Everybody loves the underdog

Guest column

A few days after the film “American Underdog” was released, I was able to work with Hall of Fame quarterback Kurt Warner in what was Ben Roethlisberger’s final game at Heinz Field.

Warner was color analyst for Westwood One’s national broadcast, working alongside Kevin Harlan. Not surprisingly, Harlan joked with Warner about the film during the broadcast since it was based on Warner’s amazing NFL career.

Warner did not allow Harlan’s light-hearted ribbing to distract him from in-game analysis. He offered several unique insights about Roethlisberger’s career that only he could provide.

In one example, Warner said that he began to use the same gloves as Roethlisberger after talking to Ben about the challenges of playing in less-than-ideal weather conditions.

The game itself had a sort of Hollywood-style ending.

The Steelers defeated the Browns, then Ben took a post-victory lap around Heinz Field and thanked Steelers fans for their years of support.

Unlike Warner, Ben was drafted in the first round.

Understandably, Warner’s path to NFL stardom was much tougher. He was an undeclared free agent who stocked groceries and played in the Arena Football League before earning a spot on an NFL roster.

As a result, when I had a chance to watch “American Underdog” days later, I was curious as to how authentic Warner’s portrayal might be.

It seemed on target, though Hollywood chose to downplay Warner’s commitment to faith and his passion for community service.

However, the film never mentioned another underdog story, a Warner teammate with a local angle.

London Fletcher held a roster spot on the Rams, too, also as a free agent, earning a Super Bowl ring as a rookie alongside Warner.

Fletcher’s 16-year NFL career statistics are remarkable. He is among only six players to start in more than 250 consecutive NFL games, the only linebacker to do so.

His story might be even more improbable than Warner’s. After a tough childhood in Cleveland, Fletcher played basketball for one season at Saint Francis.

In 1994, coach Tom McConnell’s Red Flash defeated nationally ranked Xavier University. Fletcher might not appear in that game’s boxscore, but his physicality slowed down Brian Grant, later an NBA star.

While I was instructing at Saint Francis, Fletcher was one of my favorite students when I taught an 8 a.m. writing course.

He made it to every single class despite road trips that often did not get back to Loretto until long after midnight.

However, London wanted to be closer home, so he transferred to John Carroll University, then he switched over to football. Amazingly, four years later, he was starting in a Super Bowl.

Rams coach Dick Vermeil had a penchant for giving underdogs opportunities that other coaches might not, in part, because he enjoyed rewarding hard-working overachievers instead of writing them off, as some coaches often do, whether in pro sports or elsewhere.

This area has many other wonderful sports-based underdog stories.

Some include Sam Lafferty’s emergence as an NHL player, Mike Iuzzolino’s successful NBA career, Pam Webber’s leadership on Connecticut’s first undefeated national championship basketball team, and Mike Reid’s improbable transition from a Penn State football star to becoming a Grammy Award winning musician.

The most compelling underdog stories often have little or nothing to do with sports.

The amazing people who overcome dramatic adversity to make a positive impact in our communities are among the most enjoyable American underdog stories to uncover.

Bob Trumpbour is an assistant professor of communications at Penn State Altoona. He authored the book, “The New Cathedrals, politics and media in the history of stadium construction.” He has also worked on a freelance basis with CBS, NBC and Westwood One for more than 30 years.


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