From naps to Disney music, pregame rituals part of Valley high school football scene

Youngker High School seniors Chris Rogers Jr., Nathan Blowers, and Anthony Cluff (left to right) all have their own pregame rituals they go through (photo by Rafael Alvarez | Cronkite News)

PHOENIX — Marshawn Lynch eats Skittles and Cam Newton wears special shoes. NFL players, however, aren’t the only ones with pregame rituals.

High school football players have them, too.

From taking naps to listening to Disney music, players have different ways to prepare for games. Some might call it superstitious. Players find it a necessity.

“The night before a game, I always bring my shoulder pads and helmet home,” Brophy College Prep offensive lineman Bertrand Odinet said. “I never leave them at school before a game. And then I also have the same red sleeveless shirt that I only wear for gameday.”

Senior quarterback Noah Gonzales, meanwhile, makes what he calls a “football guy” the night before a game.

“So I have my jersey laid out, with my pants, my girdle, my socks, my cleats and everything,” Gonzales said. “Kind of like it’s a person, but on the ground to make sure I don’t forget anything, and that I could have my mind on other things, (not) scrambling for other gear. It started probably when I was in 5th grade, and when I played youth football.”

These rituals are not surprising. In a study of superstitions in baseball by George Gmelch, a professor of anthropology at the University of San Francisco, he found they tend to be more prevalent in areas where there’s a lot of uncertainty.

Sports fits that bill.

Dr. Paul van Lange, a professor of psychology at VU University Amsterdam, shared a similar perspective. In his paper “The Psychological Benefits of Superstitious Rituals in Top Sport: A Study Among Top Sportspersons,” he found these rituals serve as a sort of psychological placebo.

“They help people cope with uncertain outcomes in the future, especially if these outcomes are important to them. … Our argument is that they strengthen feelings of control and confidence that may otherwise be lacking,” van Lange wrote.

Brophy senior running back Ross Velez’s confidence may come from a pregame ritual that involves what he wears.

“I usually wear a gray, or white, tank top just to relax and get my head motivated for the game, get my head straight,” Velez said. “Just to calm down, just to get right. It got started around (my) sophomore year when I just started working out and getting stronger.”

Teammates Brandon Krupp and Cole Macias turn to something a bit different for their pregame rituals — homework and music.

“Like five minutes before we get to whatever school we’re going to, I listen to the ‘Rocky’ theme song, ‘Gonna Fly Now,’ ” Krupp said. “It just puts me in the zone for the game, and I do it because I was born in Philly and I like the Rocky movies, and I kind of connect with it.”

“Before the game, I’ll get some of my homework done so it calms me down to more of a serious mood,” Macias said. “I’ll eat my pregame meal, and then on the bus ride over to wherever we’re playing, I’ll always listen to Disney music because it always relaxes my mind. It gets me out of a super serious mood, but it gets me not really hyped up for the game, but it gets my mind where it should be.”

Macias said the ritual started about a year and a half ago after he sustained a concussion. He found that Disney music, in particular, calmed him down, which is something he said he needs before a game. Theme songs from Disney films such as ‘Moana’ and ‘Frozen’ are favorites of Macias.

At Avondale Agua Fria High School, senior wide receiver Cooper Niezgodzki’s pregame ritual revolves around the shoes he wears, or better yet, does not wear.

“I don’t put my cleats on until we’re like ready to get out there,” Niezgodzki said. “It started (my) junior varsity year. I just never put them on. I don’t know why.”

Pregame rituals that revolve around motivation are common in the Agua Fria locker room, as sophomore tackle Carson Kennedy said he looks to the past to get himself pumped up.

“I look at old highlights of my last game just because it gets me hyped, and I want to make more of those,” Kennedy said.

The role music plays in pregame rituals was also prevalent at Buckeye Youngker High School, where middle linebacker Nathan Blowers and receiver Anthony Cluff said it is part of their pregame routine. Blowers said he likes to be serious before games but listening to “pump-up” music is something that helps him stay focused as well.

“I just like to get into game mode,” Blowers said. “I don’t like to joke around before a game because I feel like that means you’re not serious. That’s just been an all-time thing since I played football.”

To Cluff, music is important, but getting some rest before games is just as crucial.

“I usually take a nap before a game, so it’s a little weird, but it leaves me less tired and more focused onto the game,” Cluff said. “I’m a 40-year-old in an 18-year-old body, but I listen to the old stuff like Led Zeppelin and all of them.”

For some high school football players, going through their pregame rituals helps them relieve stress and makes them feel less anxious going into games. At least that is the case with Youngker offensive lineman Chris Rogers Jr. The senior said he is more of quiet one, so he likes to sit somewhere by himself, be quiet, focus on the game and pray.

“For me, that’s just more because everyone’s always nervous that they (could) get hurt,” Rogers said. “That just helps me play without having to worry about that in the back of my head … that’s just what I’ve always done.”

Many players believe pregame rituals do have a positive impact.

“I think it definitely has a mental effect on players because if you get thrown out of your routine, you get thrown out of your superstitions, then that kind of gets you in the wrong mental state prior to a game,” Odinet said. “And I think you have to be focused up, and know that everything’s good to go right before you go out on the field.”

As Gmelch pointed out in a non-sports parallel, “There’s no cost to doing these things. A lot of people who don’t believe in God nonetheless will pray when they’re really in a crisis, because there’s no cost to doing it. It takes seconds to do it.”

No harm, no foul.