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Up To Date

A Fan's Notes: Jinx

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At least one local college football team is on the brink of a perfect season. But as Victor Wishna explains in this month's edition of "A Fan's Notes," that storybook ending is in jeopardy, thanks to a cover.

With two weeks left in the college football season, the Kansas State Wildcats are a perfect 10—as in, 10-0. And they’re currently number one in the BCS standings, for the first time in school history. Coach Bill Snyder, who came out of retirement three years ago to resurrect the football program for a second time, is on the verge of his and K-State’s first national championship.

But this week, something terrible has happened: the current issue of Sports Illustrated is out and there he is on the cover: the Wildcat’s star quarterback, Collin Klein. And it gets worse—the all-caps caption declares him “the best player on the nation’s best team.” Ouch.

Or, more specifically, Curses! Every sports fan is aware—or should be—of the infamous Sports Illustrated “cover jinx.” To be chosen as the illustrious magazine’s headliner is humbling and potentially harmful, a foreboding foreshadow of doom on the field—or, heaven forbid, off it.

It started with the very first issue of SI in 1954 and its first cover boy, Milwaukee Braves third baseman Eddie Mathews. The Braves soon snapped a nine-game winning streak and Mathews broke his hand. There have been dozens more ill-fated incidences since, a litany of not just batting slumps, losing streaks, and shocking upsets, but also season-ending injuries, fatal car crashes, and family tragedies.

The cover jinx has hit home before. In 2003, the Kansas City Chiefs appeared above the effusive headline “9-0!” A week later, their record was nine-and-one. Five years ago, the undefeated Kansas Jayhawks—yes, the football team—were featured for their own “Dream Season.” The Missouri Tigers would rudely awaken them a few days later.

Superstition is as much a part of sports as statistics. Some rituals are practically rules of the game, from rally caps to playoff beards. And for sports fans, whose affliction is pinning hope to something over which we already have no control, superstition can be the perfect salve. When things go wrong, belief in the supernatural brings order. There’s a very good reason why the Red Sox didn’t win a World Series for eighty-six years, why the Cubs are still flailing, or why no team from Cleveland or Buffalo can win anything: they’re hexed. Psychologists will tell you that it’s all, well, psychological. But as a Royals and Chiefs fan, I get it. Sitting around and cursing the bums in the front office ain’t got nothin’ on “The Curse of the Bambino.”

One of the allures of a jinx is in never knowing when it will strike. After all, Sports Illustrated has produced nearly 3,000 covers, most of them quite harmless to their subjects. Michael Jordan set the record, with 51 appearances, and he seemed to do okay.

When the Wildcats take on the Baylor Bears tomorrow night, they will still be the heavy favorite. The only cover of concern to Vegas bookmakers involves the twelve-point spread.

And an online poll of K-State fans so far finds that only 16 percent think their team is jinxed. Rational thought, or wishful thinking?

Reporters, of course, were clamoring to know how Klein himself felt about his complicated milestone. “Oh, it's pretty cool,” he said, sounding less than cursed. “At the same time, I am just trying to take care of…business here. Just trying to take one more step.”

Because that’s the comforting thing about a jinx. Real or imagined, there’s not much you can do about it.

Victor Wishna is a writer, editor, author, and sports fan.  He lives in Leawood.  You can hear “A Fan’s Notes” monthly on Up to Date.

After growing up on the east coast and spending his first professional years in classical music, Stephen moved to Kansas City in 1995 expecting to leave after a few years. (Clearly that didn't happen.) More than two decades and three kids later, he doesn't regret his decision to stick around. Stephen began his career in public radio as a classical music host. As the founding producer of Up to Date with Steve Kraske, he received a number of local and national awards for his work on the program. Since 2014 he's overseen KCUR's broadcast operations. When Stephen isn't at KCUR's studios, he's probably adding more stamps to his passport with his KU professor wife and their three kids. His son almost made him cry during a drive through the Rockies when he said at age 8: "Dad, can we listen to public radio?" Sniff sniff.
Victor Wishna is a contributing author and commentator for Up to Date.