One Friday evening early in October 1970, I noticed something as I read the Minneapolis Star. Columnist Jim Klobuchar – also for many years the paper’s beat writer for the Minnesota Vikings – was sponsoring a weekly football prediction contest: Pick the winners of that week’s National Football League games and the University of Minnesota’s game.
What did the winners get? I don’t recall. I never won. But for the rest of the football season, Friday evening for me meant jotting my picks on a piece of paper, addressing an envelope to “Pigskin Picks” (I think), and then driving downtown to the post office to mail my work long before the midnight deadline.
As I said, I never won, but I did pretty well, especially on the pro football predictions. From the time I first entered the contest (simple math tells me it was during the fourth week of the NFL season) through the end of the regular season, I got 91 games correct, missed on 44, and there were eight ties. Scoring ties as half-right and half-wrong (just as the NFL considers them half-games won and lost), my winning percentage that year was .6643.
I didn’t keep track during that 1970 season of which individual games I got right and which I fanned on. But as football season approached in 1971, I bought a steno notebook for my predictions. That first full season, I had a percentage of .6296. Keep in mind that I was picking winners only, not messing around with point spreads. But sixty-three percent was a pretty good result for a freshman in college who’d only been paying attention to pro football for about four years.
For the 1972 season, I bought another steno notebook, and a year later, I took a blank steno notebook with me to Denmark so I could make my predictions from there (with the help of the Paris-based English language Herald-Tribune, which we got a day late in Denmark). After that 1973 season, with not quite four full seasons behind me, I had a winning percentage of .6662, and I had what appears to be a life-long hobby: Predicting NFL games has been one of the constants in my life, through college and many jobs; through marriage, divorce and remarriage; through seventeen cats, three rats and three hamsters; through twenty-two homes in four states. Through all of that, I’ve filled seven steno notebooks with football predictions. I started an eighth notebook last year, and I don’t see myself quitting until my own final gun sounds.
I’ve never missed a week. I thought I had missed one in November of 1974, when I slowly became aware of my surroundings after a horrible traffic accident. Four days after the accident, as Rick and I watched a Monday night football game in my hospital room, I mentioned that I’d not made my predictions for that week’s games. It turns out I had. On Saturday, my dad had read each of that week’s pairings to me and noted my predictions, an event that remains lost in the haze of concussion and painkillers.
So how am I doing? Not bad. Pro football has become more volatile and less easy to predict over the years: Upsets are more frequent, and teams improve or decline more rapidly. When I began this hobby, I could pretty much pencil in victories each week for the Dallas Cowboys, the Los Angeles Rams, the Baltimore Colts, the Oakland Raiders and my Minnesota Vikings; not much later, the Miami Dolphins and Pittsburgh Steelers joined that group. Similarly, there was a group of teams that one could reliably expect to lose almost every week.
It’s not nearly that easy anymore. Oh, there are dominant teams and there are the chronic underachievers. But those outliers are fewer, with more teams bunched in the middle. And that makes my self-appointed task of prediction more and more difficult each year. But as I said, I’m not doing so badly. After forty-one full seasons and most of another, my winning percentage was .6320.
A new season started Wednesday, with the Dallas Cowboys defeating the New York Giants, just as I had predicted. Tomorrow and Monday bring the rest of the first week’s slate of games, and my forty-third season is underway. Wednesday’s correct pick brings my all-time totals to 6,185 games right, 3,591 games wrong, with 45 ties, and my winning percentage sneaked up to .6321.
That’s a total of 9,821 games. That number will climb, of course, starting tomorrow, and it’s going to hit 10,000 on November 29, probably right around 3 p.m. Assuming I’m home, which is likely, I’ll jot the third score of the day into my steno book. And then I’ll go back to reading the paper, eating a brownie, sipping a beer, watching a different game, or whatever it was that I was doing as the fuel for my life-long hobby plays out in stadiums across the country.
To go along with all that, here’s a video using one of the pieces composed over the years for NFL Films. It’s accompanied by stills of NFL players and action that come mostly – I think – from the 1970s (including a montage of one of the most painful moments in the history of my Minnesota Vikings). The tune can be found on The Power And The Glory: The Original Music & Voices Of NFL Films, a 1998 CD credited to Sam Spence and John Facenda. The piece is titled “Classic Battle,” and it’s today’s Saturday Single.