Brent Stoller says those sports superstitions may seem silly, but there’s a bigger and unforeseen reason why you should keep them alive.
Being superstitious is part of being a sports fan. We are observers, on the outside looking in, trying to control an uncontrollable situation. In retaliation against that helplessness, we convince ourselves there are ways we can contribute to our team’s success. We wear a certain shirt. We keep certain boxers out of the laundry. We refrain from voicing certain thoughts aloud. These are our game day rituals, and the lack of logic behind them doesn’t make them any less powerful. Not in our minds, at least.
I began cultivating my superstitions during the first Texas Longhorns game I ever watched. These superstitions have evolved over the years, tested and re-tested, until finally being refined into a select few. For starters, I always shave before kickoff on the day UT plays. I’ve also detected a correlation between the ‘Horns’ performance and my shoes. If my shoes don’t feel right—if they’re too loose, or if the tongue slips to one side, or if one loop of the laces is out of proportion with the other—bad things happen on the field. To combat this, I constantly tie and retie throughout the game, with each retying serving as a sort of reset button, like a coach calling a timeout. The same goes for…well, forgive me…my bladder, of all things. If the Longhorns are on a run, I’ll hold onto my liquid intake until that run is over. Conversely, should the game start going sideways, a trip to the restroom can spell relief (in more ways than one).
Beyond these specifics, I’m also a believer in those tried-and-true superstitions—lucky seats, changing up those lucky seats to change the karma, never jinxing your team through word or thought. Thinking back to the 2009 national title game, I’m convinced the only reason Texas lost its starting quarterback is because someone said, “Colt McCoy’s throwing shoulder is so sturdy, it will remain intact even after being detonated by Alabama defensive tackle Marcell Dareus.” There’s no other explanation.
I’ve been watching sports my entire life, and there have been so many instances, for good and for bad, that it is hard to dismiss this stuff as coincidence, no matter how crazy that seems.
Some examples to consider:
*Heading into the 2005 season, UT was a team of underachievers. So said the national media, so said a large faction of the fan base. Texas hadn’t won a conference championship in almost a decade, and they were in the midst of a five-game losing streak to rival Oklahoma. Even for the optimists, it felt as if they might not ever break through.
That is until some friends and I took matters into our own hands: We started watching games at the same guy’s house. I’d shower, shave (this is when that superstition was born), and take my seat on the couch 15 minutes prior to kickoff. Every Saturday. And before we knew it, the ‘Horns were 12-0 and headed to the national title game against Southern Cal.
Our hysteria was muted, though, when a couple days before the game, our host notified us that he’d gotten tickets to the game. He would be watching from inside the Rose Bowl. But where would we be? His house had been our sanctuary, our good luck charm. And in the immortal (yet edited) words of Crash Davis, “Never mess with a winning streak.”
This left us with one option: Find a way into that townhome. If that meant camouflaging ourselves in his closet before his flight, fine. If that meant crawling through 500 yards of ****-smelling foulness—i.e. the Reverse Andy Dufresne—so be it. Somehow, someway, we had to get inside.
Fortunately, there was an easier—and much more obvious—solution: asking our friend if we could still come over. Unable to deny the karma (especially because he was potentially disrupting it), he got his wife to let us in. And so it was that we got to sit in our traditional spots, we got to set the TV volume to the level that brought the ‘Horns the most success, and most importantly, we got to watch the game from where we were meant to watch it.
And that night, Texas claimed their first national championship in 36 years.
*In the 2009 Big 12 title game, the Longhorns were about to flush their dreams of another national championship, trailing Nebraska with less than two minutes to play. But after a big completion and an even bigger—yet absolutely correct—timekeeping adjustment, they lined up to attempt the conference-winning kick.
I was at an alumni watch party, my hands trembling, unsure if I was capable of handling whatever was coming next. I’d changed seats three times, and I was now standing where I’d watched the ‘Horns beat Oklahoma earlier in the year. Figuring the bar’s reaction would tell me what I needed to know, I closed my eyes, dropped my chin to my chest, and listened.
Fast forward to Thanksgiving night 2011. Texas is playing Texas A&M in their annual Lone Star grudge match. But because the Aggies are set to move to the Southeastern Conference, thus discontinuing the series, the stakes are that much higher. With three seconds on the clock and UT trailing by one, it’s all come down to this: one kick for eternal bragging rights.
Sitting on my parents’ couch, wearing my lucky burnt orange shirt, I struggled to catch my breath, the turkey I’d eaten just hours earlier disavowing gravity. Then suddenly, from out of nowhere, calmness washed over me. It was the warmth of familiarity. These were not uncharted waters. I’d been here before, and I knew what to do. “Closed eyes” equaled “Made game-winning field goal.” So that’s what I did.
Then I heard this.
I concede how ridiculous this sounds, how absurd it is to think anything I did had any effect on the outcomes of those games. I get that the players and coaches had no idea about where I was sitting, or the symmetry of my shoe lace loops, or mercifully, the state of my bladder. And even if they had, what difference would it have made?
That said, it’s not like such tactics are unprecedented. There are things we do in our everyday lives to try to influence outcomes that are beyond our jurisdiction. We visualize. We think good thoughts. We play out scenarios in our mind. We pray. And when the situation does work out, who’s to say what it was that tipped the scales in our direction?
There will always be logical reasons to explain why something did or didn’t happen, and those reasons are imminently more plausible than what I’m suggesting. But what if there is something more at play? What if the entire universe is nothing more than a collection of energy, making it this living, breathing entity that is in constant flux, and everything in it is connected? Is it so crazy to believe that the actions we take or the thoughts we think, no matter how insignificant, could shift that energy, causing even the slightest ripple effects, which in turn affect what happens elsewhere?
Admittedly, these are complex questions of biblical proportions, and the answers should be left to people a lot smarter than I am, like scientists and theologians and Walter White. And as I think about it, the strongest case against superstitions is that my superstitions are not working. In the last year alone, Texas has fired its iconic coach, hovered around a .500 record, and has maintained its irrelevancy on the national stage. Any sane person would evaluate this evidence, recognize the fallacy of these rituals and revel in the no-responsibilities joy of being a fan.
Me? I bought a new Longhorn shirt that’s a different color.
Photo: Flickr/ Sarah Joy