SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Prior to their respective press conferences Monday, a Fiesta Bowl representative presented Baylor’s Art Briles and Central Florida’s George O’Leary with their own massive basket of Tostitos chips and dips.
Watching that scene unfold, I couldn’t help but think, “Don’t these guys have enough chips already?”
As I walked around the grand ballroom later, interviewing different UCF and Baylor players, a common chorus emerged.
Everybody — Knight or Bear, backup or starter, offense or defense — has something to prove.
The linebackers have a chip on their shoulder. The safeties have a chip on their shoulder. The quarterbacks, receivers and coaches. Even the punters and placekickers aren’t chipless underneath their shoulder pads.
Forget the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl. They should call this the Tostitos Chip-On-Our-Shoulder Bowl. (Coming soon to a grocer near you!)
“All season we’ve been doing that, playing with a chip on our shoulder,” UCF safety Brandon Alexander said. “Even though we’re the underdogs here, we don’t have any problem being the underdogs in the game, just because of the fact that it gives us some advantage, some fuel to the fire.”
Oh, yeah. You’re the underdogs, UCF? Don’t try telling Baylor that.
“Yeah, we’re favored in this game. We’ve been favored in a lot of games,” Baylor’s Ahmad Dixon said. “At the beginning of the year, we were picked sixth in the Big 12, we weren’t even picked in the top 25. It took us a while to even get to the top 10. There’s still a chip on our shoulder, because we feel like we don’t get the respect that we need.”
Therein lies the most primal motivation for every athletic event ever contested. Since the days of the Egyptian chariot races or the Roman gladiator rumbles, the forecasters and oddsmakers have deemed some combatants as the favorites and others as the likely losers.
But talk to the athletes, and they’re all underdogs. They all try to adopt the identity of the slighted, forgotten stepchild.
Everybody hates us. We get no respect. OK, so we’re picked to win. So what? Someone, somewhere, wrote or said or televised or tweeted or Instagrammed something that insulted us.
ESPN’s popular columnist Bill Simmons calls it the “Nobody believes in us!” mentality, and it’s universal in every sport, in every language.
“I think it’s just second nature as an athlete,” Baylor linebacker Eddie Lackey said. “You’re going to have to have that mentality, go out there and act like you have something to prove.”
Michael Jordan was the all-time king of it, and he’s considered the best basketball player ever. In MJ’s eyes, Rodney Dangerfield got more respect than he did. Jordan always had a bone to pick with somebody. He has talked about being in the locker room before games and envisioning the other team as having kidnapped or hurt his family, his kids. Good (or rather bad) grief, Jordan’s Hall of Fame speech might as well have taken place on Festivus, since it was just one long airing of grievances.
Even when it’s contrived, the shoulder chip is a functional delusion. It gives athletes an edge. It keeps them on alert. Complacency and overconfidence are your most dangerous enemies in sports, and your most effective weapon in warding them off is by wearing Underdog Underoos. (Remember Underoos? I had a Superman pair myself).
“You can’t underestimate anybody in college football, because anybody can be beat any day of the week,” said UCF defensive lineman Thomas Niles. “So you’ve always got to play your hardest.”
In both the case of Baylor and UCF, the lack-of-respect card actually plays. Guys on both sides can legitimately pull it out with a straight face.
Neither team was ranked at the beginning of the year. Both are BCS newbies, strangers to college football’s grandest stage. Some Baylor fans questioned UCF’s worthiness as a Fiesta Bowl foe, just as other fans and pundits decried the Bears’ hopes for an at-large BCS berth prior to Oklahoma State’s loss in Bedlam.
In this race, everybody is a dark horse — at least if you talk to the horses themselves. That’s the way they like it.
“We don’t mind it at all,” Knights QB Blake Bortles said. “When people expect you to lose, it’s not a bad thing.”
Of course it’s not. Even a chip on your shoulder can use a little more salt.