What you call a superstition I call personal tradition. Most college or university football programs have a few long-running habits that need no explanation to outsiders and are considered vital to success. What a lot of people don’t know is that whether it’s a team tradition or just a coincidence to other people, the whole process of ceremonial preparation for football begins long before game day. It’s a sometimes quirky process that San Francisco 49ers and Baltimore Ravens players are working through right now before the most important game of their lives.
Fridays before a game during the warm up for light strip run through were often open for a bit of levity to keep things loose after a week of work. The equipment staff gave out game jerseys and pants on Fridays before a game and we wore them that afternoon to final pregame drills. Often we’d switch jerseys with someone else. The position didn’t matter, as long as you could fit in the other guy’s number. If we were coming off a loss we’d have Big Hat Friday, which is self-explanatory. The bigger the hat, the more respect. The coaching staff knew better than to mess with an asylum of primates. As long as we ran around without running into each other, it helped far more than it hurt.
The offensive line, predictably lower key, went for Wendy’s Frosties as a group the night before a game. Receivers had short film sessions with the quarterbacks. The DBs had breakdance parties in the squash courts. Before home games some guys debated spending the night with their girlfriends. Others got their hair braided. No matter what they looked like on the road you were just thankful for a teammate who didn’t snore louder than you.
On game days I’d have a quick hot-cold bath at noon followed by a half-hour stretch. From 1-3 p.m. our aisle hosted a 007 Goldeneye tournament while players rolled in, ate lunch and loosened up. After half a season of slaughter, the offensive line broke off and started a Jenga pool of their own in protest. I know of at least one defensive captain who didn’t eat on games days except for a banana a few hours before kick-off. Most guys listened to music and walked around the field before the game. Others found a quiet place for an hour. There wasn’t a lot of loud talking, as instead there was a low hum that was equal parts pre-game process and slow ritual.
I wore my training camp cleats and gloves on game days as a reminder of why I was there in the first place. Each summer camp I broke in a new pair of cleats and gloves and saved them for games. In my four years as a player in college, we never lost a season opener. Simon Fraser University came out of camp like a strong every time. Coincidence? Whatever makes you feel better. Your superstition is my reality.
My favorite routine was when another receiver wore a freshly cut off sleeve from used team shirts instead of a beanie on his head. He took this extremely seriously and would patrol the locker room with a pair of scissors from the training table when he ran out of sleeves halfway through the year. One corner wore so many headbands it’s a marvel he didn’t pass out from oxygen deprivation. Eye black was also an amazing chest infuser for some guys. Other than specific gear, my go-to routine was ten minutes of silence with a towel over my head after warm ups. The adrenalin didn’t shut off for four or five hours, so the moment of relaxation as it kicked in before the coach’s pre-game speech was great as focus and excitement balanced each other out.
Before my senior year I was tapped by one of the departing captains to be the next fight song leader. We only sang Vista after victories, and if you fanned the delivery, you were done for good. My career ended after a close loss in a shootout for a playoff spot, and it burned pretty bad not to sing Vista on my way out, but I never dropped the torch. The running back I handed the job to never got to sing it when the team crashed and went winless the next year despite his career ending as the school’s all-time leading rusher. The game can be cruel that way, and some privileges you only really appreciate later. Now we sing it at reunions and Super Bowl parties. You never forget traditions, just like you never doubt a superstition.
The beauty of personal rituals and team traditions exists only for those who believe in them. I know Ray Lewis will do his dance Sunday, and the 49ers will stick with whatever makes them tick. Whatever the magic words, alchemy, or lucky numbers, you don’t mess with the winning formula in the biggest game of the year. That’s when it works the best. That’s when superstitions are made into winning traditions.
Luke Purm is a freelance writer and former college football player (a wide receiver at Simon Fraser University) with an inside look at the sights and sounds from the huddle, down the field, through the air, in the endzone, under the pile, out of the locker room, on the scoreboard, and everywhere else football sweats, smells, yells, breathes and collides with life. Follow him on Twitter.