Ice Cube takes the coach's job in The Longshots.
From Seabiscuit’s courageous gallop to the Giants’ Super Bowl upset, Americans have long revered underdog stories, and Hollywood’s no exception. When it comes to sports films, the inspirational struggle to overcome insurmountable odds has assumed an almost mythic quality, especially when that struggle is portrayed against a broader social context.
Like any durable genre, the underdog sports movie comes with a reliable formula so time-honored, it was parodied in 2007’s The Comebacks. And so, in honor of the August 22nd release of The Longshots – which tells the true story of Jasmine Plummer (Keke Palmer) who, at 11, became the first female to play in Pop Warner football and helped lead her team to victory – we present 10 movies celebrating the triumph of the little guy.
Underdog: 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team
Impossible Odds: Beat the Russians
Nobody would buy this movie as fiction, so it’s a good thing it actually happened. The so-called “Miracle on Ice” victory by Team USA was voted “Greatest Sports Moment of the 20th Century” by Sports Illustrated. Kurt Russell is pitch-perfect as coach Herb Brooks, a hockey lifer with some strange ideas of discipline and motivation. For a Disney flick, it’s surprisingly more heart than hokum, and if you wince when ABC announcer Al Michaels delivers his famous line, “Do you believe in miracles? Yesss!” well, remember - it actually happened.
Underdog: Bartender Vince Papale
Impossible Odds: Playing in the NFL
What Mark Wahlberg did for heavy metal wannabes in Rock Star, he does for aspiring football players here. In 1976, the Philadelphia Eagles were so bad they held open tryouts for anyone who could walk, chew gum – and play football at the same time. Improbably, regular guy Papale (Wahlberg) made the team as a wide receiver, becoming a hero to his South Philly buds, and impressing perfectionist coach Dick Vermeil (a dead-on Greg Kinnear). The film is heartfelt and hard-hitting, and the ‘70s soundtrack is a nostalgic dream.
The Rookie (2002)
Underdog: 35 year-old ex-minor league pitcher Jim Morris
Impossible Odds: Making it to The Show
You’d have to have a heart made of horsehide not to be moved by this tailor-made Disney baseball fable that reinforces the notion of never giving up on your you-know-what. Dennis Quaid plays the ex-minor leaguer —and high school coach – who bets his players that if they can make it to the playoffs, then by golly, he’ll revive his dream of pitching in the majors. Best scene: the accidental moment when Quaid’s players realize he’s hitting 90+ mph on the radar gun.
Glory Road (2006)
The Underdog: All-black college basketball team in the 1960s
Impossible Odds: Defeating formidable all-white team from Kentucky
Based on the true story of Texas Western’s shocking upset of powerhouse Kentucky in the 1966 NCAA Finals, this may have been the first game that proved that white players, indeed, couldn’t jump. Though this Disney hoops flick whitewashes the racism that Texas Western surely encountered on their path to glory, it’s a great addition to the sports-as-social-commentary pantheon, with Josh Lucas, as the color-blind TW coach Don Haskins, facing off against Jon Voight, as Kentucky’s hallowed (and, it’s implied, redneck) coach, Adolph Rupp.
The Underdog: Hickory High basketball team
Impossible Odds: Win state championship
In 1954, there really was a tiny Indiana high school team that pulled off a spectacular upset to win the state championship in the final seconds. Other than that, everything in this beloved sports film is pure Hollywood fiction – but who cares? Gene Hackman plays the hard-knocks coach you’d love to have on your team, and Dennis Hopper won a supporting Oscar as the small-town drunk trying to win back the respect of his ball-playing son.
Underdog: Pint-sized high school football player with lousy grades
Impossible Odds: Playing for the Fighting Irish
The writer-director team that made Hoosiers repeats the formula here with the tale of Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger (Sean Astin), a kid who makes up in heart what he lacks in height. His dream of playing football for Note Dame is undeterred by comments like, “You're 5-foot-nothin' and with hardly a speck of athletic ability.” As far as underdog ambitions go, Rudy’s are comparatively modest: he knows he’s never going to make varsity; he just wants to get on the field for one play. And when he does – you’ll want to have some hankies on hand.
Breaking Away (1979)
Underdog: Townie bike riders
Impossible Odds: Winning Little 500 Indiana University bike race
What is it with Indiana and underdogs? In this utterly winning comedy, a group of high school grads of questionable ambition (derisively nicknamed “cutters”) work out their issues with the snooty rich college kids by competing against them in a thrilling cycling race that takes up the movie’s last third. Dennis Christopher, as the kid obsessed with all things Eye-talian, and Paul Dooley, as his long-suffering dad, are priceless. The film won an Oscar for Best Screenplay.
Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story (2004)
Underdog: Vince Vaughn’s Average Joe misfits
Impossible Odds Defeat Ben Stiller’s team of musclebound beefcakes
Yet another wacky entry in the over-the-top Stiller oeuvre, this underdog story will leave you in tears – of helpless laughter. For anyone with traumatic grade school memories of being hit by oversized rubber balls, this movie satisfies all revenge fantasies, and then some. Upstaging straight man Vaughn and manic man Stiller is Rip Torn, as the wheelchair-bound coach who hilariously whips the misfits into proper dodgeball shape.
The Longest Yard (1974)
Underdog: Prison football team
Impossible Odds: Defeating the guards
Before Adam Sandler’s goofy remake, there was this brutally funny original, with Burt Reynolds as the convict-quarterback who restores dignity to a motley crew of bad-ass inmates when they take on the guards in a football game that the sadistic warden (Eddie Albert) has rigged – or so he thinks. The game itself is a veritable highlight reel of gridiron gags, none more memorable than the guard who takes a football to the groin.
Underdog: You have to ask?
Impossible Odds: Go the distance with Apollo Creed
Yo, film geeks! Look in the dictionary under redemption, and you’ll find this iconic boxing classic. In the first (and best) Rocky Balboa movie, Sylvester Stallone tapped into the psyche of every working stiff who dreamed of being “somebody,” even if just for 15 minutes. Stallone famously refused to sell his script unless he played the title role, and give the guy credit: 32 years later, it remains his defining moment – and proved that Hollywood fairy tales need not always end in victory.
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