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Rutgers football attempting to become true Cinderella Men

If the Scarlet Knights can pull a stunning upset of No. 17 Wake Forest in the Gator Bowl, they will be remembered forever.

Rutgers v Michigan Photo by Gaelen Morse/Getty Images

During a crucial 17-7 victory over Syracuse on the road in the second game of this season, head coach Greg Schiano made a passionate plea to his team about what they were playing for that can be seen in this video produced by the program.

The portion of Schiano’s pregame speech shown included, “Close your eyes. I want you to picture your milk. You go out there and play for each other. You play for each other. And you know what happens when you do that? You’re playing for each other’s milk. That bond won’t be broken. That bond won’t be denied. You understand? Get your helmets on. I love you guys. It’s time to chop men!”

The milk reference stood out to me because it was similar to a comment made in one of my favorite movies, Cinderella Man. I asked Schiano the next week about the speech and whether it was inspired by the movie based on the real life of James J. Braddock, the former heavyweight boxing champion of the world. While he wouldn’t comment on it only to say it was “team business”, the current situation that Rutgers now finds itself in made me think of the potential connection again.

Braddock lived with his family in North Bergen, New Jersey and was nicknamed the “Bulldog of Bergen” during a boxing career that produced one of the greatest underdog stories of all-time in any sport. After a once promising career sunk due to breaking his right hand many times over, Braddock received a life changing opportunity when all hope was lost.

After losing his career earnings on the stock market and failed taxi cab business along with his boxing career faltering, he was working on the docks as a longshoreman while receiving relief money from the government when his big break came. Braddock was tapped as a fill-in on just two days notice to take on ranked fighter Corn Griffin in 1934 at Madison Square Garden Bowl in Long Island City. It was the undercard to the heavyweight championship fight between Primo Carnera and Max Baer.

In his first fight in nine months due to an injury, Braddock was knocked down for just the second time in his career in the second round. However, with a newfound left hook that was strengthened by working on the docks, he knocked Griffin down moments later and knocked him out for good in the third round to pull off the stunning upset.

Braddock was meant to only fight Griffin as a fill-in as his license had been revoked after fighting injured too many times. However, the unexpected win resulted in him being reinstated. That led to next fighting against top contenders John Henry Lewis, the future light heavyweight champion, and Art Lasky. He amazingly won both fights and was named the No. 1 heavyweight contender in the world. At 10-1 odds, Braddock was the biggest underdog in heavyweight championship history. On June 13, 1935, Braddock stunned the boxing world in defeating Heavyweight champion Max Baer by a unanimous decision in 15 rounds.

Dubbed the “Cinderella Man” by hall of fame sportswriter Damon Runyon during his meteoric rise at the backend of his career, Braddock became a hero of regular people for rising up against tremendous odds out of poverty during the Great Depression. He was at such a low point at one stage before his comeback that he had to send his children to live with family for a time when he worked on the docks trying to get back on track financially.

One of the best moments in the movie “Cinderella Man” that symbolized Braddock’s plight was when his character, played by Russell Crowe, was asked by the press what was different this time around during his comeback. Braddock said “I know what I’m fighting for now”. When asked what that was, Braddock stated “Milk.”

Whether the milk reference that Schiano used in his pregame speech against Syracuse had anything to do with the Cinderella Man himself and legendary New Jersey fighter, at the time it made me think it wasn’t a complete coincidence.

And now more than three months later, Rutgers is ironically in a somewhat similar position as Braddock once was.

On just eight days notice, the Scarlet Knights will play against No. 17 Wake Forest as a fill-in for national power Texas A&M after dropping out last week due to COVID-19 issues.

While the Scarlet Knights are a team of 85 scholarship players as opposed to one fighter, the similarities are there.

Braddock stunned the boxing world and now Rutgers has the chance to shock the college football world after being thrust into an unprecedented situation only a week ago.

Under Schiano, Rutgers has always played hard and been considered a tough team. Braddock was one of the toughest fighters of all-time and Joe Louis called him the bravest fighter he ever faced after knocking him out for the only time in his career.

After Rutgers rose to prominence under Schiano over a decade ago, they stumbled badly following his departure and was a national laughingstock, only to begin an upward climb since his return that has surprised some by how quickly it has happened. Braddock was not taken seriously following his decline and completely underestimated by Baer in their heavyweight championship bout.

And now, Rutgers has the opportunity to pull one of the greatest upsets in the history college football bowl season, if not the greatest due to the circumstances. Just as Braddock pulled the greatest upset in heavyweight championship history after starting his run as a fill-in without training, just like the Scarlet Knights are now.

The odds are certainly against Rutgers.

They are more than two touchdown underdogs and haven’t had a true week of practice since Thanksgiving week. The roster was put together by essentially calling players asking if they were available. We don’t even know for sure who is playing and who isn’t. The team had their awards banquet over TWO WEEKS AGO. And while Wake Forest is without star receiver Jaquirii Roberson after declaring for the NFL Draft this week, he only accounted for 12% of the touchdowns they scored as the fifth highest scoring offense (41.2 points per game) in college football. Rutgers is expected to be without several of its top playmakers on an offense that struggled to score against high major opponents (14.0 points per game). How can they possibly score enough to beat a team with as much offensive firepower as the Demon Deacons?

And yet on Friday late morning in the Florida heat, Rutgers football will attempt the unexpected while fighting through pretty much impossible circumstances. If they can pull off what would be an historic upset and deliver the program’s best bowl win ever, this Rutgers team would have accomplished something truly special.

Whether they fight for each other’s milk, embrace the “backs against the wall” and “no one believes we a chance” mentality, winning would make the Scarlet Knights true Cinderella Men. It would be a true Hollywood ending in what is already an improbable story.