Being lucky is hard work
Or, why my worst t-shirt is so important.
I’m sitting at the bar of a nice restaurant, wearing a scratchy, dated meme t-shirt under my sweater, and it makes perfect sense to me.
But let’s back up a bit.
Earlier this season, I traveled to Bloomington, Indiana to see my beloved Cincinnati Bearcats play the Indiana Hoosiers in football, a game that seemed like it would be a bigger deal than IU’s current record might indicate. The game happened in mid-September, while the weather was still quite summery, and lacking in warm-weather UC gear that still fits, I chose to don my “bUCkeye STATE” shirt.
The shirt is a relic of the glorious 2009 football season, the first time in history that the Bearcats ranked higher in the polls than the in-state leviathan of Ohio State. The shirt is still produced, mind you: I saw fresh ones on display in the window of DuBois Bookstore during my most recent visit to Cincinnati’s campus several weeks ago, but I assure you: mine is a first edition, and that is not a good thing.
It’s easy to forget just how much t-shirt technology has advanced in the last twelve years, until you’re sitting in direct sun in a football stadium on an 83-degree afternoon, sweating like a playoff committee member looking for reasons to rank a 3-loss Alabama #2. My version of the shirt is deeply uncomfortable; baggy yet with an unforgivingly small neckhole, a stiff cotton blend with all the breathability of a tarp you’d put down before pitching a tent. I wouldn’t say that I sweated through it, because that would imply a permeability that was sorely lacking on that day. I sweated beneath it, an unfortunate thing to have to do in a stadium whose concessions were completely unprepared for a near-sellout crowd and ran out of water before halftime.
A sane person would burn that shirt the second they arrived home, but I am not a sane person.
I’m a sports fan, and the shirt did its job.
Despite a slow start—a hallmark of the season, despite a perfect record to date—the Bearcats rallied back from a 14-0 first-quarter deficit for a convincing 38-24 victory that helped cement their reputation as an early contender in a season where they’d need to stake that claim early.
After a much-needed bye week, the Bearcats traveled further north in Indiana for an even-more-critical game: a road trip to Notre Dame, a participant in the prior season’s playoff and a certified college football blue blood whom Cincinnati had faced once ever, a 58-point loss 121 years prior. The game would be a big challenge, critical to the Bearcats’ push for their own improbable playoff berth. I didn’t make the trip, but I watched intently from home, stewing in my usual sports-viewing broth of miserable silence, heart palpitations and the spare muttered goddamnit.
I wore the shirt, because it worked the week before, right?
Well, the Bearcats won. Convincingly.
They controlled the game against the Fighting Irish, winning 24-13 in a contest that wasn’t as close as that score might indicate, breaking a 24-game home winning streak for Notre Dame and sending a shot across the bow of the College Football Playoff Committee. They would have to be taken seriously this year.
The shirt came back for comfortable wins against Temple and UCF, but then?
I got cocky.
I decided that the Bearcats were good enough, and I’d rather not spend four hours with something as comfortable as a cheap tablecloth draped over me. I ordered an attractive sweatshirt from an online store, and occasionally pulled my old #15 Tony Pike jersey out of the closet, but I took some time off from the shirt. It’d be fine.
Am I responsible for the team suddenly underwhelming in their next month’s worth of games? It’s only fair to think so.
That brings us back to this Saturday night.
I had miscommunicated on the timing of several things this weekend, and what that meant is that a “parents’ night out” event (read: cheap babysitting) at our church coincided with the second half of the Bearcats’ critical game against 8-2 SMU, a game I had been nervously anticipating for more than a month.
A 27-0 second-quarter lead made me comfortable enough to leave the house, but I’d seen firsthand how quickly an uncompetitive game can turn back into a real contest, and I wasn’t about to have that blood on my hands. I’d been wearing the vile lucky shirt all afternoon. I quickly shaved, combed my hair, and slid on presentable clothes for a date-night out—but I kept the shirt underneath.
The Bearcats cruised in the second half of the game, going up 48-0 before allowing a pair of garbage-time touchdowns, and my wife and I enjoyed a lovely dinner out. I must make a case here for watching football games from the bar of a restaurant too nice to have anyone else doing so; the bartenders were perfectly happy to put the game on for me, and it was nice to get quality wine recommendations in between offensive series. I imagine this is what it’s like to attend a Michigan football game.
The win in hand, the correlation now obviously causation, the die is cast. I’ll be wearing the shirt as long as the Bearcats’ season continues, through next week’s not-to-be-overlooked contest at East Carolina, through the American Conference title game against Houston, and hopefully all the way through the College Football Playoff and one more win in the state of Indiana.
My superstitions aren’t limited to one sport, or one shirt, though.
I have nervous tics related to each of the teams I support. I know in my heart of hearts that the Cleveland Cavaliers’ curse-breaking Finals win in 2016 was due less to the heroic efforts of their best player (JR Smith) than it was my dutiful wearing of my lucky shorts. I know that the Cleveland Indians blew a 3-1 lead in the 2007 ALCS not due to Cleveland’s starting rotation collapsing, but because my friend Dennis said “it’s in the bag” after Game 4, an unpardonable sin that’s still often referenced in anger in our friend group. I know that luck has nothing to do with being a Cleveland Browns fan; the very idea forsakes us the moment we put on brown and orange.
These superstitions are silly, of course. There are hundreds of thousands of other fans of each of these teams, many engaged in their own rituals and mental gymnastics, fully convinced that their gametime garb or snacks or position on the couch has some impact on the result of a game played by elite athletes completely unaware of their existence. My wearing of a lucky shirt is just a drop in the bucket of amateur occult observances taking place around every sporting event; it’s ludicrous to think that it changes anything.
Why do we do this?
It’s brutal to be a person who cares about sports; it’s a self-inflicted torture, a self-own that we could walk away from any time but absolutely will not. We tie our own emotional health to events that we have absolutely no control over; I was as blissfully serene watching Cincinnati bulldoze SMU as I was helplessly dyspeptic in the fourth quarter against Tulsa. The only way to maintain one’s sanity through it all is to convince ourselves that we’ve got some control, some hand in the proceedings.
In the end, though, we have to admit to ourselves: the things happening in any given game are not impacted by where you sit, what you eat, what you wear or anything else you do.
They’re affected by my shirt.
—Scott Hines (@actioncookbook)
Please tell me that I am not alone in this, and share with us your most-closely-held sports superstitions:
One year of home games, I stumbled and fell into a street sign on the way to the Michigan ND game, the first of the year. Michigan won. Did I encourage my friend to push me into the street sign every home game that year?
We went undefeated at home, is all I know. Bruised and undefeated.
Back in 2016, when I still had a facebook account, even then mostly as a relic, I typed and deleted about fifteen screeds(and I mean SCREEDS) about people making "World Series Parade Reservation" events starting on Saturday night, October 29th. I "unfriended" at least 10 people over that.