What do the best “underdog” sports movies do: they celebrate the underdog, who has a unique story, a unique style, and always comes out on top – even when they don’t win the big game – they are winners in life!
Here’s to the underdog in all of us!
10 – Rocky. It’s the greatest underdog movie of all time, so let’s get started here. Rocky Balboa overcomes every obstacle in life to reach the pinnacle in sports…AND HE LOST. Welcome to the 70’s, when gritty, slice of life films like “Rocky” weren’t just sports movies, they were movies about an underdog who fights his way to the top…or close to it.
So what if ultimately Tim Tebow lost the big game? The legend is now, well…LEGEND. No matter what happens going forward, he captured the hearts and minds of sports fans everywhere – and that is exactly what Rocky Balboa did 35 years ago.
“Yo, Adrian!” Who can forget this? Butkus his dog – credited in the film as “Butkus Stallone”. And the classic underdog story: a broken-down, small time boxer gets a once in a lifetime chance to fight the heavyweight champ. Taken for granted, he shocks the world and goes the distance.
The making of the film was as big an underdog story as the movie itself: struggling Actor Sylvester Stallone wrote the script, and refused to sell it unless he played the lead. One studio gave him a chance – with a low budget and a seasoned Director willing to take the challenge. This is a beautifully made movie that has brilliant direction by John G. Avildsen – an unexpected smash hit that captured the hearts of movie fans around the world – And talk about winning – “Rocky” took home the Oscar! – here are the films that “Rocky” beat out for Best Picture of 1976: “Network”, “Taxi Driver”, “Bound For Glory” and “All The President’s Men.” Wow.
To me this is the greatest sports movie of all time, but I put it at #10 so I would get your attention. Hey, it’s my list…
9 – Invincible. Speaking of 1976, this 2006 film starring Mark Wahlberg was a classic underdog tale – it is based on the true story of Vince Papale, a 30-year-old bartender from South Philadelphia who overcame long odds to play for the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles in 1976.
This is another gritty tale of a outcast fighting back and overcoming the odds…and Wahlberg does a great job capturing the real-life character Papale. I mean, how can you not love a movie where a bartender ends up in the NFL?
Kudos to the entire cast, especially Wahlberg and Greg Kinnear, who is terrific as always as the Eagles coach willing to take a gamble on Papale.
Interesting trivia courtesy of IMDB: Although listed as Wide Receiver, Papale played almost exclusively on Special Teams. The only reception in his career came in 1977 on a 15 yard pass from Roman Gabriel. This would be the final pass ever thrown by Gabriel, who was a four-time Pro Bowler and the 1969 NFL Most Valuable Player.
8 – The Bad News Bears. Again with 1976! This is the original classic baseball comedy, with Walter Matthau as a down-on-his-luck ex-minor league player – now a cranky old man – who coaches a team of misfits in an ultra-competitive California little league. That’s right – LITTLE LEAGUE.
Tatum O’ Neal was already an Oscar winner for her work with her Dad in “Paper Moon” from 1973, and she brings a ton of attitude and sass as she goes toe-to-toe with Mattheau, who has never been better. For example:
Amanda Whurlitzer: I know an 11-year-old girl who is already on the pill.
Coach Morris Buttermaker: Don’t ever say that word again.
Amanda Whurlitzer: Jesus! Just who in the heck you think you are?
Coach Morris Buttermaker: The goddamned manager, that’s who!
Amanda Whurlitzer: Big wow!
Big wow, indeed! Hilarious underdog classic.
7 – Miracle. This 2004 film uses Kurt Russell perfectly – because he is the kind of guy you WANT to see win the big one – and boy does he ever!
When you think about how dominating the Russian Olympic team was, this really is one of the biggest upsets of all time in sports. And in making the movie, they tried to capture the realism as best as possible. For example, according to IMDB:
The scene where Herb Brooks makes the team skate back and forth on the ice all night, after their 3-3 tie with Norway, was actually done by the real actors over a span of three days – 12 hours a day. The director wanted the moment to be as realistic as possible.
Well, it pays off, as the film is gritty and real.
It hard to be more of an underdog that this: a Jamaican bobsled athlete. As the DVD covers says: “Rocky On Ice!”
This hugely popular 1993 movie starred John Candy as a disgraced bobsledder who hides away in Jamaica, only to become part of an underdog effort that stuns the Winter Olympics. A true feel-good comedy that also inspires you to never give up, no matter what the obstacles are.
The more I see John Candy movies show up on cable, the more he is missed – and criminally under-appreciated. This is another great example.
5 – Slap Shot. In 1977, Paul Newman showed his flair for comedy, and his iconic cool, by starring in this tough, foul-mouthed comedy about hockey. A failing ice hockey team finds success using constant fighting and violence during games, when they uncover the vicious Hanson brothers, who see a hockey rink as a boxing ring. Newman is the coach more than willing to go along.
This is a hilariously profane movie. I mean, PROFANE. The Hanson brothers that Newman finds to lead his hockey team love to fight, fight, fight – and curse, curse, curse…after their reputation is well known, one referee decides to stop them even before they can get started. The ref skates over to them during the playing of the National Anthem:
Peterboro Referee: “I got my eye on the three of you. You pull one thing, you’re out of this game. I run a clean game here. I have any trouble here, I’ll suspend ya.”
Steve Hanson: “I’m listening to the fucking song!”
Paul Newman really had a flair for comedy – with great timing, so much COOL – try “Butch Cassidy” and “Hudsucker Proxy” back-to-back and see!
4 – The Rookie. Dennis Quaid stars as real-life Pitcher Jim Morris in this 2002 underdog classic. Blessed with an awesome fastball, Morris nursed dreams of pitching for Major League Baseball during his 20s; injuries and bad luck, however, forced him to give up hope and become a teacher and coach. Years later, pressed by students and colleagues to try out for “the Show” one more time, Morris discovered he still had a powerful arm, and he was signed by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
An early scene has Quaid stopping by a roadside speed detector for cars. He throws a fastball by it to measure his speed – and is dejected to see it read only 76 mph. Frustrated, he gets in his pickup and drives home – while behind him, the malfunctioning sign flickers again to reveal the last part of the number, and the true speed of his fastball: 96 mph. From that point on you just want him to succeed…just as with Kurt Russell and Mark Wahlberg, these are Actors you WANT to succeed. “The Rookie” is a terrific movie.
3 – Friday Night Lights. The critically-acclaimed TV series got its start as a terrific book, which was adapted for this 2004 film starring Billy Bob Thornton.
The fact-based story focuses on the 1988 football season of Odessa-Permian high school in West Texas. Director Peter Berg delivers the goods with an exciting inside look at high school football and the towns that live out their dreams through every game.
This is a story of weary underdogs, including an abusive father (country music star Tim McGraw), threatening townsfolk, an injured star running back (Derek Luke), a tormented quarterback (Lucas Black), and the melancholy coach (Billy Bob Thornton) who takes his team to the finals. Credit to Billy Bob for really capturing the emotion and pressure a high school coach in Texas is under. An understated but powerful performance. Great sports movie.
Based on the true story of Leigh Anne and Sean Tuohy who take in a homeless teenage African-American, Michael “Big Mike” Oher. Michael has no idea who his father is and his mother is a drug addict. Michael has had little formal education and few skills to help him learn. Leigh Anne soon takes charge however, as is her nature, ensuring that the young man has every opportunity to succeed. When he expresses an interest in football, she goes all out to help him, including giving the coach a few ideas on how best to use Michael’s skills. They not only provide him with a loving home, but hire a tutor to help him improve his grades to the point where he would qualify for an NCAA Division I athletic scholarship. Michael Oher was the first-round pick of the Baltimore Ravens in the 2009 NFL draft.
Inspiring, exciting, touching and humorous – this film hits all the right notes as it tells a great underdog story…
1 – Bull Durham. How can you argue? This was an instant classic the day it was released in 1988.
This had it all: it was a great baseball movie, an hilarious comedy, and actor’s showcase for Tim Robbins, Susan Sarandon and Kevin Costner. The setup is simple: Susan Sarandon takes one minor-league baseball player under her wing each season; this year she sets her sights on crazy pitcher “Nuke” LaLoosh – all is good until she meets the experienced catcher assigned to him. “Crash” Davis has his own way of mentoring the young pitcher, and the battle of the sexes is on!
The movie is full of memorable dialogue, including: In their confrontation outside a bar, Crash tells Nuke, “I hear you couldn’t hit water if you fell out of a fucking boat.” Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda actually said this in 1984, in reference to weak-hitting San Diego Padres infielder Kurt Bevacqua.
And, no doubt the most famous scene from the film, when Kevin Costner puts Susan Sarandon in her place and wins her heart forever:
Annie Savoy: What do you believe in, then?
Crash Davis: Well, I believe in the soul, the cock, the pussy, the small of a woman’s back, the hanging curve ball, high fiber, good scotch, that the novels of Susan Sontag are self-indulgent, overrated crap. I believe Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone. I believe there ought to be a constitutional amendment outlawing Astroturf and the designated hitter. I believe in the sweet spot, soft-core pornography, opening your presents Christmas morning rather than Christmas Eve and I believe in long, slow, deep, soft, wet kisses that last three days.
[pauses then winks and walks away]
Crash Davis: Goodnight.
Annie Savoy: Oh my. Crash…
There you have it – the ten best underdog sports movies of all time! Let me know what you think!