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Why is it Called a "Wild Card" Game?

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Reader Mark S. asks about the etymology of the term "wild card" as it relates to professional sports and the playoffs.

In American professional sports, when a team enters playoff play without having won their division, they earn what is called a "wild card" spot. It's undoubtedly a snappy term, but why did we start saying it for baseball, football, and the like?

In 1970, after the merger that brought the AFL into the fold, the NFL became the first league to have designated wild card playoff spots. MLB didn't open up their playoff format to involve wild card teams until 1995, so the use of the term in baseball stems from football.

In that first post-merger NFL season, the press referred to the playoff teams we'd currently call "wild cards" with clunky monikers like "the second-place team in each conference with the best winning percentage." "Wild card" was already a football term at the time, but it wouldn't be used in the playoff context until the following season.

"Wild card" originally (and somewhat obviously) comes from poker, which, depending who you ask, started featuring wild cards in the late 19th century. In sports, "wild card" entered the lexicon in the 1960s with college football. It was used to describe a type of substitution that was experimented with throughout the '60s. Here's an early example of its use from 1960 when coaches voted on a new rule (that was later tinkered with and refined):

The college football rules-makers today voted coaches unrestricted use of the “wild-card” substitute for 1960…Under the rules in effect last season, substitutes in groups of two to eleven could be sent into a game twice during a quarter while the clock was stopped. A single player, referred to as a “wild card,” could be substituted only during a time-out and provided he had not used up his two charged entires in the quarter…’A wild-card player now can be substituted at any time while the clock is running, as many times as the coach chooses to sent him into the game.’”

Later that decade, the term made its way from the rulebook and into broadcast parlance. Networks referred to late-season college games that weren't originally scheduled to air but were chosen to be televised due to their importance as "wild cards."

"Wild card" first appeared in professional football shortly thereafter in 1970, but not as it's used today. The league used it to describe the Denver Broncos, who were the odd team out after the merger and had to play one more cross-conference game a season because of division re-alignment. In the season after that, broadcasters and the press began referring to "the second-place team in each conference with the best winning percentage" as "wild cards," and the term stuck.

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Watch These Surfers Crush Nantucket's 'Slurpee' Waves
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Instead of hunkering down with Netflix and hot chocolate during the East Coast’s recent cold snap, surfers Nick Hayden and Jamie Briard spent the first few days of January 2018 conquering icy waves in Nantucket, Massachusetts. The frothy swells resembled a frozen 7-Eleven Slurpee, so photographer Jonathan Nimerfroh, a friend of the athletes, grabbed his camera to capture the phenomenon, according to deMilked.

The freezing point for salt water is 28.4°F, but undulating ocean waves typically move too much for ice particles to form. At Nantucket’s Nobadeer Beach, however, conditions were just right for a thick layer of frost to form atop the water’s surface for several hours. Some of the slushy crests were even surfable before melting after about three hours, Nimerfroh told Live Science.

This is the second time Nimerfroh has photographed so-called “Slurpee waves." He captured a similar scene on February 27, 2015, telling The New York Times, “I saw these crazy half-frozen waves. Usually on a summer day you can hear the waves crashing, but it was absolutely silent. It was like I had earplugs in my ears.”

Check out Nimerfroh’s video of surfers enjoying the icy swell below.

[h/t deMilked]

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Why Is the University of Georgia's Mascot a Bulldog?
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Daniel Shirey/Getty Images

For licensing purposes and the all-important "aww" factor, collegiate football teams like their mascots—and few are as popular as Uga, the handsome bulldog of University of Georgia fame.

When Herman J. Stegeman took over as head coach in 1920, the team, which had previously been referred to as the Red and Black, became known as the Wildcats. Atlanta Journal sportswriter Morgan Blake took issue with the unoriginal moniker, pointing out that it was already shared by at least two other teams in the south—Kentucky State and Davidson.

"I had hoped that Georgia would adopt some original nickname that would stand out," Blake wrote, adding that, "The 'Georgia Bulldogs' would sound good, because there is a certain dignity about a bulldog as well as ferocity, and the name is not as common as 'Wildcats' and 'Tigers.' Yale is about the only team I recall right now that has the name."

One week after Blake's story ran, Cliff Wheatley of the Atlanta Constitution referred to Georgia as the Bulldogs several times in his recap of the team's tie at Virginia. The new nickname quickly caught on, and it wasn't long before the sidelines began to see a succession of canines offering their moral support. A fan named Warren Coleman took his bulldog, Mr. Angel, to games from 1944 to 1946; another bulldog, Butch, served as a mascot from 1947 to 1950 (before he was tragically shot by police who mistook him for a stray).

The Uga lineage began in 1956, when a dog owner named Cecelia Seiler dressed her bulldog in a children's-sized team jersey and took him to home games. Uga I patrolled the field for a decade before his son, Uga II, took up the mantle. Uga V, who reigned from 1990 to 1999, appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated. Uga X, the current bulldog in residence, has been rooting for the team since 2015.

In deference to the dog's position, the University of Georgia goes to considerable lengths to make sure Uga is comfortable during the game. His doghouse is air-conditioned for the warmer months and his jerseys are custom-made. When one of the Uga clan passes, they're buried on stadium grounds in a marble vault. Apparently, not even death will prevent a loyal Georgia mascot from showing their support.

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