Can Watching the Super Bowl Give You a Heart Attack?

iStock.com/skynesher
iStock.com/skynesher

With the clock nearing zero, the 2006 divisional round playoff between the Indianapolis Colts and the Pittsburgh Steelers looked to be over: It was the fourth quarter, with one minute and 20 seconds left, and the score was 21-18. Pittsburgh held the lead and, by all appearances, was about to score again.

Pittsburgh's offense lined up on the Indianapolis 2-yard line and handed the ball to future Hall of Fame running back Jerome Bettis, a cannonball of a man who famously went by the nickname "The Bus." Nearly everybody assumed Bettis would pound the ball through the goal line. Instead, Colts linebacker Gary Brackett forced a fumble. The Colts picked up the ball and nearly ran it back for a touchdown. For Steelers fans, it was a sudden and heartbreaking turn of events. Literally.

Watching from a bar, a diehard Steelers fan named Terry O'Neill watched the ball tumble to the ground and suddenly felt a pain in his chest. Luckily, two firefighters in the crowd helped resuscitate him.

"My heart just quit beating completely," O'Neill later told the South Pittsburgh Reporter. "For all intents and purposes, I died."

Research indicates he wasn't the first. Watching a high-stakes game could actually kill you.

A 2002 study in The BMJ, which focused on the health of English soccer fans, found that a "myocardial infarction can be triggered by emotional upset, such as watching your football team lose an important match." A 2008 study published in the New England Journal of Medicine followed the World Cup-watching habits of German soccer fans and found that watching a stressful game more than doubled viewers' chances of experiencing a cardiovascular event. A similar result was found when other researchers looked at cardiovascular deaths in the Netherlands after the country's soccer team lost the European soccer championships on a penalty shootout in 1996.

In 2011, a study published in Clinical Cardiology looked at the Super Bowl specifically and found that deaths increased after the big game in the losing city, finding an "absolute increase in all cause mortality" in people over the age of 65. The researchers argued:

"Acute risk factors usually involve some form of stress—physical, emotional, or both—that increase the sympathetic nervous system and releases catecholamines. The subsequent increase in heart rate, blood pressure, and ventricular contractility increase oxygen demand and may change the shear stress of blood against an atherosclerotic plaque, contributing to plaque fracture."

This particular study, however, has received some criticism. It only looked at mortality statistics for the 1980 and the 1984 Super Bowls, a relatively small sample. Some researchers said the study went too far in implying that the Super Bowl caused death, considering that the viewer's behavior and health history (and not the events of the game itself) could have been responsible. Super Bowl Sunday, after all, is a day filled with fatty fried foods and copious amounts of alcohol—all possible risk factors for a cardiovascular event.

As Gregg Fonarow, director of the Cardiomyopathy Center at UCLA, tells LiveScience, "It may be other behaviors associated with important sporting events rather than the stress of watching the home team lose that may explain these associations." Additionally, pre-existing conditions could be a huge contributing factor. (This was the case for our fateful Steelers fan.)

Study limitations aside, becoming invested in the outcome of a sporting match is undeniably stressful on the heart. A recent (though small) study out of Canada surveyed the heart rates of hockey fans during games, revealing "a mean increase of 92 per cent among the 20 test subjects, rising from an average rate of 60 to 114 beats per minute," according to the Montreal Gazette. In other words, people sitting and watching TV had heart rates equivalent to people undergoing mild exercise. Their heart rates only got higher when they watched games in person.

Of course, you don't have to do a study to learn that close games can cause a diehard fan's heart to pound—just go and ask one. And if they mutter, "This team is going to kill me!," kindly suggest that they step away from the TV before it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

11 Facts About LeBron James

Harry How/Getty Images
Harry How/Getty Images

It's possible that no athlete has stood in a brighter spotlight from such a young age as four-time NBA MVP LeBron James. Born in Akron, Ohio, on December 30, 1984, James was a multi-sport star as a kid. Eventually, he became just the second of three NBA players to be drafted No. 1 overall straight out of high school (and the only one to go on to win Rookie of the Year). But even if you've followed his career from Cleveland to Miami (back to Cleveland) to L.A., you might not know these 11 details from the story of King James.

1. Two football coaches changed LeBron's life.

Gloria James was 16 when she had her only child, and when her mother died just a couple of years later, she and baby LeBron lost their entire support system. They spent six or so years bouncing around between couches and apartments in Akron's projects. Then, when he was 9 years old, he met Bruce Kelker, who was putting together a youth football team. Kelker took LeBron under his wing and the Jameses moved in with him so that young LeBron would begin to have some stability. By the end of that year, another youth football coach, Frank Walker, offered to let LeBron move in with his family. After missing 80-something days of the fourth grade because of their chaotic living arrangements, LeBron didn't miss a single day of fifth grade.

2. LeBron James made the cover of Sports Illustrated as a high school junior.

LeBron James goes up for a basket during a game with his St. Vincent-St. Mary's high school team in January 2003.
LeBron James goes up for a basket during a game with his St. Vincent-St. Mary's high school team in January 2003.
LUCY NICHOLSON/AFP/Getty Images

In February 2002, just shortly after turning 17, the pride of St. Vincent-St. Mary High School was anointed "The Chosen One" in a now-iconic Sports Illustrated cover story (LeBron went on to get "CHOSEN 1" tattooed across his back). If the league would have allowed it, James would have entered the NBA draft that year, but draft eligibility hinged on graduating high school—so LeBron finished his senior year with his high school team, nicknamed the Fighting Irish. They won their third Division II championship, and the hype around LeBron and his teammates meant they traveled for high-ranking games that were aired on ESPN2. Time Warner even offered their games on pay-per-view.

3. A broken wrist sealed LeBron's basketball fate.

James played both football and basketball through middle and high school, and some have speculated that he could have gone pro with football. But in the June 2002, just before his senior year, he broke his wrist during an AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) game. Because of the two-month recovery time, James decided he needed to forego football season so that he'd be fully healed for his senior basketball season.

4. LeBron subscribes to a "Work Hard, Sleep Hard" philosophy.

If you want to be the greatest of all time, you need to get plenty of rest. A whole lot of it, actually. LeBron once copped to sleeping 12 hours per night, though these days he's more likely to get a solid eight hours, with a nap sometime during the day. That extra shut-eye is key considering just how much mileage the man has logged on the hardwood. As of 2019, in his 16th pro season, he's already the NBA's all-time leader in playoff minutes played with 10,049. That's the equivalent of three extra 82-game regular seasons.

Another thing LeBron keeps in his health routine? A good red. "I've heard it's good for the heart," he told ESPN the Magazine in 2018. "Listen, I'm playing the best basketball of my life, and I'm drinking some wine pretty much every day." He does, however, have discerning taste. "Bron has a supercomputer in his brain" on the subject of vino, former teammate Kevin Love said, and their Cavaliers teammates agreed that he's usually the one they trust to order when they go out. Luckily for LeBron, his new L.A. residence is just down the coast from Napa.

5. LeBron was the first black man on the cover of Vogue.

Only two men had ever made a Vogue cover before LeBron did it in April 2008: Richard Gere and George Clooney. LeBron's cover arrived with controversy, however. Observers noted how much the Annie Leibovitz pictorial, which featured James alongside supermodel Gisele Bündchen, recalled racist U.S. Army imagery from World War I that used King Kong as a symbol of a "mad brute" alongside a white damsel in distress.

6. He's been a leader for labor and is no stranger to collective bargaining.

In February 2019, Akron's finest wrapped a four-year term as first vice president of the NBA's labor union, the National Basketball Players Association. As the No. 2 man in the organization, he played a key role in pushing for greater benefits for retired players and realizing a huge jump in the league's salary cap back in 2016 that changed the financial prospects of the upper and middle tiers of pro players (and helped the rival Golden State Warriors cement a dynasty by buying up a roster of top talent).

7. LeBron wasn't the highest-paid guy on his own team until age 31.

LeBron James as a Cleveland Cavalier in 2007.
JEFF HAYNES/AFP/Getty Images

James was the NBA's highest-paid player overall in the 2016-17 season, but he played a dozen years of professional ball before even being the highest earner on his own roster. He was surrounded by a number of league veterans during his first stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers, including an aging and injury-wracked Shaquille O'Neal, and James famously agreed to take less than his full market value in order to form a super-team with the Miami Heat in 2010. He hit the top of pay grade during his second go-around with the Cavaliers, and his new four-year deal with the Lakers puts him on track to be the highest paid player ever.

8. LeBron has helped fight for parity in non-sports arenas too.

When Oscar-winner Octavia Spencer was in salary negotiations with Netflix over her starring and executive producing role in an upcoming biographical series about groundbreaking entrepreneur and first female self-made millionaire Madam C.J. Walker, she was struggling to secure a fair payday. That's when James and his business partner Maverick Carter, both executive producers on the show, stepped in to advocate on her behalf. "When I asked for certain things, they had to go and say, 'She deserves these things!'" Spencer said in an interview with The Undefeated. "That type of leadership has been important, and I'm thrilled about it."

9. LeBron married his high school sweetheart.

LeBron and Savannah James
Christopher Polk/Getty Images for ESPY

Savannah Brinson might have attended LeBron's rival high school, but when the senior sports star spotted the junior cheerleader, he asked her out. "I knew he loved me when I left my leftovers from dinner in his car," she told Harper's Bazaar in 2010 of their Outback Steakhouse date. "I'd totally forgotten about them, and he brought them to me. I think he just wanted another excuse to come and see me."

The two have been an item ever since, even after LeBron's fame shot off the charts; they married in 2013 and have three children. "I just thought he'd be a hometown hero for his era and it would be over," Savannah said. LeBron, for his part, appreciates their shared history. "[Savannah] was down when I was at my high school, no cameras, no lights. And she was there with me," he told The Hollywood Reporter in 2018. "You wouldn't be talking to me right now if it weren't for her."

10. LeBron has been compared to Michael Jordan since he was a kid—first on the court, and now on the silver screen.

LeBron James on the set of 'The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.'
Theo Wargo/NBC/Getty Images for 'The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon'

The opening scene of that 2002 Sports Illustrated feature—the one when James was a high schooler—showed the teen talking to the superstar as if they were old friends. "The moment feels charged, even a little historic," Grant Wahl wrote. "Remember that photograph of a teenaged Bill Clinton meeting JFK? Same vibe. Here, together, are His Airness and King James, the 38-year-old master and the 17-year-old prodigy, the best of all time and the high school junior whom some people—from drooling NBA general managers to warring shoe company execs to awestruck fans—believe could be the Air Apparent."

Not only has James been living up to the MJ legacy on the basketball court, but he's hoping to at the theater. The original Michael Jordan kid-com Space Jam was the highest-grossing basketball movie ever, and the LeBron James-starring sequel is shaping up to be a slam dunk as well. A summer 2021 release date has been set (which will mark a convenient 25 years since the first intergalactic b-ball tourney), and Black Panther director Ryan Coogler has signed on as its producer.

Of course, expectations are high after LeBron's surprisingly agile performance as a fictionalized version of himself in Judd Apatow's 2015 movie Trainwreck. Critic Ian Crouch even argued in The New Yorker that James was the funniest performer in a film that starred two bona fide comic heavyweights: Amy Schumer and Bill Hader. Here's hoping he can hold his own next to the Looney Tunes.

11. LeBron's son and namesake is also tearing up the basketball court.

LeBron James Sr. once admitted that he may have made a mistake in naming his firstborn son after himself. The pressure that comes with being LeBron James Jr. could be knee-buckling, but "Bronny" has thrived on the come-up and is emerging as the next big thing. The eighth-grader is already dunking with ease at age 14, and he landed scholarship offers from powerhouse schools like Duke and Kentucky before turning 12. But his protective father—who certainly remembers a thing or two about being endlessly hyped as a teen—is definitely keeping a close eye on his son. "He's already got some offers from colleges," James told CBS Detroit in 2015. "It's pretty crazy. It should be a violation. You shouldn't be recruiting 10-year-old kids." But until then, LeBron is happy to sport Bronny gear, the way thousands of other kids wear his.

8 Sports Mascots Who Went Rogue

Doug Pensinger, Getty Images
Doug Pensinger, Getty Images

Nothing livens up a sporting event quite like a team mascot—a polyester-filled costumed character that excites crowds, poses with fans, and raises team spirit. But sometimes, these harmless morale boosters wind up getting a little too involved in the action. Take a look at eight mascots who exceeded their boundaries and brought shame to the costume.

1. The Phillie Phanatic’s Pool Party

The Phillie Phanatic stands behind a police officer
Rich Schultz, Getty Images

Many well-known mascots are hired out to perform at private functions, spreading their trademark brand of cheer to people who recognize them from stadiums. The Phillie Phanatic, the Philadelphia Phillies's mascot of unknown species, saw one such side gig go awry in 2010, when he was booked for a wedding in New Jersey and thought it would be funny to toss a woman resting in a lounge chair into a pool. The unwitting participant, Suzanne Peirce, filed a lawsuit against the Phanatic, the Phillies, and the hotel that hosted the wedding, claiming she suffered shock and a herniated disc among other injuries. Because Peirce didn’t know who was in the suit at the time, she named several men known to wear the costume.

The suit was settled in 2014, but the Phanatic still holds the distinction of being the most controversial mascot in sports. He has been the subject of several lawsuits, including one in which he allegedly damaged a woman’s knees by crawling on her and another in which he was blamed for hugging someone too hard. In 2018, he was accused of injuring someone in the stands by shooting them with a hot dog gun. These misadventures have earned him the nickname "the Big Green Litigation Machine."

2. Tommy Hawk's Pecking Order

Despite the propensity of hockey players to punch opposing players when a dispute arises, their mascots are expected to keep the peace. Tommy Hawk, the cheerleading bird for the Chicago Blackhawks, was unable to keep his wings to himself in December 2018, when he responded to an aggressive fan by body-slamming him in the United Center arena concourse. The altercation, which went viral thanks to some intrepid fans with cell phone cameras, apparently ended with Tommy Hawk getting the best of his assailant. The next day, a Chicago police spokesperson told the Chicago Sun-Times they were still trying to locate the attacker. Tommy Hawk, who was not reported to have suffered any reprisals for the scuffle, is set to be inducted into the Mascot Hall of Fame in 2019.

3. Miami Feels the Burnie

Burnie sits down during a Miami Heat game
Eliot J. Schechter, Getty Images

Basketball-nosed Burnie of the Miami Heat found himself playing defense in court after an October 1994 incident in which he dragged a spectator out by her legs during an exhibition game against the Atlanta Hawks in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The woman, Yvonne Gil-Rebollo, sued for $1 million, claiming severe tendonitis. Burnie had lousy luck when he picked Yvonne out from the crowd: Gil-Rebollo happened to be the wife of Puerto Rico Supreme Court judge Francisco Rebollo as well as the sister of Guillermo Gil Bonar, the island’s U.S. attorney. In 1994, a jury found the Heat liable for $50,000 in damages.

Burnie has long had a penchant for causing trouble. In 1997, he was punched by Dolph Schayes, an NBA veteran whose son, Danny Schayes, played for the Orlando Magic. The attack came after Burnie sprayed Magic fans with a water gun. In 2015, the team was sued after the mascot lifted a teacher up during a school appearance to assist with a leg split during a dance routine and tore her hip. A confidential agreement was reached in December 2016. In 2018, an AmericanAirlines Arena security guard named Juanita Griffiths sued for a 2017 incident in which Burnie bumped into her while cavorting. She alleges that the collision caused her to fall and injure her leg. No resolution has been reported.

4. The Cincinnati Bearcat's Snowball Spiral

Few team sports offer more emotional investment than college football, a highly territorial clash of teams that can lead to emotions running high. During a December 2010 game between the University of Cincinnati and Pitt, the Cincinnati Bearcat began to spend an inordinate amount of time pelting people in the stands with snowballs. After security cautioned him to stop, the Bearcat became unruly and officials were forced to wrestle him to the ground. He was detained and cited for disorderly conduct.

5. Sebastian the Ibis's Fowl Play

Sebastian the Ibis appears during a University of Miami game
Streeter Lecka, Getty Images

Mascots often think of ways to put an entertaining spin on games, from dancing with fans to tossing giveaways into the crowd. In 1989, University of Miami mascot Sebastian the Ibis thought it would be amusing to walk onto the field carrying a fire extinguisher, ostensibly to put out the flaming spear of rival mascot Chief Osceola of Florida State University. Sebastian was spotted by a police officer, who was not enthused about the idea and tried to grab the extinguisher. In the ensuing melee, an officer was sprayed and Sebastian was tossed against a fence, while cops attempted to bend his wings behind his back. Perhaps sensing arresting a bird was not going to end well for anyone, authorities released Sebastian and cautioned him about trying to interfere with the ritual. The bird maintained he would never have actually put out the flame.

6. Harvey the Hound Loses His Tongue

When it comes to crossing over into hostile territory, it pays to be careful. That lesson was lost on Harvey the Hound, the mascot for the Calgary Flames hockey team, who opted to climb into the bleachers behind Craig MacTavish, head coach of the Edmonton Oilers, in January 2003. Following a protracted bit of taunting, MacTavish reached up, grabbed Harvey’s lolling tongue, and ripped it out of his mouth. A spokesperson for the Flames later said that Harvey was not supposed to be so close to the opposing team.

7. Georgia's Exploding Bulldog

Smokey appears during a Tennessee Volunteers game
Ronald Martinez, Getty Images

Prior to an NCAA women’s basketball title match between the University of Tennessee and the University of Georgia in November 1996, Tennessee's mascot—a bluetick coonhound named Smokey—decided to have a little fun with a stuffed bulldog he brought out to center court for demonstration purposes. Smokey improvised a pro wrestling match, battering and smashing the plush animal with fierce blows. Smokey then delivered an elbow, which prompted his adversary to explode, the foam balls inside spreading all over the hardwood. After pausing for cleanup, game officials ejected Smokey.

8. Bob the Shark's Ill-Advised Attack

Bob the Shark appears with Julio the Octopus and Spike the Sea Dragon during the Great Sea Race at a Miami Marlins game
Marc Serota, Getty Images

In 2013, Beth Fedornak was attending a Miami Marlins game and watched as a costumed character named Bob the Shark was trotted out as part of the entertainment between innings. In the performance, Bob races other sea creatures like Julio the Octopus and Angel the Stone Crab. Suddenly, Bob was upon Fedornak, and tried to mime biting her head. Fedornak claimed the interaction caused her severe neck pain and injuries. She sued in 2015. The case went to mediation in 2017 in the hopes of avoiding a jury trial, but no resolution was disclosed. The team ended the sea creature race in 2018, retaining only the services of a single mascot: Billy the Marlin.

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