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The Doubters Are Running Up the Score

So many sports stories center on an athlete overcoming someone else’s doubts. We are all, it seems, underdogs.

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Last week, a reporter asked Bengals wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase about his knack for proving the doubters wrong. “When did you first notice that trait in yourself, Ja’Marr?” the reporter said, helpfully adding, “I don’t know if you have a story or anything …”

Chase did have a story. It was “one of my best stories ever,” he said. As a high school player, Chase met with Les Miles, the head coach at LSU. “Les Miles told me I couldn’t play receiver,” said Chase. Miles thought Chase was more cut out to play cornerback.

Reporters high-pointed that nugget like Chase grabbing a pass from Joe Burrow. The Athletic tweeted the news without acknowledging that one of its own writers had reported it two years earlier. The Miles snub provided a Pro Bowl receiver with an antagonist and a career arc. “I just kept working at my craft,” said Chase.

These days, just about every sports profile and documentary includes a doubter or two. In an ESPN feature last month, Heisman-winning Alabama quarterback Bryce Young said “a lot of schools” rejected him as a recruit because he was too small. As a high school junior, Young had offers from every big college in the country. One recruiting service ranked him the sixth-best quarterback they’d ever scouted.

In the latest issue of GQ, Steph Curry admits that being snubbed by college recruiters allowed him to cultivate the mindset of an underdog. “I still carry that one thousand percent,” said Curry. Curry’s dad, Dell, played 16 seasons in the NBA.

Joe Montana’s new Peacock documentary series declares that Montana “spent nearly his entire career being doubted.” Montana won four Super Bowls with the 49ers and a national championship at Notre Dame. Give the doubters credit: They are resilient.

It’s no surprise that athletes remember old slights from coaches or recruiters. Nor is it a surprise that they use such slights for motivation like Michael Jordan did. But if every athlete is telling a version of the same story, I wonder how revealing they are. There’s a difference between the story that reporters want to tell readers and the story that athletes tell themselves.

“I wanted to go to Nebraska,” Burrow told ESPN in 2019. “They told me I wasn’t good enough.” Ohio State did think Burrow was good enough. The Buckeyes gave him a scholarship out of high school. When Burrow didn’t win the starting job, LSU took him as a transfer. Burrow’s snub reveals less about him than it does about the lowly Cornhuskers.

“I wasn’t really a highly recruited athlete,” Tom Brady has said, according to Seth Wickersham’s book It’s Better to Be Feared. Wickersham points out that Brady was recruited by USC, UCLA, and Michigan, the team he signed with. You can’t be that lightly recruited if you played for the 1997 national champs.

Last month, I opened the Boston Globe sports section and found two more old wounds. In 1974, Larry Bird didn’t land a scholarship to the University of Kentucky. (“It was a slight Bird never forgot.”) ESPN’s Karl Ravech—the new voice of Sunday Night Baseballlost out on a promotion when he was a young anchor in Binghamton, New York. (“It was a slap in the face.”)

The doubters-among-us mentality has seeped into pop culture. During last Sunday’s AFC championship game, a truck ad declared, “Some of us make a point of staying underdogs—even when we’re on top.” After the Chiefs lost the game, a Kansas City TV station posted a tweet (since deleted) casting the seven-point favorites as a team nobody believed in.

If you study the stories athletes tell about their doubters, you find some interesting things. Sometimes, doubt exists only in trace amounts. In 2018, the Seahawks’ Jamal Adams called a Rivals.com recruiting analyst a “clown who had me as the 38th player in the country, 3rd best safety.” Too low, maybe, but the analyst thought Adams was one of the best high school players in the country.

The Astros’ Alex Bregman chose no. 2 as his uniform number partly because he was the second pick in the 2015 draft, out of LSU. “Yeah, I was pissed,” said Bregman. “I wanted to be the no. 1 overall pick.” There were more than 1,200 players taken in the 2015 draft.

The moment of doubt an athlete experiences is often fleeting. According to the Peacock documentary, Montana’s high school coach didn’t start him during his sophomore year. The coach “finally” started Montana during his junior year.

Piling on more doubters, the documentary notes that when Montana got a scholarship to Notre Dame—proving his coach wrong once and for all—some of Montana’s friends thought he’d be better off at a smaller school. Who cares?

The moment the athlete faces down a skeptic is often portrayed as a turning point in their career. In some cases, they’re surely inspired to prove the skeptic wrong. But in others, it’s unclear whether the athlete got sidetracked at all.

When Chase’s dad described the Miles snub to The Athletic in 2019, most of the chronology was confined to a single day. Before an LSU camp, Miles said he wanted to “try” Chase at defensive back. When Chase refused to perform defensive drills, he was allowed to work out with the wide receivers. “Ja’Marr, OK, you’re a wide receiver,” Miles admitted. Chase was later ranked as the 12th-best receiver in the country. LSU’s next coach, Ed Orgeron, begged him to play receiver for the Tigers.

I can’t blame Chase for lingering over a slight. I do it, too. Once, I thought an editor at another publication was giving me the high hat. Sometimes, when I’m grinding out the last few paragraphs of a think piece, I picture this editor (and his stupid glasses). But it’d be nuts to say my career has been a triumph over a lonely Curtis skeptic rather than the product of the belief of many more editors.

This lack of context can make Somebody Didn’t Believe in Me stories shaky. I’ve never heard Rams wide receiver Cooper Kupp rip the recruiters who banished him to Eastern Washington University. But TV commentators have turned Kupp’s road to the Super Bowl into a long-shot story. Often, they forget to mention that Kupp’s father and grandfather were NFL players. In 2015, Kupp’s grandfather helped Kupp secure a spot at the Manning Passing Academy. There, Kupp was spotted by Rams general manager Les Snead. You could say Kupp triumphed over the doubters. Or you could say a lot of people believed in Kupp all along.

The story of an athlete getting one over on the skeptics is enticing to sportswriters. Every so often, a future star is nearly doubted out of existence. Aaron Rodgers came out of high school with offers from schools like Butte Community College and Claremont-Mudd-Scripps, as ESPN’s Kevin Van Valkenburg has pointed out. Stetson Bennett IV, the quarterback who started opposite Bryce Young in the national championship game, was a walk-on at Georgia.

Locating a handful of detractors allows writers to portray an athlete with a measure of empathy. If someone doubted Tom Brady, that makes readers feel better about the boss/romantic partner/Twitter egg who may have looked at them askance.

College athletes can be tricky for reporters to get a handle on because they’re so young. That’s why every ESPN TV profile of a college football player can be summarized as either The Recruiters Overlooked Me or I’m Doing It For Someone Special.

Mostly, the Somebody Didn’t Believe in Me tale has become a self-perpetuating part of the athlete profile, along with the Renewed Focus on Craft and Learning to Trust My Teammates. When Trevor Lawrence told Sports Illustrated “I don’t have this huge chip on my shoulder”—that is, that his motivational toolkit was different—Lawrence caught hell for it. Chase was offering a much safer answer.

Some writers handle athlete origin stories with skill. Wickersham notes that it’s Brady who needs to believe he’s an underdog. In GQ, the poet and critic Hanif Abdurraqib calls Steph Curry’s eternal-underdog tale “almost an invention,” like Michael Jordan’s. As Jordan admitted in his Hall of Fame speech: “For someone like me, who achieved a lot over the time of my career, you look for any kind of messages that people may say or do to get you motivated.”

Sportswriters shouldn’t ignore athletes’ stories about the doubters. But they probably ought to use them sparingly. They can add context or, at least, recruiting rankings. When writers turn out a sharp, original profile of an athlete, they should know something: I never doubted them.