Tale of the Underdog


Russell Crowe portrays Jim Braddock, who entered the boxing ring to provide for his family during the Great Depression--and became a national hero along the way--in "Cinderella Man". ART BINKOWSKI portrays Braddock opponent Corn Griffin. "Cinderella Man" is produced by Brian Grazer, Ron Howard and Penny Marshall and directed by Ron Howard.

The Associated Press
Published: Sunday, January 29, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 28, 2006 at 11:31 p.m.
A recipe: 1 Scrappy Team whose members initially can't Get Along
OR 1 Player who seems Incredibly Unlikely to Ever Win Anything (on account of being Too Small or Poor or the victim of Racism)
1 Gruff, No-Nonsense Coach with a Heart of Gold
Several scoops of Impossible Odds 1 season of Painful Practices, with Much Yelling from the Coach
1 Player with a Secret - maybe Family Issues or a Health Condition - who Just Wants to Win
4 Dark Nights of the Soul 1 Menacing - and possibly Arrogant - Opponent
1 'I love you guys' Locker Room Speech 1 Last-Minute Play Mix all ingredients, take a team photo to hang in the practice gym and weep copiously.
It's just too wonderful! When the person or team who shouldn't have won actually does, everybody wins. Oh, yes. We're suckers for the underdog sports story. We love the underdogs! We are the underdogs.
(And we can't resist the "playing field as a metaphor for life" analogies. So sue us.)
"We're all very different people," proclaimed John Winger (played by Bill Murray) in the movie "Stripes." "We're not Watusi, we're not Spartans, we're Americans. With a capital A, huh? And you know what that means? Do you? That means that our forefathers were kicked out of every decent country in the world. We are the wretched refuse. We're the underdog. We're mutts."
This week's lovable underdogs: The 1966 Texas Western men's basketball team. With the first all-black starting lineup in the NCAA Division I basketball tournament's history, they won the national title. Their story is told in the movie "Glory Road."
There's something so democratic about these underdog sports stories. Hollywood loves them. So do our nation's sports reporters, who polish their very best writing to anoint and honor the underdogs, and turn their stories into books.
So here's to the real-life underdogs immortalized in literature:
  • "The Boys of Winter," by Wayne Coffey
    At the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y., the U.S. men's hockey team defeats the Soviet team 4-3 in a semifinal match, going on to beat Finland and win the gold.
    The underdogs: The U.S. men's hockey team. They were inexperienced college players, most of them from rival Minnesota and Massachusetts teams. At first, they couldn't get along. And some of them were as dorky as the Hanson brothers in "Slap Shot." Coach Herb Brooks made them practice until they threw up, all in anticipation of facing the sure-to-win, best-in-the-world, scary Soviet team.
    Stand up and cheer: "In the ABC booth, Ken Dryden said, 'It's over,' just a second before Al Michaels was shouting, 'Do you believe in miracles? Yes!'
    "The horn sounded. "Pandemonium followed, the entire bench running, dancing, jumping, an almost comical conga line of jubilation."
    Only one of the greatest moments in sports history.
    And bawl just a little: After that monumental win, "10 feet from where he had stood two and a half hours earlier and told his team they were meant to be there, Herb Brooks locked himself inside an orange toilet stall and cried."
    Sports life lessons: 1. Sometimes you gotta play hurt. Which sucks because, well, you're hurt.
    2. Minnesota isn't so bad, after all. 3. The Soviets made great rivals.
  • "In These Girls, Hope Is a Muscle," by Madeleine Blais
    The 1993 Amherst (Mass.) Regional High School Lady Hurricanes basketball team unites and makes it to the finals, conquering its tendency to fall apart at the end.
    The underdogs: The Lady Hurricanes. Sure, they were an excellent team from a small college town, and they always made it to the playoffs. But for several years before the 1993 season, they just unraveled during the playoffs, for whatever reason. They were discouraged and disheartened. They needed a strong leader and some confidence. Which of course they got.
    Stand up and cheer: When every member of the Lady Hurricanes goes All-American in the first half of the final game against evenly matched Haverhill. Score at halftime: 51-6.
    And bawl just a little: On the way out of Amherst to the final game against Haverhill, the girls' bus is led in slow ceremony by a town police cruiser.
    Sports life lessons: 1. "It is not given to all of us to be born beautiful young girls - but it is our fault if we do not become beautiful old ladies."
    2. Regardless of whether you win state, you still want a cute date for prom.
    3. A good fade-away jump shot: valuable. Good grades: priceless.
  • "The Miracle of St. Anthony," by Adrian Wojnarowski
    At tiny, always-broke St. Anthony High School in a crummy part of Jersey City, N.J., boys basketball coach Bob Hurley leads the 2003 team to a perfect season.
    The underdogs: The St. Anthony Friars. Most of the boys come from broken homes and dysfunctional backgrounds, balk at the concept of "team" and have lousy attitudes. At first, anyway. But Hurley sets high standards that the boys, amazingly, rise to.
    Stand up and cheer: "Hurley called everyone to the middle of the floor, the Friars soon squeezing together for a championship photo, squeezing together until the faces were blurred behind hands holding fingers into the air, declaring once and for all, declaring forever, that they were number one. They were in the history books.
    "Thirty and oh." Talk about a Hoosiers moment. Cue the "I love you guys" speech.
    And bawl just a little: When team member Marcus Williams tries to keep it a secret that he has a son, because he doesn't want to disappoint Coach Hurley.
    "I gotta be a man," Marcus said. "I gotta live up to my responsibilities."
    Sports life lessons: 1. Avoid Jersey City at all costs. 2. Everyone deserves a chance. That doesn't mean they don't deserve some attitude slapped out of them, too, but they deserve a chance.
    3. Work hard and get good grades. And stand up straight.
  • "Tin Cup Dreams," by Michael D'Antonio
    A scrappy golfer named Esteban Toledo endures cheap motels, intense pressure, snooty pros and endless days on the road to earn a spot on the PGA Tour.
    The underdog: Esteban Toledo. Growing up in Mexicali, Mexico, he and his family had neither electricity nor running water. He was going to be a boxer, but a botched appendectomy ruined those hopes. However, with a wealthy American sponsor, a strange but supportive caddie and an excellent attitude, Esteban decides he can make it on the Tour.
    Stand up and cheer: On the last day of the PGA's Qualifying School, Esteban has to sink a long shot on the 18th hole to make par and earn his Tour card.
    "His anxiety starts to rise. A breeze kicks up, hitting him squarely in the face. His eyes fill with tears and his hands start to shake." But he makes himself calm down, the ball rolls into the hole and he roars with joy.
    And bawl just a little: After playing the round that secures his Tour card for another year, Esteban decides to send some of his winnings to his sister in Mexico who needs hearing aids but can't afford them.
    Sports life lessons: 1. The most interesting person isn't necessarily the one who gets the magazine covers and Nike contracts.
    2. It always helps to have a few sponsors.
    3. El Caballo is an excellent nickname.
  • "Seabiscuit," by Laura Hillenbrand A squat, knobby-kneed thoroughbred named Seabiscuit defies all odds and not only wins the Santa Anita Handicap, but also wins a race against the highly favored War Admiral. And not only is Seabiscuit an unlikely champion, but his jockey, Red Pollard, is down on his luck and an unlikely winner, too.
    The underdog: Seabiscuit. Red Pollard. America, which was in the middle of the Great Depression and could use an unlikely hero.
    Stand up and cheer: "(Pollard) needed an explosion from Seabiscuit, every amp of his old speed and more. He leaned forward in the saddle and shouted, 'Now, Pop!'
    "Carrying 130 pounds, 22 more than Wedding Call and 16 more than Wichcee, Seabiscuit delivered a tremendous surge. He slashed into the hole, disappeared between his two larger opponents, then burst into the lead."
    And won the 1940 Santa Anita Handicap! And bawl just a little: Red Pollard, who got his chest crushed in a racing accident, lay in a hospital bed listening to the San Antonio Handicap on the radio and yelling, "Get going, Biscuit! Get 'em, you old devil!"
    Sports life lessons: 1. Don't bet on the ponies. Put your money in a mutual fund instead.
    2. Size really doesn't matter. 3. But speed does.
  • "Cinderella Man," by Jeremy Schaap Heavyweight boxer James Braddock wins the 1935 title against highly favored Max Baer.
    The underdog: James Braddock. He'd been a light heavyweight champion, but then he broke his dominant hand and lost some key matches. He was so discouraged that he gave up boxing for a while and, since the Great Depression was on, had to receive government assistance to supplement his meager pay from working on the Hoboken, N.J., docks. But Joe Gould, his fast-talking manager, got him back in the ring and winning. For the title, though, he had to face Max Baer, the 10-to-1 favorite who'd already killed two people during matches.
    Stand up and cheer: "Then Baer swung his right arm back behind his head and fired it straight at Braddock's chin. The punch - 'I knew it was the best one he had,' Braddock said later - landed flush on Braddock's chin. Braddock didn't budge. Reflexively, he shot out his left hand at Baer's head. At that moment he realized he could win - and so did Baer. He had taken Baer's best shot and it had not fazed him."
    And that was only in the third round! And bawl just a little: After her husband defeated Baer, Braddock's wife, Mae, told reporters, "My husband wasn't seeing Max at all when he was in there in the ring fighting. What he saw was a fierce ogre, trying to keep him from chasing the big bad wolf from our door. He was thinking of me, and of the kids, every minute of those 15 terrific fighting rounds."
    Sports life lessons: 1. The FDIC notwithstanding, it might not be a bad idea to tuck a little money away in your mattress.
    2. The best fighters know how to take a punch.
    3. You might not want to get all cocky and run your mouth to the press. Especially if you end up losing.
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