On Jan. 23, New York Times opinion columnist Frank Bruni claimed that, “Football, like Trumpism, likes to believe that it’s about working-class folks in the heartland. Instead, [this year’s Super Bowl] brings together two teams from celebrated theaters of history in the Northeast. So much for the little guy.”
That New England and Philadelphia are places too elite to represent an underdog story is a claim that mistakes circumstances of teams with circumstances of geography. To be underestimated in the NFL is to be a team whose roster is doubted due to injuries and whose coaches are scoffed at — none of which depends on where a team hails from.
It seems like for Bruni, so long as David slings his rock from Boston, Goliath will be the little guy provided that he comes from Bismarck, North Dakota.
What Bruni missed is that this Super Bowl is the game we all needed. The Eagles’ routing of the Patriots is a manifestation of a broad discontent with the inevitable, and it is telling that the Eagles’ drive to win was peppered with the same stick-it-to-the-man mentality that allowed for Yale to be so successful as a university.
The Eagles’ battle with injuries began with Darren Sproles in Week 3, continued with Jason Peters in Week 7 and ended with Carson Wentz in Week 14. All three players went down with season ending knee injuries. And all three players were either past Pro Bowlers or in MVP contention. Losing three of the league’s best players is enough to demolish the morale of any team, but the Eagles embraced their inferior status, and fought their war of attrition with their backups.
The Eagles had something to prove, and thanks to virtually every football analyst underestimating them, Philadelphia’s players had giant chips on their shoulders to motivate them. The Eagles’ championship formula — based on unrelenting work habits, and a stubborn zeal for success — is nothing more than Philadelphia’s modern formulation of the 18th century Protestant work ethic thanks to which Yale flourished.
Beginning as a group of only 10 congregational ministers, the fire in the bellies of Yale’s early intellectuals to establish a legitimate school eventually led them to hound down resources and accrue large collections of British books in the early 1700s. This massive push for intellectual expansion also led late 18th century presidents, like Ezra Stiles, to begin to sponsor the creation of scientific curricula.
In short, the development of Yale was a product of a Protestant work ethic that both acted as the impetus for Yale’s intellectual expansion, and responded to a deep fear of failure for the early founders of Yale. Indeed, the consequence of failure for Yale’s early founders was likely just short of dissolution seeing as the school’s early finances relied largely on any money the college could persuade businessmen to invest.
And so Yale, too, had a chip on its shoulder. And thanks to a similar formula of dogged work, it has left its humble beginnings far behind. This early American ethos was one well integrated, with intensely aspirational individuals like Ezra Stiles and Abraham Pierson working within the broader context of a country that also had something to prove and everything to lose.
However, it is just as possible that this hard-work mentality had little, if anything, to do with either Yale’s or the Eagles’ achievements. Many of us are attracted to the allure of success because it appears to be purely meritocratic. But perhaps it isn’t. Maybe the radical successes of both Yale and the Eagles can better be explained by sheer luck rather than their underdog mentalities — Patriots fans like to think as much.
It is true that luck played its part in the achievements of Yale and Philadelphia’s team, but ultimately, both the Eagles and Yale University succeeded more thanks to a profound sense of urgency than to any heavenly necessity.
That urgency is telling of the omnipresence of the underdog story. From David killing Goliath, and Luke Skywalker blowing up the Death Star, to the Collegiate School becoming Yale University and the Philadelphia Eagles beating the New England Patriots, the underdog story permeates our culture.
So Mr. Bruni, for a franchise that has never brought home a Lombardi Trophy to play the latter half of its season without three of the NFL’s best players, after years of coaching controversy, managerial upheaval and stale locker room chemistry, relying on underestimated backups to lead the team and to stage a coup of the Brady-Belichick empire, and win?
Sounds like the little guy we needed.
Sammy Landino is a first year in Grace Hopper College. His column runs on alternate Wednesdays. Contact him at email@example.com .