Brady and Balboa: The Alternative Underdog Story

The Rocky franchise got out of hand.

Rocky was never supposed to be the greatest boxer on earth. He was never even supposed to win a major fight. Sylvester Stallone took inspiration from the 1975 fight between Muhammad Ali and Chuck Wepner. Wepner, an average fighter known mostly as his catchy and semi-insulting moniker “The Bayonne Bleeder,” somehow took Ali to 15 rounds, even knocking the legend down in the ninth round.

But Wepner got knocked out in the 15th. Balboa loses a split decision to Apollo Creed. That’s where the fairytale ended for Wepner. That’s where it should have ended for Rocky.

Stallone kept churning out sequels, though. We saw Rocky take on Creed and win. We saw him beat back Mr. T and the entire Soviet Union. We saw him surpass all other boxers of his time. We might have seen him become a street fighter or something (full disclosure: never got around to watching Rocky V in its entirety).

It seems strange that what started as a parable about determination, grit and moral victories turned into a vanity project of Sly begging us to believe he was a Marciano-Ali-Tyson lovechild. It would seem like Hollywood pushed a beautiful story beyond the realm of reason. But Rocky’s rise wasn’t fiction, it was prophecy. It would chart the course for a child born one year after Rocky’s loss to Apollo. His name was Thomas Edward Patrick Brady Jr.

Brady was supposed to be like Wepner. In 2001, it seemed like a nice story. A late draft-pick steps in for Drew Bledsoe, lands a few punches on the great ones, and then shuffles back into obscurity. If we were writing a screenplay, Bledsoe would take his job back at the end of year and Brady would run away with a brunette from the neighborhood.

But the underdog just kept winning. He beat the juggernaut Rams. He beat the Panthers, who were led by another Wepner-like figure Jake Delhomme. By the time the next season had rolled around we were somewhere in Rocky III. He was the establishment. Prince Charming slew so many dragons, we started rooting for every dragon that came along.

He married a supermodel and posed for GQ, and somehow the image was lost. The footage of the 24-year-old exulting in delighted shock, both hands on his head, while confetti streams around him, now seems like any other athlete after a big win. But that wasn’t the way it felt at the time. When Terry Bradshaw presented him the Escalade EXT, his reward for the MVP, he reacts like Ed McMahon just showed up on his front porch. He yells “Is that my car?” before quickly trying to shout out every member of his extended family before Bradshaw ends the interview.

Nobody thought that guy would become movie-star-famous. If you had redrafted all the young quarterbacks in the league the day after that interview, many would have not only preferred blue-chippers like Donovan McNabb or Peyton Manning, they’d likely have taken Tim Couch or David Carr. Nobody thought they were witness the first act of the Michael Jordan of football.

As with every game he’s played in the last 5 years, Super Bowl LII might be his last. The loss wasn’t at the hands of the MVP, like Kurt Warner or Matt Ryan, or a Pro-Bowler like Donovan McNabb or Russell Wilson. It comes by Nick Foles, a backup that no one thought belonged on the biggest stage.

It’s the encapsulation of his entire arc. He started as Wepner, he became Ali, and then he lost to a new Wepner. Maybe Foles will have decency to let his fairytale end.

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