College Football Hall of Famer Pie Vann was like a favorite uncle to me. When I was growing up in Hattiesburg, his teams were winning small college national championships at then-Mississippi Southern College.
My brother and I served as ball boys during the home games and sometimes on the road. Vann, a former Ole Miss football captain, would enlist us to help him beforehand. You see, he was superstitious. His teams were fundamentally sound and physically tough, but he was looking for that extra edge:
That’s right. Coach Vann believed that it was good luck to find a grasshopper before every game and stick it in his pants pocket. So he would enlist brother Bobby and me to help him find at least one grasshopper. One was fine, two were better. We became quite adept at grasshopper hunting. We were far too little to block or tackle, but we were doing our part. And, come to think of it, I don’t remember Vann’s Southerners ever losing when we found him a grasshopper.
Decades later, I googled “grasshoppers and good luck” and found this: “As a Chinese symbol, the grasshopper offers attributes of longevity, happiness, good health, good luck, wealth, abundance, fertility and virtue.”
For Pie Vann, it meant victory.
Today is Friday the 13th and as good a time as any to examine sports superstitions. They are many and varied and sometimes weird.
Les Miles famously ate grass before and during games for good luck and swore that the grass in Tiger Stadium tasted better than any other. No word on whether his tastes have changed, but we do know it never helped him with clock issues.
Richie Ashburn, the Hall of Fame outfielder, slept with his bats. No, really, he did. He confided that he did this in order to make sure clubhouse attendants didn’t mix up his favorite bats with others that were inferior. Silly, you say? Ashburn was a career .308 hitter. Later, when he was a radio analyst he would joke that he used to “sleep with a bunch of old bats.”
Ole Miss and Saints star Deuce McAllister says that virtually every teammate had some superstition, whether it had to do with warm-up routine, lucky shoes, pregame meals or just being in the same spot in line during drills every day. Deuce was no exception. With the Saints, he would let only equipment manager Dan “Chief” Simmons put on his shoulder pads and eye black before every game. Only Saints assistant trainer Kevin Mangum was allowed to tape McAllister’s ankles, and near the end of the taping session before a game they would always croon a gospel song.
But McAllister’s superstitions paled when compared to that of teammate Joe Horn, the wide receiver who famously played at Itawamba Community College.
“Joe always took a taxi to the stadium on game day whether it was home or away,” Deuce said. “He always got there at least three hours before the game, before anybody else, and he always laid his uniform out, from helmet to shoes, in the middle of the locker room floor.”
You laugh, something worked. Horn, who never played senior college football, caught 603 passes and 58 touchdowns in the NFL.
Serena Williams, the tennis goddess, will not change her socks – or have then washed – during a tournament. That’s right, she wears the same socks, which surely must ripen, until she loses a match or wins the tournament. Hopefully, she does post-championship interviews with her shoes on.
Few were more superstitious than Mississippi State athletic director John Cohen when he coached baseball. Last spring, the Bulldogs got hot and were challenging for the SEC Championship, so Cohen decided to wear the same uniform to every game. That uniform included a maroon, turtleneck undershirt, which was fine on cool April nights but became more than a little warm on hot May afternoons.
“I know I looked like a fool,” Cohen said, laughing. “The heat index got up to 110 and there I was wearing a turtleneck, but we were winning and I wasn’t about to change.”
The 2003 Southern Miss baseball team, Conference USA regular season and tournament champions, had a team good luck charm, “The Rally Monkey.” Rally Monkey was a stuffed animal that went with the team on road trips and hung in the dugout for every game. Those Golden Eagles won a school record 47 games.
When the late Minnie Minoso, a Cuban-born career .296 hitter, played for the Chicago White Sox, he had a rather strange superstition. If he went hit-less in a game, he would shower in his uniform, wash the bad luck out of it. Again, laugh if you want, but some of his teammates saw how it worked for Minoso and they did it, too.
Archie Manning wasn’t so much into superstition, but said he had pregame rituals. He was a little like Joe Horn in that he liked to get to the stadium early before NFL games and almost always took a cab ahead of the team bus. That changed when he was traded to the Vikings where Bud Grant had a rule that all players rode the bus and they didn’t arrive until an hour and a half before the game.
“Drove me crazy,” Manning said. “I hated it. Funny thing, there were a couple times when the team bus got caught in traffic and the Vikings were almost late for the game. Happened at the Super Bowl once.”
At Ole Miss, Manning said, legendary coach John Vaught had many superstitions, including Manning’s favorite.
“I’ll never forget that the week before the LSU game every year, he made everybody to get Vitamin B-12 shots,” Manning said. “He believed in it. He didn’t call it B-12, he called it, ‘Tiger piss.’”
It must have worked. Vaught was 15-7-3 against LSU. How many coaches can say that?