The Power of the underdog

9 mins read

It is always better to shock people and change people’s expectation than to give them exactly what they think you can do – Jonah Hill

V ictory is a thousand times sweeter when you’re the underdog.

I have been an underdog a sizable part of my career and I have played this role long enough to appreciate and savor every moment in victory whilst enjoying the shock and bewilderment from those who apparently hadn’t been paying attention to my journey. In fact, I like to think of myself as an underdog, it sort of mentally humbles me.

During a conversation years ago, while narrating my career story and rise during a small talk with a senior colleague, it struck me hard, when she sums my growth (which by the way I consider modest) as being relatively easy, mentioning that I didn’t have to go through a lot of the trouble, politicking, travails and intrigue that typically beleaguers managers on their way up the leadership ladder.

But because I wasn’t screaming and playing the notice-me, wailing and running helter-skelter, acting the sycophant and lobbying for roles throughout my career, she had simply summed up my travails as being relatively easy.

Apparently, she had no idea how much hard work had gone into it, the difficulties of breaking boundaries, challenging myself and damning the odds. She had no clue the self-sacrifices, the pains and the heavy price paid by the family to earn the stripes for career growth. She couldn’t imagine that I didn’t play by the popular rules. She simply couldn’t fathom it.

What she failed to realize was that, no one saw me coming. They never thought I was much of a threat worthy of their attention and so they failed to stack up hurdles and distractions to make the journey more difficult. I was constantly on the blind side, lurking quietly on my lane, making gentle strides with little or no accolades along the way.

I was the underdog, the one that didn’t appear to be much of a threat, the one they didn’t see coming, the one of which they had no expectation. But that role suited me well.

I am not one to crave the limelight. I would rather work for the success of the team than enjoy moments in glory alone!

Let me share some underdog stories in history to buttress this discussion;

Remember Leicester City

Not in the wildest dream did any fan of the premier league imagine that a team based in Leicester, England and not having a colorful history as their midland rivals, could stun the football world to win the coveted Premier league title in the 2015-16 season.

It was the only time in their history that the club finished top of England’s highest league despite having a 5000 – 1 chance by bookmakers to win the division before the season kicked off. It was simply an impossible feat!

Four years earlier during the 2010/2011 season, Leicester City was not even playing in the Premier league!

They only managed to finish in the 9th position in the league championship table (the second tier league in England) in the 2011/2012 season. They were certainly in the ascendancy when they closed the next season in the 6th position whilst biding their time.

They closed the season before earning the coveted Premier league crown in the 14th position on the Premier league table with only 11 wins out of 38 games in stark contrast to the 23 wins garnered (closing with 81points) to win the Premier league.

Some people like to think that this was a fluke, a flash in the pan or a one-time event, but Leicester City has remained in the elite league since then, finishing in the middle of the table every other season. Yes, perhaps if the other regular winners didn’t lose ground, Leicester city wouldn’t even stand a chance.

But the history book loves an underdog and their stories will be etched in history and to be long remembered for the audacity of the team to defy the odds and change the narrative.

How did Buster Douglas do it?- One of the biggest upset in boxing history.

On February 11, 1990 at the Tokyo Dome, the biggest upset in boxing history was recorded when a certain Buster Douglas knocked out the “Iron Mike” Tyson who at the time was the then-undefeated and undisputed heavyweight champion. Tyson held the WBC, WBA, and IBF titles and was reputed as the most fearsome fighter in contemporary boxing with a lethal fist that had broken ribs, jaws, skulls and ear drums!

Buster Douglas on the other hand was ranked as the #7 heavyweight and had met with mixed success in his professional boxing career up to that point.

His previous title fight was against Tony Tucker in 1987, in which he was TKO’d in the 10th round. However, a string of six consecutive wins gave him the opportunity to fight Tyson. In the time leading up to the fight, Douglas faced a number of setbacks, including the death of his mother, Lula Pearl, 23 days before the fight.  Additionally, the mother of his son was facing a severe kidney ailment, and he had contracted the flu on the day before the fight.

Ironically Douglas was knocked down in the 8th round of that match and barely managed to get off the canvas on the count of the referee. But the heavyweight champion was knocked down in the 10th round by a viscous combination of four punches which ensured that he was knocked down for the first time in his career.

No one saw Douglas as a threat. He had an outside chance and no one paid him much attention. But Douglas was driven by an innate desire and motivation to become the best in spite of the setbacks that haunted his preparation for the game.

He kept at it, put his weight to it and worked hard setting his sights on the ultimate goal. Consistency was key and when he had a shot at glory he took it with both hands.

On the wings of the stories above, some stand out traits all successful underdogs have are surmised below:

†  Underdogs shine when they let underestimation become their motivation.

†  Underdogs know that money, pedigree and status don’t always decide success: heart, tenacity and will to win does.

† Underdogs succeed because they say no to fear.

† Successful underdogs respond well to adversity.

† Underdogs put in a consistent shift and takes on even the slightest opportunity

The Advantage of Disadvantage

Still, nothing gets in the way of telling a good story of my own where I defied the odds, took chances, had a stroke of luck and made a huge difference. And just like some of my recent posts, I have yet another story to tell.

This story takes me back the nostalgic lane to my teenage years and to Mayflower secondary school atop the hills of Ikenne where thousands of young kids were undergoing a life changing experience under the tutelage of Dr. Tai Solarin.

I was only 13 and had a very athletic body for a young teenager. I recollect much older seniors commenting on my physique and asking if I was into athletics or planning to someday venture into sports. They thought I had the physique built for sports and wouldn’t stop nudging me to try my hands on any of the field games. What they didn’t know was that, I had no intention whatsoever of running around the football pitch like a pack of puppies chasing a round leather object to no end. I couldn’t stand playing in a sport where the participants/players were more than half a dozen. I figured it was easier beating eight competitors in a 100m dash and earning a well-deserved medal than struggling to share in the glories of winning in a team sport. How wrong I was!

With this mindset, I only managed to compete in short distance races which happened just once the entire school year. Fair enough. And for my efforts, I managed every now and then to fall just outside the medal table. A close friend of mine (Ogunba) provided a wishlist for me every year after he had left every other competitor in the dust stirred by his rampaging and super-fast legs. He was a marvel to watch from my view at the back of the lot. I often wondered if he had a different breakfast or lunch than the rest of us.

With little success on the track and field sports, I reluctantly joined the footballers during regular practice.

It turned out that this was probably a poor choice for me. When I managed to get selected to play in a set of five, I could barely string a good pass. In my head, I thought I was doing a good job when I tried a feeble attempt at dribbling, only to pick myself up from the ground as I watched the opponent steal the ball away and taking full advantage of my poor football skills to score the winner.

The team leader or captain was livid and literally asked me to excuse the team. At that age, name calling, bullying and all sorts was the norm. I picked myself up and wondered if I had any hope at football or any other sport at all.

Word soon got round and I was omitted from random selections at subsequent practice matches. I would plead to be included and the lead would simply shrug and ask me to wait on the sides.

Then I thought about being the goalkeeper. At least I won’t have to run around like a headless chicken like the others. And if I had a really good team, shots at goal would be far in between. All I would have to do is stay calm and throw myself in the direction of the ball. I would be forgiven if I could parry the ball anywhere but inside the goal post.

Somehow, I got a better chance at keeping than playing football. The moment the team was selected, I would simply offer to guard the post. If I got quizzical looks from my colleagues, I wouldn’t even flinch. I would simply saunter to the post and jump repeatedly up and down to create the impression and assurance that I was unbeatable between the sticks. Oh! Interesting times!

I never made the first team though, especially on big tournaments like the interclass football competition. I didn’t make the second team either, just in case you were wondering!

In one of the interclass competitions, my class (JS 1 blue) was playing in the finals and had the uphill task facing a formidable opponent (better skilled)for which clearly our team was out of depth.

But the team held on to a goalless result at the end of the first half. During the recess, one of the critical player in the team had hurt his foot and barely made it to the break and so was unable to continue. 

There was panic in my class team and they looked around for a substitute. When Basiru (the team captain) asked me to join the fray (albeit impolitely) I promptly changed clothes, threw on the sweat soaked jersey and joined the match for the second half. 

He however warned that I remained at the upper half of the field where my errors, which he was certain was an inevitable trademark, would be less disastrous than if I played in the defensive positions.

So, there I was running about completely isolated at the upper half of the field. The ball never came my way. I made hard-hearted challenges at the opponent but ended up smelling the foot beaten grasses on the turf. Playing football is not as easy as it looked. It soon dawned on me.

The team captain would literally scream my name when he was making the shortest of all passes to me and he requested that I passed back immediately. It was clear that I was only adding to the numbers and not exactly a part of the team. Nonetheless, I made the runs, made the feeble tackles, sometimes I won a throw-in and at other times, I got well and truly dribbled.

Out of nowhere, Isolated up in front, the ball was fizzled high in the air from my team, skipping all the opposing midfielders and it looked destined for my foot. My heart beat raced in dramatic fashion as for some strange reasons, the ball was deftly controlled by my left foot. There I was racing ahead into the “box 18” with the ball at my feet, the speed of movement was suddenly gracious as I leaned on my experience in short 100m run. The opposing defenders were caught unaware as the ball and my speed caused a frenzied race. One thing was certain, if they had caught up with me, I would have my legs up in plaster by evening. But this runner wasn’t going to let up.

The game was tied up to this point and we were at the death of the match. When I looked up to discern my position, I had only the goal keeper to beat. My instinct at being a goalkeeper suddenly kicked in, I had been thoroughly beaten many times by a deft touch and careful placement of the ball than an aggressive power kick. And so, this glorious moment, I took my chance, kicking the ball smack in between the sticks far beyond the stretching arms of the goalkeeper who looked all shades of worry as I watched the ball behind the net.

I have never in my entire life heard such a rapturous noise of joy and excitement. The joy that rented the field was so palpable that even the birds took flight. It was a moment forever etched in my memory. Never to be let go. The spectators rushed into the field in ecstatic mazy runs screaming my name and the repeated shout of “Its a Goal”!

I was raised shoulder high and hailed as the match winner. It was a moment to cherish. Sitting gingerly on the shoulders of boys I had never met and getting a good view of the losing team, was indeed a moment to savor.

There I was, the underdog, included in the team to make up the numbers, assigned to make short passes and scurry the field about like a hapless puppy. I wasn’t even in the team list. I was drafted in as a desperate substitute.

If I had given in to the shame of failing and to the indignation of name calling, there wouldn’t have been an experience to lean on. If I had stayed away from the football pitch that fateful afternoon, I wouldn’t even stand the chance of getting a look into the match.

Did I hear you say stroke of luck? Perhaps.

“But opportunity meets preparedness”

There is no one without a skill. Just as there is no skill learnt that isn’t going to serve a purpose.

Being an underdog meant that I wasn’t paid much attention to in the game. I was looked down on and wasn’t considered a threat. No one realized I had learnt something from my failed experiences at being a goal keeper and the 100m dash. I was judged by my failed attempt at dribbling and my woeful performance at practice. The word spread round quickly and I was literally dumped into the reserve list.

I love the joy of winning. And it is even sweeter when no one sees you coming.

If you have tasted the true power of the underdog, you would never want to play in the leagues of the popular.

How do you keep winning after earning the coveted crown from the underdog position? Well, read about my post I am in competition with myself

I got you!

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