Bully for You
In praise of the overdog.
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This month, in the wake of Leatherheads, The Love Guru, and The Longshots, I’ve decided to leave behind the Cheap Seats for sports-movie screenplay glory. For those agents and directors who happen to be reading, here’s my pitch: Imagine a quarterback—a handsome, dimpled California boy who played for the University of Michigan—who has already won three Super Bowls. Now he hopes to claim a fourth by winning nineteen games in a row. The odds are short. All the ESPN pundits think he can do it. And somehow, some way, with the help of his supremely talented and selfless teammates, a hoodie-wearing genius coach, and an understanding Victoria’s Secret model girlfriend, he will face no obstacles and reach his goal. I’m calling it “Patriot Games.” Or possibly “The Brady Bunch.”
Yes, I know what you are thinking. Zzzzz. Or, if you are prone to referencing The Simpsons: Worst. Sports Movie. Ever. Good thing Netflix just delivered Hoosiers to your mailbox for the seventh time.
True drama, be it on the screen or on the field, requires conflict, adversity, the emergence of the unlikely hero—all of which the New York Giants gave us in the real Super Bowl last February. The only way it might have been more memorable was if that “helmet catch” connection had been between Tony Romo and Sam Hurd instead of Eli Manning and David Tyree.
But what about Hall of Fame athletes and historic teams? Am I the only person south of New Haven who wanted to see Tom Brady and the Patriots ascend to even greater greatness with that nineteenth win? Three Lombardi trophies in four years had already put New England in the thick of any bar-stool argument about the best team of all time. Had they finished up only the second-ever undefeated season in the modern NFL with a fourth title, the debate was likely over (even with an asterisk for Spygate). We don’t often get to witness that kind of history, which is why I also wanted Tiger over Rocco in the U.S. Open, Roger over Rafa at Wimbledon, and the Red Sox over the Rockies in the last World Series. Can’t anybody spare a little fan-love for the poor, downtrodden overdog?
Somewhere along the way, dominance became less interesting than storytelling, ordinary more compelling than extraordinary. Nobody expects a world-class soprano at the Met to sing like everybody else. Brad and Angelina don’t sell movie tickets because they remind us of ourselves. “Plucky up-and-comer” is not what we look for in our brain surgeons or airline pilots. But sports teams that get hot for a month or lucky for two hours become as revered as nonpareil champions. Tell us that our favorite superstar is a normal guy—except he works a whole lot harder, wants it a little more, and has his own cook and nutritionist—and we can’t get enough. This is America, where anyone can get ahead, and having dirt beneath your fingernails is more important than raw talent. We’re a country full of Rudys, even if the rest of the world sees us as (literally) Yankees and Cowboys.
But not in Texas. Here in the Republic of Football, we don’t cotton to that sort of foolishness. “How ’bout them Cowboys?” “Hook ’em, Horns!” “Just win, baby!” (That last phrase was coined by Al Davis, but he’s bound to sell the copyright to Jerry Jones one of these days.) We expect our teams to win, to win often, and to win big. Just ask Mike Sherman and Texas A&M. Remember, for example, 1996, when the University of Texas beat Nebraska in the first-ever Big 12 championship? Awesome game. I can still see James Brown rolling to his left on fourth down on my entry-level big screen, though the memory is not high-def. Thing is, had the Longhorns actually been good under Coach John Mackovic, the game would have been neither memorable nor an upset. UT lost its bowl game to Penn State that year and went 4-7 the next season.
Enter Mack Brown, who eventually teamed up with Vince Young to give the Longhorns faithful what they’d missed since 1970. But even before the national championship, it was certainly more fun to go 9-3 and get upset by Oregon and Stanford (as was the case with the 2000 team) than to ever be the underdog. That goes for the UT-OU games as well. Lopsided though they have been, the rivalry is better when the stakes are high.
Similarly, I’d argue that Roger Staubach’s Super Bowl teams loom a little larger than Troy Aikman’s for having had the Pittsburgh Steelers as a rival instead of the Buffalo Bills. For that matter, I’m not sure that I can recall an impressive upset by the Dallas Cowboys over the past three decades. There have surely been a few, but since taking on the mantle of America’s Team, there’s simply nothing memorable about a Cowboys squad that isn’t championship material.
Fans of the Cowboys and the Longhorns don’t find it boring to be good. They also don’t think it’s unfair that their teams benefit from savvy marketing and higher ancillary revenues. Come to think of it, they’re the ones who write the checks. Fans vote with their wallets and their televisions. When it’s the Yankees—Red Sox in the ALCS or UT playing for the Big 12 title, the sports pages and message boards will always complain about seeing the same superstar big-bully teams year after year. But when the Astros played the White Sox, millions of viewers changed the channel. The Football Championship Subdivision (a.k.a. Division I-AA) has the one thing every college football fan claims to crave—an actual playoff. So tell me, who was in the championship last year? The Cowboys became America’s Team because they’re popular, and they became popular because they’re good (the starlet girlfriends, egotistical wide receivers, and off-the-field soap operas are just the window dressing).
In the end, we want the biggest and the best. People didn’t watch the Super Bowl to see if Manning and the Giants could pull out an upset over the boring, old, spectacular Patriots. They tuned in because of the potential for true greatness. So I don’t mind telling you that I am still rooting for Brady and the Patriots to bring home that fourth Super Bowl—unless, of course, their NFC opponent is the Cowboys.