the unbelievably great Coach Cutlip, played by Robert Picardo) about changing things up. He doesn’t think letting the popular, athletic kids pick teams is fair, which starts a psychological game between the two … Cutlip lets Kevin be one of the captains, thinking he’ll cave under the pressure of wanting a good team, but Kevin does the “right” thing and picks Paul first. Everybody laughs, and Paul is embarrassed. Cutlip thinks he’s won, but Kevin starts picking EVERY unpopular kid until he’s left with the worst basketball team in junior high school history.
That seems like a good idea until they start getting murdered, and the nerds get at each others’ throats. It looks like Cutlip has won until a magical moment when Paul throws up a skyhook … and it bounces off Coach Cutlip’s head. That makes everybody remember that sports are supposed to be fun, and that we should stop making ourselves miserable so often.
Key line: ” And then it happened. It was the miracle. It was the impossible. It was the dream come true. In that instant… that brief ping of rubber against steel… basketball… became fun again. Well, we still got slaughtered. But for the first time in a long time, it just didn’t seem to matter. And Paul and I got back to the way things used to be. The way they would stay… for many years to come.”
Until the next slide, at least.
Important note about this episode: the only kid less popular/athletic in gym class than Paul is Joey Harris. This kid:
Yep, motherf**king SCREECH POWERS was in Kevin Arnold’s gym class, no doubt using his Larry Bird costume and wheelchair basketball skills to impress the coach. Theory: assuming the show was set in California, Joey Harris is Screech’s real dad. The timeline works.
Episode: “The Sixth Man” (Season 4, Episode 8)
What Happens: Kevin has beaten Paul in almost 800 consecutive games of one-on-one basketball, so he thinks it’s a joke when Paul wants to try out for the school team. Paul gets his feelings hurt (rightfully so), and Kevin just won’t let it go, showing up to tryouts to talk to Coach Cutlip and keep Paul from embarrassing himself. But here’s the rub: it turns out Paul’s a really good player when Kevin isn’t around. Things come to a head, Paul gets a little confidence and finally decides to challenge Kevin on an even playing field … and wins. End that streak at 790 games!
Key line: “There are a lot of great records in sports. Rocky Marciano fought to victory in forty-nine straight heavyweight prize-fights. The University of Oklahoma won forty-seven college football games in a row. But in the annals of sports… there was one record that surpassed them all. One destined to go unbroken for time immemorial. I had beaten Paul Pfeiffer at basketball – as near as I can remember – seven hundred eighty eight times in a row.”
I told you these key line speeches would be long. The episode-ending speech is just as long, and just as good:
That night, Paul Pfeiffer and I played the most important game of our lives. We both played hard. And we both played to win. And no game ever mattered more. To both of us. Maybe change is never easy. You fight to hold on. You fight to let go. But that night… after seven-hundred ninety consecutive loses… Paul finally beat me. Paul made the basketball team that year. And he had some loyal fans. But his biggest fan… was also his best friend. I guess sometimes you have to grow apart… to keep growing together.
Paul is such an interesting character. He starts the show as a hapless nerd, but there’s always this idea that he’d stab everybody he knew in the back to be cool and popular. Every opportunity or nice thing he gets he starts obsessing over, and eventually he drops the glasses and becomes student body president and is sorta doing it, but he’s still a huge nerd, only now he’s stuffy and condescending. At the same time, Kevin is a f**k-up from point A to point B (not hooking up with Madeline, I’m looking in YOUR direction) and is equally casually cruel, but he’s our narrator so we stick with him and try to identify with him and believe what he says. But the truth? He’s a f**k-up, and Paul’s right to want to break free of Kevin’s bond, even if it makes him unlikable to us.
It’s complicated and not entirely enjoyable, but it’s REAL. That’s the best part about this show. It’s the least realistic, most run-through-Instagram show ever, and it’s full of dramatic speeches about learning lessons … but at the bottom of those lessons is a real, absolute truth that most shows never come close to touching. Your friends kinda suck, and so do you.
Episode: “Hulk Arnold” (Season 6, Episode 15)
What Happens: Kevin shows some aptitude for wrestling in gym class and gets recruited by his high school team, coached by the always great/overbearing James Tolkan, aka the principal from Back To The Future. Kevin shows up to practice with a chip on his shoulder and gets thrown around, and instead of trying to work hard and get better, just gives the coach a bunch of lip and makes excuses. His time on the wrestling team is miserable, and when their meet finally arrives he sits on the bench moping. But wait just a minute, King! Kevin gets called in to wrestle a guy bigger and better than him, in front of his family and Winnie and everybody. He considers himself a lamb to slaughter, but during the match something clicks … Kevin stops making excuses, refuses to give in and does his best. He gets creamed on points, but he doesn’t get pinned, and that’s enough to make his coach smile.
Key line: “At some point in your teenage years, if you’re lucky, you make a discovery. You find out you’re actually good at something. It’s that critical juncture, where talent becomes…expertise – kinda. It’s your chance to start or, end up flat on your face.” “Why’d you let him pin you like that?” “Course, looking back, I probably just should have promised to do better. But instead -” “Yeah, well…you know, these shorts are really hard to wrestle in.” “- I made excuses.”
Thankfully “natural wrestling ability” runs in Fred Savage’s family, and popped back up decades later when his little brother ended up in a match against Vader.
Episode: “Hero” (Season 5, Episode 17)
What Happens: This guy’s so good at basketball he is literally Jesus
Key line: “Let me tell ya something, Kev… it’s not easy being a hero.”
Kevin isn’t good at sports but he loves them (been there, done that), so he idolizes high school basketball heartthrob Bobby Riddle, played (as I’ve already sorta mentioned) by a young Jim Caviezel, aka Jesus Christ. Or, if you’re a secular Jim Caviezel fan, he was Frequency. Kevin gets weirdly defensive/cruel to his father, the guy who works overtime to keep Kevin fed and stocked with New York Jets jackets, and gets embarrassed when Jack talks basketball strategy with Kevin’s friends. Bobby takes the team to Regionals but they lose, and when Kevin tries to give him a pep talk, Bobby calls Kevin a kid and tells him to get off his jock. Distraught, Kevin expects to get a preachy lesson from his dad, but instead learns how hard it is to be a hero.
And I knew he wasn’t talking about Bobby Riddle. He was talking… about himself. Some heroes pass through your life and disappear in a flash. You get over it. But the good ones, the real ones, the ones who count – stay with you for the long haul. The thing is, after all these years, I couldn’t tell you the score of that game. What I remember is… sitting in that diner, up late… being young… drinking coffee with the only real hero I ever knew. My Dad – Jack Arnold. Number one.
Episode: “The Cost of Living” (season 4, episode 4)
What Happens: If I haven’t made it clear already, Jack Arnold is the best character on ‘The Wonder Years.’ He’s my vote for the best TV dad ever, especially if Uncle Phil counts more as an uncle.
Anyway, like every kid who has ever existed, Kevin runs headlong into the “you don’t know the value of money” speech and ends up getting a job, his first, at a local country club. He doesn’t see a lot of play as a caddie (because the golf bags are bigger than he is), but ends up caddy for a businessman named Ken … and his father. Y’see, Jack’s been complaining about Ken at home, but when they’re on the golf course, he does whatever he says. Kevin thinks his dad’s being a sell-out and embarrassing himself with his poor golf skills — that is, until he realizes Jack’s throwing the game on purpose to keep his job. This really gets hammered home when Ken starts talking down to Kevin and offering him money to go fetch balls and Kevin accepts it, because ugh, the assholes always have the money.
Key line: “I guess Dad knew he could lose a game, and still not lose his manhood. His pride didn’t hinge on a stupid shot. Or some shiny new clubs. And I suddenly knew exactly what I wanted to use my money for.” “Dad! Can I buy you lunch?” “Whatever you say, Kev.”
Kevin might’ve realized his dad was a decent guy too many times, but I suppose that’s the ultimate lesson of childhood … that you have to learn the same stuff over and over before it sticks. Not in the ‘Community’ way where they learn the exact same lessons every week, but in the natural way, where you just sorta take your dad for granted and forget how many times and ways the man has sacrifice to keep your life moving forward.
This isn’t from the same episode, but the world needs more Jack Arnold clips:
Episode: “Math Class Squared” (Season 3, Episode 9)
What Happens: During a game of dodgeball, Kevin has a conversation about whether or not he should cheat on a math test with “McCormick,” another in a string of kids at Kevin Arnold’s school who exist to get him in trouble.
Key line: “Of course, in junior high school, you’re never too far from the outer edge of civilization.”
If you’re a bigger nerd than I’m giving you credit for, you may remember the kid who played McCormick as Jean-Luc Riker in the ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ episode “Future Imperfect.” Before you ask, yes, I am absolutely going to do a Star Trek Sports On TV one of these days.
I like that ‘The Wonder Years’ managed to do the “dodgeball = savagery” angle without the life or death thing ‘Freaks and Geeks’ or the hokey bullying bullshit ‘Glee’ did. It helps that Kevin is supposed to be right in the middle in terms of popularity and athleticism, so if the episode was told from Paul’s point of view, maybe they’d be laying on the Lord Of The Flies stuff a little thicker.
Episode: “Summer” (season 6, episode 21)
What Happens: During the last two episodes of the series — “Summer” and “Independence Day,” aired back-to-back — Kevin quits his job at his dad’s factory and makes an unannounced trip up to visit Winnie, who has been working as a lifeguard at a resort. She’s not expecting him and has her own thing going on, so she ends up being too busy to be Kevin’s girlfriend. Kevin decides to make the best of it and gets a job at the resort, winning a bunch of money in an employee poker game JUST before stumbling upon Winnie with her tongue down another guy’s throat. This leads to punching, job firings, a second poker game where Kevin loses everything (including his car) and, ultimately, that fateful moment everybody remembers from the TWY finale where Kevin and Winnie hook up in a barn.
If you’re wondering how all of that could lead to a barn hook-up, please consult that picture of Winnie Cooper as a lifeguard. Or, the one of her just after a tennis game, included below.
Key line: “Oh, hi Kevin. Kevin, this is Eric he’s the head lifeguard here.” “Hi, I’m the new golf pro.” “Oh that’s a joke, right?” “Yeah.”
I mean, seriously.
From a piece I wrote about the show for Progressive Boink back in 2006:
Jokes aside, Winnie speaks a line that pretty much says it all for the last episode of “The Wonder Years.”
“I don’t want it to end.”
Yeah, me either.
Seven years later and … yeah, me either.
Episode: “Little Debbie” (season 4, episode 6)
What Happens: Paul’s little sister Debbie has a crush on Kevin and asks him to a cotillion dance, which he has to accept because her brother is too busy ogling busty cheerleader Dina Delgado at the Friday football game. In typical Kevin fashion, he goes through the motions of attending the dance but ditches Debbie before they can take pictures, hurting her feelings. He goes outside for some fresh air and runs into Paul, who has returned from the game with a horrible story: during one of the routines, a tissue flew out of Dina’s bra, ending the legend of her bodacious rack forever.
Key line: “Heck – I was no Superman. Not really, anyway. But if Debbie Pfeiffer needed a hero… so be it. She had plenty of time to grow up, and figure it out on her own. After all, a little stardust in the eyes never hurt anybody. Least of all, me.”
1. Kevin makes things up to Debbie by diving into a pool to retrieve one of her pearl earrings and ends up taking photos with her, because for as big of a jerk as Kevin Arnold is, he’s not really that much of a jerk. Not down in the important parts.
2. Poor Dina Delgado. My high school’s legendary busty girl was Mindy, a girl with a body so hilariously unrealistic she once hosted a talent show assembly and was the only person who got applause. Thankfully she never had a tissue slip, but she did end up getting a breast reduction, because yeah, 16 year old me is sad about that, but holy shit, her back must have been wrecked.
Episode: “Odd Man Out” (season 3, episode 6)
What Happens: Nothing draws a man’s ire like a dispute over baseball cards. Kevin wants Paul’s Willie McCovey card. He’s been offering him garbage cards for years. Paul wants Kevin’s Ted Williams, but Kevin’s not letting it go. Things get heated and Kevin calls Paul weird, tempers flare, and they decide to get new best friends.
Key line: “As I stood outside that window, I watched the easy give-and-take of two new friends. And I realized something. Doug Porter was no longer the odd man out. It was me. But I guess in a way we’re all odd men out. Until we find a match that makes us even. Someone who challenges us to be our best. Someone who understands us. Even at our worst.”
I’m not sure I ever lost a best friend to a baseball card dispute, but I remember every bad trade I’ve ever made. One of the reasons I don’t gamble as an adult is because of all the regret and heartache I experienced parting with good cards as a kid. I just can’t face the consequence of loss. To Kevin’s credit, though, he would’ve been pretty stupid to trade a Williams for a McCovey.
This episode features one of my favorite TV errors ever, as 1989 Topps cards make an accidental appearance in a 1969 bedroom. When it says Future Star Gary Sheffield, it really means “Future Star” Gary Sheffield, I guess.
Episode: “The Unnatural” (Season 3, Episode 19)
What Happens: And, finally, the best ‘The Wonder Years’ sports moment of all.
Kevin ends up on the Kennedy Junior High Wildcats baseball team based on a fluke line drive and makes roster cut after roster cut despite not being very good. He finds out that the team’s coach is an old Korean War buddy of his dad and assumes Jack is pulling strings to keep him on the squad. His dad even goes to some of his practices, but the worry and the self-doubt makes Kevin miserable. Then, as oddly as it began, Kevin is cut from the team. His dad wasn’t doing anything. In what he assumes will be his final at-bat ever, Kevin goes into dream sequence mode, imagining that he’s Bobby Thompson, cranking a home run to the applause of his dad, Winnie Cooper and everybody else he knows, whether they’re there or not.
Key line: “My memory begins with the crack of the bat, and the sight of the ball rising. Maybe that’s not exactly the way it happened. But that’s the way it should have happened, and that’s the way I like to remember it. And if dreams and memories sometimes get confused well… that’s as it should be. Because every kid deserves to be a hero… every kid already is.”
Once more, from the The Wonder Years: 25 Best Moments:
Convinced that he was only making the cuts during baseball tryouts because his dad was war buddies with the coach, Kevin lets his nerves and constantly speaking inner monologue talk him out of the basic joys of the game, and he just sucks out loud. Everything is drab and pointless and stupid. Then he notices his name has been scratched off for final cut. His dad hadn’t been pulling strings. The coach really DID just think he had spirit and heart. So Kevin steps up to the plate, rears back, and pops the shit out of the ball.
This is another moment like the Trek moment, where reality drops and we’re left in Kevin’s imagination. His clothes become a team uniform. His dad and Winnie show up out of nowhere to show him support as he jogs around the bases, high-fiving his teammates. As he crosses home he tosses off his helmet and is carried off the field. The best part is that we never come out of this fantasy. The episode just ends like that. Because, as the narrator says, sometimes memories SHOULD stay like that, even with a little embellishment.