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Beating the Odds

Is Today Your Lucky Day?

A wise man once described the difference between superstition and ritual.

Superstition is doing things to avoid something bad. Rituals mean doing certain things to make something good happen.

Superstition involves belief in things beyond your understanding and control. Rituals are a way to organize the things that you can control.

All this comes to mind on Friday the 13th, with a poll just out on Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow. It says that 43 percent of people in the country believe that Tebow’s success comes with some help from God.

Some people — both believers and non-believers — might snicker at such a notion. Just the other day, for instance, I saw a quote from a minister who said that God doesn’t care who wins football games, because God is a baseball fan.

To me the issue of divine help is more complex. Richard Neer, a sports talk host on WFAN radio in New York, did a beautiful job of discussing nuances on his Thursday night show. Among other things, Neer said that belief in a higher power can give you confidence and help you do your best. I agree.

But there are limits. If Tebow fails to read the playbook, watch film and get great practice repetitions, it’s hard to imagine God helping out much.

“Sure, luck means a lot in football. Not having a good quarterback is bad luck,” said Don Shula, who once coached the Miami Dolphins to an undefeated season.

“Luck is the residue of design,” said Branch Rickey, considered the smartest baseball man in history.

Years ago, a wonderful baseball sage named Bill Shannon explained why certain teams — like the Yankees — seem so lucky. “Good teams always seem lucky because they’re in so many close games,” said Shannon. “If the ball takes a funny bounce when the score is tied, it’s a big deal. If the score is 10-0, who cares?”

I’m writing this on an airplane, flying on Friday the 13th to speak to the Illinois Track and Cross Country Coaches Association. There was a time when flying on that date would have bothered me, but no more. Whether on Friday the 13th or any other day, I do like to tap the plane on the right side of the door with my knuckle when boarding. It started long ago and it’s just for fun. However, I wouldn’t think of not doing it.

More to the point, I recently used the example of a plane when talking to a group of students. Challenging them to use their time wisely, I asked them to rate their effort in their last study hall on a scale of zero to 10. Then I asked them to imagine they were boarding an airplane. How would they feel if the pilot was going to put in the same level of effort that they had put into the study hall?

They got quiet.

Things won’t be quiet this weekend when Tebow faces Tom Brady and the New England Patriots, or in any of the other three NFL playoff games.

And as for luck, the only questions are whether the ball will take a funny bounce, or what the score will be at the time.

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