Thursday, July 27, 2006

...The Ball Bounces

In thinking about or discussing success in sports, the major factors associated with this are generally thought to be effort, persistence, discipline, passion, and hard work. Rarely does the importance of luck garner mention as a significant contributor to athletic achievement. When luck is referred to, it is typically seen as a byproduct of one of the aforementioned qualities. For instance, Samuel Goldwyn said "The harder I work, the luckier I get" and the Roman philosopher Seneca believed that "Luck is when preparation meets opportunity". This less capricious view of luck makes it seem predictable and perhaps even controllable.

I would argue that sports and life consist of far more randomness. Carl Jung spoke of the concept of “synchronicity,” which he described as "temporally coincident occurrences of acausal events". I challenge you then to look at your own life and examine the good and the bad and to consider how many of these could be attributed to luck or at least some sort of arbitrariness. In the mean time I will introduce you to two athletes and the trajectories of their sporting lives to demonstrate the apparent power of the luck effect.

Toby Wright was born November 19, 1970, in Phoenix, Arizona. He played running back and defensive back for Dobson high school. As a junior in 1987, he led the Mustangs to their first state championship. While his team was unable to repeat this feat during his senior season, Toby was named to the Arizona all-state team as a defensive back. Following high school he attended Phoenix Junior College. In 1991 Toby was a unanimous junior college All-American while leading his team with 119 tackles, nine sacks and two interceptions. After his successful junior college stint Toby became a member of Nebraska’s 1992 recruiting class.

Grant Wistrom was born July 3, 1976 in Webb City, Missouri. He attended Webb City High and played football, basketball and competed in track. As a senior Grant had 122 tackles, eight sacks, six fumble recoveries, nine forced fumbles, and a blocked punt as a linebacker. He also played tight end and caught 30 passes for 527 yards and five touchdowns and rushed 11 times for 115 yards and three touchdowns. During his career he led his football team to two class 4A championships. Grant was a first-team All-America selection by Super Prep, Blue Chip and USA Today and later became a member of Nebraska’s 1994 recruiting class.

In 1992 Toby Wright arrived on the campus of the University of Nebraska and quickly became an important special teams player and also saw action in the Huskers’ nickel and dime defensive packages. Toby drew rave reviews for his ability to blitz from the secondary and became known as a ferocious hitter. Nebraska finished the season 9-3 and ended their season with a loss to Florida State in the Orange Bowl.

Nebraska began the 1993 season ranked ninth and Toby earned a blackshirt as the starting Rover. In the regular season finale he picked off his third pass of the season as Nebraska remained undefeated by finishing off Oklahoma 21-7 and clinched a spot in the Orange Bowl. In the Orange Bowl #2 ranked Nebraska would face off with heavily favored and #1 ranked Florida State for the national championship.

Given that Nebraska was tagged a as a 17 1/2 point underdog going into this match up, it was clear that they would need some sort of good fortune or luck. Toby Wright had his brush with chance in the third quarter. Following a long completion, Florida State had the ball at the one yard line and Charlie Ward handed off to William Floyd. As Floyd went airborne and surged for the endzone he was met head on by Wright dislodging the football from Floyd’s grasp. Although Nebraska recovered the loose ball, Florida State was awarded a touchdown on the play. Television replays indicated Floyd appeared to fumble prior to breaking the plane of the goal line. Was it a bad call, bad luck or the unseen hands of fate?

After a frantic final few minutes Florida State won the game 18-16 as Byron Bennett’s last second field goal sailed left. It was certainly a hard luck ending to Toby’s Nebraska career. During the 1993 season Wright had 79 tackles and three interceptions, two of which he returned for touchdowns. He was also named Honorable mention All Big-8 and made one publication’s All-Bowl team following his Orange Bowl performance. In April of 1994 he was drafted in the second round by the Los Angeles Rams with the 49th pick.

1994 also saw the arrival of Grant Wistrom to Lincoln. Grant made an immediate impact at Nebraska and was one of only two true freshmen to letter. Playing in every game as a reserve outside linebacker he finished with 36 tackles and 4.5 sacks. Grant was also selected as the Newcomer of the Year by the Big Eight conference. Nebraska finished the regular season undefeated and ranked #1. This created a match up with Miami in the Orange Bowl and another shot for a Nebraska national championship. Grant had three tackles and a tackle for loss late in fourth quarter and Nebraska took care of Miami 24-17 and secured its first national title since 1971. So just one year after Wright’s heartache, Grant was celebrating a national championship on the same field. Here we see the randomness of life demonstrated by Toby’s bad timing and Wistrom’s good fortune. It would not be the first time.

Wistrom would finish his Husker career by winning two more national championships in 1995 and 1997. His Nebraska teams compiled an incredible 49-2 record. Grant’s career totals include 206 total tackles, 26.5 sacks for -178 yards, one interception, three passes defensed, four forced fumbles, and one fumble recovery. As a senior he was a unanimous All-American and a First-Team All-Big 12 Conference selection. He was also the recipient of the Lombardi Award, given to nation's top collegiate lineman. The St. Louis Rams made Wistrom the 6th pick of the first round in the 1998 NFL draft.

While Grant Wistrom was completing his illustrious career at Nebraska, Toby Wright was beginning his NFL career with the Rams. As a rookie in 1994 he played 16 games and made two starts. He finished second on the team in special teams tackles with 18. In 1995 the L.A. Rams moved to St. Louis and Wright had his best year as a pro. He led Rams’ defensive backs with a career-high 126 tackles (100 solo), which was a club record for tackles by a DB. He also tied for fourth in the NFC and fifth in the NFL with six interceptions. His performance earned him a spot as a Pro Bowl Alternate.

In 1996 Wright ended the season ranked fifth on the club with 79 tackles despite being limited to only 12 games due to a shoulder injury. Toby also defended nine passes, forced a fumble and returned his only interception of the year 19 yards for a touchdown. During the 1997 season, Wright played and started 11 games. He finished the year with 92 tackles after missing the first three games with a hamstring injury suffered in the preseason. Toby also missed the final two games of the 1997 season with a right knee injury sustained on the very last play of a game at New Orleans. Injuries can be considered the worst type of luck. They are circumstantial in nature and cannot be controlled as they are brought on randomly.

The paths of our two athletes crossed for the first time in 1998 as both were members of the St. Louis Rams. Wistrom played in 13 games that season on both defense and on special teams as a rookie. He finished the season with 30 tackles, three sacks, one fumble recovery, and five special teams tackles. He was also named the Rams’ Defensive Rookie of the Year by the coaches. Wright, on the other hand, played in just three games while trying to recover from reconstructive knee surgery from the previous season. The Rams finished the season 4-12.

Prior to the 1999 season Wright’s knee continued to bother him. When it failed to respond, he was eventually cut by the Rams in a salary cap move before training camp. During his tenure with the Rams, the team compiled a combined record of 26 wins and 54 losses. He was picked up by the Redskins but appeared in only one game in 1999. Wistrom, by contrast, started all 16 regular season and three playoff games during the 1999 season. He was selected to 1999 All-Madden team while setting career highs in tackles (60), sacks (6.5), interceptions (two), interception returns for touchdown (two), passes defensed (two), and tied a career high with one fumble recovery. The 1999 Rams rode their offense nicknamed, “The Greatest Show on Turf” all the way to the Super Bowl against the Tennessee Titans.

So in the year in which he is cut Toby Wright is forced to watch his Rams from home in what many consider to be the greatest Super Bowl ever. To further the insult, the game included a notorious goal line play reminiscent of the one he was involved in during the 1994 Orange Bowl. Trailing by seven, Tennessee mounted a desperate, last-minute drive, reaching the St. Louis 10-yard line with six seconds left and no timeouts. Tennessee quarterback Steve McNair threw to Kevin Dyson on a slant. Dyson caught the pass at the 3 but was tackled by Mike Jones just eighteen inches shy of the goal line, ending the game and giving the Rams their first Super Bowl victory. Eighteen inches here, an apparent fumble there. The power of the luck effect is evident again as Wright’s bad timing is overshadowed only by Wistrom’s good fortune.

By 2000 Toby Wright was out of the NFL because of injuries. He finished his NFL career with 304 tackles, 2 sacks, 7 interceptions and 3 touchdowns. In 2001 Toby was drafted by the Las Vegas Outlaws of the short-lived XFL. During the lone XFL season he was traded to the San Francisco Demons who eventually made it the league’s championship game. As luck would have it Wright and the Demons lost to the Los Angeles Xtreme 38-6.

While injuries cut Wright’s career short, Wistrom has enjoyed a successful eight year NFL career. In 2004 he was signed by the Seattle Seahawks and in typical Wistrom fashion he wound up in the Super Bowl again in 2005. Unfortunately this time Grant Wistrom’s luck ran out as the Seahawks fell to the Steelers.

I don’t think anyone can look at the careers of these two athletes and not see the role played by luck. I mean honestly, did Wistrom work harder? Was his passion more evident or his persistence more deserving? I doubt it. Luck doesn’t care about any of that. Luck works independently of the laws of probability; it shuns the notion of predictability and is influenced solely by the randomness of life. There is an amazing quote in the Woody Allen movie “Match Point” that deals with the importance of luck:

“The man who said ‘I’d rather be lucky than good’ saw deeply into life. People are afraid to face how great a part of life is dependent on luck. It’s scary to think so much is out of one’s control. There are moments in a match when the ball hits the top of the net and for a split second it can either go forward or fall back. With a little luck it goes forward and you win. Or maybe it doesn’t and you lose.”


Blogger mom said...

You have done a fantastic job with this entry. Toby would be proud that you remembered his career. Grant was back this summer hosting a charitable golf tournament. (And no one thinks I read the sports page)

7/27/2006 7:55 AM  
Blogger oldtennisbum said...

You need to get this to Toby and regain contact with him.

A lot of research went into this...

7/27/2006 7:56 AM  
Blogger Amy P said...

A lot of research and insomnia it seems!

And some of us are short on luck...

7/27/2006 9:37 AM  
Blogger Jeffie said...

Eh, it needs editing. I forget not everyone enjoys the stories told by stats and could probably cut some of those.

This is something that has been brewing in my head for months. Yesterday the organization of it finally came to me and I couldn't sleep until it was finished.

7/27/2006 10:08 AM  

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