If you happen upon a Boston Red Sox playoff game, you'll notice that, even by lumberjack standards, the players are a hirsute bunch. When the team started winning early in the season, a handful of players stopped shaving, believing the beards gave them power, strength and, perhaps most important, luck. To shave would be to spit in fortune's face. The beard-as-magical-talisman dates back to tennis ace Bjorn Borg, who stopped shaving in advance of Wimbledon, which he won every year from 1976 to 1980.
Call it luck or superstition, everybody plays these odds. Baseball hall of famer Wade Boggs downed a plate of chicken before every game. Hoops legend Michael Jordan wore University of North Carolina basketball shorts under his Chicago Bulls uniform. Hockey's great one Wayne Gretzky always tucked a single side of his jersey into his pants. Heck, you could write a graduate thesis on the superstitions of former MLB reliever Turk Wendell alone. He chewed four pieces of black licorice while pitching. He skipped high over the base lines on his way back to the dugout. He brushed his teeth between innings.
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The Day Fortune Smiled
So what are we fans who perch ourselves on a special lucky spot on the couch during pivotal games to make of all this? To explore luck and superstition in sports, we contacted 11-year NFL veteran, two-time NFL head coach and ESPN analyst Herm Edwards, who just happens to be the recipient of what some believe to be the luckiest bounce in NFL history, the "Miracle at the Meadowlands."
Said miracle occurred on November 19, 1978 at Giants Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. The Giants led the game 17-12 with 31 seconds to go. Since the Eagles had used their timeouts, all Giant quarterback Joe Pisarcik had to do on what should've been the game's final play was take a knee. Instead, he attempted to hand off to running back Larry Csonka. They botched the transfer and the ball bounced neatly into Edwards' hands, catching him mid-stride. He ran untouched into the end zone for the winning touchdown.
Edwards incorporated this bit of personal history into his coaching strategy. He'd end his Saturday walk-throughs in victory formation, with the quarterback on one knee and the whole team protecting the ball. Why did Edwards do this? "Because it was part of the [Meadowlands] fumble - that's what the Giants should've done," he says with a laugh. "There was also a little superstition to it."
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Feeling Lucky, Acting Lucky, Being Lucky
Edwards believes that if abiding by the arcane terms of a superstition makes a player feel as if he's influencing his fate, that player receives a real-world confidence boost. "In sports, we're so big on routine. If you've had some success doing a certain thing a certain way, you're going to stick with that routine,” he explains, adding, “When you lose, you mix it up."
Similarly, Edwards thinks that if a player feels lucky - whether because he got favorable rolls on his last five jumpers or because his poorly struck ball landed in the dead zone between second base and right field – he may believe that he is lucky, and use that to fuel himself competitively. "If the ball kept coming my way and if I got my hands on two or three of them, I started thinking, 'I'm getting one. I'm going to intercept the next one.' That's how it happens for a player. You just feel it," Edwards says.
Still, he believes less in luck and superstition than he does in hard work. "A bounce here, a bounce there, and you're 10-6 and heading into the playoffs instead of 6-10 and heading home. I was a head coach for eight years and I only had one season where my quarterback was healthy enough to play every game. Some of those guys were probably thinking that I was bad luck."
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Pointing to his Meadowlands moment, Edwards defines luck as being prepared and being in the right place at the right time. "Before the play, I was having a conversation with [Giants running back] Doug Kotar. I was congratulating him on the win, wishing him luck, all that stuff - but I was also paying close attention and remembering what my coaches always told me, which was 'finish.' I saw the ball bobbled on the snap from center. I was like, 'This is interesting. This is REALLY interesting.' I worked hard - and if you work hard, opportunity comes your way."