Five Lessons I Learned From My NFL Suicide Pool

Next year, I'm following my own advice.

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I felt so cocky when I joined an NFL “Suicide Pool” this season. After all, I’d watched pro football games since I was in kindergarten and memorized every statistic under the sun. How could I lose?

Let it be known that I have since gained a healthy sense of humility. Um, yes, losing will do that to you.

I didn’t even care that thousands of equally ambitious people had entered the same pool. Blame my irrational exuberance on the siren song of easy money. For a buy-in of $75, I could reap thousands of dollars by winning this suicide pool (a hyperbolic term which also goes by the adjective of “elimination” or “knockout”).

All I had to do to remain alive was pick one winning National Football League team each week. Only one! Simplifying matters, there was no point spread involved.

The rules were simple. I could pick the same team only once. No biggie. My team had to win cleanly; a tie was as good as a loss. Come on! There have only been three ties in the NFL in the 21st century.

My strategy centered on selecting home teams, which have perennially had a statistical advantage. I started out by picking the heavily favored Indianapolis Colts to defeat the Oakland Raiders. The Colts won, 21-17. I prevailed in week two when the defending NFL champion Baltimore Ravens outlasted the pesky Cleveland Browns, 16-6. The next two weeks were a breeze. The Denver Broncos crushed the Philadelphia Eagles, and the Seattle Seahawks dismantled the Jacksonville Jaguars.

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By then, the NFL season was one-quarter over. I felt invincible. Week five loomed as another gimme. I took the Atlanta Falcons – favored by 10 points! — over the New York Jets.

Then, reality intruded. The Falcons made costly mistakes. The Jets played opportunistically and won on a last-second field goal.

I was out after only five weeks! All at once, I felt angry, foolish, heartbroken, betrayed and utterly defeated.

Today, I stand before you a wiser man. The cockiness is gone – long gone. I know what’s important.

Here are five life lessons I gained from experiencing the agony of defeat:

1. When Something Seems to Be Too Good to Be True, It Usually Is. There are no guarantees anywhere. Expect the unexpected. Manage your life against the wind. Don’t think you’re always the smartest person in the room. Hubris kills. As John Lennon put it so well in a song called “Beautiful Boy” —  “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

2. It’s Only Money. I had become fixated on how much easy money I was going to “earn” by winning the pool. I was poised to become a poster child for what the 19th century economist and sociologist Thorstein Veblen ruefully coined “conspicuous consumption” among the nouveau riche (What with my visions of exotic vacations and trendy gadgets, Veblen would have loathed me).

3. Smell the Coffee or the Roses (or Anything Else Within Reach. Before I got knocked out, I had become obsessed. I once got up in the middle of the night to peruse the NFL schedule so I could determine which team I’d choose two months ahead, in week 12. It was crazy behavior. It’s healthier to put everything in perspective and enjoy a football game for its power and grace – and not as a means to reward my greed.

4. Don’t Believe in the Law of Averages. Don’t over-think things. This season, for instance, the pitiful Jaguars, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and (sigh), yes, my New York Giants each lost their first six games. The smart move was to pick whatever team was playing against these overmatched squads. But I foolishly concluded that these teams were due and just had to win, sooner or later. So, I stayed away. Wrong again.

5. Lose With Grace. In our daily lives, we tend to experience losing a lot more often than winning. It’s essential to keep our emotions in check. The legendary baseball manager Leo Durocher was dead wrong when he opined, “Show me a good loser and I’ll show you an idiot.” A sore loser is a pain in the rump to be around. Losing with grace is a sign of a champion.

I have gained perspective. And you know what? When I again enter an NFL Suicide Pool next year, I will follow my advice.

Jon Friedman, a journalist and author in New York, is a recovering sore loser.
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