Butler basketball, Carlos Aponte and a Walmart cashier: why we love underdogs so much

3.5 seconds left. 4th quarter. Duke has a 2 point lead, and Butler has the ball. 

I’m hardly the biggest basketball fan in the world, but my jaw dropped when I watched Butler’s Gordon Haywood take the ball and launch it from halfcourt—only to have it bounce off the backboard and rim, just as the buzzer sounded. End of game: Duke wins 61-59 against Butler.

Yet months later, I’m still thinking about Butler. This team was the underdog who came out of nowhere to be in the final game of the NCAA national championship. They came so close, fought so hard, that even a Duke fan (like myself) felt sad that Butler lost. No one thought they could make it that far in the tournament. (“Butler? Where’s that?”) Yet even as they lost the game, they won the admiration of Americans everywhere.

Underdogs inspire me.

Listening to the radio on the way to the gym yesterday, I heard a DJ talk about the previous night’s America’s Got Talent episode. I checked out the YouTube video posted on the station website:

Did you notice the people snickering at Carlos’ thick accent and his less-than-fluent command of English? Did you notice the crowd rolling their eyes as he introduced himself? Did you notice that they were unimpressed with his courage to walk onstage in front of a vast, unfriendly audience?

Did you notice their reaction when he began to sing?

He captured their hearts. His unimpressive appearance, thick accent, outsider status, the antithesis of everything Americans typically value…all became unimportant when he revealed his beautiful voice. It was a Susan Boyle-type moment where the little guy fought against the prejudices of other people and won. Even if Carlos doesn’t win the America’s Got Talent contest, he’s still won my admiration for his courage and talent.

Why do we love underdog stories so much?

Maybe it’s because we feel like underdogs ourselves.

Everyone faces hardship at one time in their life or another: death of a loved one, sickness, loss, prejudice, handicaps ranging from physical disability to mental illness to emotional devastation.

In the face of these giants, we feel like the “little guy”: the one with every strike against us and no possibility to overpower these Goliaths. It’s a battle and we’re pretty sure we’re going to lose. I’m not sure if it’s harder when we know we absolutely can’t overcome our hardships, or if we’re oh-so-close to overcoming them and still fall short every time.

When we give in to the pressure tactics of the giants and give up the fight, we die a little inside.

 Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle. —Plato

What difference would it make if we took these words to heart? We might recognize that we’re not alone in the battle against hardship…that we have more in common than we think…that we need to be kind.

Once a Walmart cashier told me that working there just wore her out. It was Saturday morning: the day when every customer seems surly, impatient, and downright mad because there’s fifty people in line and only three registers open. She faced a long day of standing on her feet, scanning items for people who took out their frustrations on her, all for a not-so-great wage.

Most customers (myself included, unfortunately) view the cashier as an insignificant person. But she’s human and she’s fighting a hard battle just like I am. The battle differs from person to person; I don’t have to earn a living with a minimum wage job, and hopefully she doesn’t face some of the problems I do.

 But we’re both underdogs in need of encouragement:

Encouragement to persevere

Encouragement to overcome

Encouragement to keep going even if we always lose and never win.

So even as we cheer for Butler or give a standing ovation for Carlos Aponte, let’s remember those around us who are beaten down and defeated, who will never receive applause, and give them the kindness they need. After all, we’re fighting the same battle.


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