Top 20 most underrated sports films ever

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The daily grind of life we all experience can be filled with a multitude of emotions. These emotions can range from the highs of sheer exuberance to the lows of gut-wrenching sorrow. We try our best to embrace, reflect, and evolve with each day we’re given. However, there are moments in those days we just need to get away from all of it. We need to breathe every now and then and just take in the experience and journey of someone else’s life. That is where escapism comes into play.

Escapism, in one form or another, is one of those necessary evils in life that needs to be fulfilled any chance we get. If nothing more, it helps us keep our sanity in check.

Now, there are a number of ways to achieve escapism, but there are only a small handful that take us to another place and time…leading us right in to the mind and soul of another individual’s moment of reality.

Since the dawn of modern-day entertainment, nothing has come close to providing us with our much-needed life diversion than the wonderful world of cinema.

The impact of films in our society, not to mention its impact on business, is profound to say the least. People still go to the movies, they always will. Just check out the box office totals after this month’s opening weekend of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” for that proof.

So far this year, according to Box Office Mojo, the top 25 films alone have already earned a worldwide box office total of over $14 BILLION. Keep in mind, this is before the big holiday films and Oscar hopefuls hit the theaters and the accompanying massive cash flow from post-box office On Demand rentals, iTunes downloads, DVD/Blu-ray sales, etc.

Among the many reasons we watch and love movies so much (not to mention pay our hard-earned money for that entertainment option) is that we are able to experience and, hopefully, appreciate and immerse ourselves into the long-form art of storytelling. There is a certain, undeniable pleasure to be able to lose yourself in the moment just by simply watching the story of other people’s lives, be it in a fictional or non-fictional form, unfold right before your very eyes. You get to feel their emotions at every turn, which can be a truly gratifying and mind-expanding experience.

There has been one particular genre of film over the years that has done an exceptional job – when executed well, naturally – at showcasing these emotions, not to mention demonstrating engrossing moments of triumph, failure, fear, determination, and just about everything in between. Of course, we’re talking about sports movies.

You don’t have to necessarily be a sports fan to love sports movies, that’s understood. Hey, not every fan of Shaquille O’Neal loves Shaq’s music (he put out four studio albums…not kidding), but there is a certain element when it comes to the storytelling aspect of sports films that resonates with the masses.

Richard Roeper, nationally-renowned film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times, explains:

“Audiences appreciate sports films because they’re almost always about the underdog who overcomes adversity and triumphs, or at least finds redemption.

“Consider ‘Rocky,’ one of the best if not THE best sports movie ever. What happens at the end of the film? Rocky LOSES. Apollo says, ‘Ain’t gonna be no rematch,’ and Rocky says, ‘Don’t want one’ (unless the box office is huge LOL), and as Rocky is hugging Adrian and the music is swelling, the promoter is telling us Apollo has won the fight…but Rocky has won the war, and he’s won our hearts by that point.”

As to what is necessary in making a “great” sports film, Roeper provides his expert viewpoint:

“A great sports film is like a championship team: you need more than individual talent and occasional moments of brilliance. It takes sustained, consistent collaboration, from the screenplay to the direction to the acting to the all-important authenticity of the games sequences.

“The best sports movies transcend the hardcore fan base — just as the most memorable championship teams have a unique back story. The Royals winning the World Series this year or even the White Sox winning the World Series in 2005 make for a nice narrative — but it’s the 2004 Red Sox, the 1969 Mets, the 1980 Olympic hockey team, the story of ‘Rudy’ or ‘Hoosiers’ or ‘The Rookie’ (exaggerated as those stories might be) that make for great movie material.”

Keep in mind, sports movies are not just about the games that are played. It’s much more than that adds Roeper.

“The best sports movies spend about 80 percent of the time on the characters and plot, and 20 percent of the time on game sequences. We get invested in the heroes, whether they’re boxers or high school basketball players or Olympic hockey players. Smart directors and screenwriters lay out the key scenes in a way that anyone can understand what’s happening. In a baseball movie, it’s easy to show a home run, and everyone understands that’s a great moment for the good guys. In a film such as ‘Pawn Sacrifice,’ which is about chess, or even the “The Karate Kid,’ you have sideline characters commenting on the action so you understand what’s going on.”

Throughout the years, there have been numerous lists touting the “BEST SPORTS MOVIES EVER!” There is no question that “Rocky”…“Hoosiers”…“Raging Bull”…“Field of Dreams”…”Rudy”…”Caddyshack”…”Slapshot”.…etc., etc. are indeed some of the “BEST EVER” because they deserve to be recognized as such. Each one of them is unique in their own wonderful weird way and there is no arguing their place on a “best ever” list when it comes to this genre of film.

The main issue is that the aforementioned sample list of films are the same ones that come up every single time someone is asked, “What are your favorite sports movies?” We can already guess which ones are likely to be named.

This is NOT that list.

This list focuses on the key word, albeit subjective of course, “underrated.”

Underrated, as defined for the purpose of this list of sports films, refers to films that are NOT the immediate top of mind choices in the public eye. In fact, in several cases here, such films have even been outright ignored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences when Oscar season rolled around.

However, each one of these Top 20 films deserves to be recognized for what they have delivered to the world of sports movies and, more importantly, for the role they have played in the escapism moments of our lives.


1)  Hoop Dreams (1994)

One of the finest documentaries of any kind in film history, “Hoop Dreams” lays out the unforgettable story of William Gates and Arthur Agee, two teenagers from Chicago’s inner city who have athletic aspirations of one day playing in the NBA, only to see the harsh realities of their personal lives ultimately change the course of their once hopeful future.

Shot over the course of five years, “Hoops Dreams” director Steve James, along with co-producers Peter Gilbert and Frederick Marx, take us to the playgrounds of some of Chicago’s toughest neighborhoods, where a young Gates and Agee are first discovered and recruited to play high school basketball in the predominantly white Chicago western suburb of Westchester, IL (St. Joseph H.S.). Gates, who was raised in the projects of Cabrini-Green, and Agee, from the West Garfield Park neighborhood, would travel 90+ minutes a day via public transportation just to get to St. Joseph H.S., where these two freshmen quickly learned more about race relations and socio-economic differences than about motion offenses or zone defenses.

What truly makes “Hoop Dreams” exceptional is that it’s more about life, love, relationships, and family, than about basketball. We’re taken on a journey where the talents of Gates and Agee are a part of a much broader canvas than just a playground or court.

“Hoop Dreams” is a three-hour film, but it easily could have been as equally engaging if another three hours were added on to it. It’s a fascinating look at how the burden of growing up in poverty, along with having natural athletic talent, can affect the lives of not only two young men, but also the lives of those who love them.

This unpredictable, shocking, joyous, gut-wrenching, and inspirational film was and still remains a favorite of many critics, but it did not receive any love from the Oscars voting committee when it came out in 1994, as it didn’t even get nominated in the “Best Documentary” category. Quite a shame. If you haven’t seen “Hoop Dreams” yet, you should make it a priority. It’s a real-life, eye-opening sports film experience that has no rival.


2)  A League of Their Own (1992)

Now…how in the world can the highest-grossing baseball-themed film in domestic box office history even be on an underrated sports film list?…let alone be at #2?? Very simple: 99% of sports movies focus on the male athlete, leaving this one out of the discussion every time. A League of Their Own features a brilliant cast, script, along with location shots and costumes that truly capture the nostalgia of the 1940’s. Plus, the on-field action sequences featuring these girls are as good as anything ever put on film. Bottom line, this picture should be considered among the all-time great sports film experiences.

Director Penny Marshall, coming off two huge hits as the director of Big (1988) and Awakenings (1990), provided audiences with an absolutely wonderful homage to the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, which was founded in 1943 during World War II by Philip K. Wrigley of Chicago. Wrigley, along with a number of Major League Baseball team owners, started up the AAGPBL to keep the sport publicly visible as the majority of qualified men were away fighting for our freedom.

In this film, we meet two extremely competitive sisters from rural Oregon: the superstar catcher/natural beauty Dottie Hinson (Geena Davis) and the younger, rough-around-the-edges pitcher, Kit Keller (Lori Petty). Both were recruited among numerous other women from around the U.S. and Canada to come to Chicago and try out for the AAGPBL. The tryouts scene was actually filmed at Wrigley Field by the way.

Dottie and Kit wind up making the league as members of the Rockford Peaches, which includes a hilarious cast of teammates that includes “All the Way” Mae Mordabito (Madonna) and Doris Murphy (Rosie O’Donnell). However, no one stands out more in this film than the Peaches’ manager Jimmy Dugan (Tom Hanks), a former big league superstar who is down on his luck and given a chance to somehow redeem his name. To say he hates being the manager of this team is an understatement: “Ballplayers?! I don’t have ballplayers! I’ve got girls!!” And, of course, he later utters one of most famous lines in movie history: “Are you crying?…THERE’S NO CRYING IN BASEBALL!!” But Dugan eventually grows to learn how special these women are both on and off the field. Many of these women are living in daily fear, as many have husbands fighting in the war overseas. There is a particular locker room scene that showcases that unbearable fear when a postal worker delivers a telegram from the government’s War Department. A truly heartbreaking moment.

The Peaches go through their ups and downs on both a personal and professional level, but these women were aware, especially when we witness them in their older years, that what they were doing was pretty special. Plus, at the end of this film, there’s a wonderful life message that most definitely transcends the sport of baseball.


3)  Prefontaine (1997)

It takes a special kind of athlete to become a long-distance runner. From both a mental and physical standpoint, one of the all-time greats was a young man from Oregon named Steve Prefontaine.

The outstanding docudrama Prefontaine (directed by Steve James, the director of Hoops Dreams) expertly captures the life of a man who wasn’t quite cut out to play football or other team sports due to his stature. He experiences the harsh negativity of others who question his athletic abilities to his advantage, which drives him to set records in a sport that has been around for ages. This film is generally overlooked by audiences; maybe because track & field isn’t as glamourous as other sports, however, it provides an outstanding look at character growth, along with a unique time travel moment to the early 1970’s.

Best Supporting Actor winner for his astonishing work in 2013’s Dallas Buyers Club, Jared Leto (soon to be seen as “The Joker” in next year’s guaranteed supervillain smash hit Suicide Squad) plays the ego-driven Steve Prefontaine in a non-sympathetic fashion throughout the film, but we quickly sympathize with and root for him because of his determination. It was evidently clear in this 1997 performance that Leto had the ability to captivate an audience be it on the running track or in the midst of character conversation.

Featuring solid supporting performances from R. Lee Ermey as Oregon track & field coach Bill Bowerman and Ed O’Neill as Oregon’s assistant coach Bill Dellinger, Prefontaine takes audiences on Steve Prefontaine’s roller coaster journey from college, to the terrifying situation at the Munich Olympics in 1972, to a tragic ending that cut short the life of a standout, yet still mainly unheralded figure in U.S. sports history.


4)  Breaking Away (1979)

One film that received critical accolades at the time of its release, along with significant Oscar recognition, has somehow lost its footing when it comes to top-of-mind great sports films today. Near the top of that list certainly deserves to be 1979’s heartfelt comedy/drama Breaking Away.

Starring Dennis Quaid, Daniel Stern, Jackie Earle Haley, and a standout performance from Dennis Christopher, Breaking Away is a sweet, coming-of-age story about four high school graduates from Bloomington, Indiana who just don’t want to grow up. The movie centers around Christopher’s character Dave Stoller, a bright-eyed, energetic 19-year-old who is obsessed with bicycle racing and the Italian culture. Stoller’s father (portrayed by the always-funny Paul Dooley) fumes at his son’s nonchalant lifestyle: “He’s never tired…he’s never miserable! When I was young, I was tired and miserable!”

Stoller and his buddies skip college to blaze their own trails and it’s a fun ride to be on as we watch them attempt to discover the next steps in their lives. The bicycle racing sequences in Breaking Away are as equally engaging as those moments when falling in love come into play. The dialogue between Stoller and his friends, along with his parents, and is both hilarious and poignant throughout the film. Director Peters Yates does an excellent job of capturing every ounce of small town life in Middle America and Steve Tesich’s intelligent script deservedly earned the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. It’s just a wonderful movie on so many levels.


5)  The Great Santini (1979)

Spanning an illustrious film career of over 50 years, the legendary Robert Duvall has taken on multitude of challenging roles in his lifetime, but his Oscar-nominated performance in 1979’s The Great Santini as Lt. Col. Wilbur “Bull” Meechum, a decorated Marine pilot who tries to establish his militant, disciplinarian tactics within his own family, is certainly one of his best.

Meechum’s son Ben (Michael O’Keefe, who also received an Oscar nomination and, by the way, one year later portrayed Danny Noonan in Caddyshack) is a basketball star on his high school team in the town of Beaufort, South Carolina, yet another new residence in the young lives of Ben and his fellow military family siblings. Although not necessarily considered a sports film, The Great Santini’s most incredible and gut-wrenching moments are those when “Bull” and Ben go to toe-to-toe on the basketball court in their driveway and when “Bull” is present at his son’s games…even at one point, literally ordering him to take out another player, or else.

The intentions of “Bull” to bring out the best in his son and his entire family are definitely present, and there are indeed a number of scenes in this film that showcase those intended “good dad” moments, but “Bull” simply cannot accept losing, and that’s when things within his own home begin to fall apart.


6)  Tin Cup (1996)

Director Ron Shelton is best known for helming the box office smash hit Bull Durham, which is widely considered among the best sports movies ever made, but he also delivered a terrific film about the world of golf and even brought back his prized star for this 1996 gem.

Tin Cup stars Kevin Costner as Roy “Tin Cup” McAvoy, a natural at the sport who has a big drive on the golf course, but very little drive in his life. Essentially accepting what his life has become, McAvoy runs a ramshackled golf range in Texas who one day meets an inspiring beauty named Dr. Molly Griswold (smoothly played by Rene Russo). Molly is a clinical psychologist who wants a golf lesson from McAvoy, who is immediately smitten with her intelligence and good looks. The problem here is that Molly is the girlfriend of McAvoy’s longtime nemesis, who currently happens to be one of the top players on the PGA Tour: David Simms (played with all the snark, charm, and bravado you’d expect from Don Johnson).

Simms eventually visits McAvoy and has the guts to ask McAvoy to not play in a benefit tournament he’s hosting, but to be his caddy instead. Not cool, man. After a series of head-butting moments with Simms, and thanks to some successful therapy sessions with Molly, McAvoy decides he is indeed still a great golfer and winds up participating in the U.S. Open.

The most memorable scene that stands out in Tin Cup, which should also go down as one of the greatest golf scenes in movie history, is when McAvoy, tied for the tourney lead, is determined to not lay up on the water surrounded 18th hole, but rather to “go for it,” as Molly encourages him to do in her growing mutual affection for him. McAvoy hits multiple shots that land on the green, but slowly spin back and wind up falling into the pond. But that doesn’t matter; he knew what he had to do, even though it would cost him winning the U.S. Open. He eventually sinks it in on the 18th…in his 12th shot. He absolutely hates himself for blowing it, but Molly, once again, puts it all in perspective: “It was the greatest 12 of all time! No one’s going to remember the Open ten years from now…but they’ll remember your 12!”


7)  Seabiscuit (2003)

In the depression-era year of 1938, an amazing occurrence took place that brought together three men from three completely different walks of life that captured both the attention and dreams of an entire nation, all thanks to one special horse.

Seabiscuit tells the amazing real-life story about the unlikely convergence of millionaire Bay Area car owner Charles Howard (Jeff Bridges), trainer Tom Smith (Chris Cooper), and jockey John “Red” Pollard (Tobey Maguire), all of whom have come on hard times prior to their life changing moment of being connected to Seabiscuit, a broken-down colt with a temperament that would in no way be deemed ready to compete on a track. Through their belief in Seabiscuit’s natural abilities and their belief in each other, these three men were able to turn the impossible into one of the most special underdog stories in the history of sports.

This beautifully-shot film from director Gary Ross, who also wrote the adapted screenplay from Laura Hillenbrand’s best-selling novel on which the film is based, also features a powerful and moving musical score from two-time Oscar winner Randy Newman. Justly nominated for seven Oscars, including Best Picture, Seabiscuit was shut out in each of its respective categories, but that doesn’t matter. This remarkable true tale still holds the top honors (at least on this list) as the greatest film about horse racing ever created.


8)  Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos (2006)

There have been tons of sports documentaries that have come our way over the years, but one of the very best is Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos, a thrilling, often hilarious, and insightful film that takes a deep look into the rise and fall of one of America’s most famous pro soccer clubs.

In the 1970’s, the North American Soccer League (NASL) was a struggling entity that featured a number of scattered franchises throughout the continent, many of which were barely averaging 5,000 fans a game. However, one man was determined to change the way America looked at this so-called foreign sport and he was going to start that change with his own team.

That man was Warner Bros. chief Steve Ross, the late multimedia visionary who artfully wheeled and dealed to bring THE biggest global names in soccer to New York City, including the greatest ever – Pele (Brazil), along with Giorgio Chinaglia (Italy), Franz Beckenbauer (Germany), Steve Hunt (England), and Carlos Alberto (Brazil) among many others. In no time at all, the Cosmos were packing 70,000+ fans into Giants Stadium, all to see these established international legends in action on the same team. As big as the 1990’s Chicago Bulls were…these guys were exactly that in the 70’s.

Directed by Paul Crowder and John Dower, featuring a nice job of narration via actor/NY native Matt Dillon, the best moments in Once in a Lifetime: The Extraordinary Story of the New York Cosmos are those off the field, when we learn how big these guys were in NYC during that time. Megastars from all cylinders (Muhammad Ali, Robert Redford, The Rolling Stones, etc.) came out in droves to hang out with Pele and his crew, be it in the locker room after games or partying the night away at a number of Manhattan’s hottest night spots. This film cuts no corners about the women, booze, and overall shenanigans that surrounded this team, but it also details how Ross’ overspending to keep his team prominent, especially after Pele’s retirement, may have started the downfall of the league itself.


9)  61* (2001)

Beloved lifetime New York Yankees fan Billy Crystal provided HBO audiences with a standout directorial job with his biographical film 61*, which chronicled the controversial 1961 Yankees season that saw the all-time single season home run record, previously set by a team legend, broken by a man that virtually no one wanted to see have that distinctive honor.

The film takes us back to that season featuring the “M&M Boys”: longtime fan favorite and two-time American League MVP, Mickey Mantle, and relative Yankee newcomer, Roger Maris. Portrayed exceptionally well by Thomas Jane as Mantle and Barry Pepper as Maris, 61* recounts the story of these superstar sluggers who were both challenging the immortal Babe Ruth’s all-time 60 home run mark.

The two battled all season, back-and-forth, on the home run lead to recreate baseball history, but between the media and fans, everyone had their sights and wishes on their hero Mantle being the one to break that record, not Maris. Mantle was New York: bold, brash, honest, and filled with charisma. Maris was the complete opposite: shy, quiet, and not a great quote to fill a reporter’s notebook. Crystal doesn’t hide the fact of Mantle’s hard-drinking and womanizing lifestyle, which may have ultimately cost him the record that season. However, amidst the fan hatred and season-long heckling, it was Maris that eventually wound up breaking Ruth’s 34-year-old standing record. However, the HR record was broken in a 162-game season, as opposed to a 154-game season when Ruth was king of baseball. As we saw what transpired in the years to come during the “steroid era” when this record was shattered multiple times, the asterisk accompanying Maris’ 61 was thankfully never put in place in the record books.


10)  Murderball (2005)

Another documentary that most certainly deserves your attention is 2005’s Murderball, an inspiring and often heart-breaking look inside the world of wheelchair rugby.

Murderball, directed by Henry Alex Rubin and Dana Adam Shapiro, is more than a story about physically-disabled athletes who become members of the Team USA wheelchair rugby team; it’s about the lives of individuals who realize their impairments are not obstacles, but opportunities to be a part of something special. We learn about how these individuals became disabled and how their lives immediately changed thereafter, but these guys are fighters. They don’t know how to quit living. In fact, one of team’s stars (Mark Zupan) saw his life improve: “I’ve actually done more in a chair than I did able bodied.”

The physical grind of their preparation, along with the brutally-shocking, full-contact game highlights, are something to truly behold. The flip-side of this film showcases moments of their day-to-day lives, which is equally as appealing as the heart-pounding action in the gymnasiums. The love, pride, and support these athletes receive from their family, friends, and fans is moving to say the least. Murderball is just an amazing sports film experience.


11)  Back to School (1986)

Alright, kind of bending the rules on this one, but it’s justified. One of the funniest films that came out in the 1980’s may not necessarily be categorized as a “sports film,” but this one most definitely had a significant sports element within its storyline, which also happened to feature one of the truly great comedians of our time.

Back to School stars the legendary Rodney Dangerfield as Thornton Melon, a self-made millionaire who earned success in business through his “Tall and Fat” men’s clothing stores throughout the U.S. that featured a solid celebrity clientele: “Marlon Brando, he was a Tall and Fat customer too. He wasn’t that big then, but he ballooned up nicely. I’d say pound for pound, our finest American actor.”

Thornton never went to college but his son Jason (played by Keith Gordon), a freshman at the fictitious Grand Lakes University (a.k.a. the University of Wisconsin-Madison in this film), is just miserable being there. He lies to his dad that he made the school’s diving team and contemplates dropping out. Being the good dad he wants to be for his son, Thornton makes the snap decision to enroll in college to help his son through it all.

Things turn plenty crazy from that point forward as Thornton is constantly partying, buying off people to boost up his grades, etc. All of this sends Jason into a further downward spiral, but Thornton eventually focuses on his classes to set the proper example for his son and they make amends. The good news is that Jason ends up making the diving team, although a rival teammate believes Thornton was the one who made that possible through his pocketbook, which was not the case and this leads us to the memorable championship diving meet sequence.

With the Hooters (the school’s team nickname) in a dire losing scenario at the end of the meet, the coach calls on Thornton to come out of the stands, get changed, all the while somehow getting clearance from the judges to let Thornton enter the competition (“He’s on my, uh, substitute roster…but I don’t have it right now. But what I’ll do is, first chance I get…I’ll bring it to you.”).

Well, the task at hand is gargantuan as Thornton sets up to perform the hardest dive known to mankind: “The Triple Lindy,” which utilizes the high-standing platform board AND two additional, flanking springboards. Thornton nails it, of course, and saves the day. Kudos to the casting director for hiring Dangerfield’s body double for the diving sequence, you’d swear it was Dangerfield doing the stunt himself.

Featuring an excellent supporting cast, including Sally Kellerman, Burt Young, Ned Beatty, Sam Kinison, M. Emmet Walsh, and “Iron Man” himself, Robert Downey, Jr., Back to School is hilarious look at college life, not to mention what a dad will go through for the love of his son.


12)  Fever Pitch (2005)

The Farrelly Brothers hit it out of the park in this 2005 romantic comedy starring Drew Barrymore as Lindsey, a high-powered business executive who just can’t seem to find the right guy, and Jimmy Fallon as Ben, a kind and humble grade school teacher who has one really big problem: he is obsessed, repeat, OBSESSED with the Boston Red Sox.

In Fever Pitch, Lindsey meets “Winter Ben,” who prioritizes Lindsey above everything else in his life…during that time of year. He falls for her, she falls for him, and it seems like this will actually work out. However, as the winter months head into spring and as their relationship becomes more serious, Lindsey, who is already aware Ben loves the Red Sox, doesn’t quite realize what she’s in for when “Summer Ben” comes into play. His insane passion for the Red Sox puts the team ahead of her now and she has a really hard time dealing with it. Oh yeah, one important thing to mention, she doesn’t care for sports at all, let alone baseball.

Ben’s obsession with the team leads to Lindsey to realize this will not work out, so she breaks up with him. This crushes Ben and he realizes he has to find a way to put her first, even if it means (gulp) selling his season tickets! Anyway, Lindsey becomes aware of this gracious act of love and rushes to Fenway Park to stop the official season tickets transaction moment from occurring, which is a really terrific and funny scene.

Barrymore and Fallon are engaging and charming as an on-screen couple who do a wonderful job of turning Fever Pitch into a very sweet film that speaks to both sports-infatuated men and their devoted women who can’t quite grasp that obsession.


13)  Greased Lightning (1977)

The late Richard Pryor, among the greatest comedians of all-time, made a number of films in his successful career, but one in particular stands out and deservedly earns a spot on this list: 1977’s Greased Lightning.

In this loosely-based biographical film, Pryor plays Wendall Scott, a proud and determined man who grew up surrounded by racism and multitudes of doubters in the small, poverty-ridden town of Danville, Virginia. Trying to separate himself from a likely fate in life of working in a cotton mill or tobacco-processing plant, Wendall finds his niche via his love for cars…in particular, racing them.

The film takes us on Wendall’s journey as he hones his auto racing skills over time to a thrilling point that takes him straight to the NASCAR circuit in the early 1960’s, which, as you can imagine, did not have any African-American racers at that time.

Pryor, in all his usual, eccentric, funny mannerisms is terrific from a comedic standpoint as always, but also very effective in dramatic sequences dealing with hardships from both a personal and professional level. Greased Lightning is a lot of fun, so definitely give this one a shot. At the very least, it’s another chance to witness Pryor work his legendary on-screen magic.


14)  The Great White Hope (1970)

Based on playwright Howard Sackler’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1967 Broadway play, The Great White Hope was adapted to film in 1970, casting its acclaimed stage actors – James Earl Jones and Jane Alexander – to reprise their roles on the big screen.

Set in the early 1900’s, this stunning, emotionally-driven film tells the story about boxer Jack Jefferson (Jones), whose sheer fighting prowess and inner rage catapulted him to the position of being the first African-American heavyweight champion of the world. Jefferson is also in love with Eleanor Bachman, his spirited, supportive girlfriend, who is white.

With racial tensions between the black and white race at an extremely high level, Jefferson feels the growing pressure associated with being the champ, but he also knows he must continue to fight in the ring to show the world that no man, of any color, can defeat him. The goal of countless individuals was to find “the great white hope” that would end his title reign. However, it is Jefferson’s relationship with Eleanor that is the real battle that occupies his life and ultimately, leads to his downfall.

Jones and Alexander received Best Actor/Actress nominations for their roles in this film and both portrayals of their respective characters are something to behold. Find a way to see this one, please.


15)  All the Right Moves (1983)

One of the truly impressive films about high school football and its impact on an individual’s future was 1983’s All the Right Moves, which featured a very young actor who would have major impact on the movie industry, not to mention box office receipts, for the next 30-plus years.

All the Right Moves stars Tom Cruise as Stef Djordevic, a star defensive back for Ampipe High School’s football team in a small western Pennsylvania town just outside of Pittsburgh. Now Stef knows that the only way he can get out of there is by getting a scholarship to play football in college. He’s a good student and a good kid, which should help his chances, but his coach (Craig T. Nelson, in a role he was born to play) may have a hand in derailing that dream.

The football scenes are terrific and play out with all the realism of some other great football films like Remember the Titans or Rudy, however, the real standout moments in this film occur in the locker room, in particular, a mesmerizing scene in which Djordjevic angrily stands up to his coach to defend a fellow teammate who is outright blamed for single-handedly losing a critical game. You could hear a pin drop in that locker room as we wait for Coach Nickerson’s reaction. On-screen moments like that one made it clear Cruise would be around for a long time to come.


16)  White Men Can’t Jump (1992)

One of Director Ron Shelton’s four sports-themed films was 1992’s hilarious offering, White Men Can’t Jump, which starred two actors who could hoop with the best of them in real life: Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson.

Now, this isn’t Shelton’s best sports film, but that opening sequence when Snipes’ Sidney Deane meets Harrelson’s Billy Hoyle on the beach side basketball courts of Venice, California is one for the ages and truly displays Shelton’s gifts as a writer.

The hilariously crude, face-to-face, verbal taunts thrown out by Deane and Hoyle against one another are simply priceless, but also integral to the early story line of Deane accepting this “slow, white, geeky, chump” as the real deal. A deserved shout-out also goes to Kadeem Hardison, who is absolutely terrific as Deane’s tag-a-long supporter, Junior: “We goin’ Sizzla! We goin’ Sizzla!” Great, great stuff.

White Men Can’t Jump is one of those sports movies that was a big deal back in the early 90’s, but has somehow lost its place over time. Bottom line, Snipes and Harrelson are the reason to see this film. They are that good together as on-court rivals in the beginning and just as effective as mutually-respectful friends in the end.


17)  Mystery, Alaska (1999)

Jay Roach, director of such comedic hits as the three Austin Powers films and Meet the Parents, orchestrated this fun and poignant look at life in a REALLY northern town that is obsessed with the sport of ice hockey in 1999’s Mystery, Alaska.

Starring Russell Crowe – who was on a crazy-impressive run of hits which included winning Best Actor for the Roman Empire epic Gladiator in 2000 – Mystery, Alaska tells the story about a group of underdogs who play in the wildly-popular (at least it is in this small fictitious town) “Saturday game,” which is played outdoors…on a pond…but is treated like the seventh game of the Stanley Cup Final by its townsfolk each and every week. Here’s the premise in a nutshell: an article written by one of the town’s former residents about these weekly games gets published in “Sports Illustrated” and quickly gets the attention of the National Hockey League, which in turn leads to – yeah, of course this would never happen in real life – the New York Rangers traveling up to Alaska for a televised, exhibition game against these random group of hard-edged go-getters.

The side stories that lead up to the big game are okay at best, but the prospect of this game even happening and the excitement that whips this town into delirium is fun to watch. Aside from a solid supporting cast that includes Burt Reynolds, Hank Azaria, Mary McCormack, Michael McKean, and even one of Roach’s favorite people to film, the real-life hockey-obsessed Mike Myers, Mystery, Alaska is a visual treat showcasing beautiful surrounding scenery, along with the beauty of one of the world’s greatest sports.


18) A Day at the Races (1937)

A Marx Brothers movie?! Seriously?! Yes, seriously. One of the film world’s all-time comedic teams was indeed the Marx Brothers. To say the antics of Groucho, Chico, and Harpo stand the test of time is an understatement and, if you’re a sports fan who likes to laugh, a lot, then you are urged to see their 1937 horse-racing farce, A Day at the Races.

As with any Marx Brothers film, brilliant comedic timing is the key ingredient served in A Day at the Races, along with heaps of slapstick and mania, all of which these three legends pulled off consistently and effortlessly throughout their box office dominance in the 1930s and 1940s.

Groucho plays Dr. Hugo Z. Hackenbush, a veterinarian who gets hired at a sanitarium (it’s a Marx Brothers film, let it slide), which is in danger of shutting down unless a horse named Hi-Hat will win a big race and save the failing medical establishment. Enter Tony (Chico) and Stuffy (Harpo) who help out and find some absolutely hilarious ways to get tips and raise money to enter Hi-Hat in a madcap steeplechase race that is still fun to watch almost 80 years after this film’s release.

A Day at the Races is silly, illogical, and has its moments that are certainly offensive on a number of levels, but the Marx Brothers have always been able to deliver on one thing really well…laughs.


19)  Lucas (1986)

If you were an 80’s kid, there is no doubt you caught this sweet, funny, and very moving film somewhere on cable television that did a masterful job of showcasing the confusing and frustrating dynamics of high school life.

Lucas stars the late Corey Haim as the film’s namesake, a gifted academic student who is also considered an outcast. Lucas’ life moves in a positive direction when he meets Maggie (played by Kerri Green), the new girl in town who has similar interests as Lucas, who also respects and treats him like he’s never experienced before in his life. The problems, however, start up when the school year begins. Maggie falls for the school’s football star Cappie (Charlie Sheen) and decides to join the cheerleading squad to be near him. None of this sits well with Lucas of course. He’s heartbroken and feels lost once again. His small group of friends don’t hear from him for days until one of them flies into band practice and yells: “It’s suicide!…Lucas is trying out for the football team!”

Lucas endures torment from the other players and outright disgust from the head coach, all for the attention of Maggie in the hopes that their friendship will blossom into the relationship he so desperately desires. The film takes a sharp turn toward the end that is a real downer, but it’s also very inspirational showcasing how this small, nerdy kid teaches an entire student body to believe in yourself and never give up.


20)  The Jackie Robinson Story (1950)

The immortal Jackie Robinson will be remembered as a man who broke barriers at a time when he and so many other African-Americans in our country were treated in ways that so many of us today will never quite comprehend. Robinson’s skills as a baseball player got him in the MLB door, there’s no question about that. He was sensational, just look up his stats. In his first year with the Brooklyn Dodgers (1947), he won the National League Rookie of the Year award and, just two years later, he was the league’s MVP. But what made Robinson special was the fact that he somehow found a way to internalize the hell he went through from fans and, sadly, from even his own teammates. Robinson was the ultimate outsider.

In 1950, The Jackie Robinson Story made its way to the big screen and what makes this film unique is that it stars…you guessed it, Jackie Robinson. For a guy who wasn’t a trained actor, Robinson is very effective in this film from a dramatic standpoint. Equally solid is the great Ruby Dee as his wife Rae, who had to stand by her husband and share his pain, while also dealing with her own acceptance into Robinson’s new world.

It is just fascinating – who knows, maybe it was therapeutic for him at that time – that Robinson wanted to relive his life story on camera, especially those early hardships that were clearly toned down for movie house audiences at that time. However, like many great sports films that highlight the triumphs of the “underdog,” as Roeper noted early in this piece, the mass, nation-wide acceptance of Jackie Robinson – as a groundbreaking ballplayer and, more importantly, as an exceptional human being – is what truly makes this film a must see.


In conclusion, there will be even more sports films coming out next year and, of course, many more in the years to come. Who knows? Maybe it’s even possible a young screenwriter out there right now is penning the greatest sports film ever made. Until then, do yourself a favor and watch at least one of the films on this list that you haven’t seen before…and take in that new experience…and escape.

That’s a wrap.


What’s your favorite underrated sports film? Share using #CSNTop20 on Twitter for a chance to win a copy of all the movies listed on this list! Click here for complete details:



Page design by CSN Chicago’s Jake Flannigan and Katie Fowler

Artwork created by CSN Chicago’s Kristina Quinn

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    Peter King goes 1-on-1 with Cowboys’ Jason Witten

    Year: 2017
    Runtime: 19:25
    Originally aired on: NBC

    Dallas Cowboys tight end Jason Witten has done it all during his 15-year NFL career. The two-time All-Pro and seven-time Pro Bowler is the Cowboys’ all-time leader in both receptions and receiving yards and is third in franchise history in touchdowns. The future Hall of Famer let Peter King of The MMQB and Football Night in America behind the scenes for a look into Witten’s recovery process. The end result is an incredibly rare shot of what it takes for an NFL player to take his body from gameday to gameday and perform at their absolute best week after week.

    Off Script: Jeremy Roenick opens up on career, family

    Jeremy Roenick was as outspoken as he was talented during his 20-year NHL career.

    Now 47 years old and almost a decade out of the league, the NHL on NBC analyst opens up to Kathryn Tappen about trouble with coaches, life after getting traded, close family ties and much more in the debut episode of “Off Script.”

    Once more, with feeling

    NEW YORK — Again and again, over and over, they ask him how he FEELS. Well, this is the question to ask, isn’t it? The bus crawls through New York traffic and takes Jimmie Johnson from office building to office building. People wait inside. Kelly Live waits. Charlie Rose waits. USA Today … Mad Dog Radio … NFL Radio … TMZ. They wait for him on top of the Empire State Building. They wait for him outside the Time Life Building.

    How does it FEEL, Jimmie?

    How does it FEEL to come from nowhere to win your seventh NASCAR Sprint Cup championship, Jimmie? How does it FEEL to tie the two enduring legends of your sport, “The King,” Richard Petty and “The Intimidator,” Dale Earnhardt? How does it FEEL to be the best at what you do, to be inside a race car, rushing at the speed of chaos with 39 maniacs around you barely holding on? No, really, break it down for our audience, how does it feel to be you, Jimmie Johnson, championship race-car driver, part-time triathlete, millionaire philanthropist like Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark, loving husband, adoring father, everybody’s best friend and somehow, still, the nicest guy?

    How does it FEEL, Jimmie?

    “Insane,” he says. “It feels insane.”

    “Awesome,” he says. “It feels awesome.”

    “Wonderful,” he says.

    “Surreal,” he says.

    “Incredible,” he says.

    “I don’t know that I have the words,” he says.

    We’ve known each other a long time, Jimmie and I. We’ve talked about a lot of things through the years, about family and sharks, about food and dreams, faith and football, about kids and ice cream and how hard it is to not care when people boo.

    “Let me ask you something,” I say as the day crawls on, and he has been asked the question two or three dozen times, and his eyes begin to close because he’s worn out. “All these people keep asking you how you feel.”

    “Yeah,” he says. “Part of the job.”

    “I know,” I tell him. “But if you keep talking about how it feels, how do you keep anything for yourself?”

    He smiles at that and shrugs and looks out the window of the bus.

    * * *

    There is a giant hill near the small house where Johnson grew up. People tend to know he grew up around San Diego and so they might think about the sun and the beach, colorful sailboats and yachts. He gives off the impression of royalty. But that’s not the San Diego where he grew up. His town was called El Cajon. There are no yachts in El Cajon. His father operated heavy machinery. His mother drove a school bus. They made do. Jimmie would escape down that hill on his bicycle.

    WATCH: NASCAR Sprint Cup Awards on Dec. 2 (7 p.m. ET on NBCSN,, the NBC Sports app)

    That hill — El Cajon mountain — is a road that seems to go straight down. Even in a car, it is a bit daunting. And for the young Jimmie Johnson it held all the secrets worth knowing. He would rush too fast down that hill, then faster, then faster still, until his parents would tell him to chill, and his friends would nervously call him crazy. Then he went faster again. At that speed, he found that he could feel everything. Fear. Breathlessness. Joy. Hope. Love. Pain. Oh, sure, there was always some pain. There was always another crash. Jimmie Johnson was the kid who showed up for just about every class photo wearing a cast or leaning on crutches.

    Well, he couldn’t help it. He needed that speed. He needed to race. There was something about being on the edge — barely in control and barely out of control — that called to him. He would do ANYTHING for that feeling because being on that edge was the thing that made him feel most alive. As the years went on, he realized that to get that edge, he needed to make connections. So he made connections. He realized that to get to that edge he needed to know people. So he met people — the Herzogs, the Chevy people, Jeff Gordon, Rick Hendrick, the people who could help him get where he so needed to go.

    He is just one of those people who cannot leave his fears alone. He needed to explore the fears, dance around them, poke at them if he can. It’s still true. Even after he made his name as a race-car driver and could do more or less anything he wanted, he still spent a vacation diving into the water so he could be thisclose to sharks. Why would a sane person do that?

    “Because I’m absolutely terrified of sharks,” he says, as if that explains it.

    * * *

    Richard Petty. Dale Earnhardt. Jimmie Johnson. It does boggle Johnson’s mind that he’s now in that company, officially and inarguably, one of NASCAR’s holy trinity to win seven championships. People can argue who is, in fact, the greatest of all time — and there will be those who believe it isn’t ANY of the three but instead is an Allison or a Gordon or a Richmond or someone like that. Johnson doesn’t care. He’s so happy to be in the discussion.

    Johnson never did race against Petty or Earnhardt, though he raced plenty against their sons. He did meet the legends. Well, he has met Richard Petty quite a few times, but he doesn’t really have any good stories about it. “What can you say about him that hasn’t been said a million times?” Johnson says. “He’s the King. He treats everyone with respect. He’s our greatest champion. He’s always been very nice to me, but he’s nice to everyone, you know? I don’t really know that I have more to add than that.”

    Johnson does have good stories, though, about the two times he met Dale Earnhardt.

    As part of Johnson’s effort to know people, he became friends with Ron Hornaday Jr., a four-time World Truck Series Champion, and a friend of Earnhardt’s. And one day, Hornaday sees Johnson and says, “Hey, you want to meet Earnhardt?” And of course Johnson says yes because Earnhardt was a legend by then. “People my age,” he says, “there was no one on earth cooler than Dale Earnhardt.”

    They walk in together, and Hornaday introduces Johnson. Earnhardt sizes up the kid; Johnson was 21 years old then. And then Earnhadt reaches for a little box and gives it to Johnson. “Here,” he says with no warning or explanation. Inside is a little pocket knife with Dale Earnhardt’s name on it. Johnson is overwhelmed.

    “OK,” Earnhardt says. “So what did you get me?”

    Johnson kind of stumbles around. “Um,” he says, “I didn’t know …”

    Earnhardt growls, “You know it’s YEARS of bad luck if you give somebody a knife and then don’t get a gift in return.”

    [nbcsports_mpx url=]

    Johnson begins to turn red, “I mean …”

    Earnhardt goes on: “I don’t need your bad luck. I still haven’t won Daytona. I give you a knife and you don’t have anything for me, and now you’re telling me I have to walk around with your bad luck …”

    Johnson panics. He rushes outside and, using all the ingenuity he could muster up, gets a penny. He goes in and gives it to Earnhardt saying, “It’s a heads-up penny for good luck.”

    Earnhardt doesn’t say a word.

    “You know,” Johnson says now, almost 20 years later, “I wonder if he was messing with me.”

    * * *

    Did you see Johnson going crazy?  In the minutes after Johnson won that race at Homestead on Nov. 20, the one that clinched the seventh championship, he lost his mind. He danced. He jumped around. He hugged everyone and everything in his path. He screamed — screamed so loud and with such force that even days later he did not have his voice back.  He had won six championships before this one, and he celebrated those heartily, too. But this was different. This was unchained. This was Spinal Tap’s eleven.

    “I don’t even know who that guy was,” Johnson says as he looks at footage of himself going bananas.

    Shock, of course, had something to do with it. Johnson went into Sunday’s race needing to finish ahead of three drivers — Carl Edwards, Joey Logano and Kyle Busch — to win the seventh championship. And all race long, he could not beat any of the three. They all had better cars. They all had better track position. Johnson’s crew chief, Chad Knaus, had tinkered and gambled and even tried making a few rather desperate changes, but none of it mattered. Johnson just didn’t have enough car. Those three guys pulled away, and Johnson was left sitting in his car thinking of ways to be gracious when the inevitable loss happened. “I knew I wasn’t going to win,” he says. “I accepted it.”

    (All the while, his wife, Chandra, was a mess. Chandra is famous around the track for her relatively serene approach to watching Jimmie race. On Sunday, she admitted, she was in the fetal position).

    And then in the final 10 laps of the race, suddenly, a whole series of wacky things happened. Carl Edwards was in command of the championship when the caution flag came out. Poor Carl Edwards. He’s had a glorious NASCAR career, winning 28 races and more than $80 million in prize money, but something has always blocked him from being THE GUY. There was the time he tied Tony Stewart and lost the tiebreaker. There was the year he won nine races, including the last one, but fell short on points. And then there was this one, the time when he had the championship in his hand but a caution flag came out with 10 laps to go and it all went to hell.

    Edwards restarted on the front row, and he had Joey Logano behind him. Jimmie Johnson was behind Logano. And for the first time all day, Johnson thought: “Well, hey, maybe there’s a chance.”

    Logano, as is his style, made a bold move inside to try and beat Edwards on the restart — nobody in NASCAR restarts quite as aggressively and forcefully as Logano. He went so far inside that his car rolled over the painted area near the interior wall. And it was a winning move — his move would trap Edwards between cars, and there’s no escaping that spot. Edwards knew it, knew his race was over if he let Logano by, and so, in a desperate effort to block Logano, he swerved left. “I was a bit optimistic,” Edwards said ruefully afterward. He bumped Logano, and then lost control, leading to a fiery wreck that ended Edwards’ hopes and shut the race down for 30 minutes.

    “As soon as I got by that wreck,” Johnson said, “I thought, ‘Wait a minute. What’s happening here? I might actually win this.'”

    Well, that was certainly the thought in the Johnson camp, where Knaus was pumping his fist and Chandra was losing her mind and so on. During that 30-minute, red-flag delay, Johnson’s crew, his fans, and the many people around NASCAR hoping to see a bit of history were going out of their minds. It was going to happen! Jimmie Johnson! Seven championships! Impossible!

    And, inside the car, Johnson fell asleep

    “I guess I was calm,” he says, and even now he’s surprised.

    There was one more break to come Johnson’s way — he expected to be lined up in the third position, which would have been him on the inside lane with his championship competitor Kyle Busch on the outside. If there was one thing that was clear all day in Miami it was this: You did NOT want to be in the inside lane. That was the lane where Carl Edwards AND Joey Logano saw their dreams end. “You just can’t hold your speed on the inside at Miami,” Johnson says.

    But, NASCAR determined that Busch, not Johnson, should be in the third spot. Johnson broke free from Busch on the restart and took the lead.

    * * *

    [nbcsports_mpx url=]

    There’s an irony about NASCAR: It is the ultimate thrill ride — 200 mph on sheet metal and horsepower and all that’s left of your tires — but you don’t get to NASCAR and you don’t win championships through daredevil feats. You get to NASCAR through great racing, yes, but also by building relationships, by impressing sponsors, by pitching the Lowe’s-Budweiser-M&M’s-FedEx-Napa Parts-Chevrolet-Toyota-Ford car and by working within a team. You win championships by driving like the devil when your car is loose and seems to be on a sheet of black ice, yes, but also by understanding what you don’t know and trusting your crew to handle things. You win championships by controlling your car, but also by relinquishing control. It’s the shakiest of balances.

    And balance is what Johnson does better than anyone in the sport.

    So when everyone asks Johnson how he feels after the seventh championship, well, he tries his best, he uses the balanced words that come closest, but really, in a private moment, he will tell you: He doesn’t really know HOW he feels. It’s all too much to take in.

    “All my life,” he says, “I just wanted to race cars. It was never about the numbers. I didn’t want to win seven championships. I didn’t really want to win one championship. I mean, yeah, I wanted to win, but what I really wanted was to drive a race car.”

    Before this race, he said the thing he wanted was to feel like he did when he was a kid, to strip away all the money and all the fame and all the past glory and just feel that thing he used to stay up all night dreaming about, that thing that pushed him to go down El Cajon Mountain just a little bit faster than felt right.

    Did he?

    “When people ask me how I feel,” he says, “I tell them best I can. I want people to share in this feeling i have. … But I don’t tell them everything.”

    * * *

    The second time Johnson met Dale Earnhardt, well, it’s a much shorter story. Johnson was hanging around with some buddies at Earnhardt’s garage when they all saw The Intimidator’s car roll slowly by with its windows pulled up. Suddenly the car stopped, and it backed up, and the window came down.

    “Hey,” Earnhardt said to Johnson. “You work for me?”

    “No sir.”

    “Then get the hell out of here. I don’t need no lawsuits.”

    And the window rolled back up and Dale Earnhardt drove away.

    At the end of that magical race at Homestead, there was one final restart, and after that Johnson heard “Clear” from his spotter, meaning the race and that seventh championship was his. Then came the disbelief and the crazy dancing and screaming and joy and hugs from his wife and children and the greatest compliment a driver could ever get.

    “Jimmie,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. would say to his friend as he pulled Johnson close, “Dad would think you’re such a badass.”

    The fourth wheel

    MIAMI — Carl Edwards has to know that he’s sort of the odd duck in this year’s Chase. Here, you have Kyle Busch, defending champion, force of nature, superstar. There, you have Jimmie Johnson, six-time champion, legend of the sport.  And third, completing the triangle, you have Joey Logano, 26 years old, phenom trying to insert himself into the story, everybody’s favorite young villain, the future of NASCAR.

    And here is Carl Edwards, 37 years old, a former dirt-track driver who ground out 28 victories in an excellent 13-year career but has never quite crashed through, never won a championship, never quite broken out of the pack of those excellent and professional drivers who make up the heart of NASCAR. People who know him probably know him as the guy who does a backflip when he wins. That’s fun. But it isn’t exactly what he wants.

    When you look at a list of the drivers who won the most races without winning a championship, you see this:

    1. Junior Johnson, 50 wins

    2. Mark Martin, 40 wins

    3. Fireball Roberts, 33 wins

    4. Denny Hamlin, 29 wins

    5. Carl Edwards, 28 wins

    Edwards knows this, knows it better than anyone. He knows there’s a difference in how people look at you when you’ve won a championship — knows there might even be a difference in how you look at yourself.

    Watch: NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship (Sunday at 1:30 p.m. ET on NBC, and NBC Sports App)

    “Winning a championship,” he says, “it just means that, you know, you go to bed Sunday night and know, hey, you did it. You beat the best in the world. And we’re the champions … at least until they start racing again. I guess that’s what it comes down to. That’s about the longest a win can last in this sport.”

    Edwards has had his share of championship heartbreak, beginning with his loss to Tony Stewart in 2011. The two were actually tied in points after an epic duel at Homestead, but the championship went to Stewart because he won more races than Edwards that year. NBCSN has shown that race this week, and Edwards admitted that he watched maybe 10 minutes of it. After that, he was so motivated he was ready to jump in a race car immediately.

    There were other close calls, but now, he’s back, and he will not pretend that it’s just another week. When someone asked all four drivers if they were going to try and treat this week differently from other weeks, the other three guys said, “No.” They talked about how you have to treat this race like any other, prepare the same way. Edwards had a different answer.

    “For me,” Edwards said, “I’m going to be honest, this week does feel different. I mean, yes, we do have to go do the same job, like these guys said. But for me, each moment, I almost have to pinch myself, like, ‘Hey, this is really it, we’re getting to do this.’ So this is more excitement for me personally.”

    “Would winning a championship change your self-perception?”

    “Well, yeah, it would be great. I think it would be great … you can print that. It would be great for a different reason for me at this point in my career, though. I’m starting to just realize how difficult this is.

    “As far as self-perception, probably like most race car drivers, I kind of have an ego problem already. So that could put me over the edge, honestly.”

    Edwards’ advantage could be the track. He has won the pole twice at Homestead and has won the race twice, finishing top five five times in his 12 starts. He just won at Texas, which is a similar track that uses a similar tire setup. “There’s not a better race track,” he says. “Statistically, this is as good as it gets for me.”

    [nbcsports_mpx url=]

    And his dirt-track background sets him up well too. The toughest part of competing in a winner-take-all race is that you have to find a way to win no matter what gets thrown your way. In other races throughout the season, you just do the best you can with what fate deals you. There is always more than one winner in a regular season NASCAR race. There’s the driver that takes the checkered flag, but there are also those who had to overcome numerous problems, mechanical issues, tire trouble, poor pit stops, whatever, and somehow finished seventh or 10th or something like that. Every week, you will hear drivers and crew chiefs say happily, “We got the most out of our car today.”

    But for the four drivers left in the Chase, that’s not really an option on Sunday. It’s all about winning.

    “Carl’s real good at driving through the limits and being able to compensate for something not being right the with the car,” his teammate and competitor Kyle Busch says. “He’s able to make more out of it. So that sets him up pretty well.”

    “I think that comes from his dirt background,” Johnson says. “He’s used to dealing with cars that just weren’t exactly right.”

    “Yeah, that’s nice for people to say,” Edwards himself says. “But this is NASCAR, you have the best drivers in the world, they’re ALL good at making the most of their car. The other three drivers in the Chase are incredible. I don’t really think I have an advantage in that. All of us are good at that.

    “I do feel like, yeah, I like the challenge. I feel like if they would spray the track down with water and said, ‘OK, everybody race,’ I would enjoy that struggle. … But I’ll enjoy this week no matter what. It’s fun. This is what I like.”

    One for the history books

    MIAMI — There is a funny thing about sports dreams. You know, the kind you have when you’re a little kid. You dream about hitting the game-winning home run. You dream about catching the game-winning touchdown pass, or swishing the game-winning basket, or scoring the game-winning goal, or making the putt that wins you the Masters.

    Few of us ever get to do it, of course. But that’s not the funny part.

    The funny part is that the people who DO get to do it, well, they find that it isn’t exactly like the dreams. Take Jimmie Johnson. He has won six NASCAR Sprint Cup Championships. Six. Only two men — Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt with seven — have any idea what that’s like. But to be realistic, even they don’t know EXACTLY what it is like because the sport has grown so much bigger, the money has grown so much bigger, the pressure has grown so much bigger. So many people are counting on you. So many people are rooting against you. Gigantic companies have many millions of dollars at stake.

    And so even though this is all Jimmie Johnson ever wanted — to be the best race car driver — those first five championships felt nothing at all like his childhood dreams. He didn’t even ENJOY them, not in the way we understand the word “enjoy.” Yes, he was very proud of what he and his team did. Yes, he thrilled in the racing, the speed, the challenge, the victories, the opportunities that came with being the best stock-car driver in the world. But it wasn’t fun, if that makes sense. It wasn’t that innocent joy that went along with all those childhood daydreams, that feeling of the world going in slow motion, that intoxicating blur of champagne and happiness and wonder. He would stay up at night, staring at the ceiling, thinking about how he could stay on top.

    In 2013, when Johnson was 38 years old and won his sixth championship, the feeling was closer to what he had hoped. By then, Johnson had let go of a lot of things, a lot of the insecurities. He had stopped worrying so much about pleasing everyone. But even that wasn’t EXACTLY what he had dreamed about.

    [nbcsports_mpx url=]

    “You’re like, ‘Wow, this is nutty, this is stressful, can I do it?'” Johnson says. “You have all of these things weighing you down. When I won those first few championships, it wasn’t fun AT ALL. There was always more to do, you know? In ’13, it definitely felt different. I felt different. That was the most fun I’ve ever had racing for a championship by far.

    “Still, some days, you wish you could feel that thing you wanted as a kid, you know, that place you see in the movies or hear about in stories, and it is surreal, and the world stops and time stops, and it is perfect.”

    So that’s what this time is about. Johnson is 41 years old. He’s a legend of the sport. He has won six championships and 79 races and more than $150 million in prize money. He has won multiple races every year since he was a rookie. The legacy, if such a thing matters, is secure.

    And so, this race is for him.

    “I feel different going into this championship than I have ever felt before, there’s absolutely no doubt about that,” Johnson says. “As weird as it may sound, I’m more comfortable in my own skin than I’ve ever been. And that’s a major player. I have nothing to prove to anyone, and I don’t care what other people think. I really don’t. I’m racing this weekend for me and my family and my team. I don’t have any outside baggage that’s on me. That was other years. There was plenty of that stuff. None of that matters to me anymore.”

    He endured an odd year. It began like most Jimmie Johnson years do — he won in Atlanta in the second race of the year and followed that up three weeks later with a win at Fontana. And then he and his team went into a bit of slump. In a 15-race span, he finished in the top five four times while finishing 20th or worse six times. He and his crew chief Chad Knaus struggled week to week. There was the talk — which has grown louder the last couple of years — that Johnson was close to the end. “I definitely missed driving up front,” Johnson says.

    Watch: NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship (Sunday at 1:30 p.m. ET on NBC, and NBC Sports App)

    Then came the Chase and it has been absolutely perfect. He breezed into the second round, then won the first race, Charlotte, to automatically move into the third round. He promptly won the first race of the third round, in Martinsville, to qualify for Sunday’s final four. Johnson’s team has had two stress-free weeks to prepare the car for this final race, and while nobody knows if that will make a difference, well, it can’t hurt.

    And Johnson is just enjoying it. “I’m excited,” he says. “And I’m fresh. I don’t know if it will change as we get closer to the race, if the nerves will come. But I don’t think it will.”

    He is well aware, of course, that winning this title would tie him with Earnhardt and Petty for most championships — so aware of it that ever since he won the race in Charlotte he has been wearing a helmet with Petty and Earnhardt’s photos on it and the words “Drive for Seven.” He says that if he could tie those two legends of the sport, it would mean the world to him because it would connect him to history.

    But, again, he promises not to let that inflate into pressure.

    “I never race for stats,” he says. “I’ve never raced for stats, for fame, for money. I’ve just always loved racing. I feel like I’m more in touch with that, in tune with that, than I’ve ever been in my career.

    “I think about those dreams I had as a kid, dreams all of us have in our own way I suppose. I guess I want that moment. I’ve done this for a long time. And I’d love to have that moment.”

    Promises, promises

    MIAMI — Two years ago, Joey Logano showed up for his shot at destiny … and he was scared out of his mind. He doesn’t like to say it that way. He would prefer to just say, “I was nervous. Because I didn’t know what was happening. And I think that’s where nerves are going to come from.”

    He was just 24 years old then and he was trying to join Jeff Gordon and Bill Rexford as the only two drivers to win a championship before turning 25 years old. But it was different for Logano. He’d been preordained to be NASCAR’s next superstar ever since he was a teenager. “Sliced bread,” they called him — as in “best thing since …” — and while he sort of got a kick out of the nickname and the expectations when he was a kid, those things soon felt like an anchor tied to his waist.

    “Sliced bread,” people would mutter savagely every time he finished out of the top five.

    “Sliced bread,” people would taunt him because he won just three races in his first five full seasons.

    “Sliced bread,” other drivers would mock when they felt like Logano pushed his aggressiveness too far.

    Then in 2014, it finally came together for Logano. He won five times. He came to Homestead with a real chance to win the championship … only he readily admits that his head just wasn’t in the right place. “I couldn’t settle my mind down,” he says. “I was thinking about what could happen … or what’s going to happen … what’s the week going to look like … what’s the feeling on Sunday going to be … what is it going to feel like like getting in the car … do I have what it takes?”

    Here Logano smiles. He’s famous for that smile.

    Watch: NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship (Sunday at 1:30 p.m. ET on NBC, and NBC Sports App)

    “I think that’s the big one. ‘Do I have what it takes?’ I didn’t know then. I know now.”

    “What do you know?” 

    “I know the challenge ahead. I’m prepared for that. I’m ready for that, ready for the pressure. I’m more than ready, I’m excited about it. I’m genuinely pumped. It’s like a complete 180 from last time I was here.”

    There are times when it feels like Logano has been racing forever — and he HAS been racing full time since 2009 — but he’s still just 26 years old. He’s five years younger than Jimmie Johnson was when he won the first of his so-far six championships, three years younger than Dale Earnhardt when he won his first of seven. And he’s five years younger than any of the other drivers in the Chase this year.

    And it’s the combination of youth and experience that makes him unique … and dangerous. NASCAR people will tell you: Young drivers go FAST. The great Junior Johnson used to say, “They don’t know no better — they haven’t hit the wall yet.” So younger drivers push closer to the edge than might be prudent out of youthful exuberance and daring. That makes them go extremely fast, yes, but then they tend to burn out (or spin out or get spun out).

    Logano has that speed. But he has more or less stopped burning out.

    “When you’re flirting with the edge, you’re going to step over it from time to time,” Jimmie Johnson says. “And he has. I think he’s figured out how to inch his way up to the edge instead of flying over it like he did three or four years ago.”

    “For me,” Carl Edwards says, “a switch has gone off the last couple of years for Joey. He’s just so fast everywhere. I have a feeling he’s going to be VERY fast on Sunday. He’s hungry. He wants this very badly. You could argue that he doesn’t have a lot of experience or whatever but I’ve been around long enough. I’ve watched how he’s been approaching this. I think he’s got a ton of confidence.”

    [nbcsports_mpx url=]

    The other three drivers talk a lot about handling whatever adversity comes this week, being patient, always, in the immortal words of NASA legend Gene Kranz, “Working the problem.” Logano talks about these things too, but more he talks about being aggressive … and being aggressive … and when that doesn’t work, to keep being aggressive.

    “Attack all day,” Logano says of the gameplan. “That’s it. It’s the way our team is. It has been for the last three years or whatever. That’s what we found to be successful for us. Race aggressively. Attack every minute. I start the race and say, ‘I’m here to win,’ and I have that ‘I will not get beat’ attitude throughout the race. Whether that’s good or bad, well, it’s different for other people. Probably it’s a lot different. But it works for us.”

    And when you ask him how he will deal with the frustration that might come with a poor pit stop or a car that won’t quite adjust to conditions or the ever-changing conditions of the track, he smiles again.

    “Frustration is OK,” he says. “It’s OK as long as it’s channeled in the right way. But there’s never that feeling of ‘We’re just not going to win today. It’s just not our day. We suck.’ There’s never that feeling. Because I know we don’t suck. I know I’m a very good race car driver. I know I have a very good race team. And I know we can handle this.”

    The Magic Man

    MIAMI — The wonderful thing about the press conference for the NASCAR Championship Four — just three days before the big race — is that you have all four of the contending drivers sitting on the stage side by side. And because they are sitting next to each other, you can get just a small feel for how they feel about each other and their chances and everything else coming into the winner-take-all final race.

    Joey Logano, for instance, is totally pumped up, super happy. Why not? He won last week to become one of the four drivers to have a chance to win a championship Sunday. This is the dream, man.

    Jimmie Johnson seems calm, beyond calm, like he’s done this whole thing a million times before, which is pretty close to true.

    Carl Edwards looks a bit dazed, but in the best of ways. He’s 37 years old now and he has won 28 races and more than $80 million, but he has never won a Sprint Cup Championship. He looks like a guy in a dream.

    And then there’s Kyle Busch. He looks, um, lethargic.

    “Do you guys like each other?” someone asks the group.

    “Kyle,” Logano says, “we’ll let you answer that.”

    Watch: NASCAR Sprint Cup Championship (Sunday at 1:30 p.m. ET on NBC, and NBC Sports App)

    Busch looks out with a bit of a bewildered expression, as if someone has just woken him up from a nap. “I am exhausted,” he would say later. And when asked why, he would say, “I am always exhausted.”

    “Do you like each other?” was the question to the group.

    “Right now, yes,” Busch says. “In about 25 seconds, no.”

    Kyle Busch has the aura now. For so many years, he was the guy with unlimited potential, the impossibly talented driver who won a lot of races but always should have won more. Busch himself bought into the hype. He lashed out. He got into numerous dust-ups. Fans loathed him. He beat himself up continuously. In the words of his team owner Joe Gibbs: “He always felt like he was letting himself and his team down, like he wasn’t living up to his great talent.”

    Last year, it all changed. What a year that was. Busch got into a wreck at Daytona that threatened to end his entire season — for a brief time it seemed like his career might be in danger. Even once the doctors got a handle on his condition, Busch was supposed to be out for a minimum six months. Three months later he was standing — wobbly but standing — in the hospital room when his wife Samantha gave birth to their son Brexton.

    Then he came back to the track … and he was essentially unbeatable. In a beautiful five-week span, he won at Sonoma, at Kentucky, at Loudon and finally at the Brickyard 400 in Indianapolis — his first major victory. He won so much that he easily qualified for the Chase even though he’d missed 11 races. Then he made it to the final four, and he ran away to victory at Homestead for his first championship. In the last few laps, he was singing the theme song for “Vocabularry” — his infant son’s favorite TV show.

    A magical year like that, yeah, it changes a person.

    “No,” he says now, “it doesn’t feel a whole lot different.”

    A magical year like that, um, it sort of changes a person?

    [nbcsports_mpx url=]

    “Well, look, it hasn’t been terribly different on the racing side,” Busch says. “Personally, with Brexton at home and stuff like that, that’s different. Having him come to all the races, that’s pretty fun. We certainly enjoy the time that we have on the road. But, you know, I’m just me.”

    So, OK, maybe a magical year like that doesn’t change a person — but don’t tell the other drivers that. They see a different Kyle Busch. There was always a saying in the garages about Kyle Busch during those years when he could not quite put everything together: If he ever wins a championship, watch out.

    Now that he’s won one, yes, watch out.

    “He just has so much confidence now, you can see it,” Johnson says. “I mean, he was always a confident guy, but it’s different, I think. Now, he’s a champion. Now, he KNOWS.”

    That is exactly the thing that is apparent as Kyle Busch sits off to the side during the press conference — it’s like he’s separate from the other three. He knows. He’s the defending champion. He’s the closest thing this Chase has to a favorite. He’s the guy in the best position to take over this sport, to be the new Dale Earnhardt, the new Bobby Allison, the new Richard Petty. A year ago, after he won his championship, he boldly said he’d like to win 10 in a row. When people laughed, he made it clear that he wasn’t joking.

    “It’s not about what we did last year,” he says. “We’ve already got that one. It’s in the bag. This is about going out there THIS one. It’s one race. It doesn’t matter what the situation is this week, doesn’t matter what comes your way, you have to figure out a way to win.”

    That, more than anything, might be what makes Kyle Busch the favorite. Right now, there is no stock-car driver anywhere who can make more out of less than Kyle Busch. Just last week in Phoenix, he had a tepid car that was running around 15th for most of the race. Through sheer relentlessness, a few adjustments on the car and a bit of driving brilliance — especially on restarts (Busch is a wonder on restarts) — they somehow finished second and could have won.

    “Oh, Kyle can make some magic,” Johnson says. “And knowing him, I’ll bet he will on Sunday.”

    No more fun and games

    Cam Newton, at his best, is a magical player. He does things that blow minds. He throws 30-yard darts that slip by defensive backs before they can react. He avoids sacks not so much by eluding them as by simply standing up through them, a brick house in the Big Bad Wolf’s wind. Newton takes off running and in the open field he is both halfback and fullback, able at times to split defenders in two the way Gale Sayers could, able at other times to blast through a defender, not unlike the way Neo blasts through Agent Smith at the end of “The Matrix.”

    This is Newton at his height, when the conditions are right, when his team is playing great and the opponent is in retreat and, as the Magic 8-Ball says, “All signs point to yes.”

    This was Newton last year for a 15-1 Panthers team that went to the Super Bowl.

    Something has changed this year, of course. That part is obvious. It isn’t that Newton is playing badly. His numbers are down, yes, and the Panthers are 3-6 and in last place. But he’s still among the top five or 10 quarterbacks out there. And there have been a few familiar moments. He threw for four touchdown passes against San Francisco. He has had a couple of dazzling runs. He has put his team in position to win for the most part, including last week against Kansas City. It isn’t like Newton suddenly forgot how to play football … he’s still Cam Newton.

    But something has obviously changed.

    What? There are a few clear possibilities. The Panthers’ defense was otherworldly last year, forcing turnover after turnover, setting up Newton and his offense with golden opportunities time and again. That has more or less stopped this year. The Panthers are starting inside their own 20-yard line more often. This has affected the Panthers’ offense generally and Newton specifically. He’s thrown only 10 touchdown passes this year. All the numbers are down.

    On offense, the line has been beat-up and inconsistent, and that has knocked Newton off his game. He has thrown off his back foot more often, and that usually leads to bad things. It did last week when the Panthers seemed about ready to put away Kansas City — a retreating Newton threw a pick-six that put Kansas City back in a game that should have been over. Newton has dealt with injuries, too — he missed the game against Tampa Bay, and he wasn’t himself in others.

    Watch: Saints vs. Panthers on Thursday Night Football (7:30 p.m. ET on NBC, and NBC Sports app)

    And, perhaps most of all, teams have been taking their free shots at him at every turn. Newton is 6-foot-5, 245 pounds and a great runner, so teams obviously have to tackle him hard. But there’s no question opponents have taken this to an extreme this season. They have hit Newton late a few times, stolen some shots to the head, unloaded some knockout blows. And, for the most part, there have been no penalties to accompany the hits, possibly BECAUSE Newton is so big and powerful.

    This has driven Newton to distraction. Newton seems to believe the whole world is ganging up on him. A couple of weeks ago, he flatly said that the late hits are “really taking the fun out of the game for me. At times I don’t even feel safe.”

    Newton has a beef. But more to the point here, all of this leads to this rather simple theory that I have about Cam Newton.

    He needs to be having fun to play his best football.

    And this year, he’s just not having any fun.

    Great athletes tend to feed off different motivations. Some want to be loved. Some seem to get a huge kick out of being despised. Some are motivated by fear, others by anger, still others by fame and fortune. Tom Brady, for instance, STILL seems to motivate himself by disrespect (you might have heard that he was selected in the sixth round of the NFL draft) even though it has been years since anybody disrespected him (Roger Goodell aside). Meanwhile, a player like Carolina’s impeccable linebacker Luke Kuechly seems to motivate himself through the daily challenge of figuring out how to break up an offense — it is like a puzzle for him.

    Newton apparently grazes off joy. He wears the hats. He does the dances. He gives away the footballs. The bigger the lead, the more fun he has, the better he plays. The louder the crowd, the more fun he has, the higher he soars. This is part of what makes Newton such a joy; through it all, he PLAYS football the way kids PLAY football. It’s a game. And it’s so much fun when everything is working and everyone has come together.

    This is something people around the Carolina team have noticed for years. There have been times that people inside the organization have wondered if Newton could be serious enough to become a great NFL quarterback. Soon enough they realized that it was the wrong question, realized that being serious doesn’t suit him or his play. You probably noticed how serious Newton looked in the Super Bowl last year. That didn’t turn out well.

    Marty Schottenheimer is one of the many coaches who noted that you can’t have fun in the NFL if you lose. The Panthers are coming off one of their worst losses in recent franchise history, a complete giveaway to the Chiefs. Their playoff situation looks pretty dire — Carolina might have to win out. The key will be getting Newton to start having fun again.

    The remarkable rise of Andy Murray

    For years, there was this fun argument going on about Tiger Woods and Roger Federer. The argument assumed that both men are the best who ever played golf and tennis (an open debate, obviously). And it led to one question: Who is better at their sport?

    The argument never really went anywhere because for every point (golf requires beating the WHOLE field rather than one opponent at a time), there was a counterpoint (one mediocre/bad day in golf does not sink a golfer’s chances, but it can end a tennis player’s tournament).

    For every factor that points to the difficulty of golf (it is so mentally challenging that even the great golfers will miss cuts with some regularity — Phil Mickelson missed 11 in his career) there is another that points to the difficulty of tennis (it is so physically grueling that many of the greatest players — John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg, Martina Hingis, Justine Henin, Mats Wilander, on and on — won their last Grand Slam singles title by the time they turned 25 years old).

    Anyway, it was fun to talk about, even if it never really led anywhere. But there is something that does seem to be emerging about the wonderful dominance of Woods and Federer. You might call the two effects “dishearten” and “hearten.”

    All of this, eventually, will take us to Andy Murray. Hopefully.

    Tiger Woods was such a force in golf that he disheartened his opponents. He broke their spirit. They could not beat him, not when he was on his game, not when he was slightly off his game and, quite often, not even when he was very much off his game. There’s an old Jack Nicklaus line that is even more true for Woods: He knew he would beat you, you knew he would beat you, and he knew that you knew he would beat you.

    FIfty-eight times, Woods was either in the lead or tied for the lead going into the final round. He won 54 of them. He won the first 14 major tournaments he led after 54 holes.

    And how did this uncommon mastery of a sport that is supposed to defy mastery affect other golfers? It crushed them. Sure, there were supremely talented golfers in Woods’ time, several who are in the World Golf Hall of Fame. But let’s put it this way — from the time when Woods broke onto the scene and breezed to the 1997 Masters title to when he won the U.S. Open on one leg, there were 46 major championships.

    Tiger Woods won 14 of them, as mentioned.

    The other 32 majors? Well, 25 different golfers won those 32 majors. Vijay Singh and Phil Mickelson won three. Mark O’Meara, Retief Goosen and Ernie Els won two each. Those five terrific players — four already in the Hall of Fame with only Goosen waiting — won fewer majors than Woods COMBINED. And the other 20 majors were won by 20 different golfers. It’s a clear pattern: Everyone would show up at the majors with the hope that Woods was way off his game. Then, and only then, did they have a chance.

    His magnificence was unassailable. It was meant to be enjoyed and feared but not challenged. The best golfers on earth not named Tiger Woods had to console themselves with the huge sums of money that Tiger brought into the sport and the hope that maybe someday he would stop winning everything and leave some tournaments for everyone else.

    So, yes, Tiger Woods was disheartening.

    Roger Federer, somehow, was the opposite. He was every bit as dominant as Woods — the numbers are even more striking. From 2003, when Federer won his first Wimbledon to 2010 when he took the Australian Open, there were 27 Grand Slam tournaments. Federer won 16 of them, more than half, and reached the final in another six. The only other tennis players to win Grand Slams in Roger’s time: Rafael Nadal, who won six, and five others who managed one each.

    But it was different somehow. There was something magnanimous about Federer’s beautiful game, something that opened up possibilities in the minds of other tennis players. Golfers would see Tiger Woods hit miracle shots out of trouble and make every important putt he looked at and they would think: NO SHOT. But Federer would hit some implausible running forehand winner or spin a drop-volley with such touch that it would not even bounce, and the other tennis players would think: I WANT TO DO THAT!

    That begins with Nadal, of course. He seemed to be just the latest in a long line of Spanish and Latin American clay-court specialists — Sergi Brugera, Gustavo Kuerten, Gaston Gaudio, Albert Costa, Juan Carlos Ferrera — who would show up at the French Open to win and then disappear like top-spinning swallows of Capistrano.

    Nadal, though, was stirred to take his game to a higher place. He has spoken eloquently about how the inspiration of Federer took him there. Nadal has won all four major championships and 14 Grand Slam tournaments in all — he has his place now in the inner circle of all-time tennis greats. His rivalry with Federer might just be the greatest in tennis history. Nadal has controlled it for the most part with shots that kick up high and attack Fed’s backhand like wasps. Still, their tennis has lifted the sport.

    Novak Djokovic was next. He had both Federer AND Nadal to contend with, something that certainly could have left him entirely discouraged. At times, he did indeed seem discouraged. Djokovic does not have quite the grace or touch of Federer nor the ferocious power of Nadal. He found his own path — foot speed, instincts, hitting balls on the rise, imposing return of serve and sheer ambition. He has now won 12 Grand Slam titles, including the career Grand Slam. He has a winning record against both Federer and Nadal. He too has a place in tennis’ inner circle.

    All of which brings us to Andy Murray. He has been around a long time. It is tempting to think that Murray is younger than he is, but he was born in the same month as Djokovic (Murray is actually a week older). He is less than a year younger than Nadal. He played in his first Wimbledon in 2005. He has endured more or less the ENTIRE period of Roger and Rafa and Novak’s dominance.

    He did not just endure that dominance, he was repeatedly smacked down by their dominance. The first 10 times he reached at least a Grand Slam semifinal, he was knocked out by Nadal (four times), Federer (three times) or Djokovic (two times)*. If anyone had good reason to grudgingly accept that he was born at just the wrong time, it was Murray.

    *He was also beaten once in a semi by Andy Roddick, another slap in the face — he couldn’t even be the best ANDY on the court that day.

    And Murray seemed, well, to put it delicately, just the type of person who would grudgingly accept that he was born at just the wrong time. Murray in 2008, when he was 21 years old and had not yet won a single significant tournament (no offense to the Qatar Open) nor reached the final of a Grand Slam event, wrote an autobiography called “Hitting Back.” Nobody was entirely sure WHY he wrote an autobiography at that time, but he did indeed hit back — at British tennis, at the media members who doubted him (he was refusing to even talk to the BBC at the time) and at the unfair obstacles he seemed sure that everyone was putting in his way and his way alone. He came across as a very angry young man, though nobody was entirely sure why.

    Then, maybe the answer why was obvious. Federer was majestic then. Nadal was ascendant. Djokovic won the Australian Open that very year. There seemed to be no room in the tennis world for Andy Murray, and he seemed to know it.

    So what happened from there? The book kept getting updated as Murray began growing up. The paperback version of that book was called “Coming of Age.” And then the book title was updated and titled  “Seventy-Seven: My Road to Wimbledon Glory.” That happened in 2013, after Murray broke the 77-year British drought and won Wimbledon. By then, he was a different tennis player and a different man. He had won the Olympics in London. He won the U.S. Open that year. He had found himself.

    And I would argue that it was, once again, the inspiration of Federer, who inspired Nadal, who inspired Djokovic, who inspired Murray. Andy improved everything about his game. And he did it by building up every single part of his game. He doesn’t really do anything specifically better than the rest of the world. But you know those Sprint commercials where Sprint basically admits it’s not QUITE as good as Verizon, but it’s 99 percent as good for half the price?

    Murray doesn’t quite have Djokovic’s return of serve (no one in tennis history does) or his pure speed — but it’s probably 99 percent.

    Murray doesn’t quite have Nadal’s bullfighter tenacity — win or die with honor — but he’s probably at 99 percent.

    Murray doesn’t quite have Federer’s ability to hit the “gaga shot” that tilts an opponent’s head the same way shaking a pinball machine does — but he’s probably at 99 percent.

    In other words, at least as I see it, Murray created a game that is like an homage to those masters he has been trying to beat. He does a little bit of everything, and he brings along some of that youthful rage and intensity, and here he is: Murray is now the No. 1 player in the world.

    It is unclear if he will stay at No. 1 for very long. Djokovic seems worn down by his own extraordinary rise, but he has still made the final of nine of the last 11 Grand Sam tournaments, winning six of them. Djokovic also dominated the head-to-head matchups between them, winning 24 of 34 matches and eight of the 10 times they played in Grand Slams. It seems a pretty good bet that he will be back, and so this could be just a Murray blip, a fluke of timing.

    Or it could be more. Either way, for Murray to reach No. 1 after all these years is an extraordinary thing.

    When Tiger Woods hit the golf scene, you will remember there was a lot of talk about the generation of golfers he would give rise to, the young golfers who, seeing what he was doing, would find a way to take golf even higher. We might be seeing that with golfers like Rory McIlroy and Jason Day and Jordan Spieth, though it is too early to tell.

    Federer’s impact is clearer. He came into the sport during a lull, just as the Pete Sampras-Andre Agassi era was ending, and he played sublime and previously unimaginable tennis. And his tennis genius has helped create three of the greatest tennis players who ever lived. I’m sure he didn’t mean to do that. But, hey, who DOESN’T want to be Roger Federer?