Greatest Underdog Stories in Sports

Jeff Chase@@Real_Jeff_ChaseSenior Analyst IIFebruary 29, 2012

Greatest Underdog Stories in Sports

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    Inspiration comes from a lot of different places, but one thing that can always sweep us from under our feet is a great sports underdog.

    Whether it is a single person or a team, it is these underdogs that shape the world of sports one at a time.

    The idea of an underdog is quite possibly the biggest oxymoron there can be, as we aspire to see these things succeed, things that were nothing to begin with. Still, these nobodies have somehow made their way to become somebodies.

    The following is a list of some of the greatest underdogs in sports history.

Honorable Mention: Rudy Ruettiger

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    Some of you are going to hate this list right from the beginning since Notre Dame Fighting Irish inspirational story of Rudy Ruettiger is sitting here as just an honorable mention.

    Well honestly, somebody playing just two plays is not enough to really consider it a great success.

    Ruettiger's story is definitely a great inspiration, and it is a great story that shows anybody can accomplish their greatest dreams by just continuing to try. But as you will come to see, Ruettiger's story just doesn't stand up to these other underdogs. 

20. Josh Hamilton

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    Josh Hamilton is an iffy situation, as we shouldn't be inspired by his life decisions, but rather by the way he has bounced back after falling to the bottom of society.

    Hamilton, who was the first overall pick of the 1999 MLB Draft by the Tampa Bay Rays, infamously fell apart during his days with the team's minor league system during the early 2000s.

    The team moved on from Hamilton following the 2006 season and he was passed around the league after the Chicago Cubs picked him up during the 2006 Rule 5 Draft. They moved him to the Cincinnati Reds, who eventually traded him to the Texas Rangers.

    With the Rangers, Hamilton has bounced back from his negative image, turning into the one of the greatest players in the game today.

    While his story isn't clean, he has done his best to stay away from the lifestyle. There have been setbacks, but continues to find ways to make the most of his second chance.

19. Wimbledon F.C.

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    Many people were iffy of Wimbledon's behavior on the field during the 1980s, as the team was known for being unsophisticated and unprofessional. 

    This behavior gave them the infamous nickname, "The Crazy Gang." They pretty much acted like today's Harlem Globetrotters.

    Despite their outlandish behavior, the team outplayed their competition to take the FA Cup in 1988 as they took down Liverpool in what was a major upset.

    The party would only last so long though, as the team was pushed out the Premier League in 2000, and eventually dissolved into the Milton Keynes Dons in 2004.

18. Tim Tebow and the 2011 Denver Broncos

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    After starting out the 2011 NFL season 1-4, many fans were calling for the Denver Broncos to finally give quarterback Tim Tebow a shot.

    The former hero of the Florida Gators finally got his shot to start in Week 7 against the Miami Dolphins, a game in which he led the team to a 18-15 overtime victory.

    With the team motivated, and Tebow under center, the Broncos went on a 7-4 run to finish off the season, which took the team into the postseason.

    The Broncos hosted the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first round and prevailed, taking the game 29-23 in OT—which was won in typical, hanging-by-the-edge-of-your-seat Tebow fashion.

    The team then had the difficult task of taking on the New England Patriots, who were, the top team in the AFC.

    The Patriots would end Tebow and the Broncos' season with 45-10 victory, but the team showed that a little inspiration can go a long way.

17. 1966 Texas Western Men's Basketball Team

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    Don Haskins didn't only win the 1966 NCAA Tournament as an underdog, but he also made history.

    Haskins was the first ever coach to use an all African-American starting lineup. It was unheard of, and it definitely made people wary of their chances.

    With confidence in his players, Haskins' Miners went on to take the title from the Kentucky Wildcats, and sealed their place in history.

    While the team certainly wasn't bad—they finished the season 28-1—they were fighting against the odds, and the ideologies of many people who were fans of the game.

16. Michael Oher

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    The story of Michael Oher is quite impressive, and while he wasn't an underdog once he hit the scene, his story is one that puts him into this company.

    Oher didn't come from a great home, as his mother was constantly running into problems with drugs and his father had problems with the law. With a tough place to grow up, Oher frequented many different homes as he continued to pursue a career in football as a high school student.

    Eventually, he was not only fostered, but adopted by the Tuohy family. They helped him progress in school, which eventually gave him a real shot at playing football in college.

    Despite all his road blocks, Oher emerged from the dark cloud of smoke and was eventually brought on to play for the Mississippi Rebels.

    At Ole Miss, Oher was a standout player, and was eventually taken with the 23rd overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft.

    While Oher was clearly talented throughout his life, he is a true inspiration to anyone who sees their living situation as a setback on their future.

15. Jeremy Lin

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    While the Jeremy Lin story is just beginning, and still has a chance to fade out, there is no doubt that New York Knicks' phenom guard has taken the NBA by storm.

    Since getting his first real shot on February 4th, Lin has had over 20 points in nine of his 12 games where he has played a good chunk of time.

    Lin has fought rejection his entire career, as he was never given a chance in his home state as a potential college athlete and had to take his talents to the East to join the Harvard Crimson.

    While he was a stellar player there, he still went undrafted, but was eventually picked up by the Golden State Warriors.

    After spending the 2010-11 season with the Warriors, Lin was dropped before the 2011-12 season was underway.

    He was given a shot with the Houston Rockets, but they eventually dropped him. He finally found his way to the Knicks, and with the team in despair after injuries to Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire, they needed to give the bench a shot.

    Lin finally got his opportunity, and thus far, he has taken full advantage of it. It will remain to be seen where his career will go, but for now it looks like it's only getting better.

14. Goran Ivanisevic

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    It is hard to call a man who was a three-time runner-up at Wimbledon an underdog, but when Goran Ivanisevic shocked the world at the tennis tournament in 2001, it was certainly considered a come-from-behind victory.

    As mentioned, Ivanisevic was not an unfamiliar name at the top of the tennis world. At one point in his career, he was ranked No. 2 in the world (July, 1994). Still, he had never won a Slam title.

    After missing the entire 2000 season with a shoulder injury, Ivanisevic was ranked No. 125 in the world. He was given a wild card into the tournament since he already had much success there, and it was clear that he wasn't going to give up this opportunity.

    It was not an easy road for Ivanisevic, as he had to go through Carlos Moya, Andy Roddick, Marat Safin, Tim Henman and then Patrick Rafter to win the title, but he made it through each one of them to claim the 2001 Wimbledon title.

    While he never claimed another title after that, the performance was a sweet end to the Croatian's career.

13. Butler Bulldogs' Back-to-Back NCAA Title Appearances

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    For a mid-major school to make the NCAA Men's final two years in a row—to even make the tournament two years in a row—is definitely not an easy feat.

    Somehow, a little school from Indianapolis defeated the odds, as the Butler Bulldogs made back-to-back trips to the NCAA title game.

    Unfortunately, they never walked away with a win, as they fell to the Duke Blue Devils in 2010 and the UConn Huskies in 2011.

    Still, the team represented everything that spoke for defeating the odds, as well as that the tournament really gives an opportunity to anybody who enters the pool.

12. 2005-06 Edmonton Oilers

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    While it wasn't a happy ending, the 2005-06 Edmonton Oilers are one of the greatest underdog stories of all time.

    Coming into the playoffs, the team was the eighth seed in the Western Conference with an overall record of 41-28-13. As the worst seed, they had to go through some of the best teams in the conference, as well as play most of their games on the road.

    Funny thing is—as it would come to show in the playoffs—the Oilers actually had a better road record than at home during the regular season.

    In the first round, the team was pitted against the No. 1 Detroit Red Wings. The Oilers took that series 4-2, in nothing short of dramatic fashion.

    They did have a much easier time in the next round, but that wasn't until they won four straight games after dropping the first two to the San Jose Sharks.

    They continued to have success into the Western Conference finals, as they took down the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim 4-1, making their way into the Stanley Cup.

    During the entire Western Conference run, the team went 6-3 on the road.

    In the Stanley Cup, the team finally fell at the hands of the Carolina Hurricanes, but they at least took the series to seven games.

    It wasn't the best end to what the team accomplished, but the story is still an inspiration to any team that is put in front of difficult task from the very beginning.

11. 1994-95 New Jersey Devils

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    While the 1994-95 New Jersey Devils were not exactly an eighth seed, the fact that they took that year's Stanley Cup over the dominant Detroit Red Wings—who took home the Presidents' Trophy—was a true underdog performance.

    The Devils finished the season with a record of 22-18-8, as the season was shortened due to lockout.

    Despite almost having a losing record, the team was able to make the playoffs as the fifth seed.

    It wasn't an easy road either, as the team had to defeat the Boston Bruins, Pittsburgh Penguins—with lead scorer Jaromir Jagr—and then the Philadelphia Flyers, who had the league's MVP in Eric Lindros.

    What made the story an underdog performance for the ages is not only did the Devils defeat the Red Wings, but they swept them 4-0 to take home their first Stanley Cup.

10. Kurt Warner

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    Throughout his early career, Kurt Warner had a hard time getting a real shot to prove himself.

    At Northern Iowa, Warner didn't hit the field for the first time until his senior season, where proved to all that he had a real talent.

    Still, that wasn't enough, and he went undrafted in the1994 NFL Draft. With no teams finding a real interest in the unproven quarterback, he took his talents to the Arena Football League, where he played from 1995-1997.

    After a few successful years in the AFL, Warner was finally given a shot with the St. Louis Rams, but they sent him off to NFL Europe to play for the Amsterdam Admirals. He would continue to impress overseas, and the following season he was brought back to take a role on the team.

    Warner was the team's backup, but was quickly inserted into the starting role after Trent Green was knocked out for the year during the 1999 preseason.

    With Warner under center, he took off with the team, which earned the moniker "The Greatest Show on Turf."

    During his first year, Warner threw for 4,353 yards and 41 touchdowns. The team won the Super Bowl that season, 23-16 over the Tennessee Titans.

    Warner was finally released in 2004, where he would then join the New York Giants. Eventually though, he would be replaced by Eli Manning.

    Following his stint with the Giants, Warner joined the Arizona Cardinals. There he would revive his career, as he took the team to the playoffs in 2008 and 2009—the first of which he took the team to the Super Bowl, only to lose the Pittsburgh Steelers.

    While he only won a single Super Bowl over his career, Warner constantly fought off his naysayers, only to come through again and again when the opportunity arose.

9. James Braddock

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    James Braddock is a rags to riches tale.

    Well, in some ways he is. 

    Braddock was professional boxer early in his life, but after struggling to win matches, he was forced to move on the from sport and needed to find a way to support his family during the Great Depression.

    After a year away from the sport, Braddock was finally given a chance to fight. He was basically seen as a stepping stone for title contenders, but somehow he took out anyone who came his way.

    After taking down some of the toughest fighters, including Art Lasky, Braddock was given a chance to fight for the heavyweight title.

    That was against a man by the name of Max Baer—who also regarded Braddock as an easy take to the bank.

    Braddock won the fight by unanimous decision, which crowned him heavyweight champion of the world.

8. 2008 Fresno State Bulldogs Baseball Team

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    The Fresno State Bulldogs entered the 2008 NCAA tournament with an overall record of 37-27. With such a poor record, the team was lucky to make the tournament, and was only eligible because they won the WAC conference.

    After taking out teams like Long Beach State and University of San Diego, the team was pitted against the the Arizona State Sun Devils in the Super Regional round. After taking the series 2-1, the Bulldogs moved on to the College World Series.

    As the No. 4 seed, the team defied odds by taking down teams like Rice, North Carolina and then finally the Georgia Bulldogs in the championship game.

    They were first ever fourth seed to take home the title, and they did so in ridiculous fashion.

    Fresno State outscored Georgia 31-18 in the series.

7. 1969 New York "Miracle" Mets

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    When the New York Mets started the 1969 season, pretty much nobody saw them as having any chance to win the World Series.

    Heck, nobody saw them as even being contenders for a pennant.

    The team wasn't so much a shock when the end of the season came around, as they finished with a 100-62 record. 

    They defied the odds though, as they took down the heavily favored Baltimore Orioles in a 4-1 series victory.

    The "Miracle Mets" were shocking, and they were true underdogs. Nobody saw them making a run like this.

    The team only had to defeat the Atlanta Braves in the pennant to reach the World Series, so today, the path is much more difficult. 

6. 1982-83 NC State Wolfpack Men's Basketball Team

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    One of the greatest stories in sports history is Jimmy Valvano and his NC State Wolfpack, who claimed the 1983 NCAA men's basketball title.

    The team came into the tournament as the No. 6 seed in the West region, where they had to go through No. 3 seed UNLV, No. 10 seed Utah and No. 1 seed Virginia.

    The Final Four wasn't any easier, as the team defeated Georgia 67-60 with No. 1 seed Houston waiting in the finals.

    The game was extremely close, but the Wolfpack prevailed by taking down the Cougars on a buzzer-beating dunk by Lorenzo Charles.

    With Hakeem Olajuwon on the other side of the court, the Wolfpack were definitely fighting against the odds.

    Their title win, for many reasons, goes down in history as one of the best stories in sports history.

5. Tom Brady and the 2001 New England Patriots

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    Before the 2001 NFL season started, you likely asked yourself: "Who is this Tom Brady guy on the New England Patriots?"

    You also probably thought all the success he had was just luck, and the fact that he was winning in the playoffs was just first-timer's luck.

    Well, once he defeated the St. Louis Rams and "The Greatest Show on Turf" in Super Bowl XXXVI, many people were turned into believers.

    Brady was a second-year starter, after being selected as the 199th pick in the sixth round of the 2000 NFL Draft. He was brought in after quarterback Drew Bledsoe got off to a slow start, and officially took over in Week 3 of the 2001 season.

    Brady took the Patriots into the playoffs, and earned a first-round bye.

    They continued to shock many, and from what we now know, the great career of Brady was just getting underway.

4. 1998 Harvard Crimson Women's Basketball Team

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    If you are a No. 16 seed in the NCAA tournament and you knock off the No. 1 seed, you are guaranteed a spot on almost any list that has to do with defeating expectations.

    When the Harvard Crimson defeated the Stanford Cardinal women's basketball team in the first round of the 1998 tournament, we all saw history in the making.

    Unfortunately, the underdog story was cut short as the team fell to the No. 9 seed Arkansas Razorbacks in the next round, 82-64.

    Even though the next round was poor, we ultimately may never see something like this happen again.

3. 2004 Greece Soccer Team

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    Greece has never had much luck when it comes to tournament play, so when they entered the 2004 Euro Cup, nobody had much hope for them—well perhaps probably Greece.

    The team was definitely far behind in terms of being a contender compared to many other teams, but they continued to prevail in each portion of the tournament.

    In the qualifying stage, the team lost their first two matches, but somehow they stayed strong and came away with a victory in their final six games. 

    The group stage wasn't any easier, but the team prevailed as goals scored took them into the quarterfinals, where they would meet up with the past Euro champs in France.

    At the 65', Greece took the lead—and that was all they needed.

    In the semifinals, the team was going up against the Czech Republic. While it wasn't an easy victory, the team came away with a goal in extra minutes, which propelled them into the finals against Portugal.

    With their dreams standing right in front of them, Greece once again played solid defense, shutting out Portugal in a 1-0 victory.

    Although things were not so pretty after this tournament, the fact that they ended that 10 year

2. Buster Douglas

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    Before fighting Mike Tyson, you probably had no idea who James "Buster" Douglas was.

    Heck, you probably still have no idea who Douglas is, despite his knocking out heavyweight champion Tyson in 1990.

    Tyson came into the fight undefeated, and was also a 42-1 favorite. With Douglas' win, the fight was by far one of the biggest upsets in sports history, but was also one of the biggest underdog performances ever.

    Douglas did lose his next fight to Evander Holyfield, so his reign as title holder didn't last too long.

    He finished his career 38-6-1, but still, no moment was bigger than his defeat of Tyson and his brief stint as the heavyweight champion of the world.

1. 1980 Men's U.S. Hockey Team

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    A normal resident at the No. 1 spot on many upset and underdog lists, the 1980 men's USA Olympic hockey team, otherwise known as "The Miracle on Ice" still owns the top spot.

    Going into a round robin game against the Soviet Union in the tournament, many had them pegged as dead men walking.

    The USA played some great hockey up until this point—despite having a team made up of amateurs and college stars.

    The Soviets on the other hand were made up of players with a rich history playing together, and their synergy looked to be the toughest thing to defeat.

    That of course led to the famous Al Michael's line "Do you believe in miracles? Yes!"

    The team went on to defeat the Finland 4-2 in their final match, after being down 1-2 in the third period. The Americans, who were not anywhere close to favorites, took Lake Placid by storm and showed that underdogs can never be dismissed.