America has finally opened up and embraced its Rambler pride.
That’s right. The 2018 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament has churned out one of the most remarkable underdog stories in the history of college basketball: the Loyola-Chicago Ramblers. They entered the tourney as an 11-seed out of the Missouri Valley Conference, and they have embarked on an incredible run of upsets right to the Final Four in San Antonio.
Loyola-Chicago took down Miami and Tennessee in stunning upsets, put an end to Nevada’s own mini-Cinderella story in the Sweet Sixteen, then ran Kansas State out of the building in the Elite Eight … all right in front of the eyes of 98-year-old Sister Jean. The Ramblers have won the hearts of many March Madness enthusiasts all over the country, and now they sit just two wins away from the national championship.
As sports fans, we love underdog stories. They are the most satisfying and thrilling stories in sports. When an out-of-nowhere team that nobody thought had a chance to win suddenly starts to click … they win one game, then they win another, and then another, and they just can’t stop winning until suddenly they are on the biggest stage with a chance to win a championship … is there anything in sports that is more fun than that?
It’s been a long time since the New England Patriots were considered underdogs, but at one point, they were exactly like this Loyola-Chicago team. Way back in 2001, when Bill Belichick was just another football coach and Tom Brady was just an unknown backup quarterback, the Patriots were nothing. They certainly weren’t in the conversation for Super Bowl 36 in New Orleans that year.
In 2000 – during Belichick’s first year as head coach – the Pats went 5-11 while Brady spent his rookie season on the bench. They finished in fifth place in an AFC East division that featured five teams at the time. Other than Pro Bowl quarterback Drew Bledsoe, the Patriots were just a pack of nobodies. In 2001, they weren’t expected to perform much better.
But that’s the neat thing about both the NFL and the NCAA Tournament. All it takes is for the right team to get hot at the right time, come together as a team, believe they can pull off the unthinkable, and catch a few breaks along the way. Loyola-Chicago embraced its underdog status; they knew nobody believed they could do it. They took on the challenge by playing the best team basketball of anybody in the entire tournament, and most importantly, believing that they have what it takes to compete. Things have fallen into place for them.
Things began to fall into place for the 2001 Patriots during the second game of the season – a home game against the New York Jets at the old Foxboro Stadium. Every Pats fan knows the story … Mo Lewis took out Bledsoe with a vicious hit, and they were forced to turn to their backup quarterback. Their backup was a 24-year-old sixth round draft pick out of Michigan named Tom Brady. Their season was already all but written off.
But nobody knew that bringing Brady into the fold would bring the team together better than ever before. Even at the young age of 24, Brady was a natural-born leader. He believed that he was the best QB for the team, and he started showing it on the field. His teammates started believing it too, and eventually, so did Belichick. And once everything came together, the Patriots started winning. And they kept winning. Suddenly, the team that finished at the bottom of the barrel the previous year finished the 2001 regular season with an 11-5 record and an AFC East title.
They were heading to the playoffs. They even had the opportunity to host a playoff game against the Oakland Raiders, a team that fully expected to beat the Patriots with ease. The Pats themselves were the only ones who actually believed they could keep winning. In the middle of a New England blizzard, Brady put the team on his back once again and led the team back from a 13-3 deficit in the fourth quarter, and Adam Vinatieri sent the game to overtime by kicking arguably the most remarkable field goal of all time: a 45-yard kick through an abundance of snowfall and wind that just BARELY cleared the crossbar. These are the kind of the things underdog stories are made of, and ultimately what they are remembered for.
The Patriots upended the Raiders 16-13 in OT, then proceeded to upset the heavily-favored Steelers 24-17 in the AFC Championship Game, earning a trip to New Orleans to play the Greatest Show on Turf in Super Bowl 36. Somehow, this underdog team came out of absolutely nowhere, started clicking, and just kept winning … all the way to the Super Bowl. It doesn’t get any better than that.
And the underdog story didn’t end there. The dynastic St. Louis Rams were favored by 14 points over the Cinderella Pats. But by believing that they could win and coming together as a true team (they even came out to the field together while the Rams were introduced individually), the Patriots toppled the NFL’s best team 20-17 following an all-time great Super Bowl drive by Brady that set up Vinatieri’s game-winning 48-yard field goal in the final seconds.
In Super Bowl 36, the underdog prevailed. The team that nobody knew delivered one of the biggest upsets in NFL history. A group of unknowns personified the definition of “team” and made history.
Amazingly, the 2018 Loyola-Chicago Ramblers have done the same thing. They’ve put all the doubters and non-believers out of their minds, focused only on their own team goal, and most importantly, come together as a team better than anyone. Because of it, they are in the Final Four, and are just two wins away from achieving the unthinkable – a national championship.
If you remember what it was like to follow the 2001 Patriots on their road to their first Super Bowl victory, then you should get behind Loyola-Chicago as they try to finish what they started next weekend in San Antonio. It’s one of the best underdog stories we’ve seen in a while. After all, these are the things that make sports great.