By Connie Meyer
It was one of those cold, clear, Sunday afternoons of winter when I was in junior high school. Football season was in full swing and my grandmother, Nana Anna; my sister; my dad, Freddie; and our beagle, Freckles were all in our special spots in our family room ready to watch the game. Our team, the Washington Redskins, were to play the first game of the day so there was no question who we’d “root for”. In those days it seemed they either came out of the gate strong and dominated their opponents, or totally behaved like the underdogs even though they were full of talented players. For the second game of the afternoon, we’d ask my dad the same question every Sunday of the season, right before the kickoff. “Dad, who’s the underdog in this match-up”? I feel confident that question was pretty unique to our household. There was no question that my smart dad knew the record of the two teams about to play, and he’d share with us some personal performance stats of the lesser-known players. So the rule for watching sports in the “House that Freddie Built” was “always root for the underdog”.
Freddie would explain to us that the team with the better record would always have plenty of fans in the stands and at home rooting for them- people love to align themselves with winners. The underdogs in the fight, they deserve our support.
Freddie taught us that whether watching as a fan or playing as a participant- sports can capture your heart in the best possible way. Sports can test your strength and your mettle and can at the same time, create an escape from tough times and bring exhilaration and joy into your life. That sense of team, that comradery and connection with others- teams and fans all pulling in the same direction toward achieving a goal. There is much to be enjoyed and much to learn. Freddie always knew that underneath the pomp and pageantry of college and professional sports lies the little heart of the kid who played pee-wee football, whose parents cheered mightily from the seats or coached from the sidelines. Here lies the special place of the underdog.
Often maligned, labeled as a loser, constantly underestimated- Freddie taught us that’s who you always root for. With Freddie’s great empathy and deep understanding of human nature, lived an eternal truth. As the underdog, you have two choices: you can feel sorry for yourself and confirm everyone’s low expectations of your performance- or you can dig deep, do your best and help motivate yourself and your team in a positive direction. For as Freddie taught me- no one can beat the heart and winning desire of the underdog who’s ready to prove all the nasty naysayers wrong. Perhaps we cheer for the underdog because we see a bit of ourselves in them. The lessons we learn when we are not on top, make us stronger.
Award-winning Canadian author of business and success strategy books, Malcom Gladwell writes, “the fact of being an underdog changes people in ways that we often fail to appreciate. It opens doors and creates opportunities and enlightens and permits things that might otherwise have seemed unthinkable”. When I got a bit older I realized that Freddie was teaching us something a bit deeper while watching the two Sunday football games together. Sticking by the mercurial Redskins, win or lose, and always rooting for the underdog, helped us learn the meaning of loyalty. He also taught us the important role of perseverance- the difference of setting your goal to GET to the championship and setting the goal of WINNING the championship. One of Freddie’s all-time favorite athletes, famed boxing champion Jack Dempsey said it best, “a champion is someone who gets up when he can’t”. Dempsey held the World Heavyweight Boxing title from 1919 to 1926 and was known for his incredible style of never giving up throughout the entire fight, even if he were the perceived underdog.
Back to the second game that season with the underdogs we were rooting for down with almost no time left on the clock. It was late in the fourth quarter when our underdogs began to turn it on and actually tied the “stronger” team by making an impossible catch just before the clock ran out. This very same receiver, with great potential, had dropped the last two passes thrown directly to him. To catch this pass, he had to leap over four players, snatch the ball from the air, and he landed completely flat and hard in the end zone. Nana Anna had fallen asleep sitting up on the sofa and when we began to yell and cheer the almost impossible feat of that last second game-tying touchdown, it startled her awake. Her eyes bolted open to see a large graphic displayed across the entire television screen. It read SUDDEN DEATH. Nana Anna jumped from the sofa yelling. “Oh my God, I told you this game was too rough. That poor boy’s mother!”.
I can’t really remember who won the close game so long ago. I’ll likely never forget Nana Anna and her literal interpretation of SUDDEN DEATH though. The other thing I’ll never forget-the wondrous lessons learned doing something as simple as watching the game at home with Freddie on Sunday afternoons during football season. These included examples he set by faithfully cheering for the team others easily underestimated and readily tossed aside. The sweetness of the win when overcoming adversity and proving to others you can succeed when no one else believes in you. These values gave me the tools to deal with adversity-to rise above failure and constantly strive for the win. Here lies the inherent value in “always rooting for the underdog”.
As the late Kobe Bryant said, “Everything negative – pressure, challenges – is all an opportunity for me to rise”.