Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Post Hoc, Ergo Propter Hoc

It’s been about 10 days since the Texas Longhorns’ regular season ended, and I still can’t believe it’s over. As a devoted, over-the-top, marginally insane fan, my whole year is based around those 12 fall Saturdays, and it all goes entirely too quickly. You look forward to it so much, from signing day in February to spring practice in March through offseason workouts in June, but there’s this sense that the first meaningful kickoff will never come. It eventually does, but then you get so caught up in the rollercoaster of wins and losses that you forget to slow down and savor the ride.

And before you know it, it’s over.

So while there may still be a bowl game to get excited about, most of the fun is already over, and all we can do is look back and reflect on the year that was. But whenever I try to do that, like a child who just learned the true story of how he was conceived, there’s a horrifying image I can’t seem to get out of my head:


That's what the scoreboard read at the final gun of Texas' regular season-ending loss to Baylor. It was an uneven performance that was a microcosm of an uneven year. There was a promising offensive outburst wiped away by a series of back-breaking turnovers. There was a solid defensive effort ruined by a handful of big plays. And encapsulating it all, there were the what-might-have-beens in the form of all of the injured players on the sidelines.

In a season of minimal expectations, this loss was as maddening as any. After falling behind 14-0, UT rallied with back-to-back scoring drives to even things up. And when Case McCoy hit Marquise Goodwin for an 80-yard touchdown, the Longhorns were out in front by seven. The offense was in a rhythm, the defense was settling in and all of the momentum was behind the boys in burnt orange.

And then the wheels came off.

Botched snaps. Missed assignments. Questionable decision-making. You name it, they did it. It was as if they went “Costanza” and started doing the opposite of what they thought they should, only to less favorable results. The train got going downhill, and they couldn’t figure out how to stop it.

It’s never fun seeing Texas lose – and this was their fifth loss of the season – but I cussed and yelled and spiked the remote more than I had all year. That’s what endless camera shots of Bear fans flashing the always classy upside down “Hook ‘Em Horns” sign will do to you.

But beyond the interceptions and the missed tackles, and beyond the reality that Baylor – BAYLOR!!! – has now had scoreboard on UT for two consecutive years, what made the whole scene so hard to digest was something far more personal:

It was my fault.

The whole fiasco started earlier in the week when I realized that the UT basketball game against UCLA was going to be played at the same time as the football game against Baylor. Being the obsessed fan of both teams that I am, I don’t like to miss a minute of any game, and I wanted to be able to watch each without knowing the outcome of the other.

What made things complicated, though, was that I’d been hoping to go to the bar where the local Texas alumni chapter holds football game-watching parties. This was possibly my last chance to go this season, and I didn’t want to miss out on the good food, the camaraderie, or – most importantly – the opportunity to high-five the dude in the cowboy hat who high-fives the entire bar after every Longhorn score.

So I had two choices:

Stay home, record the basketball game, watch the football game live, and watch the basketball game immediately afterwards.


Go to the bar, record the basketball game, watch the football game live, and hope to make it back home without finding out what happened in the basketball game.

Over the next couple of days, I wavered back and forth, but ultimately, I decided to take my chances and go to the bar. Maybe it was naïve, but given the fact that it was early in the basketball season, and that people would probably be more interested in watching the SEC Championship than the hoops team, I figured it was worth the risk.

Things got off to a great start, as I got there early (okay, I was the first one there…by a while), claimed my lucky seat, ate my pre-game meal, and settled in for kickoff. Not one TV set was tuned to the basketball game, nor did I hear anyone mention anything about it. And after the Horns reeled off consecutive touchdown drives, I even got to exchange a couple of high-fives with the high-fiver, who was wearing a burnt orange Santa cap – on top of his customary cowboy hat.

‘Tis the season.

But about the time Marquise Goodwin was crossing the goal line for the go-ahead score, giving Texas their 21-14 advantage, everything came crashing down.

That’s when one of the bartenders started walking around and changing some of the televisions to the basketball game – including the set right next to the one I was watching. Not ready to give up all of the hard work I’d put in, I immediately averted my eyes, as if the TV were the cleavage of Russell Dalrymple’s daughter. I had made it this far, and I still controlled my own destiny, but if I didn’t act quickly, I ran the risk of having my fate decided for me.

Once again, I had two choices:

Stay at the bar, continue watching the football game, and check in with the basketball during commercials and timeouts.


Head home, watch the rest of the football game live, then watch the recorded basketball game, just like I had originally contemplated.

Now, if you had told me beforehand that this was going to happen, that the basketball game was going to be on at the bar, it would’ve been a no brainer…I wouldn’t have even thought about going. Only in the rarest, most desperate of circumstances am I ever willing to forsake one of my teams’ games. And that sacrifice wouldn’t have been necessary in this case.

But as I sat there, in that moment, my choice was no longer quite as clear. It wasn’t just about me anymore. The Longhorn football team was rolling, having scored 21 straight points, and all of the good vibes, all of the good karma was perfectly aligning for a UT victory – and it was all happening with me at the bar.

If I were to leave, would I be screwing it all up?

Being superstitious is part of being a fan. Because we’re nothing more than observers, we battle the inherently helpless nature of the experience by convincing ourselves that there are ways that we can somehow contribute to our team’s success. We wear a certain shirt. We drink a certain beer. We don’t wash a certain pair of underwear. These things become part of our game day rituals, and the lack of logic behind them doesn’t make them any less powerful in our minds.

Me, I’ve been honing mine since the moment I fell in love with the Longhorns. For starters, I always have to shave on the day that UT plays. I’ve also noticed over the years that there appears to be a direct correlation between the team’s performance and the way my shoes rest on my feet. If they’re too loose, or if the tongue shifts off to the side, or if they just don’t feel right, bad things can happen on the field. That’s why I constantly tie and retie my laces throughout the game, with each retying serving as a sort of reset button, allowing the Horns to get back on track if needed.

The same goes for…brace yourself…my bladder. If Texas is on a good run, I’ll sit tight and hold onto those Cokes I drank until the run is over. Conversely, when the game isn’t going well, a trip to the bathroom can be a source of relief – for both me and the team – like a coach calling a timeout to regroup.

Beyond these specifics, I’m also a big believer in the tried-and-true superstitions, like the power of the spoken word. Don’t ever talk about how well your team is playing or how they haven’t made any mistakes – unless you want them to stop playing well and start making mistakes. If you’re dead-set on tempting fate, though, it’s imperative that you qualify statements like, “The quarterback is doing a good job of taking care of the ball” with phrases like, “so far.” Doing so is a nod to the Sporting G-ds, telling them that you’re aware of your place on the hierarchy, and that your analysis was not a provocation for them to prove who is actually in charge.

Of course, if you fail to make this clear, and nobody (rightfully) banishes you from the premises, an effective maneuver to counteract your mistake is to switch up everyone’s seating assignment. Few things shake up the karma as well as a quick round of musical chairs. There was one game a few years ago in which Texas was struggling – until one of my friends got up to get a snack out of the kitchen.

If it had been up to me, she would’ve sat in the pantry the rest of the way.

That’s just how it is. You do what you gotta do to support the team. I’ve been watching sports my entire life, and there have been so many instances – both good and bad – that it's hard for me to simply dismiss this stuff as coincidence, no matter how crazy it seems.

A couple more examples to consider:

*Heading into the 2005 season, UT was perceived as a team of underachievers. While the program had been on the rise for several years, they couldn’t quite get over the hump, continually falling short on the biggest stages. They hadn’t won a conference title in almost a decade, they were in the midst of a five game losing streak to archrival Oklahoma, and it seemed like they might not ever break through.

But then some friends and I took matters into our own hands – we started watching the games at one particular guy’s house every week. Each Saturday, I’d wake up, take a shower, shave (this is when that superstition was born) and head over, always arriving about 15 minutes prior to kickoff.

And before we knew it, the Longhorns were undefeated – including a blowout of the Sooners – and headed to the national title game against USC.

Our inevitable hysteria was muted, though, when a couple of days before the championship, we were notified of the news: our friend, our host each week, had gotten tickets to the game, meaning we were suddenly homeless. We were going to have to find someplace else to watch the game.

Or were we?

His house had been our sanctuary, our good luck charm all season, and in the immortal words of Crash Davis, you “never f*** with a winning streak” – especially in a moment like this. So there was really only one thing left to do:

Find a way into that townhome.

If that meant hiding in the closet before he caught his flight, fine. If that meant burrowing in through the air conditioning vents or rappelling in Mission Impossible- style, so be it. Somehow, someway, we had to get in.

Fortunately, there was a much easier – not to mention more obvious – solution available. By simply asking our friend if we could come over, he got his wife to graciously open their doors to us. We were all able to sit in our traditional spots, set the volume on the TV to the level that had brought the Horns the most success, and watch the game from exactly where we were meant to watch it.

And that night, Texas claimed their first national championship in 36 years.

*In the 2009 Big 12 title game, the Longhorns were on the verge of flushing their dreams of another national championship with a lackluster performance against Nebraska. The Cornhusker defense had pummeled QB Colt McCoy all night, surging to a 12-10 lead, while also successfully pushing me to the brink of an unfathomable meltdown.

But after a big completion and an even bigger – yet absolutely correct – timekeeping adjustment, Texas was set to attempt a game-winning field goal with one second left on the clock.

I was at the alumni bar, trembling as if I’d just stepped into the ring with Clubber Lang, unsure if I was prepared to handle whatever it was that was about to happen. I had changed seats three times throughout the night, and I was now standing in the same spot where I’d watched the Horns’ hard-fought win over Oklahoma earlier in the year. And even though Hunter Lawrence was one of the most accurate kickers in UT history, I couldn’t bear to watch. Figuring the bar’s reaction would tell me everything I needed to know, I closed my eyes, dropped my chin to my chest, and listened.

Looking back now, I’m not sure what was more incredible – that the kick held its line long enough to slide inside the left upright, or that my shaking hands were able to keep my car in one lane on the victorious drive home.

Fast forward two years to Thanksgiving night 2011. The Horns are playing rival Texas A&M in what is always a heated, throw-out-the-records matchup. But because the Aggies are set to move to the Southeastern Conference, the stakes are even higher this year, as this could be the last time the two schools will ever play each other. And nobody wants to be on the wrong end of a score that will be forever etched into Lone Star State lore.

The Longhorn defense stands strong most of the game, even scoring on an interception return, but the offense struggles to get in gear, and with just under two minutes to play, UT has the ball trailing by one, 25-24. Somehow, led by another McCoy – Colt’s younger brother, Case – the Horns move into field goal range at the A&M 23-yard line.

It’s all come down to this: one kick for eternal bragging rights.

Sitting on my parents’ couch, sporting my lucky burnt orange shirt, I was physically nauseous, fighting to keep down the turkey and potatoes I’d eaten just hours earlier. Then suddenly, from out of nowhere, a calm washed over me, as I felt the warmth of familiarity. I realized that this wasn’t uncharted waters. I had been here before, and I knew what to do: “Closed eyes” equaled “Made game-winning field goal.” So that’s exactly what I did.

And then I heard this.

Now, I readily concede how ridiculous all of this sounds, how absurd it is to think that anything I did had even the slightest effect on the outcomes of those games. I get that the players and coaches had no idea about where I was sitting, or how tightly my shoe laces were tied, or – thankfully – the state of my bladder. And even if they had, what difference would it have made?

After all, the 2005 Longhorns won the national title because they were abundantly talented, because they had (at least) 24 contributors who would go on to play in the NFL, because they got the right breaks at the right time, because Limas Sweed made a clutch catch in the Horseshoe, because they stuffed USC on 4th and 2, because they had an absolute alien at quarterback, and because of a million other reasons, none of which had anything to do with me. Same with the game-winning kick over the Aggies on Thanksgiving.

But it’s not like these “tactics” are unprecedented. There are plenty of things we do in our everyday lives – many of which are widely accepted as effective – to try to influence different outcomes that are seemingly out of our control. We do things like visualization. We write down affirmations and focus on thinking positively. We pray.

And when the situation does work out, who’s to say what it was that ultimately tipped things our way? Did we get the job because we were the most qualified, or because we spent time visualizing our new business card? Did our spouse land the big account because she made the best pitch, or because we thought happy thoughts for her? Did our loved one pull through surgery because the doctor did his job, or because we asked for a higher power to watch over him?

There will always be plenty of logical reasons explaining why something played out the way it did, and honestly, they are imminently more believable than the alternative. But what if there is something more at play? What if – give me a second to channel the voice of my spiritual-minded mother – the entire universe is nothing more than a collection of energy, and everything in it is connected, making it this living, breathing entity that is constantly in flux? Wouldn’t it stand to reason, then, that every little thing we do could potentially shift that energy, causing even the slightest of ripple effects, which in turn could affect what happens around us?

Obviously, these are difficult, far-reaching questions, and the answers will probably need to come from people who are a lot smarter than I am, like scientists or theologians or Dexter Morgan.

What I can say for sure, though, is that when I was sitting in that bar 10 days ago, the Texas football team was taking care of business against Baylor. But once it became apparent that, if I stayed, I’d find out what happened in the basketball game, I did what I thought was right:

I went home.

There was just no way I could give up the chance to watch one of my teams play. I couldn’t do it. Maybe it wasn’t the smartest of moves. Maybe it was selfish. Or maybe it was just my devotion as a fan taking control.

Whatever it was, from the moment I got out of my chair, everything flipped for the Horns. Six of their final eight offensive possessions ended in turnovers, six of their final eight defensive possessions ended in points for the Bears, and they were outscored by a margin of 34-3.

These are the facts, and they are indisputable.

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"It's not a lie, if you believe it." Those were the words of one of my generation's great sages, George Costanza, and the more of life I experience, the truer they ring. And while I still haven't found what I'm looking for, the search for my own personal "truths" is never-ending. Care to come along for the ride?