Since the days of David and Goliath, people have been looking for underdogs to take out the favorites. Rumor has it that David went off at 75-1 against the big guy in their biblical confrontation.
I myself have been accused of being a longshot addict, often backing teams and athletes at odds beyond 100-1. Admittedly, I can firmly say that the underdog needle was stuck deep into my arm as a teenager. I backed a horse called Croeso in the 1983 Florida Derby at odds of 85-1 and watched him come under the wire as the winner. I lost my virginity later that night, which was the second-best thing to happen to me that day.
Throughout history, there have been some incredible longshots that have come in, and I can’t imagine the unbridled joy the backers of these semi-miracles had when their Croeso’s came in.
Upset was going up against the greatest horse of his era, Man of War, in the Stanford Memorial Stakes at Saratoga. Man of War had never lost a race as he went into the gate against his lightly regarded rival. But when the ponies had completed the six-length race, Man of War was no longer undefeated and the word “upset” had entered the lexicon of sports.
1950: USA WORLD CUP SOCCER TEAM
The USA team had lost their last 7 matches by a combined score of 45-2, while their English opponents had just vanquished Italy 4-0 and Portugal 10-1 in their two tune-ups for the World Cup.
The US team went into the game as 500-1 underdogs and proceeded to shock the world, as their team of part-time players beat the vaunted English squad 1-0. Joe Gaetjens‘ 38th-minute goal turned out to be the difference in the game now known as “The Miracle on Grass.”
1954: MILAN HIGH SCHOOL
This rural Indiana school only had 161 students, but luckily you need just five to play basketball. In the spring of 1954, this group of jump shooting farm boys bandied together to become the smallest school ever to win the state’s high school basketball tournament. If that all sounds familiar, it’s because this story became the template for the movie classic Hoosiers. But it wasn’t Jimmy Chitwood who hit the big shots, it was a guy by the name of Bobby Plump who led these underdogs to victory.
1969: NEW YORK JETS
The first two Super Bowls were routs, with the NFL’s Green Bay Packers waxing the AFL’s Chiefs and Raiders. So when Super Bowl III rolled around, the NFL’s Colts were an 18-point favorite against the upstart Jets. Joe Willie Namath guaranteed the Jets would be first AFL champions to win the Super Bowl, and lo and behold, his words rang true as these underdogs from New York shocked the boys from Charm City 16-7.
1969: NEW YORK METS
They were the biggest joke in baseball since their formation in 1960. In 1969, they started off the season as 500-1 uber longshots to win the World Series. So even after they stunned experts and won the division, then took down Hank Aaron’s Atlanta Braves to grab the NL pennant, no one gave them a shot against the juggernaut Baltimore Orioles. The Birds had one of the most dominant pitching staffs of all-time and still claim the only rotation in baseball history with four 20-game-winners in the same season (Palmer, McNally, Cuellar, and Dobson).
Well, they didn’t call them the Amazin’ Mets for nothing. The squad from Queens stunned the baseball world and easily defeated the invincible Orioles 4 games to 1.
1984: US OLYMPIC HOCKEY TEAM
Do you believe miracles? The Russians humiliated the US team 10-3 just before the Olympics at Madison Square Garden. Herb Brook’s group of college kids entered the tournament as 1000-1 longshots to leave with gold medals draped around their necks. 16 years later, it was voted the greatest sports moment in this country’s history as Mike Eruzione and the boys shocked the greatest hockey team in the world 4-3. USA! USA!
1987: MINNESOTA TWINS
When the ’87 Twinkies headed to spring training, the bookies had them going off at 500-1 to win the World Series. They had only won 71 games the year before, and had done nothing to upgrade the team. But they won 85 games in ’87 and eked out the division flag. When the postseason rolled around, they hit their stride taking out a Tigers team that crushed them repeatedly during the regular season, then rode pitcher Frank Viola past the Cardinals to win the franchise’s first-ever world championship.
1990: BUSTER DOUGLAS
He was Iron Mike Tyson long before he became stoner Mike Tyson, and he had decimated every opponent he’d ever faced during his undefeated reign. Buster Douglas was an overweight underachiever, but on one night in the Tokyo Dome, with the memory of his recently passed mother pushing him on, he pulled off the greatest upset in boxing history and paid off his backers at a healthy 42-1.
1999: ST. LOUIS RAMS
Coach Dick Vermeil cried his eyes out when starting QB Trent Green tore his knee in the preseason. The Rams were a dark horse to make noise in ’99, but with their quarterback out for the season their odds shot up to 300-1. Off the bench rode a former supermarket stock boy from Cedar Rapids, Iowa by the name of Kurt Warner. All Warner did was become the MVP and get himself into the Hall of Fame by leading the Rams to their one and only Super Bowl trophy.
2000: RULON GARDNER
Heading into the Olympics, Russian goliath Alexander Kraelin was a 1-20 favorite and it made sense: he had a lifetime record of 887-1, and had won 33 straight matches in the Olympics and World Championships while racking up six consecutive gold medals. Not only had he not lost a match in 13 years, he hadn’t given up a point to anyone in 6 years.
Rulon Gardner on the other hand was 1000-1 and his best result before the Olympics was a 4th place finish at the NCAA Championships. The fact that he had somehow made it to the Olympics at all was a huge upset. His roll continued and miraculously he made it to the finals to take on the invincible Soviet.
Surely this had to be the end of the road for Rulon, but shockingly it was not, and he eked a 1-0 miracle victory over The Russian Bear.
2004: GREECE SOCCER TEAM
No one thinks of Greece as one of the great soccer nations of the world. So when 2004 European Championships opened up, the 150-1 longshot Greeks were not on anyone’s radar. But coach Otto Rangel had drilled the blue and white endlessly to set up a defensive style with hopes hitting the traditional powerhouses on the counter-attack. Their rather turgid play allowed them to “park the bus” all the way to the final match, and behind an Angelo Charisteas goal they secured a famous victory over Portugal and won the tourney for Helios.
2007: STANFORD FOOTBALL
When the Cardinals entered USC’s Coliseum, they were 41-point underdogs against Pete Carroll’s super Trojans. When the Christians entered the Roman Coliseum against the lions in ancient days, they were only getting 38 ½.
He may not be able to beat Ohio State, but Jim Harbaugh had his troops up for the challenge. When Tavita Pritchard hauled in a pass from Mark Bradford with 48 seconds left, they clinched a momentous 24-23 upset.
2016 LEICESTER CITY
Saving the best for last, Leicester City had a barely escaped relegation in 2015 and lost their best player Esteban Camabiasso just before the 2016 campaign. So it was no surprise that Leicester were 5000-1 to win the league title. But a combination of all the powerhouses having off years and Leicester’s players performing well beyond even the most outrageous expectations combined to create the longest long shot ever to hoist a championship in any modern sport.