ROMAN: ‘Underdog’ develops new meaning

David Roman

He snapped the ball, took two steps back and flung his arm out to the right. The defense turned just in time to see Jared Zabransky pull the ball back towards his body before handing it off behind his back to running back Ian Johnson, who sprinted to the left into the end zone. He threw the ball into the air as the score board read 43-42 Boise State, giving the Broncos a miraculous win in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl over Oklahoma.

Moments later, Johnson would go down on one knee on live television and ask the head cheer leader, Chrissy Popadics, to marry him, getting a tearful “yes.” It all seemed unreal to the viewer. If you added a car chase and a leprechaun from outer space, this could have been Nicolas Cage’s next movie. Instead, it was one of the greatest underdog stories of our generation. But then again, according to ESPN and sports’ fans everywhere, so are the New York Giants of 2008, the St. Louis Cardinals of 2005, Kim Clijsters in the 2009 U.S. Open and practically any person or team that won that wasn’t supposed to.

The word “underdog” has become ubiquitous in today’s society. Every day we hear people use the word in situations where they are surprised that certain people succeeded. The Colorado Rockies of 2007 were underdogs simply for making it to the World Series, as were the Arizona Cardinals for making it to the Superbowl last year.

It isn’t just confined to sports. Actors every year are considered underdogs for winning Oscars, as are television stars and pop artists for their respective awards. Recently, I even heard a student refer to herself as an underdog for passing a test because she claimed she hadn’t studied enough.

But, for me, the word means so much more. A true underdog involves a team or an individual who finds a way to succeed when they are clearly physically or mentally outmatched by the opponent. For Boise State, while they were all college athletes, they clearly weren’t on the same level in terms of physical capacity or skill. Oklahoma had some of the most highly recruited athletes, many of whom went on to become high NFL draft picks, including Adrian Peterson, now one of the nation’s best running backs. Boise State, on the other hand, only had three players chosen in the first two rounds over the next three years.

Another example would be what is considered the greatest underdog of the past century: the 1980 United States Olympic Hockey team. Made up of only college athletes, the U.S. team was able to defeat the professional athletes of Russia in the gold medal game, shocking the world.

However, teams such as the New York Giants and St. Louis Cardinals are not on the same level. The New York Giants may have beaten an undefeated New England Patiorts team, but they still had a very strong team with a similar skill level. Same goes for St. Louis. Even though they squeaked into the playoffs that year, they had made the World Series the year before and clearly had the talent to get there again.

We often claim these types of teams are underdogs in order to make winning more enjoyable, but more importantly, to make losing more acceptable. To prevent ourselves from either bawling, throwing our remote controls at the wall or condemning our closer who blew it in the ninth to the seventh circle of hell, we use the idea of underdog as a defense mechanism to keep us sane in the face of defeat. You can see it used right now with Phillies fans, who claimed they were underdogs against the Yankees. The Phillies had a similar, or arguably better team than the one that won the World Series the year before.

But by doing this, we take the accolades and focus away from the true underdogs. The average sports fan is already starting to forget Boise State’s seemingly unforgettable victory. Teams like George Mason in 2006 and individuals like Michelle Oudin in the 2009 U.S. Open have already been overlooked. The true underdogs have been moved to the dog house.

I don’t know what the next great underdog story will be, but I know it’s important to stop using underdog as an excuse for a loss. For that reason, I will root for the Kansas City Royals, for the Detroit Lions, for the Harlem Globetrotters to win the NBA Championship – and for that blonde guy from Real World to win an Oscar in 2011.

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David Roman is a junior psychology and sociology major from Windham, N.H. He can be reached at [email protected]