The Movie *Champions* Made Me Cry

Mar 28, 2023 by Mike Magluilo
I saw the movie Champions last weekend and cried [minor spoiler alert below]. 

I didn’t cry over the contrived moments of cuteness or the Generation Tinder love story between Woody Harrelson and Kaitlin Olson’s characters. 

I cried because the movie celebrates a forgotten sort of underdog. The underdog of Greek and Roman mythology, S.E. Hinton novels, sports movies from the seventies and Star Wars Episode IV. The underdog who inhabits a world in which ambition, determination and self-reliance are virtues. That classic underdog who triumphs despite the obstacles in their world, not because someone snowplowed a path for them or gave them comic book powers. I'm talking about the type of underdog society no longer trusts can persevere without superhero costumes and mistaking labels for excuses. 

A scene on a bus in Champions illustrates this lost faith in the underdog when a mother carries her daughter to a more comfortable seat away from the disruptive behavior of the characters with intellectual disabilities. 

It’s a metaphor for the many problems we can blame parents for. Like wanting our kids to get into better colleges than our friends’ kids then worrying about the hard work and pressure required to achieve excellence. Like contacting teachers and coaches on behalf of our teenagers to protest a grade or playing time. Like wanting our kids to have time to be kids, then giving them phones in elementary school for “emergencies.” Like no longer keeping score at little league games. 

Despite our efforts to safeguard childhood from hard work, problem solving and failure, our kids keep score in the dugout while we check our likes and retweets in the bleachers. As the end of the bus scene in Champions so vividly depicts, removing discomfort from our kids’ world carries unintended consequences as they move forward on the bus and in life. 

Refreshingly, no parents swooped in to fight their kids’ battles in Champions. The underdogs didn’t triumph because someone leveled the playing field or hid the scoreboard. I realize this is a work of fiction, but the story illustrates timeless truths to a purposeful life. For example, the underdogs embraced the power we all have to choose what we do in the next moment. Benny chooses to stand up to his exploitative boss, Johnny chooses to move out of the house, Darius chooses to forgive his coach and play ball. 

I love classic underdogs so much I wrote a book about them. One of my characters is a boy named Marty who has Down syndrome like some of the underdogs in Champions. The inspiration for Marty was the kid who visited me every morning when I was in the hospital in eighth grade. He had the room next to mine and was my first visitor the day after Father Joyce administered my last rites. 

That kid changed my life. He opened my eyes to the often invisible lives lived by people with Down syndrome. His relentless enthusiasm showed me we don’t choose our circumstances, but we do get to choose whether we wait around to feel ready to face our challenges or act first and let our feelings follow. And his ability to make me smile taught me the healing power of uninhibited kindness. 

The spirit of self-reliance, empowerment and taking responsibility for our actions choked me up in the theater last week. Did it work out for the underdogs? You’ll have to see the movie to find out. Does it always work in real life? No, but the classic underdog knows it’s better to fail trying than waiting around for someone to protect them from the scoreboard.