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Wentz candles and tiny Buddhas; readers share their Eagles good luck charms

"We can be perfectly rational about everything else. But with sports? Give me a totem."

Stephanie Ricci at her Philadelphia home with the Eagles prayer candles she designs – and lights for good luck when the Birds play.
Stephanie Ricci at her Philadelphia home with the Eagles prayer candles she designs – and lights for good luck when the Birds play.Read moreErin Blewett / Staff Photographer

The Carson Wentz prayer candle was sitting in the dining room, not lit since the Super Bowl. Something told Stephanie Ricci not to bring it back out. But last week, it was do or die for the Eagles, who at 4-6 were facing the Giants and needed some help.

Desperate times call for desperate measures.

She picked up the candle, placed it on her TV stand and let it burn.

The Eagles came from behind to take the game by three points.

Monday night, a match-up against division-rival Washington is another must win. And Ricci is ready to call on the spirits again.

"I didn't want to release some bad juju by burning the same candles as last year,"said Ricci, 32, of Fishtown. "But I guess I'm going to have to."

We asked Eagles fans, who have long maintained a devotion that defies logic, to share some of the superstitions they use to ensure victory. No fan needs science to develop a ritual, and that's true for any devotee — not just the ones in Philly. Still, an Eagles good luck charm can reflect more than adulation. The exhilaration of a playoff run, the suffering endured across decades without a championship, memories of historic wins, and even a love for Philadelphia culture can influence what a good-luck charm looks like and how a fan views its powers.

When Ricci thinks back, she notes that she learned certain habits from a father who couldn't be pulled away from watching his "Iggles" play, wearing the same outfit, parked in a special spot (on pillows, directly in front of the TV). Once, when the Flyers were in the playoffs, she wore the same underwear for three days.

"Listen," she said, "I'm not proud of it."

When Jason Etgen's daughter gifted him with a tiny green Buddha, it wasn't for good luck on the gridiron.

But this was just before the Eagles faced the Pittsburgh Steelers a decade ago. And after the Birds' defense had nine sacks, Etgen sensed an otherworldly pull. He started to rub that Buddha during every game.

"You get one positive response to something and for whatever reason your mind attaches to it," said Etgen, a Mechanicsburg native who lives in Kansas. "You're in some OCD rut because you think whatever you have done is making it work."

He's not like that about most things. "I don't know why we get so weird about sports," said Etgen, who works for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. "We can be perfectly rational about everything else. But with sports? Give me a totem."

Jim Bitter goes through phases with his charms. If one combination of tricks won't work, the Haddonfield native will adjust and try new outfits, devise new game-day routines, sometimes both.

Bitter's normal tricks failed him during a string of midseason losses this year, but during the Giants game, he had his eureka moment.

He turned his Eagles hat backward, then topped that with a Phillies cap. Then he turned off the game with two minutes left in the first half.

He was getting in the way.

When they won, Bitter, a retired investment analyst who lives in Elkton, Md., was running errands.

Inspiration for rituals may rise from regionalism, mere chance, or the urge to change a score from your seat, said Sam Sommers, coauthor of This Is Your Brain on Sports: The Science of Underdogs, the Value of Rivalry, and What We Can Learn from the T-Shirt Cannon. And that, he said, is par for the course.

"Superstitions and rituals are a way to impose a feeling of control in an otherwise uncontrollable world," said Sommers, a Tufts University social psychologist.

Sommers sees parallels between the ways fans and worshipers behave. The atmosphere in a stadium, the traditions inside game-day regimens, even the anguish, can be shared communally.

"There's some sort of comfort born of ritual, routine and familiarity," Sommers said. "The analogy of sports to religion, even though some people think it's heresy, it's actually pretty good."

Ricci has been selling her candles, which now include stars from other Philly teams. She wraps them in Pat's Steaks wrappers and advises the hopefuls to light them only during a game. Considering that she designed them for a season that led to the Eagles' first Super Bowl victory, she figures the team owes her a ring. Key players who've come back from injuries, such as Wentz and Joel Embiid, are her biggest sellers — those and Gritty.

After Etgen moved into a new apartment, he found that the head and belly of his molded resin Buddha had been devoured by his half-pitbull, half-Labrador puppy. Then the Eagles began the 2017 season.

He had been walking his dog on the same route and making the same wings every Sunday to keep the Eagles winning. But for him, the Super Bowl proved that the Eagles could win on their own. He's done with rituals now. He got a new puppy. He's named it after coach Doug Pederson.

Bitter isn't giving up his rituals anytime soon. He might tune in to the game against Washington on the radio as he drives home from Williamsburg, Va. But he might need a couple of swigs of Pepto-Bismol to bear listening. And if he think that he's hurting the Eagles' chances again, he'll turn that broadcast off, too.

He's prepared to watch every Eagles game on replay, he said — if it would help. But he knows his rituals have already willed the Eagles to deliver what he had waited so long for.

"I feel like the pressure's off me and my superstitions," said Bitter. "I'm going to be happy for the rest of my 96 years, if I get that far."