Politics & Policy

Steeling It

Lucky Pittsburgh.

It is sooo satisfying to have a dream come true, especially when the path isn’t easy and the last part of the climb was not very beautiful. But the thing I love about football (reason #8) is that so much of the game is constructed around the concept of luck.

On Sunday night, the “breaks” nearly all went Pittsburgh’s way, for no particularly rational reason. In many ways, the Seahawks played the tougher, more determined, more systematically effective game. It even seemed that they were on the verge of running away with the game very early. I thought the Steelers looked surprised, shocked, even quite worried as the minutes wore on. The Steelers couldn’t move the ball at all. The Seahawks seemed to drive downfield at will, with a plan, and with terrific execution. Matt Hasselback looked more knowledgeable and more determined and more driving than Big Ben Roethlisberger.

Yet the Steelers also showed determination–kept pressing, broke the game open with two wonderful trick plays. Seattle could have had two touchdowns, but receivers failed to get both feet in bounds, by not playing the sideline quite right.

I would be willing to guess, without a final check, that Seattle won the game in statistics. At times, Big Ben was carrying Pittsburgh on his back, almost alone. And he wasn’t hitting any (hardly) of his passes. But, then, after making one superb pass, and then a diving run for a touchdown, in a play that might have sealed the deal, he made a horribly bad low pass on the Seattle two-yard line that should have been an easy touchdown. Instead, it was intercepted and run back 76 yards–the greatest single turnaround in the game. Shortly after, Seattle scored. Pittsburgh had been about to go up 21-3; suddenly, the score was 14-10, and Lady Fortune seemed to be playing on the Seattle side.

What I mean by the game being constructed around luck is this: The football is shaped so as to take unpredictable bounces, and to perform in unpredictable ways when punted or placekicked. It is also hard to hold on to, and even passes from passer to receiver require just the right “touch” for the receiver to be able to hold on to it, if he can get his hands on it. (The rule is, if I can touch it, it’s mine, no one else is going to get it; but funny things often cause violations to that rule). It is shocking how many passes that look certain and easy are dropped, or batted away at the very last second, or jarred out of one’s hands as one pulls them in. Adversarial bounces, fumbles, unintentional but play-killing penalties, and sometimes mistaken calls by the officials are a normal part of the game, but not exactly part of the rational plan.

So far is this true that, in fact, some teams build it into their rational strategy to play for “breaks” that experience tells you are going to happen–and some teams are more alert to the breaks and take better advantage of them than others.

The good ones know that football is a game presided over by a Lady, and her name is Lady Fortune. She is very beautiful but not always fair. To have Lady Fortune sending favorable winds into one’s sails is to feel invincible on a certain day. On other days, to have her undermine your best efforts is turn the taste in one’s mouth to ashes.

Those who don’t know say “It’s only a game,” but those who have given every ounce of life they have into the struggle, only to lose, and to lose by a stream of bad luck, really do feel as if they have died and gone to a kind of living hell. You can see it on their faces on the bench as the final seconds tick away. They can feel it–they can taste and smell it–on the bus as they drive away, with nothing but their thoughts, full of torment, a feeling that can last for days.

The truth is, Lady Fortune doesn’t take away the feeling of blame and responsibility. No matter how you lose, losing is always a little bit like dying–because you cannot help knowing, if you are honest, that if you had played just a little better, you would have won. This is true even when you know you played your best. When you win, even your mistakes don’t seem to have prevented it. When you lose, what else can you blame? You can’t help wondering what you did that led fickle Lady Fortune to slip away from you, into the arms of another.

You resolve to recapture her admiration, and her affections, next year, by becoming just that much better. And, sometimes, that happy outcome follows.

It is sooo satisfying!

Even if you weren’t actually better, just luckier.

“Luckier” isn’t entirely fair to Pittsburgh’s performance Sunday night. Their defense was unbelievably good. And on offense they pulled off a couple of “Pittsburgh specials” that we used to try out on the schoolyard–but they made them work big-time, like professionals. And those two touchdowns were the difference.

Michael Novak is the winner of the 1994 Templeton Prize for progress in religion and the George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute.


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