Brian Viner: Team spirits from beyond the grave

The Last Word

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It's not often that The Last Word falls on Halloween – roughly every seven years, in fact – so I've been racking my brains for some suitably ghoulish material.

I'm not aware of ghosts, phantoms, poltergeists etc playing a particularly significant role in sport, the zombie-like state currently afflicting the Everton defence notwithstanding. But there are plenty of supernatural themes in sporting fiction, albeit mainly American fiction. Field of Dreams had a ghostly voice telling Kevin Costner to build a ballpark on his farm, and there's a comedy called The Sixth Man in which a college basketball player dies on court of a heart attack, then comes back in spirit form to help his team win the championship.

The Americans are suckers for that sort of story. In 2003 the then Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre – who tomorrow returns to Green Bay for the first time as a Minnesota Vikings player, which is not unlike Michael Owen returning to Anfield in a Manchester United shirt – contributed one of the greatest performances of even his illustrious career in a 41-7 crushing of the Oakland Raiders. Afterwards, he credited his father's ghost for calling all the right plays, and while it would be heartless to criticise Favre for anything he said in the heat of such emotion – his father having died suddenly less than 24 hours earlier – many Packers fans agreed that there had plainly been some intervention from across the mortal divide.

Similarly, when the Los Angeles Angels baseball team clinched the American League West division title a month ago, there were apparently more than a few Angels followers, and even a leading TV commentator, who ascribed the success to the ghostly benevolence of rookie pitcher Nick Adenhart, who died in a car crash at the start of the season, aged just 22. That doesn't explain why Adenhart didn't spirit the Angels all the way to the World Series – they lost to the New York Yankees in what was effectively the semi-final – but then who ever said the supernatural was easily explained?

Anyway, such is the credence given to ghostly theories in that distant, star-spangled land that a couple of weeks ago, on a stupid sports blog called the Stupid Sports Blog, some anonymous but splendid person took it upon himself (it could only be a him) to post a long and persuasively argued diatribe rubbishing the existence of sporting ghosts. He cited the example of Joe Delaney, running-back for the Kansas City Chiefs, who died in 1983 trying to save three children from drowning in a lake. "Now if ever there was a time for a ghost to be a hero, this was it," the blogger wrote. Yet the Chiefs went on to have a dreadful season. And then there was the 1970 plane crash that killed 37 members of the Marshall University Thundering Herd football team, yet "Marshall didn't have another winning team until 1984 ... a real strike against the ghost theory".

On and on he went offering further examples of sports teams manifestly not helped by ghosts, and it's marvellous, if kind of weird, that he felt the need. But he ended with a valid point. "Every time someone does something really well during the game and an announcer then references a ghost in some way, it's a dishonour to the dead and a disservice to the living who just did the good thing. I'm not saying the dead can't be on a person's mind while they're competing, but much like Jesus Christ, they can't hit a curveball."

Well, amen to that, but it's a bit of a shame on Halloween that we in Britain have to look across the Atlantic to find any suggestion of supernatural influences on sport. At the very least, someone should have set up a friendly between Raith Rovers and Goole Town.

A man who knew how to keep calm and carry on

American football hardly ever gets a mention on this page, and death isn't a regular topic either, but here's today's second item featuring both subjects.

Tomorrow is the 10th anniversary of the horribly premature passing of Walter Payton, one of the finest running-backs, who set a string of NFL records in 13 seasons with the Chicago Bears between 1975 and 1987, and even now is eclipsed only by Michael Jordan as the Windy City's greatest sporting idol.

Payton, who died at 45 of a rare liver disease, was nicknamed "Sweetness" and was by all accounts one of the gentlest of men in one of the least gentle of sports.

A line in his Wikipedia entry – "he disapproved of the growing practice of touchdown celebrations" – suggests why we should all mourn him, especially those who prefer their footballs round, and despair of the choreographed routines that now follow most goals.

Why Wentworth's rain beats Spain

On Thursday I watched the TV coverage of golf's World Match Play Championship, now relocated to the Costa del Sol, which is highly disorientating for those of us who considered the West Course at Wentworth either littered with fallen leaves, or having its greens sponged of rainwater, to be one of the more comforting spectacles of an English autumn. The World Match Play should smell of pumpkins and woodsmoke, not sun cream and sangria.

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