Superstitions in sports are no more a new thing than are fans living vicariously through the athletes playing them. I developed a whole new way of looking at both during my son’s senior year of high school football. 

As an athlete I didn’t hold a lot of superstitions, garden variety stuff really: same half-shirt under my pads for football, same meal on the night before a ballgame for basketball and the same pair of underwear for all my track meets (okay, maybe that one was a little weird). But I knew guys that had even weirder rituals like onion sandwiches on the way to track meets, rolls and honey after wrestling weigh-in, playing video games at the 7-11 the night before a football game and not washing their socks all year (definitely high on the “eeewwww!” scale). For most guys I don’t think they really knew where these came from other than they did this thing once and played well so they tried it again. If the second time worked out at all, well there’s your superstition. Thing was, I was loyal to my superstitions but I never had much fun with them; until I had one for my son’s football team.

As fans we tend to think we’re a bigger part of our teams’ success than we really are and it can get unhealthy. We get frustrated, angry, even depressed when “we” lose and we’re on cloud when “we” win. In short, we act like we participated. We threw the pass or the block or made the tackle. We hit the 3-pointer or got the rebound that sealed or saved the win. The thing is although we have every right to cheer and yell and hold our breath during big moments of the game we don’t have any business taking any more ownership than that. And still, we do and sometimes it’s a little pathetic.

I used to look down on the people that got so wrapped up in their team’s success. I wondered why they didn’t “get a life” or let it go already. I thought that when I was an athlete and I thought that as a parent, until my son’s senior year of football. His team had a rough year when he was a sophomore and narrowly missed going to the state championship game when he was a junior so the precursors were all there for the senior year to be full of pressure. My wife and I were involved with the team through team dinners, soap scrimmages, apparel, booster club and even the year-end banquet so it’s hard to imagine how we could have been more invested.

Of course, we wanted them to win. We knew multiple boys on the team and their parents and we had been through successes on and off the field with the whole group. So, when they won their first game and I was wearing the t-shirt above I tried it again on the second game. You guessed it, another win. The superstition was on. But it wasn’t just the t-shirt, it was the whole enchilada. I and another dad wore the same shirt, jeans, socks and shoes to every game that year and they kept winning and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t live vicariously through those boys.

Their wins were my wins and their tough games were my tough games. I held my breath and sweated (yep, sweated) it out when the games were tight. I even fueled my own son’s superstition and almost nine years later I can tell you what I bought for his pre-game meal every Thursday night at HyVee. I know what we had for lunch on game day from Jimmie Johns. Like clockwork we did these things and like clockwork they kept winning. Through the mix of superstition and vicarious emotions though something else became evident; I was enjoying this.

That might strike you as a trite statement or an obvious declaration but you didn’t know me as an athlete. Because although I loved sports and they were my life from the time I was about six until I finished high school I didn’t fully enjoy or appreciate them during that time. Sure, I loved to win but I knew what the price was for the “W”. I knew you didn’t just show up and win, at least we didn’t and I as a tall, skinny defensive end certainly didn’t. Wins took long, hard, practices, work in the offseason and study and analysis of our opponent. This couldn’t have been farther than the experience of watching/participating in my son’s team going through the season undefeated and winning the state championship. I relished every win as a win. I celebrated the conquest and there wasn’t any thought about “who’s next?” I enjoyed the momentum for what it was: a collection of moments where we played well, where we were victorious and it felt… well, it felt great.

It felt great to keep those superstitions going. It felt great to come to the field on Friday nights and strain and stress through four quarters of football. It especially felt great celebrating wins afterwards. True it might have been the culmination of our experiences from the past two years but I’d like to think that senior season taught me something that my playing days never did.

Enjoy the ride. Even if you’re not winning, enjoy the journey. Sure, there will be work and there will be disappointment but win or lose if we miss the lessons of the process we miss the most important thing that athletics has to teach us. We should be in all of this, including life, for the experience, the fun and the adventure it has to offer. That senior year was so much more fun than my own senior year even though we went to the playoffs that year (which was a big deal for us). I have my own vicarious participation in my son’s team to thank for teaching this old guy a lesson about life that I missed back when I was an intense 18 year old. Thanks goodness for that. Oh, and don’t forget to thank the shirt.

I imagine you’ve heard of some pretty weird superstitions. I’d like to hear about them if you’re willing to leave a comment below. If you know someone who might enjoy this post, please share it with them. Social icons are below to make this easier.

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