On Sunday, as the Carolina Panthers try to keep their undefeated season alive with their 13th straight win on December 13th, Ron Rivera plans to do everything exactly the same way he has done it all season.
Like many of the team's fans, the Panthers head coach is very superstitious.
Rivera will wake up before Sunday’s home game with Atlanta and take his two dogs on a walk that always follows the same route. His wife, Stephanie, will fix him his lucky breakfast of cinnamon French toast and a ham steak. One of his assistant coaches will pick him up at his house at exactly 8:45 a.m.
But Rivera's superstitions – and there are many more – are only the tip of the rabbit's foot. As the Panthers' winning streak has grown this season, so have the superstitions of their supporters.
There is a woman in Los Angeles who will order her lucky onion rings from her favorite sports bar at the table they always reserve for her. There is a family in Charlotte where a young boy and his grandfather will rub a lucky black panther statue.
There is a woman in Charlotte who will make sure her undergarments do not contain any bit of color of the opposing team – on this Sunday, that means no Atlanta Falcons red. There is a soldier in the U.S. Army in Texas who will pull on his Jon Beason jersey in Cowboys country and then take whatever verbal heat comes his way. And there are a couple of six-month-old twins in Charlotte who will be dressed in the same Panthers outfits. The Panthers have yet to lose during their lifetime.
Karma from Bojangles'
As the tagline goes in a series of Bud Light commercials on fans' superstitions: "It's only weird if it doesn't work."
And for the Panthers, everything has been working this season. All those talismans – all those lucky jerseys, dog collars, bobbleheads and socks – have been invested with more good karma than usual (knock on wood). The Panthers are 12-0 and haven't lost since January.
Habits become routines. Routines verge into superstitions. And all of a sudden a meal has to be the exact same thing each week.
That's what has happened to the Panthers. Let Pro Bowl center Ryan Kalil explain.
"After practice on Friday, they cater a lunch for us," Kalil said. "In past years, some weeks it is pizza, some weeks it is Bojangles'. This year we had Bojangles' for Week 1 of the season and won. So we had Bojangles' for week 2. And so now we've had Bojangles' for 12 straight weeks. It never changed. If you're looking for why we have been so successful this season? I would say Bojangles' – and that's a non-paid advertisement."
Fans have their lucky foods, too, of course. A man in Summerville, S.C., found out the recipe for Jake Delhomme's favorite seafood gumbo by calling a Louisiana restaurant Delhomme once raved about in an article. Now the fan makes that gumbo for everybody at his house for the biggest Panthers games.
'Get out, Mom!'
I understand all of this. As a kid who lived in Texas until age 9 and loved the Dallas Cowboys, I used to put on my Roger Staubach jersey every Sunday and watch Dallas games in the basement – and only with my Dad. If my Mom walked in and asked "How's the game going?" the Cowboys invariably gave up a 60-yard touchdown pass in the next five seconds.
"Get out!" I screamed at her on several occasions.
Rivera gets it, though. His list of superstitions was even longer as an NFL player, he said. But even now, the coach he has his hair cut by the same uptown barber in Charlotte because once he used another barber at the same shop and Carolina lost a few days later.
Former Panthers coach George Seifert was also very superstitious. He had to blow three times on every Lifesaver before eating it. It worked in San Francisco but did not work in Charlotte, where his final team finished 1-15 in 2001.
The coach also sits in the same seat on every bus and plane ride. He and general manager Dave Gettleman sit at the same table every Friday over lunch and discuss the team. Rivera makes sure to walk out of the same tunnel before the game (avoiding the one with the inflatable Panther). And just before every kickoff, the coach and quarterback Cam Newton find each other and stand together for the national anthem.
Newton always stands to Rivera's right. When the anthem ends, the two share a hug. Rivera gives him a word or two of advice like “Have fun.”
"And then he gets ready to roll," Rivera said.
In the meantime, Panthers fans pull on lucky jerseys. They eat onion rings and seafood gumbo. They refill their lucky coffee mugs. They keep growing their lucky beards.
"With this run, everyone's superstitions are at an all-time high," said Jackie Miles, who has been the Panthers' head equipment manager since the team's inception in 1995. Miles has his own superstitions. He completely switched up the Panthers' visiting locker room setup this October in Seattle because Carolina had lost to the Seahawks in the playoffs in the same stadium in January. And it worked.
Not every player or fan is like this. "I'm only superstitious about being prepared," offensive guard Trai Turner said. "Everything else? It's just stuff."
"I subscribe to the notion that it is bad luck to be superstitious," Panthers fan Bart Nicholson of Fort Mill said.
But for countless others, it seems to be worth a try.
Hey, when your team's mascot is a black cat, you need all the good luck you can get.
Editor's note: Observer columnist Scott Fowler asked Panthers fans to share some of their superstitions with him via email. Here are a few of the dozens of responses.
PANTHER IN COWBOY COUNTRY
My name is Brandon Couch and I'm a soldier in the US Army, stationed in Fort Bliss, Texas in El Paso. Almost all residents in El Paso are Cowboys fans (go figure...), and I HATE Dallas with a passion!
My best experience was this Thanksgiving. I was enrolled in a program where the families in the community open up their homes to single soldiers for the holiday. The Panthers had the Thanksgiving Day game against Dallas, so I got into my gameday attire, including my (former Panther) Jon Beason jersey. When I arrived at the family's home, I immediately received some stiff, uncomfortable stares.
They welcomed me briefly before the interrogation began. "Who told you that you could wear that over here?" one of the guys asked.
"No one," I replied. "My jersey goes with me on game day." The family was awesome and I even got a few pictures with the ones in their Cowboys gear..... I do not wash my game day gear after wins, so it's safe to say that it is pretty dirty, dingy and coffee-stained.
Fort Bliss, TX
Since our six-month-old twins Thomas and Benjamin were born, they have been wearing their lucky outfits every gameday! Clearly why the Panthers are 12-0! At first their outfits were too big for them, but they are starting to grow into them, especially the smaller one of the two, Thomas, who was only four pounds at birth.
The fact that the game against the Saints was so close was unfortunately my son Benjamin's fault. He peed on his Panthers shirt during the game – luckily we had a backup Panthers onesie to save the day and secure another Panthers victory!
LUCKY ONION RINGS
I left Charlotte after 45 years in 2006 for Los Angeles. Since then, I’ve watched every Panther game at my local pub, Fox and Hounds, in the same chair, same reserved table, with all the customary fan gear… But last year I added one menu item to my routine and the rest is history. When I ordered Onion Rings, we always won!!
They must stay on the table and multiple rounds are sometimes necessary to do the trick! But just saying "Onion Rings" can produce magic, like the Dallas game when I placed my order and (Kurt) Coleman instantaneously picked off (Tony) Romo for a TD. One week their fryer had broken. So they pan-fried a batch just for me and voila – worked like a charm!
My dad and I are both equally superstitious when it comes to our team.
My dad will only drive one way to the stadium. No matter the traffic, weather or any other variables there is only one way to the stadium on game day.
Myself, all undergarments must not contain our opponents' colors on them. For example if we are playing the Saints – no gold or black. The Falcons – no red. I encourage others around me to follow the same rules.
Back during our Super Bowl year I read an article about Jake Delhomme's favorite seafood gumbo. It listed a restaurant in his hometown. I called the restaurant and got the recipe (the lady who gave it to me loved that I was a Panther fan calling).
I made it for everyone at my house for every game after that for that year. I still make it for people, although it has been changed over the years, before big games. Just a couple of examples: I made it before the last Atlanta game last and prior to the Arizona playoff game. I made it for the Seattle game this year and the Green Bay game. I have made it for a few losses over the years also, but we don't want to discuss this.