I confess – I always root for the underdog. I can’t help it. Whether in sports contests or in life, it is the underdog that I support, the underdog that I cheer on, the underdog that I applaud, the underdog that I celebrate. It is the overcoming of obstacles, the defying of the odds, the quiet courage of persistence when all seems lost – that make the final victory so miraculous and so meaningful to those who achieve it, to those who witness their achievement and to those who continue to learn their story in future years and to be inspired by it.
A legacy of overcoming – that is a legacy worth leaving for future generations. That’s why I love the story of the Wiley College 1935 debate team, which was told in the movie “The Great Debaters.” This debate team from the historically black college, Wiley, fought for the right to compete against white colleges and ended up defeating the current national champs, the University of Southern California. (although in the movie it is Harvard that they defeat) Nonetheless, this team coached by Melvin B. Tolson, was clearly the unlikely underdog, yet they emerged victorious over the current reigning champion in 1935.
That’s why I love the story of the Texas Western Miners 1966 basketball team. This story is told in the movie “Glory Road.” The Miners were clearly the underdogs as they faced No. 1 Kentucky in the championship game for the NCAA title. Texas Western made history by starting five black players against Rupp’s all white team and by winning the game to take the national title. This was considered a stunning upset and it resulted in college basketball opportunities for minorities expanding exponentially almost overnight.
When underdogs succeed, they inspire us all to keep on pursuing our dreams, to not give up, to not lose heart. Jackie Robinson did the same thing in baseball, inspiring others to follow in his footsteps. Wilma Rudolph’s life story provides another example of overcoming obstacles in order to realize a dream.
As a child Wilma was stricken with double pneumonia, scarlet fever and polio. This left her with a partially paralyzed left leg and foot. Because of this, she wore braces on her legs as a young girl. Doctors told her she would never walk again. Wilma proved them wrong. In Rome, Italy in the 1960 Olympics, Wilma became the first American woman to win three gold medals in track and field at a single Olympics. Clearly, Wilma had overcome adversity and the odds to triumph. She was a sports icon, called “the fastest woman in the world.” I love a good comeback story and this is definitely one to inspire!
Jaime Escalante is another underdog who had to overcome many obstacles in his lifetime. The movie “Stand and Deliver” tells his story. He was born in Bolivia but came to the U.S. in the sixties seeking a better life. He taught math at Garfield High School in east Los Angeles where drugs and violence were dominant and the students there were considered unteachable. Escalante proved them wrong! He began teaching calculus against the objections of the administration and in 1981 fifteen students took the Advanced Placement test in calculus and fourteen passed. In 1982, eighteen students took and passed the AP calculus test and were accused of cheating. When every student passed a retest, those rumors were put to rest. In 1987 the number increased to one hundred twenty-seven students taking the AP test and eighty-five passing the test.
Escalante wasn’t the overcomer here as much as were his students. They came from difficult home situations, poverty, surrounded by gangs and drugs, they were poorly prepared academically, lacking the prerequisite math skills needed to learn calculus – the obstacles appeared insurmountable. But this teacher believed in his students year after year, believed that they were capable of mastering those math skills and by extension much more. The work ethic and discipline those students learned while accomplishing their goal allowed them to succeed in life far beyond calculus. They got scholarships to colleges, allowing them to pursue careers and dreams that would not have been possible otherwise. (I guess they weren’t unteachable after all?)
There are so many stories of people overcoming great obstacles to reach their goals and realize their dreams. Wilma Rudolph said, “The triumph cannot be had without the struggle.” She should know. She lived it. So did Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan. These three women worked at NASA during the 60’s in the male dominated fields of math, science and engineering. They were trailblazers for all who would follow in their footsteps. The movie “Hidden Figures” tells their story.
Another movie, “Gifted Hands,” tells the story of yet another overcomer, Dr. Ben Carson. Dr. Carson grew up in inner city Detroit. His mother worked multiple jobs to support the family. Because he was such a poor student, he was ridiculed by his classmates who called him “the dumbest kid in school.” However, Dr. Carson would turn things around, earning all A’s by the time he graduated from high school. Overcoming obstacles and defying the odds, He attended Yale on a full scholarship and went on to become a world renowned neurosurgeon. Dr. Carson is currently serving as the U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development after retiring from medicine in 2013.
These are just a few of the many stories of opportunity and of overcoming that take place in our country every day. Were we to tell them all, there would be no end as people continue to overcome obstacles every day as they courageously pursue their dreams, grateful that they are free to do so in this country.
Why so many movie references, you ask? I guess movies have been made about these real life people who have overcome many obstacles in order to succeed because we love to hear these stories. We are encouraged, uplifted and inspired by each person’s story. We want to believe that with persistence and courage, we too can rise above whatever holds us back and succeed in realizing our dreams.
We all need a reason to hope. Especially now when fear due to COVID and unrest due to riots dominate daily life, we need to believe all is not lost in these times that seem so dark. It is now I hang onto the words in John 1:5,
“The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not overcome it.”
“Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:21) Those words show me the way out of this darkness. 1 Timothy 6:12 tells me to,
“Fight the good fight of the faith.” Then 1 John 5:4-5 tells me,
“for everyone born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith. Who is it that overcomes the world? Only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.”
Faith is the victory that will overcome. John 16:33 reminds me our outcome is secure in a Sovereign God’s loving hands saying,
“In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
I will rest secure in that knowledge today – let us be a nation of overcomers, of faithful overcomers – letting God’s light shine into our darkness and extinguish it – let love triumph over hate, good over evil, truth over lies, freedom over oppression,
sincerely, Grace Day