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Superstitions and Forced Fumbles: Can Luck Overcome Talent in the NFL

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Everyone has a game day tradition; a t-shirt, a particular beer glass, an enchanted jockstrap. Do our traditions and superstitions really help Jeremy Hill stiff arm cornerbacks?

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Was this turnover the result of years of hard work or the sound of a million Who Dey chants?
Was this turnover the result of years of hard work or the sound of a million Who Dey chants?
Pat Lovell-USA TODAY Sports

It’s hours, days, weeks, months, years of training. It’s hard work, scratch that, it’s bone breaking, soul crushing behavior that takes you to the brink of mental and physical collapse before expert level results are achieved. Professional football players make it in the NFL only after they have gone through years of training and proven they are the best at their trade.

There would seemingly be no use for happenstance or luck, when in fact, you’re dealing with a situation where what you get is what you earn. And yet, underneath the years of harsh preparation, luck exists. Luck is a figment, we want to believe in the adage that luck is only when preparation meets determination, but rationality isn’t as much fun to talk about in sports, when instead you can use words like ‘miracle’ and ‘phenomenon.’ We love those words in sports. ‘Rational’ sounds like an accountant’s spreadsheet while ‘miracle’ sounds like the winning lottery ticket.

In 2013, Jonathan Franklin of the Green Bay Packers lost a fumble with four minutes remaining in the fourth quarter against the Bengals. Reggie Nelson scooped it up and stumble-staggered a few yards before the ball squirted out yet again only to be picked up by Terrance Newman who brought it in for what would end up being the game winning score.

Rationally, we know what this was. It was a defensive line who spent a lifetime of exertion to play professional football and stood up the Packers’ offense. It was Nelson who after hours of watching game tape knew where to be and only after years of fumble recovery drills was able to snatch the ball. It was Newman reading the situation correctly and hearing every coach he ever had in his head telling him to run with the momentum. That’s rational; the work was put in to achieve the goal.

The miracle though was that John Smith, a die-hard Bengals fan, was on a business trip that took him out of Cincinnati and had him in southern Texas. He had to scramble to find a bar that was showing the game, but with an hour to kick-off he was successful. He rooted through his suitcase and for a minute thought he forgot it, but then as luck would have it, there it was at the bottom. His Anthony Munoz jersey, the one with the ketchup stain he first wore when the Bengals upset the Chiefs in 2003. His lucky jersey, his wife must have packed it because despite being lucky he almost always forgot to bring it on business trips. He threw it on, headed to the bar and as he sat there sweating out the grueling game, he saw the fumble happen. The game ended and he knew, he knew, that he aided in the miracle.  His ketchup stained jersey had come through again. "You’re welcome Bengals nation." He said under his breath with a slight smile.

Luck and superstition all sound a little juvenile, but you could argue watching grown men play a game every Sunday is as well. Sometimes, when the reality is all too real we need the release that there are larger forces in play, something bigger and older than us. I believe in the mythical powers of the Roman goddess Fortuna because it would all be too damn boring not to.

Max Gunther breaks down luck by calling it a mental state, a will that you can be blessed with pleasant opportunities. Is it really that far-fetched to believe Cincinnati Bengal fans across the world come together for one moment from time to time? Projecting their positive vibes with echoes of ‘Who Dey’ reverberating off the ground and into the air to cause Jonathan Franklin’s hands to slightly loosen his grip on the ball? Yeah… it probably is.

But the superstition keeps us as fans in the game because it makes us feel connected. We belong and we are a part of something. How great is it to have the feeling that as a collective group of millions we can have some control in the game we love so much. We’re not out on the field controlling audibles at the line, but we’re rubbing our lucky rabbits foot. It may not seem like much, but when millions of Cincinnati Bengal fans around the world do it simultaneously, now that’s something. A positive outlook, a Roman goddess, and a ketchup stained jersey are sometimes all we need to loosen a few fingers.