From Elmo to Ickey, Ochocinco to Owens, and from the Dirty Bird to the Bowling Birds [2018 Philadelphia Eagles], celebrating after a touchdown is a thrilling part of football.
In May 2017, the NFL took measures to put the fun back in football. In a letter to fans from Commissioner Roger Goodell, the NFL said it wanted to allow players “more room to have fun after they make big plays.” It was a good decision by the league, as end zone celebrations are highly entertaining, and infuse some fun into an increasingly-boring product.
It all began with Homer Jones. A lightning-quick rookie wide receiver for the New York Giants, Jones got his first career start five games into the 1965 season. Midway through the second quarter of a game against the Philadelphia Eagles at Yankee Stadium, Jones scored on an 89-yard pass from Earl Morrall. He had seen Frank Gifford and Alex Webster hurl footballs into the stands after scoring touchdowns and wanted to copy them. Unfortunately, in one of the first moves by then-Commissioner Pete Rozelle to turn the NFL into the No Fun League, Rozelle outlawed the act the previous offseason, attaching a $ 500 fine for throwing footballs into the bleachers.
So Jones invented the spike.
“I was fixing to throw it into the grandstand,” said Jones as he recalled his first NFL touchdown, “but just as I was raising my arm, the reality snapped into my head. Mr. Rozelle would have fined me. That was a lot of money back in those days. So I just threw the ball down into the end zone. Folks got excited, and I did it for the rest of my career.”
Four years later, Elmo Wright created the end zone dance. In the 1969 college season opener, Wright, a nimble receiver for the University of Houston, caught a pass in front of Florida Gator All-American cornerback Steve Tannen. “He dove at my feet, and I high-stepped to get away from him, and when I turned upfield, no one else was near me. I kept high-stepping all the way to the end zone.” More of a drum major’s move than a dance, Wright brought his moves to the NFL. Playing for the Kansas City Chiefs in a game against the Washington Redskins in October 1971, Elmo caught a touchdown pass and high-stepped in place, becoming the father of the end zone celebration.
As a Pennsylvania high-schooler, William Arthur Johnson dyed his football shoes on a dare. He became known as “White Shoes,” and later caught on as a kick-returner with the Houston Oilers in 1974. The speedy Johnson found the end zone often as a rookie, celebrating touchdowns with the Funky Chicken, a dance based on a song by soul singer Rufus Thomas. The dances, along with his footwear, made Johnson popular with Oilers fans. White Shoes played 14 NFL seasons before retiring as the league’s all-time punt returner, in 1988.
In the 1980s, the Washington Redskins Fun Bunch gathered in the end zone after a score and performed a group high-five, becoming the first celebration squad to collect a nickname.
In his rookie season of 1988, Cincinnati Bengals fullback Elbert “Ickey” Woods introduced the Ickey Shuffle. After scoring a touchdown, Woods would shuffle his feet to the right while holding the football to the right, shuffle left and hold the ball out to the left, then finish with three hops to the right before spiking the ball to the ground. The Ickey Shuffle became all the rage on playgrounds and Pop Warner fields across America. The NFL failed to see the fun, however, designating The Shuffle – and other moves like it, as “Excessive Celebration” subject to penalty against the player’s team.
After going 7-9 in 1997, the Atlanta Falcons turned things around and reached the Super Bowl the following season. Running back Jamal Anderson led the resurgence, scoring14 touchdowns in 1998. After each, Anderson would dip up and down, flapping his bent arms furiously — like wings. The dance became known as The Dirty Bird and remained a Falcons signature.
Originally dubbed the “No Limit Soldier’s Salute,” the Mile High Salute is the most honorable of end zone celebrations. Popularized by Denver Broncos running back Terrell Davis during his hall-of-fame career from 1995 to 2002, the gesture became a symbol of the dominant Broncos teams of the 1990s and remains part of the franchise today. “It was simply a sign of respect,” explained Davis. “It was just my appreciation for service men and women, and I always thought the mentality that you have to play the running back position, you got to have the same mentality as a soldier.”
Prior to a Monday-night game against the Seattle Seahawks in October 2002, Terrell Owens promised his financial advisor, Greg Eastman, he would not only score a touchdown, but that he would give him an autographed football during the contest. After catching a 37-yard touchdown pass to win the game, Owens made good on the promise, taking out a Sharpie and signing his name on the ball. T.O. then handed the pigskin over to Eastman, who was sitting in the luxury box of Shawn Springs, the Seahawks cornerback Owens had just burned for the score.
During a 2003 beatdown of the New York Giants in the Superdome, New Orleans Saints receiver Joe Horn called his mom. The call came from a cell phone teammate Michael Lewis had hidden in the goal post padding. After scoring the second of his four touchdowns on the day, Horn was handed the phone by Lewis. The talented wideout dialed his mama’s digits while still wearing his helmet, then put the phone up to his earhole. Unamused, the NFL fined Horn $ 30,000 for his stunt.
After taking a lateral from teammate Reggie White, who had scooped up a Los Angeles Raiders’ fumble in a game in Green Bay in December 1993, Packers safety LeRoy Butler scored his first NFL touchdown. The amped-up Butler ran through the end zone and jumped into the stands, where several excited Packer-backers hoisted him into the crowd. The move caught on, and Green Bay wide receiver Robert Brooks helped popularize the Lambeau Leap, a nickname coined by the great Al Michaels in 1996. When the NFL banned excessive celebrations four years later, the Lambeau Leap was grandfathered into the new rules, allowing it to continue.
Wes Welker made a Snow Angel, Victor Cruz did the Salsa Dance and Aaron Rodgers adorned the imaginary wrestling Championship Belt. But nobody’s end zone celebration can match that of Walter Payton. “Sweetness” scored 125 NFL touchdowns, 110 by rushing and 15 receiving. After each, Payton would simply hand the football to the official. Knowing he had been in the end zone before — and confident he would return — pro football’s second all-time leading rusher pioneered the greatest end zone celebration in football history.