Jake Elliott has one slice of pizza and one slice of cheesecake the night before every game.
The Eagles kicker has had the same eating ritual since his freshman year of college. In Memphis’ ninth game that season, Elliott kicked a school-record 56-yard field goal that hit the crossbar and bounced through the uprights. He also connected on two other tries in the victory.
Elliott believed there was something karmic about his kicking success that day, and thought back to what had not been a typical pre-game meal.
It had to be the pizza and cheesecake!
He’s had his ups and downs since, but overall, the routine seems to be working. Last year, the night before the Eagles were to face the Rams in Los Angeles, he sat at dinner waiting for dessert.
“They had cheesecake, but it wasn’t coming out and I was kind of freaking out,” Elliott said. “Made sure they got it done.”
Elliott didn’t disagree with the notion that he’s superstitious. Most Eagles players don’t use that characterization when talking about their pre-game customs. In most cases, they are performing acts that help prepare them mentally and physically to play at the highest level of a violent sport.
They eat certain foods, wear certain gear, treat their bodies and warm up a certain way, and pray, meditate, and visualize in a certain manner. After a while, it becomes a professional routine.
“I’ve just calculated this is the best way to do everything on game day,” guard Stefen Wisniewski said. “I’ve played so many games in my life, and just like the fact that I know exactly what I’m going to do gives me nothing to think about.
“I don’t want to wake up on game time, and be like, ‘Oh, what time should I wake up? What time should I eat? What should I listen to?’ I don’t want to have to make big decisions on game time.”
Wisniewksi, now in his eighth NFL season, said that he eats the same meals, listen to the same music, and warms up the same way every week. For early games, he eats eggs, wheat toast, and blueberries. For late games, it’s steak and pasta. And contemporary Christian singers such as David Crowder and Shai Linne are always playing through his headphones.
Linebacker Nate Gerry suits up in the same order every week. Left sock first, followed by right sock, left shoe, right shoe and all the way up to his helmet.
“It’s a mental thing,” Gerry said. “I don’t feel as prepared. I’m out of my comfort zone if I’m rushing and I might miss something. It mentally gets in my head.”
Like Elliott, Gerry admits that he’s superstitious. Both are second-year players, though. A poll of most of Eagles, found that the younger players generally copped to irrational activity more than the older ones.
“If you play long enough, you change your superstitions enough to realize, like, they don’t work,” defensive end Chris Long said. “For a superstition to work it has to work.”
The 33-year-old Long does have some habits that change on a yearly basis. He’s been wearing a Johnny Cash T-shirt this season. Last year, it was the Grateful Dead.
“The ju-ju wears off after a little while,” Long said. “I feel like you got to switch it up.”
He’s been having vanilla ice cream the night before games. Last year, it was chocolate. Maybe he should have stuck to chocolate since the Eagles won more games a year ago.
“It’s not superstition,” Long said. “I just like ice cream.”
Superstition is fear
Jordan Hicks, like Gerry, puts his left sock and shoe on first. But he takes it a step further if he accidentally starts with his right foot.
“I take it off, I put it on the ground. I’ll put my left one, I’ll take it off, I’ll put it on the ground to cancel it out,” Hicks said. “Then I’ll start over and put my left stuff on.”
Hicks said that what had started off as superstition during junior high has now simply become a habit.
“I don’t think it has anything to do with my play,” he said.
Tight end Zach Ertz had the same response about his pre-game practice of having a waffle – with chocolate chips, if they have it -- for breakfast.
“It’s just because it tastes good,” Ertz said. “Who doesn’t like a nice Belgian waffle?”
There are players, like Elliott, who eat the same food for more than nutritional value. Defensive end Michael Bennett will have salmon for either breakfast, lunch, or dinner because it doesn’t fill him up.
“Salmon just feels like the right amount of food,” Bennett said. “And king salmon. Can’t be Scottish salmon. Can’t be Atlantic. It’s got to be king.”
The Eagles make sure the players get what they need whether on the road or at the team hotel before home games. When a player makes a request, the item stays on the menu. Steak and pasta is popular. Defensive end Brandon Graham and Wisniewski aren’t the only players who have that combo every week.
Ice cream is always available. The Eagles aren’t exclusive. New wide receiver Golden Tate has had vanilla ice cream before games for years.
Clothing can be worn for superstitious reasons. Linebacker Kamu Grugier-Hill said that he wears the same leggings and undershirt each week until he has a bad game. He switched after the opener against the Redskins last year but never changed again.
Running back Corey Clement wore different cleats on his right and left feet after Wisconsin beat Rutgers in 2015.
“I had three touchdowns and afterward I realized I was wearing two different cleats,” Clement said. “So it’s just something I kept doing.”
But he stopped once he got to the NFL. He said he didn’t know why.
“I might go back to it,” he said.
Cornerback Sidney Jones wore a “loc soc” to hold his dreads in place for nearly every game he played in college at Washington. He forgot to bring one to Lincoln Financial Field for this season’s Colts game and still played well.
He said he then decided that he didn’t need to wear it anymore.
Tackle Lane Johnson would likely approve.
“Superstition is fear,” Johnson said. “I’ve played this game so long that I just don’t give a [hoot]. It’s a job. All that fun [stuff] went out of the door. If I do anything, it’s that I take a piss before I walk out the door.”
Quarterbacks Nick Foles and Nate Sudfeld have the same routine for every home game. They go to the NovaCare Complex practice facility, do contrast hot tub-cold tub, and on their way out play one game of pop-a-shot in the locker room.
“No warm-up. Five shots,” Sudfeld said. “Whoever makes the most out of five wins the day.”
Foles dominated Sudfeld last year. It’s been the opposite this season, Sudfeld said.
Several players, like Ertz and guard Matt Pryor, said that they like to take salt baths before heading to the stadium. Pryor said he uses the time in the tub to take mental repetitions of the plays.
Linebacker LaRoy Reynolds said that he uses flotation therapy and that while he floats he meditates.
Running back Wendell Smallwood and safety Deiondre’ Hall said that they watch cut-ups of film as positive reinforcement. For Smallwood, it’s plus-five rushes from each running back who already faced the team he’s playing. And for Hall, it’s YouTube videos of himself.
“So I can have that mental image of getting in there and making plays,” Hall said. “So it feels like second nature.”
Football in perspective
For home games, players arrive at Lincoln Finanical Field at various intervals. On the road, two buses depart from the hotel at separate times. Tight end Dallas Goedert said that he’s always on the last bus. He said that he doesn’t want to arrive early for fear of spending too much time thinking about the game.
Receiver Jordan Matthews said that he listens to sermons from Christian pastors such as Tim Keller and Francis Chan on his headphones before and after he arrives at the stadium. Quarterback Carson Wentz does something similar.
“Going to game, I feel like, if I just focus on football too much on game day, the game gets bigger than it really is,” Matthews said. “And so, I love to listen to certain things that kind of put football in perspective.”
Most of the players, when they first take the field, are listening to music on their headphones. Linebacker Nigel Bradham prefers hip-hop. Center Jason Kelce’s bio in the Eagles media guide says that he listens to Christmas music pre-game, but he said that’s no longer the case.
Each player has his own routine during the early portion of on-field warmups. Matthews catches passes with strobe glasses that flicker. Cornerback Rasul Douglas will have only assistant coach Dino Vasso throw to him. Foles also likes to field passes.
“I like to play like I’m a kid at heart. And it warms up my entire body, it warms up my senses,” Foles said. “I’ve always done it ever since I was probably in high school. And then in the Super Bowl when I caught the Philly Special I think some people realized I did that before the game. I was actually testing the lights on that angle.”
Safety Malcolm Jenkins said that he isn’t superstitious, but that he has done the same dance in the locker room before every game since he arrived in Philadelphia five seasons ago. Tackle Jason Peters, the team D.J., turned on George Clinton’s “Atomic Dog,” knowing that it was a theme song for Jenkins’ fraternity, Omega Psi Phi.
Jenkins obliged, although he has made attempts to stop.
“I’ve tried to not do it a couple times and they’re like, ‘Nah, come on,’” Jenkins said. “I don’t know what it does for guys. I guess it’s like, ‘OK, Malcolm’s ready, so we’re ready.’ So it’s one those things now it’s so much part of the routine that it’s just like getting your ankles taped, or your fingers taped.”
Said cornerback De’Vante Bausby: “It means it’s ‘go’ time.”
Guard Brandon Brooks has another way for knowing he’s ready.
“I throw up,” Brooks said. “I just have to or otherwise I don’t feel right. There’s been days where I woke up and I felt like I had to throw up and I didn’t. But then by the time I got to the game, I threw up.”
He said that he’s had to induce himself to vomit on occasion.
Wisniewski said that he’ll sometimes sit at his stall, place himself outside the situation, and watch how his teammates act just before game time.
“Everyone’s different,” Wisniewski said. “Some guys are really quiet, barely show any excitement or emotion at all. Some guys are yelling, all fired up. Some guys sit and play videos games on their phone. It’s just really interesting to see how everyone gets mentally ready.”
Safety Tre Sullivan said that he tries to socialize with as many teammates as possible. Tackle Jordan Mailata said that he walks into the shower and soaks his head. Receiver Nelson Agholor said that he always makes a point of calling his mother so they can pray together.
The entire team does gather for prayer just before parting. Then coach Doug Pederson says something. And then Long does. The Eagles are then introduced to the crowd. The national anthem is sung. And just before kickoff, guard Chance Warmack said he prays one last time.
“I say a prayer for myself and my teammates,” Warmack said. “It’s in God’s hands now.”