Nearly every child that has played sports has dreamed of having a golden moment. We all crave that special minute where luck, hard work, or fate intervene allowing the unlikely individual to transcend their skill set and do the unthinkable. Whether it be scoring the game winning goal, hitting a walk off home run, or swishing a buzzer beating three pointer, sports can provide the average person the slimmest chance at immortality. For many people that golden moment comes at a very low level of athletics. Their personal best is squandered on a little league field with empty stands, or in a POP Warner game that Dad missed for work. Nevertheless, those moments are timeless.
I had a moment like that once. Just once. In my small circle of friends it became known as “The Catch”. It happened on a roughly groomed baseball field in a game that didn’t matter at all. My B league baseball team was playing the senior league A team in an exhibition game. It was a rare chance to prove that one of us was a diamond in the rough that should have been playing with the good kids. In point of fact, none of us were good enough. The game was ugly. The A squad were mostly playing out of position and having fun with it. For us, it was the closest we would get to the World Series. Even at 15 we knew it. There were errors galore, unearned runs like crazy and one yeoman like pitching effort from my good friend Jay that would have made Jamie Moyer proud.
Jay must have thrown well over 150 pitches just to keep the game close. If any of us could have caught the routine fly ball, or fielded an easy one hopper Jay surely would have been the hero that day. Twenty three years later I am sure it still pisses him off. He was absolutely dealing that day. Jay was putting pitches where he wanted, getting in on batters, and towards the end throwing more with his heart than arm.
Towards the end of the game the A team started to get concerned. You could see it. The shortstop went back to playing short. The kids that always wanted to pitch stopped trying to pitch. We had succeeded in bloodying their nose and a begrudging respect began to show. I believe in the last inning we finally took the lead. The score though lost to time was high, probably in the high teens. I can’t recall how we took the lead either. That was someone else’s moment.
What I do recall is the final out. The bases were loaded, we were up one run with two outs, and I was playing shortstop which was a rarity. I usually played second base so that my lack of any arm was less apparent. The sun was setting and the A team could smell victory. Surely they would pull it out and restore balance to the hierarchy of baseball in our little town. Jay was totally gassed. He was also still better than anything we had. There was no ace closer on a B league baseball team. If we were winning it was on his sore shoulder to pull it off.
The final pitch was either a screaming liner or dying quail to shortstop. Accounts vary to this day. I tracked it pretty well off the bat and started backing up. At the last possible moment I leaped glove extended and hoped for the best. That moment is still frozen in my memory decades later. Why? Because by god I caught the thing. Snow-coned as a matter of fact. When I pulled down my glove there it was, barely trapped in the webbing. A gift from the gods of sport. I think in all fairness both teams were stunned. It was over and the underdogs had won.
I jogged past the mound and dropped the ball. As my teammates huddled around me the full gravity of the moment was lost on me. This would be the highlight of my athletic life. A moment later the coach of the other team appeared. He asked who made that catch. I timidly owned up. While handing me the ball he uttered some prophetic, if not so inspirational words. “Hang on to this ball kid, that was the catch of your life”. He was right. That was my golden moment in organized sports.
I’ll leave it to Jay to chime in if I got any of that wrong, but to my honest recollection that was the way it went down 23 years ago. What does that have to do with the best sports movies of all time?
To be a truly good sports movie requires it to have some critical elements. Ideally it is a true or at least in part a true story. If not, it needs to at least represent all of those wannabes like myself that squandered the best they had at a level of athletics that didn’t matter. The best sports movies allow the audience to relate to a golden moment, or live vicariously through a heroic underdog. They require an improbable hero, an unbeatable opponent, and most of all they should be inspiring. At least those are the criteria by which I am judging. Using those guidelines, I give you the 5 best underdog sports movies ever…
#5 Invincible – A true story based on a real life Philly guy that gets a job on the Eagles. His career stats are 1 reception for 15 yards and 2 fumble recoveries. The movie takes a lot of liberties to build up the underdog angle, but still the real Vince Papale was the real deal. An underdog kid from Chester, PA that never gave up and got a job with the hometown Iggles. The movie provides enough drama for some feel good moments if not any real tear jerkers.
#4 Miracle – This movie captured the essence of the cold war as it played out in real life, on an Olympic hockey rink. The U.S. was not supposed to be able to play against the Soviet juggernaut, let alone capture the Gold on our home soil. For those of us that remember the “Miracle on Ice” it was a golden moment not just for the underdog in all of us but for the whole nation. If it wasn’t a true story it would have seemed too perfect an ending for the movie to actually get made. That’s what makes it so great in and of itself. It was true, and it did happen.
#3 Hoosiers – Despite being a totally fictional sports movie, Hoosiers represents the B teams out there everywhere. Who hasn’t seen the scene where Gene Hackman measures the basket, or where Ollie makes the free throw? Apparently Duke’s Mike Kryzewski for one. The Butler Bulldogs were as close to a real life Hoosiers team as sports will likely ever see. Playing basically at home last year they gave the Dookies all they could and came up just a bit short. Still until the last buzzer, myself and Hoosier movie fans everywhere believed they could do it. Hoosiers is for anyone that ever picked up a basketball with no hopes of ever dunking it. Millions of boys and girls (and some over the hill men) still play basketball for the sheer joy of sport.
#2 Rocky – Another totally fictional movie, but it captures everything there is to love about an underdog. It’s a bit of a sad commentary on Philly sports that it’s most iconic athlete is fictional, but that’s a story for another time. Nobody believes in Rocky except his woman and his crazy old trainer. He even thinks of himself as a bum.
What makes this movie rate so high is the ending. Rocky doesn’t win. He simply refuses to lose. Even after giving it everything he has, the best he can do is take the champ the distance. Somewhere in there he begins to believe in himself though, and the audience follows. Yes every other Rocky movie is pretty cheesy, but the original is quite frankly the best fictional underdog story told on film.
It’s quite difficult to top Rocky for it’s inspiration, down on his luck character, and never say die attitude. The only thing that can really trump that is a real life Rocky. Which brings us to the best underdog sports movie ever…
#1 Rudy – If you can sit through this movie and neither cry nor feel inspired, you have no heart. The story is based on the real life account of Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger. Rudy was one of 14 children in the Ruettiger family. He suffered from undiagnosed dyslexia and a 5’6″ frame. Both of which make his true story an unbelievable underdog account. Rudy is the real deal. A real life Rocky that despite having no chance managed for just one game to suit up for the mighty Notre Dame Fighting Irish and take the field in a gold helmet in 1975. He played just on play in which recorded a sack.
Rudy captures the golden moment like no other sports movie. It gives everyone that was told “you can’t” and really couldn’t a chance to cheer for someone that did it anyway. Thank you Daniel Ruettiger for doing what the rest of us couldn’t and succeeding despite your limitations. Rudy as well as the real Rudy Ruttiger represent why many of us played sports in the first place, for the slimmest chance to don a gold helmet. This guy pulled it off and that makes Rudy the best underdog sports movie ever.