- Senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com
- 2-time Sports Emmy winner
- 2010, 2014 NMPA Writer of the Year
It was nighttime in New Orleans, on Jan. 13, 2019, shortly after the start of the fourth quarter of the College Football Playoff National Championship. Inside the Superdome the game was a rout, the LSU Tigers shocking the defending national champion Clemson Tigers 42-25 in a game that didn’t feel nearly that close.
Outside the stadium, in a concrete courtyard with a view of the exterior video board that showed the game on the big screen as if it were a drive-in horror movie, an older woman gyrated and pointed at the image above her, a candle at her feet. Her neck and chest were draped in an endless looping of necklaces, rows of purple and gold beads and another layer of … wait … was that … yes, it was … various animal teeth. She cackled and clapped her hands, one of which held a violet and yellow peacock feather as if it were a conjurer’s wand and exclaimed, “It worked! It worked! It worked! The orange tigers lose!”
Excuse me, ma’am, what worked?
She pointed at the candle, fondled her jewelry, and shrugged matter-of-factly, her twitchy gesticulations never ceasing. “The curse! The curse!”
This Sunday, as All Hallows’ Eve arrives, it shall do so amid the misty midst of a very busy college football weekend. The darkness creepily rolling over America’s campus gridirons like Red “The Galloping Ghost” Grange as the stroke of midnight is heard across the time zones from The Plains and Stillwater to the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Coast. Halloween shall be lurking in the pre-Sunday shadows, waiting for fans as they file out of stadiums and into the night. In some cases, like at Clemson, they will even stroll through stadium-adjacent cemeteries as they leave. (That gives a whole new meaning to “Death Valley,” doesn’t it?) No doubt many of those fans will step out of those coliseums feeling cursed themselves, as this season of upsets continues to befuddle and befall nearly every ranked team, making many a home field feel more like a haunted house.
So, it should surprise no one that the history of college football is packed with curses. After all, the sport is 152 years old, born in 1869, just as the Merriam-Webster Dictionary had added the term “witch hunt” to its pages and the same year that magician Howard Thurston, aka the King of Levitation and a man who posed with cartoon devils on his promotional posters, was born in Columbus, Ohio, very near the current location of Ohio State’s “Horseshoe.”
“Oh, I don’t think there’s any way that there’s not some sort of curse or black magic, or whatever you want to call it, spread all over college football. Just based on the length of time we’ve been playing and all the sort of odd characters in this game and all of our superstitions that all us weirdos have because we think it might win some football games,” Mike Leach, Mississippi State head coach and a published historian, explained earlier this fall. “I mean, just simply based on where we built these schools and where we built these stadiums, whether it’s a location in a region with a history of tapping into otherworldly stuff, or just some guys 200 years ago saying, ‘Oh, this is sacred ground to a people who have been here for a thousand years? Whatever, let’s put a university here.'”
Take, for instance, The Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina. The military school that has long played in the FCS Southern Conference has won only four league titles since joining the SoCon ranks in 1936. The first two came in 1961 and 1992. Over the next half-dozen years after that second title, a number of bodies were discovered around the area of Johnson Hagood Stadium, first beneath a room where boosters gathered before Bulldogs home games, then under the parking lot. Archaeologists and historians eventually uncovered the remains of nearly 350 people throughout the stadium grounds.
In a storyline right out of “Poltergeist,” it seems that when the city leaders approved the building of the stadium in the 1940s, they knew that plot of marshy land was also the site of a Confederate era maritime cemetery and said that the bodies would need to be moved before the stadium was constructed. Instead, some shady contractor decided to remove only the headstones. See? “Poltergeist.” As Craig T. Nelson, future “Coach” of the Minnesota State Screaming Eagles, screamed at another sketchy builder, “You son of a b—-, you moved the cemetery but you left the bodies, didn’t you?!“
Shortly after their discovery, some of the remains were moved to a nearby cemetery amid much old-timey pomp and circumstance (that’s how they roll in Charleston) while most were moved into storage. But in 2008, many were returned to the stadium site and marked with a memorial plaque. Oddly enough, from the time the first remains were removed in ’99 until the mass return in ’08, The Citadel averaged a record of 4-8 and finished above .500 only once, the same season that talks began about how to move the remains back to Johnson Hagood.
“When you are losing, you start looking for anything you can possibly find or do to make it stop,” said Archie Manning. The former Ole Miss hero resides in New Orleans, where he quarterbacked the legendarily bad Saints of the 1970s and has long lived around the corner from wildly popular mystical novelist Anne Rice, she of “Interview with a Vampire” fame. So Manning sees plenty of witches and warlocks walking up and down his street, and not just on Halloween. “Even if whatever you do to end a curse doesn’t work to make it stop, you can still always point to the curse as the real problem, you know, so maybe people will think it’s something other than you.”
Before its first game as a member of the SEC in 1992, South Carolina fans had a magic man with a giant cauldron perform a “chicken curse” healing ceremony in front of Williams-Brice Stadium, hoping to end a decade of Gamecocks heartbreak that had included everything from a steroids scandal to the sudden death of head coach Joe Morrison.
In 2007, perhaps the wildest year college football has ever seen (prior to this one?), the so-called Curse of No. 2 was unleashed. No less than seven times over the final nine weeks of the season, the second-ranked team in the AP poll lost. Seven times in a 13-week season! In addition, the first- and second-ranked teams both lost on the same weekend three times.
“We were right in the middle of that,” former Oregon head coach Mike Bellotti recalled in 2019. “We beat Arizona State at our place. It was a huge game. They were ranked sixth and we were fourth. College GameDay was there. We won and I remember thinking, ‘Oh man, let’s be ranked third this week, just in case.’ But we were ranked second … and we lost at unranked Arizona the next weekend. I was mad, but at least I knew we weren’t alone.”
Tennessee was so cursed by the now-demolished Georgia Dome that the Vols not only lost three straight SEC championship game appearances there (2001, ’04, ’07), but during that same stretch they also lost three straight Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowls there (’02, ’04, ’09), and to rub some extra Chick-Fil-A sauce into their wounds, they also suffered a slew of disappointing early-round SEC basketball tournament eliminations on the floor of the dome.
“I remember we were going there in ’07 and someone on the staff who had been there for those other two SEC championships and Peach Bowls,” recalls Duke head coach David Cutcliffe, who was Tennessee’s offensive coordinator in ’07. “We were doing the walkthroughs and he said, ‘You think they would let us play this anywhere else? Are there high school stadiums or parking lots available?'”
And then there’s the Drake Curse that has been accused of taking down NFL and NBA teams whenever the music superstar dares to attend their games while wearing their jersey. That unstoppable supernatural sports force even managed to seize “Controlla” of college football’s most unstoppable force. After the Canadian donned an Alabama jersey and gave the No. 1 team in the land a pep talk, the Tide promptly were trounced by Clemson in the 2019 national title game, 44-16, the worst beating ever taken by a Nick Saban Bama squad.
“Yeah, I don’t know if the Drake Curse is real,” said former Alabama wide receiver and 2020 Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith, who was a sophomore in that Clemson game. “But if he doesn’t want to wear our gear before a big game again, that would be cool. Just in case.”
Ah yes, the Heisman, the bronze manifestation of college football’s most infamous affliction, the curse that bears the name of the very trophy to which it is attached.
“I don’t believe in the Heisman Curse,” said Tim Tebow, winner of the 2007 Heisman as a sophomore at Florida. “But then again, we did win two national championships and they came the years before and after I won the Heisman. But I don’t believe in the Heisman Curse. I don’t. For real.”
There are those who focus their Heisman Curse conversation on the burden of winning college football’s most coveted individual award as it pertains to failed NFL careers, but that’s not where its true powers of football foredooming can be found. That impact is much more immediate. The last two honorees, Alabama’s Smith and LSU’s Joe Burrow, led their teams to national titles. But it took the four College Football Playoff wins they needed to earn those rings to finally give the residents of the Heisman House a winning record in their bowl appearances.
Since Jay Berwanger won the first Heisman Trophy in 1935, 65 of the 86 winners have played in postseason bowl games. Their record is 34-31. During the 1980s, Heisman winners went 2-7 in bowls and were denied a 10th bowl appearance when Andre Ware’s 1989 Houston team was placed on NCAA probation. In the BCS/CFP era, Heisman winners are 4-8 in national championship games, and prior to 2009, they were 1-6. Postseason life was particularly rough from 2003 to ’08, when Heisman winners went 1-5 in bowls and per the official NCAA tally that lone win — Matt Leinart and USC over Oklahoma in ’04 — was vacated for rule violations.
“Am I the originator of that term ‘Heisman Curse’? I feel like maybe I am,” Ohio State legend Archie Griffin said with a laugh. He is still the only two-time winner of the stiff-armed trophy. But at the end of both of his Heisman seasons — 1974 and ’75 — his teams were stiff-armed in the Rose Bowl, suffering losses to USC and UCLA that both denied the Buckeyes at least a share of each year’s national championship. It was the meeting of two classic college football curses, the Heisman Curse and the Woody Hayes Rose Bowl jinx. In eight appearances at the Granddaddy of Them All, Hayes was 4-4 and after the Jan. 1, 1976 game, he never won another Big Ten title or made it back to the Rose Bowl.
“That one was the heartbreaker,” Griffin admits of the ’76 game. “We had beaten UCLA pretty easily earlier in the year, but when we went back out there for the Rose Bowl we had a lot of distractions. That’s the one game I always want back.”
If he could have it back, perhaps he might produce some sort of curse-busting ritual? After all, there is hope out there. Kentucky is finally consistently good at football again for the first time since it ran Bear Bryant out of town in 1953. On Sept. 25, after NC State beat Clemson for the first time in a decade, Wolfpack head coach Dave Doeren announced, “The curse is broken.” And even The Citadel managed to finally win another Southern Conference title with back-to-back championships in 2015 and ’16.
We reached out to multiple mystics who offer such services, Reikis and psychics and even a coven of witches, all assuring us of their abilities, in one form or another, to “Clear your Black Magic, curse, spell, negative entity & hex (in 3 sessions or less),” from Sonic Nova to Psychic Hanna to Ray Scott at SorcererForHire.com. But the most attractive pigskin-ish offer was made by a group called the 7Witches Coven. They can cast a “Barrier Blaster Spell” that speaks directly to any college football curse that might ail you. From the website: “Something is in the way. Some force is preventing you from achieving one of your goals. It might be man-made, or it might be circumstance. It might even be Magickal. Whatever the cause, the Barrier Blaster Spell can help you break through to the other side. You know that if you can finally get past this obstacle, you can flourish.”
Right?! That is like a Knute Rockne locker room chalk talk for the mystical arts. And any cursed coach or player can tap into the 7Witches power for only $37.77.
“I have not been asked to help an athlete or a team stop a curse, but I have noticed some teams and players who have been cursed, both in the past and current football players and teams, so it does happen,” observes Ray Scott, the Pacific Northwest-based Sorcerer for Hire, explaining that curses stem from three origins: humans, using the occult as a weapon, demons (“the worst kind”) and what he believes applies to most sports curses: “self-created fears of being cursed.”
“All curses seek to destroy someone or something. Nothing positive comes from a curse. Myself, I offer a free reading, so I can determine what is going on. I just call ’em like I see ’em. No pun intended.”
So, what say you, Archie Griffin? Maybe go back to New Year’s Day ’76 after recruiting some help from someone with ties to another dimension? Say, an interesting woman wearing a tooth necklace outside the Superdome?
“No, I think I’d just make sure we got into the end zone more than once. But … well … OK, if I’m being honest, I think some folks from back in the day, we’d be open to any other ideas too.”
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