Losers in life’s game abound in this country. In fact, they are at the heart of American society. Virtually all Americans, except the very wealthy, have endured this condition but thanks to their drive and upward mobility, this spirit has been a transitory factor.
For centuries the American people glorified in their heroes in war and politics, yet their lives were mostly ridden with defeat and sometimes despair. The successful and the wealthy were always in the minority. This spirit explains the fanaticism that millions of sports fans demonstrate each day. Rooting for a champion or even your home team gives one a much larger place in their challenging lives that can elevate their feelings of worth.
The best term to explain this phenomenon is the underdog. It is an expression that is mostly used in sports today though the term was first recorded in reference to the vanquished dog in a fight. The spirit of rooting for an underdog has pre-dated the term. It has taken a life of its own and has served as an example of having faith in oneself and God, no matter how large the obstacles may be. Examples in our Western culture abound in literature, such as Homer’s Iliad and our popular culture, including sports and film.
Probably the most well-known underdog was David who slew Goliath. One of the most memorable Biblical stories in history has been that of the behemoth warrior being felled in a duel by a poor shepherd boy. It is one of the most iconic and celebrated stories in the Bible. As recounted in I Samuel 17, a war between the over-matched Israelis was avoided by a duel between the Philistines’ best warrior, Goliath, a giant of a man reputed to be anywhere from nine feet tall to over 11 feet.
A young shepherd boy, named David said he had experience with wild animals while protecting his flock and he would fight the giant. The odds were overwhelmingly in favor of the Philistines winning the duel. Armed merely with a slingshot, David found the only weakness in the giant and hit him in the forehead, killing him. He then cut off his head and held it up for the Philistines to see.
Rags to riches abound in our culture. Just take the story of Rocky Balboa. Who was not touched by, not only the film Rocky, but the ascendancy of actor and screenplay writer, Sylvester Stallone? He was an unlikely winner of three Oscars of its outrageous nine nominations in 1976. When Stallone was offered $360,000 for the script, he had a mere $106 in the bank. But he never gave up on himself, despite a speech impediment that worked to his favor in playing himself in the film. Rocky quickly turned into a franchise with several sequels that are still running. There have been many very other success stories like Sly’s.
Then there is the story of the horse Secretariat. When Secretariat was born in 1970, he did not merit any real attention. Even Eddie Sweat, who would be his trainer did not think much of the foal. He failed to see any potential in the clumsy, wild horse. His savior came in his owner, Penny Chesney, who took over her father’s failing thoroughbred stable in 1969. Secretariat had some pedigree, having been one of her father’s horses and the stud Bold Ruler. Even his name came by accident. At first they could not decide what was a fitting name, dismissing Royal Line and Scepter among others. It finally came from Elizabeth Ham, who was Mrs. Cheney’s secretary. Secretariat’s fame was lionized in the film of the same name that detailed his magical rush to the Triple Crown, the pinnacle of all horse racing.
My favorite underdog story revolves around Immaculata, a tiny Women’s College in Pennsylvania. Their unlikely rise to the top was portrayed in the film, The Mighty Macs. I think it was rated G for great. It was the true story of a basketball team, fittingly called the Mighty Macs. This story easily evoked other sports films about players and teams overcoming overwhelming struggles on and off the fields of play. Such film examples abound in Hoosiers, The Natural and Rudy.
The Macs was produced, unsurprisingly by an independent film company. It demonstrated with clarity all the positive characteristics that we had always celebrated as representative of the American culture, that is, until Obama virtually blacklisted them from the American consciousness. The Mighty Macs dramatized the story of Cathy Rush and her virtually unknown women’s basketball team in suburban Philadelphia that shocked the sports public by winning the very first three women’s national championships.
Without any visible resources, Rush was hired by the small Catholic women’s college. She immediately dedicated herself to winning with sheer determination and the fierce confidence of a marine charging an enemy pillbox in her quest of transforming an inchoate program into a national champion. Her never-say-no attitude inspired her team to reach for the stars instead of listening to public opinion.
My late wife and I were enthralled by the film, that not only put women’s sports in the limelight for the first time, but also emphasized the humanity and courage of an order of nuns, who had been caught in the headlights of the business face of the Catholic Church. Instead of begging the Federal Government, these sisters dug their heels in and not only saved the team, but also the college as well. They prayed as if everything were dependent on God and worked as if He were not a sports fan.
While she downplayed her role, I believe Rush’s success opened the door for women’s basketball on an even larger scale. I also believe that Luigi Geno Auriemma, an Italian immigrant who later revolutionized the women’s game at the University of Connecticut, owes Rush a deep debt of gratitude.
I had the pleasure of meeting Cathy Rush over 50 years ago. I read that she was in St. Louis for a clinic and so I called her and arranged an interview. She was very cordial during our 20-minute conversation. I wrote a piece about her for my locally-syndicated sports column, Krank’s Korner that I was able to find in my archives. Some of my observations included:
At first appearance Cathy Rush gives the impression that she might be a fifth-grade teacher, or perhaps a fashion writer. In reality the pretty blonde is the basketball coach at Immaculata College in suburban Philadelphia. Among those who take an interest in women’s basketball, her name is as important as those of Johnny Wooden of UCLA and Notre Dame’s Digger Phelps…In the film, she appeared as a cross between George Patton and Bobby Knight on at least one occasion.
Overall in her four years at the helm, her teams had compiled an outstanding 76-6 record, going into the 1974-75 season. This included a 30-game winning streak that suddenly ended in a 57-56 loss to Queens College in Flushing…
My memories of our interview were revived when at a recent Sunday brunch with three other couples, after the 10:30 Mass, one fellow said he had met his wife in college. He had gone to Villanova and she Immaculata. I immediately thought of Rush and asked if she remembered her. She not only remembered the coach, she had played for Rush. Her coach was elected to the College Basketball Hall of Fame in 2008.
Before winning became our national obsession, being for the little guy used to be a national virtue. I have been for the underdog ever since I was a child. I played on many a losing team but I loved to play. As an adult and a coach, I did want to win every game and did win more than I lost but it was still playing that counted because that was the only way one could improve oneself.
But this has a far deeper historical meaning for us. The Macs also personified a metaphor for our country’s origination. Thirteen disunified colonies took on the most powerful imperial nation in the world and won their independence. There is even a word that characterizes this quality. Infracaninophilism is taken from three Greek roots which taken literally means, a lover of an underdog. The only places I have seen it in print are from a Sherlock Holmes novel and my own writings, where the word has often appeared. It was coined by American writer Christopher Morley in the early 20th century.
This spirit has been recognized throughout our history and has been something that has motivated our country in its most famous battles from Bunker Hill and the Alamo to Gettysburg, the Lost Battalion, the Battle of the Bulge and the Chosin Reservoir. My favorite teams have all suffered long periods of defeat after defeat. Cubs fans moaned for over 100 years between championships, but I have been a fan of the Mets, Knicks, Jets, Giants and several other pathetic teams. I have studied and written books about the worst team in baseball history, The St. Louis Browns, who not only made losing a habit they institutionalized it.
Ironically, the first college I was attracted to was Georgia Tech and that was nearly 70 years ago. While their teams were great then, for many years they have had to play second fiddle to the University of Georgia which has won 30 straight and counting. The teams met recently and though Tech was primed for a huge upset, they still lost 31-23.
For many years, my Holy Cross College has been defeated by most teams in several sports. Despite some recent success in football, the school’s teams have been breaking my heart for 60 years with an arena full of moral victories. My younger bonus granddaughter’s Auburn University, captured defeat out of the jaws of victory against Alabama during Thanksgiving week. I commiserated with her by welcoming her to Holy Cross’ Heartbreak Hotel.
There is a deeper message for us here that could easily be masked in our sadness over personal losses. Matthew’s Gospel for the Mass for the Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus underscored this. Amen I say to you, whatever you did for one of the least brothers of mine, you did for me. Just who are least in America? It is not an easy question. The Church has put most of its efforts on assisting the poor to the extent they have become an abstraction. Supporting the poor, through organizations, such as the St. Vincent DePaul Society has been very well-supported in both of my last parishes because it has no price, except in time and maybe money. For 50 years in St. Louis, they thrived and most of the men in my parish joined them.
While they flourished, it was nearly impossible to find anyone who saw the unborn as the least of Jesus’ brethren. The current Pope has been all over the map on this issue. While paying it nothing more than lip service, Pope Francis has virtually excused President Biden’s blatant support for the advancement and even taxpayer funded abortions.
Since I have always been naturally attached to unpopular but quite needy causes, I found a true home in the pro-life movement. Since 1986 when I was exposed to a friend’s fetal feet pin after Mass, I realized just how important this is to us as a people and a Church. I have been a vocal supporter of these little people, of whom, well over 64 million have been denied their inalienable right to life. While our founding fathers have been prescient about many things, this one was above their pay scale, to quote the pro-abortion president, Barack Obama.
I was titular head of Annunziata’s Pro-life Organization, which was almost non-existent. Only one of my pastors actually gave credence to it and he later became the Bishop of Knoxville, Tennessee. So I just offered up my frustrations and tried to make the best of it. I wrote letters to the pro-abortion newspapers, some of which were published. I marched with my wife in D.C. on the 35th anniversary of Roe v. Wade with 350,000 of our closest friends. I also did the local march from the Basilica to the only killing center in St. Louis, on Roe’s anniversary for several years. I was also the Treasurer of the Archdiocesan Pro-life Committee for a two-year term.
Even as someone just beginning his ninth decade, I still try my best to give a voice to the voiceless. I will never vote for candidates who are not pro-life. Sadly, many of these are declining as the Republicans seem to be dancing away from the issue en masse while President Biden tries to make abortion a permanent staple in our lives.
When a nation’s animals have more rights than their children in utero, something is seriously wrong. My biggest concern is that the next item on their agenda is the extermination of the elderly, who definitely put an inordinate strain on the budget and limited health services. I believe they will becoming for us next. What else can one expect from a society that bows to a Culture of Death? To paraphrase one of Paul McCartney’s greatest songs, why can’t they just let us be?