A look at the most unlikely winners in football film history
With the 151st meeting of the historic Lafayette/Lehigh rivalry looming on Saturday, there can be little doubt that the Leopards take the field as the underdogs in this encounter. However, their less than stellar record is not necessarily a bad thing. No story is quite as compelling as that of the underdog, and a victory that is earned by overcoming obstacles tastes all the sweeter. The story of the football underdog is heightened and immortalized in film, and these, the greatest underdogs in football movie history, can serve as inspiration for Leopards players and fans who are nervous about the big game.
- Vince Papale; “Invincible”(2004)
Based on a true story, Mark Wahlberg plays down-on-his-luck bartender Vince Papale who, at thirty years old, seems farther from his dream of playing football than ever. However, a chance encounter, a great deal of hard work and a metric ton of determination lead Papale to his dream job: a position on the Philadelphia eagles. Overcoming his age, martial problems and his own doubts about his ability to perform on a professional level, the movie shows what can happen if one really wants something, works hard at it and doesn’t let themselves get in their own way.
- Harold Lamb; “The Freshman”(1925)
One of the earliest underdog stories in film, this quirky and charming film is the definition of a “golden oldie.” Harold, the titular freshman, is a loser who tries out for the football team and fails miserably. Because he accidentally damaged the team’s only tackle dummy, however, he gets to be a live dummy for the team to practice on. He then gets promoted to “waterboy,”a duty he performs with enthusiasm. When he finally gets to play, it is only because there is no other option, and nobody believes he can do it—abelief he doesn’t do a lot to disabuse. However, showcasing a plucky determination, unabashed enthusiasm and a willingness to make up for his own mistakes, he manages to pull the team together in the end and score the winning touchdown. It may be a bit clichéd, but “The Freshman”invented the clichés, and as possibly the earliest sports underdog in film, it deserves a place on this list for historical merit alone.
- MeanMachine; “The Longest Yard”(1974)
The tale of the “Mean Machine”versus the prison guards in this 1974 classic is something I have already touched on in a previous list, but as far as underdogs go there are few bigger than prisoners going up against their own guards in a football game. At times the corrupt and cruel guards seem unbeatable, making the final victory of the “Mean Machine”all the sweeter. This is a story of overcoming a foe that doesn’t play fair and winning.
- The Sentinels; “The Replacements”(2000)
Though not the best movie in the world, “The Replacements”features what might be the most genuine underdog story in football film. During a fictional NFL player’s strike, Jimmy McGinty (Gene Hackman) is tasked with providing their team with the wins they need to get into the playoffs. McGinty recruits a rag-tag group of misfits, and the tension between the ‘replacement’team and the ‘real’team former the backbone of why this is a fantastic underdog story. This is, at it’s heart, is a story of the love of football. No matter how talented you are, whatever your pedigree, whatever your background, nothing can take away from your love of the game and your desire to win.
- Rudy; “Rudy”(1993)
The greatest underdog in the history of silver screen sports, the titular Rudy (Sean Astin) has everything thrown at him. His fondest dream is to play football for Notre Dame, but there are a few problems with that plan: he is neither good enough to get a sports scholarship, nor rich enough to afford to go to college, nor even big enough to play college football according to those around him. He never gives up throughout his incredible journey, and though the culmination of his journey does not reach the heights of Papale’s career, the small triumphs of Rudy’s life feel like the highest of honors. It is one of the most inspiring films in history, and it is a film that truly encapsulates the underdog story.