Glory Days: 23 of Our Favorite Sports Movie Underdogs

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  1. With the Olympics under way, we offer hope to those medal longshots with these terrific stories about unlikely athletic heroics, from ''Rocky'' to, of course, ''Miracle''

    By Mandi Bierly, Jeff Labrecque
    Aug 09, 2008


    THE ROOKIE (2002)
    Marriage, kids, and a mortgage have a rude way of chasing away your childhood dreams, but former pitcher Jim Morris (Dennis Quaid), whose once promising minor-league career was curtailed by an arm injury, is the rare man granted a second chance. Inspired by his high school students and armed with an inexplicable 98-mph fastball, the science teacher from Texas finds himself on the mound for the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, striking out players almost half his age.

    When disgraced quarterback Paul Crewe (Burt Reynolds) is locked behind bars for a gambling scandal, he's ordered to field a team of convicts so that the warden's trophy-winning football team can get an easy W under its belt. But when the warden's cutthroat competitiveness crosses the line, Crew's motley crew of hardened criminals, nicknamed the Mean Machine, exacts retribution on the abusive prison guards, played by NFL ringers like Ray Nitschke and Joe Kapp, and dares to win the supposedly fixed game.

    MIRACLE (2004)
    ''The Miracle on Ice,'' the U.S. hockey team's defeat of the stalwart Soviets at the 1980 Winter Olympics, has been called the greatest upset in sports history. The Russians had won five of the last six Olympic gold medals, while the U.S., then represented by a roster with an average age of 22, hadn't been to the top of the podium since 1960. Enter Coach Herb Brooks (Kurt Russell). As EW critic Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote of Miracle, the movie's ''most concrete achievement is in showing how, step by demanding step, Brooks was able to transform 20 young men used to playing as stellar individuals — the American way — into an unintimidate-able, egoless team, i.e., the Soviet way. 'Who do you play for?' Brooks says, challenging athlete after athlete until it dawns on one of them, during a marathon training session, that their various school teams are not the unifying answer he's after.''

    ROCKY (1976)
    Inspired by Chuck Wepner's 15-round bout with Muhammad Ali in 1975, Sylvester Stallone wrote the story of Rocky Balboa, a Philly southpaw who gets the chance to face the heavyweight champ of the world (Carl Weathers' cocky Apollo Creed) — and just wants to go the distance. Only then will he know that he's not just another bum from the neighborhood. Interesting fact: In Stallone's original script, Rocky's robe wasn't too big for him, and that poster in the arena didn't show the Italian Stallion in the wrong-colored trunks. Those were mistakes made by the film's crew that Stallone and director John G. Avildsen incorporated after realizing they helped cement Balboa's underdog status. And, that they had no budget to correct them.

    KINGPIN (1996)
    An Amish lughead and a one-armed man walk into a bowling alley. No, it's not the opening line of some lame vaudevillian joke. In this crude Farrelly Bros. laugher, a burned-out bowler (Woody Harrelson) with a heck of a hook takes a naïve prodigy (Randy Quaid) under his wing to exact revenge from the sport's ruthless champion, Ernie ''Big Ern'' McCracken (Bill Murray). When his protégé gets injured, the one-armed lane-hustler lifts himself out of the gutter for a second chance at glory.

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    What if Tiger Woods lost to Danny Noonan? That's essentially what happened in 1913, when Francis Ouimet (Shia LaBeouf), a 20 year-old caddy at Brookline (Mass.) Country Club, stunned the sport's reigning giant, Harry Vardon (Stephen Dillane) at the U.S. Open golf championship hosted by the local course where he worked. Facing not just Europe's finest, but the prejudice of his own club's social elite, the son of immigrants and his rotund 10 year-old looper (Josh Flitter) beat them all at their own game. Caddyshack's Al Czervik would've been proud.

    When The Black Stallion hit theaters in 1979, horse racing was still a major attraction, and the sport's most famous jockey was a Kentucky-born teenager named Steve Cauthen. Every kid in America dreamed of racing horses, so when babyfaced Alex (Kelly Reno) tames the untamable Arabian steed that saved his life after being shipwrecked on a desert island, and an old thoroughbred trainer (Mickey Rooney) encourages the boy to test the Black's locomotive speed on the racetrack, their underdog quest fulfilled every child's vicarious thrill.

    For many of us, dodgeball was simply a fifth-grade gym-class activity rooted in ''violence, exclusion, and degradation,'' but for slacker Peter LaFleur (Vince Vaughn), whose dank fitness club is in financial dire straits, it's a legitimate professional sport popular enough to be broadcast on ESPN 8 — The Ocho. LaFleur and his athletically challenged team of Average Joes, who learned how to play by dodging wrenches in practice, must KO rival White Goodman (Ben Stiller) and his buff squad of muscleheads to claim the tournament winnings. Chuck Norris, who cameos, says you must watch this movie without blinking.

    Their manager (Walter Matthau) is a stumbling drunk. Their best pitcher (Tatum O'Neal) wears a dress, and their belligerent shortstop throws his glove and labels one pathetic teammate ''a booger-eatin' moron!'' But teamwork can make up for all sorts of shortcomings in Little League baseball. Well, teamwork, and the sweet-swingin' neighborhood hoodlum (Jackie Earle Haley). In between eruptions of political incorrectness, these social outcasts rally to put a scare in the hated Yankees, inadvertently opening the door to mediocre cinematic imitations like The Mighty Ducks.

    VICTORY (1981)
    Michael Caine, Sylvester Stallone, and soccer legend Pelé aren't just prisoners, like the Mean Machine in The Longest Yard, they're prisoners of war. And their jailers aren't just brutal fascists, they're brutal fascist Nazis. But despite the inmates' decrepit physical condition, they plot an escape from their WWII internment camp by accepting the Nazis' challenge to play a German soccer team in occupied Paris — and the only thing that thwarts their plan is their resolute will to win the match.

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  3. WHEN WE WERE KINGS (1996)
    It's difficult today to envision ''The Greatest of All Time'' as an underdog, but when Muhammad Ali challenged the younger, stronger, meaner George Foreman for the heavyweight title in 1974, even his closest supporters feared for his safety. Leon Gast's Oscar-winning documentary captures the frenzied build-up to the ''Rumble in the Jungle,'' held in the Congo, and celebrates Ali's strategy (the Rope-A-Dope), beauty, and brashness as he regained the championship belt seven years after being banned from boxing due to his refusal to fight in Vietnam.

    SEABISCUIT (2003)
    Pick an underdog. Any underdog. Seabiscuit, the adaptation of Lauren Hillenbrand's 2001 bestseller about the beloved racehorse of the 1930s, had at least four. ''The horse is too small, the jockey (Tobey Maguire) too big, the trainer (Chris Cooper) too old, and I'm too dumb to know the difference,'' jokes Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges), the spiritually wounded millionaire who gives new life to a trio of castoffs. People identified with the little horse that could, and his match race against the impeccably bred War Admiral enthralled Depression-era America.

    RUDY (1993)
    It's No. 50 on EW's list of the Best Tearjerkers Ever. Why? Because you know somewhere, even a dog — probably a border collie who competes in agility competitions — has whimpered when five-feet-nothin' Dan ''Rudy'' Ruettiger (Sean Astin) finally takes the field as a member of the Fighting Irish football team and scores a sack. Against Jerry Goldsmith's swelling score and a stadium chanting Rudy's name, we are all defenseless.

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  4. THE KARATE KID (1984)
    We've branded it a perfect movie ending: an outclassed and injured Daniel (Ralph Macchio) crane-kicks Cobra Kai bad boy Johnny (William Zabka) in the face at the All Valley Karate Championship. (Freeze-frame on Mr. Miyagi's proud, teary-eyed mug.) But, like the greatest Cinderella stories, the only reason this ending is so satisfying is the long, bumpy, sand-the-floor, wax-the-car, paint-the-fence-and-house road to the bawl.

    INVINCIBLE (2006)
    Of all the inspired-by-true-stories on this list, this could be the hardest to believe: Thirty-year-old Philadelphia Eagles season-ticket holder/bartender Vince Papale (Mark Wahlberg) makes the cellar-dwelling team after new coach Dick Vermeil (Greg Kinnear) offers an open tryout in a PR stunt to win back the team's not-so-faithful fans. Think that's sweet? Listen to Papale's commentary on the DVD: The real-life gridiron Rocky chokes up — four times.

    Sure, the climactic toss is only slightly more believable than the one Will Ferrell and Jon Heder pull off in Blades of Glory. But as with any sports film, you hope the artistic marks compensate for any minor technical deductions. And what's more glorious than a story of two mortal enemies — a figure skater (Moira Kelly) and a hockey player (D.B. Sweeney) — joining forces for one more shot at Olympic glory and overcoming trust issues, toe picks, and tequila hangovers?

    TIN CUP (1996)
    Writer-director Ron Shelton (who also teamed with star Kevin Costner on Bull Durham) understands something about athletes: They define winning in many different ways. For Costner's Roy McAvoy, a wild-card West Texas golf pro who refuses to play the percentages, even on the final hole of the final round of the U.S. Open, it's nailing the shot that will make him immortal. With the last ball in his bag. It's a concept Costner, not at avid golfer before the film, clearly related to. ''I'd say, 'Just hit a good shot,''' Shelton told EW, ''and we'd sit there for an hour waiting for the perfect shot.''

    We're still trying to figure out how this absurdly gripping documentary didn't get an Oscar nom. It follows science teacher Steve Wiebe's quest to top legendary gamer/hot-sauce maker Billy Mitchell's record score on Donkey Kong — and to have the community that has idolized Mitchell for more than two decades recognize it. Don't think it sounds dramatic? There are plans to turn the story into a feature film.

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  5. MAJOR LEAGUE (1989)
    Director David S. Ward admits he wrote the movie because he thought it was the only way he'd get to see his beloved Cleveland Indians win a divisional title. You gotta love that. Almost as much as the cast that fills the roster of has-been and never-will-be players handpicked by the fictional new owner of the Tribe — who wants her team to finish in the basement so she can move the franchise to Miami. (Special shout-outs to Charlie ''Wild Thing'' Sheen, who really threw that heat, and Dennis Haysbert, who actually hit every home run his character, curveball-phobic Pedro Cerrano, did.)

    BREAKING AWAY (1979)
    Coming-of-age tales don't get more charming or inspiring than this one (and it's got a screenplay Oscar win to prove it). In Bloomington, Indiana, recent high school grad Dave Stoller (Dennis Christopher) is obsessed with all things Italian, but mostly Team Cinzano, the cyclists he idolizes. When those heroes crush his spirit — by crashing his bike with him on it, for being able to keep up with them — his friends (Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern, and Jackie Earle Haley) convince him to ride again, solo, in a team race against their local rivals, college boys. In the end, Dave's friends learn to step up, and we learn what ''fight'' really is — taping yourself into the pedals.

    HOOSIERS (1986)
    Before director David Anspaugh tackled the heart of college football in Rudy, he took a shot at capturing the heartbeat of high school basketball in Hoosiers. In this classic, kind-of-true Cinderella story, the barely fielded Huskers from small-town Hickory, Indiana, rise to the big-time state championships. And they do it with a new coaching staff in need of their own redemptions: Norman Dale (Gene Hackman), whose tarnished past hasn't hindered his ability to deliver a rousing pre-game speech, and Shooter (Dennis Hopper, who earned an Oscar nomination for his performance), the town drunk who knows what it's like when your carriage turns back into a pumpkin at midnight.

    GRAND PRIX (1966)
    Peter Aron (James Garner) is technically the underdog: He's an American driver in a European sport, Formula 1. He hasn't won a grand prix since he left Ferrari three seasons earlier. In the film's exquisitely shot opening race through the streets of Monaco, he helps put his teammate in the hospital and loses his ride. Then, following a brief stint as a broadcaster (poor guy), he becomes a wheelman for a Japanese industrialist (Toshiro Mifune), who's still awaiting his first win after two years in the series. Here, however, is the extraordinary thing about John Frankenheimer's benchmark racing pic: It makes any man who dares to sit in one of these $100,000 machines look like an underdog. Credit the ID bracelets the drivers wear that tell emergency workers their blood type.

    MEATBALLS (1979)
    If camp counselor Tripper Harrison (Bill Murray) is to believed — and that might not be wise — the privileged athletes from $1,000-per-week Camp Mohawk have their own personal masseuses and use the most sophisticated training methods from the Eastern Bloc. His own wretched summer campers at Camp North Star don't have a prayer of victory in the Olympiad unless Rudy (Chris Makepeace) can win the marathon. Then again, it just doesn't matter if North Star wins or loses, because, as Tripper explains, ''all the really good looking girls would still go out with the guys from Mohawk because they've got all the money!''

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