Little Old Clemson, Julian Edelman’s Bet Against Us T-Shirts, and Fake Underdogs


Sneaking a keg of beer up a flight of stairs in a college dorm is no easy. My friends and I doing so on Super Bowl Sunday 2002 was the first upset of the day; the New England Patriots beating the St. Louis Rams in an instant classic marked the second.

In the 16 years since, the Patriots have never been underdogs. Not in the spirit of the label, anyway.

That’s not stopping Julian Edelman from selling t-shirts with a copyright-free facsimile of the Patriots logo and the tagline, “Bet Against Us.”

New England is technically the underdog, insomuch as the Las Vegas point spread favors home-standing Kansas City by a field goal; but c’mon. A Patriots win lands the franchise in its third consecutive Super Bowl, and ninth since this run began in 2002.

Julian Edelman’s shirt pushes a wholly disingenuous, yet utterly predictable sentiment.

Less than two weeks ago, Dabo Swinney immediately rained on the schadenfreude parade college football fans were enjoying after his team’s thorough shellacking of Alabama. His reference to the first undefeated College Football Playoff champion as “little old Clemson,” and insistence that “I’m not supposed to be here,” despite having now coached three national championship games in four years, is the saccharine theme of countless movies.

Conveniently, Swinney dismissed the Hollywood parallel in his postgame monologue, making this an easy analogy for me. Clemson winning the national championship isn’t Rocky Balboa going toe-to-toe with Apollo Creed. It’s more like Clubber Lang, a force equal to the Rocky who had been on top for years by the timeline Rocky III presented.

The underdog trope hardly applies just to sports cinema. The Empire’s taken down by a lowly farmhand and the primitive Ewoks. Samwise Gamgee (a much better underdog character than Rudy, when you learn just how many liberties Disney took with the 1993 film) carrying Frodo Baggins at Mount Doom is a far more effective scene with the humble Hobbits than if it had been Aragon and Legolas in the same roles.

Underdogs appeal to a much larger audience than a meticulously constructed machine. That’s not to imply what the New England Patriots and Clemson Tigers have achieved isn’t commendable; on the contrary, both are raising the standard for their respective levels of football. New England was the first NFL franchise to adopt a primarily shotgun-based offense, softening League-wide attitudes toward spread offenses.

The result is a more entertaining game with teams vying for the Super Bowl this weekend, including the Kansas City Chiefs.

Clemson combined explosive offense, embraced in Tommy Bowden’s time as head coach and carried over under Dabo Swinney, with the kind of suffocating defense that made Alabama a dynasty.

Defending Dabo’s “little old Clemson” comment just a little, the program did have to shake his long-standing reputation for “Clemsoning,” as well as completely overhaul the defense after giving up 70 points in the 2012 Orange Bowl. Of course, when the program became the first to pay an assistant coach more than a million dollars a year (former offensive coordinator Chad Morris) and lured away a marquee name to rebuilding the defense — Brent Venables — the “little old” rhetoric welcomes eye-rolls.

Clemson and New England are just two examples in the sporting world. Dabo’s commentary reminded me of a commercial featuring Tim Tebow that was so astonishingly dishonest, I couldn’t believe his pants didn’t combust during filming. Four seconds in, he says: “They said I couldn’t get a D-I scholarship.”

HE WAS A 5-STAR RECRUIT IN HIGH SCHOOL! This is utter madness, but no different than Julian Edelman’s shirt or Dabo Swinney’s speech. And, it’s a reflection of a commonly distorted perspective in our society at large.

In a few weeks, Tebow will report for New York Mets spring training. Tebow played a decent season for the Mets Minor League affiliate last season, though nothing to write home about — and certainly not the kind of head-turning campaign a true underdog would need to get an opportunity with the Major League club.

Prospects from the Dominican Republic falsifying records to appear younger for MLB scouts is treated as an epidemic, yet is the sad reality some face in order to even have the chance of making it. For them, it’s a potentially life-altering crossroads.

Tim Tebow doesn’t need to conceal that he’s in his 30s. And if he doesn’t make the Mets roster, he’ll return to his job analyzing college football on ESPN. It’s earned, but it ain’t an underdog story.

Likewise, Dabo Swinney can cut all the Awe, shucks promos he wants, and Julian Edelman can sell his t-shirts, but that doesn’t make any of them the spiritual embodiment of an underdog.

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