Top Dogs and Underdogs: The Boys in The Boat

Boys in the Boat

I grew up in western New York, in the shadow of the Buffalo Bills, and I learned to love the underdog–and I realized that sometimes, once in a very wonderful sometime–the underdog might just win.

My father, too, was a believer in the underdog.  I remember him managing a little league team–the Firemen–back in the sixties.  Little League was a serious thing then–the coaches actually bid on players. It was akin to the professional leagues’ draft, and broken-hearted boys (no girls, of course, could play back then) got left behind. We lived in a college town where the natives might be a little bit hide-bound, a little bit conservative, and not always open to new ideas–or new people.  Dad and his young coach, Mr. Coughlin, welcomed the boys no one else wanted.  Their team had black kids and Hispanic kids and a kid we’ll call Donny. None of the other coaches wanted Donny because of his family problems–he was surly and angry and couldn’t be tamed.

The Firemen practiced and practiced, and they played and they played, and they grew to be a cohesive team that matured and became champions.  I carry an image of my father, crouched down on one knee, talking earnestly to a boy, talking him down, maybe, from a melt-down, talking him into effectiveness. That boy might easily have been Donny. And Donny might easily have been the most gifted athlete the area ever produced; he went on to a full football scholarship to a prestigious school.  Although he imploded during those college days, his high school athletic exploits made him a local legend, and I always wondered if my father and Mr. Coughlin hadn’t made that possible.

You take the chance of losing when you champion the underdog, but marvelous things can happen. And so there was no way I could avoid reading The Boys in The Boat.

The ‘boys’ are farm kids and logger’s kids, sons of small business owners gone bust and  scraping together a living–kids without silver spoons in their mouths from birth, for sure.  These are poor kids in Depression-era Washington State who somehow get themselves to the University of Washington and onto the crew team.

Daniel James Brown, the author, tells the story through the lens of Joe Rantz, a member of the crew that, against many odds and without many advantages, swept the national championships. They went on to take the gold medal in the 1936 Olympics, literally under the disapproving nose of Adolph Hitler, who wanted the event to showcase German/Aryan superiority. Joe was an abandoned boy, a rootless one; his mother died when he was very young. His much older brother married and started his own family.  Joe’s dad remarried, too, and the new wife didn’t much want Joe around.

When Joe was 15, his father packed his new wife and his new batch of children into the family automobile and left Joe alone on a poorly producing farm, in a half-finished house, to fend for himself.

Just think of the trouble a kid like that could get into–just think of the opportunities to go astray.  What are the odds that Joe would make it through high school, much less go on to the University of Washington and develop himself into a member of a phenomenally effective team? Why DIDN’T Joe crash and burn?

It’s a question I wrestle with–why does one person, tossed into adverse circumstances, turn to alcohol, drugs, and/or crime, while another surmounts to something truly special?  Joe had, for sure, an incredible work ethic, and some kind of unrelenting drive.  And he had a girlfriend, Joyce, who went to Seattle, too, and also attended University.  They didn’t live in dorms or apartments–Joe had a room at a Y, where he worked as a janitor; Joyce lived in at houses where she worked as a maid.  During summers and breaks, Joe lived on that abandoned farm and worked at whatever he could find–usually work that contributed to building his incredible strength.

And Joe found amazing mentors in coaches Tom Bolles and Al Ulbrickson, and in master boat-builder George Pocock.

I knew from the beginning that the Washington crew would win the gold–that’s on the blurb on the back of the book,–but Brown’s writing is gripping, and there were moments all through the narrative when the possibility of failure was real and imminent.  Joe very nearly did not have a seat in that boat; it took a realization of interdependence to move him forward into that role.

Left to himself, abandoned with few resources, Joe had determined never to depend on anyone else for anything.  Who could blame him?  His proud independence allowed him, basically, to bring himself up, but he had to let go and trust others to be a productive crew member.  This story is not just a story of great athletes triumphing over those others–the Ivy Leaguers, the wealthy scions of America’s first families,–expected to be outstanding at rowing.  It’s the story of boys developing into fine men against incredible adversity.  It’s the story of underdogs become top dogs.

Joe went on, after Berlin and the gold, to earn an engineering degree, to marry Joyce, and to raise a a family.  He reconciled with his father, welcomed his half siblings into his life after their mother died, and, with Joyce, raised his own family.  He was a good man, a gifted man, and a steady one.  He and Joyce lived long lives, saw their children married and settled, celebrated the births of grandchildren.  There are all kinds of triumphs in Joe’s full story.

There is even a tiny connection to western New York in the book–in the mention that Harold Conibear, who pioneered the rowing program at University of Washington, learned the sport on Lake Chautauqua in the early 1900’s. That’s a lake I swam in, a lake I tried to water ski on. Ah, that little mention, and oh, that compelling narrative–no WAY I wouldn’t read on to the end of THIS story.


Joe’s life is so worth celebrating.  I marvel at the coaches and the mentors–at their discernment and their patience, their abilities to seek out the best in the ragtag group of boys who confronted them, to recognize a certain stellar quality and develop it.  To elevate the underdog.

I hope that we still have coaches and mentors and incidental people–I hope that ALL of us are conscious of developing that inner eye, of seeing the latent strength and potential greatness in the young people–heck–in the OLD people (is it ever too late?) we meet. I wonder if that’s not the deciding factor in which way a person turns–a high school teacher who believes in him, a coach who sees possibility and pushes him, a girlfriend who vows she will never, ever abandon him…????

I like to imagine this: every young person gifted with a firm believer, and the story of the underdog’s triumph becoming an everyday tale…


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