The Death of the NFL Touchdown Celebration

Sean TomlinsonNFL AnalystAugust 10, 2015

Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images

There wasn’t a name for what New York Giants wide receiver Homer Jones did in 1965 after he took a short pass from quarterback Earl Morrall and then scored 89 yards later. 

It was basic, and simple enough, but finding words to describe this new expression of post-touchdown jubilation became difficult. First of all, was he actually happy? There seemed to be a moment of fury when Jones wound up with the ball in his right hand and then rocketed it down with authority, temporarily denting the end-zone dirt below.

“He has a funny habit of throwing the ball down when he crosses the goal line,” was the Dallas Morning News’ attempt at explaining this odd new touchdown behavior that seemed to combine anger and excitement, which is appropriate for a sport with plenty of both.

Jones had a name in mind: He had “spiked it,” as he later told reporters (jump to the 32-second mark of the video below).

He didn’t know it at the time, but with that one sweeping act of celebratory rage, Jones gave birth to dancing, shuffling, strutting, home run swinging and eventually Sharpie-wielding.

He opened up an outlet for individual expression, giving the touchdown swagger. He created the touchdown celebration, and he regrets it.

“It caused so many things,” he told Greg Bishop of the New York Times in 2012 while reflecting on his status as a touchdown-spike pioneer. “I wish I hadn’t started it.”

The spike certainly led to a lot of regret. But now Jones can rest easy, because what he unknowingly invented 50 years ago—the desire to at first shake and wiggle, then later become a bobblehead before bobbleheads were cool—has nearly reached the end of its life expectancy. The touchdown celebration is almost on its last legs.

Oh sure, New York Giants wide receiver Victor Cruz still shimmies with his salsa dance, Cowboys wideout Dez Bryant throws up his "X" and Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers tightens his championship belt.

Or rather, he does the Discount Double Check, because by law in 2015 everything must be branded.

Signature touchdown celebrations are still a part of the league to some degree. But over time they’ve become less elaborate, and less flashy.

The slowed heartbeat of the touchdown dance can be linked to league rules dating as far back as 1984, when it was determined the Washington Redskins’ Fun Bunch was, well, having too much fun…in a bunch.

And so it began, with the league first introducing language that defined illegal celebrations as “any prolonged, excessive, premeditated celebration by individual players or groups of players,” according to the official 1984 rulebook excerpt.

That effectively ended group celebrations. Fast-forward to 2006, and suddenly celebration rules went from purposely vague to overly specific as the sense of isolation during a moment of triumph grew. Using any prop—including the ball—was banned by new rules pushed forward through the competition committee, per the Associated Press (via ESPN.com).

Going to the ground in celebration received the ax, too, which meant even Chiefs safety Husain Abdullah was given a 15-yard penalty in 2014 when he dropped to his knees in prayer after scoring on an interception return. The league later said the flag shouldn’t have been thrown, with spokesman Michael Signora noting that kneeling in prayer is an exception.

Ed Zurga/Associated Press

There was immediate backlash to Abdullah's flag and concern that the NFL was now limiting religious expression.

But in hindsight, the mistake was understandable. It was expected, even, as an official reacted to events happening quickly before him and penalized what he saw: a player on his knees, which violates the rulebook’s rigid definition of acceptable happiness.

How did we go from the thud of Jones’ first spike to an era when the NFL’s fun vacuum is cranked to max power, and every action following a touchdown is first limited, then heavily scrutinized? Even a goalpost dunk means the ensuing kickoff is 15 yards closer.

That journey started with one man and his shaking knees.

 

Creating touchdown celebrations: Knee shakes and schoolyard fun

Before the Houston Oilers drafted him in 1974, Billy “White Shoes” Johnson was a standout at Widener College in Pennsylvania, a tiny Division III school at which he averaged more than 250 all-purpose yards per game.

Widener is where two careers began for Johnson: his football career and his dancing career.

Johnson’s end-zone grooving now looks like the quintessential slice of '70s musical vibes reappropriated for the football field. Which is exactly what it was, as Johnson found his inspiration for the Funky Chicken dance from the Rufus Thomas song "Do the Funky Chicken."

“He might have been on Soul Train or one of those dance shows at the time,” Johnson told Bleacher Report during a phone conversation. “He came on wearing hot pants and was doing it. I just thought it was rather funny.”

An idea was born, one Johnson then shared with his Widener teammates.

“True to word, I scored the next game, and if I didn’t do it they were going to hold my feet to the fire. So I had to dance, and I did the Funky Chicken.”

Johnson would start his now-iconic dance with pretty much every limb stretched as far as possible. Both arms would point skyward, and his knees would move back and forth.

It caught fire immediately, and to this day Johnson maintains his distinction as a touchdown-celebration innovator. He was the first to do anything other than a variation of the spike. Decades later, his knee-twitching legacy still lives on.

Johnson said even fans of opposing teams were anxious to see his end-zone gyrating. So anxious they were somehow on the other end when he was in enemy territory and picked up the hotel room phone.

“I don’t know how they ever got my room number,” he said. “But they would wish me well and want me to do a dance, although they didn’t want our team to win.”

For Johnson, his dance was rooted in sheer excitement. It was an outlet to show both his bubbly personality and his pride in an accomplishment.

“It’s pretty tough to get to pay dirt on a regular basis, so of course I was excited,” he said.

“It’s a game you have to get excited about playing, and you have to thoroughly enjoy it. If you don’t enjoy it, then you’re in the wrong profession.”

Even during his moment of slick end-zone body-wiggling, Johnson was mindful of the opponent and took steps to make sure the Funky Chicken wasn’t seen as taunting or belittling. He stepped away from opposing players or moved to the back of the end zone.

“That way it couldn’t be misconstrued as me directing it at them.”

Yet just a few weeks after the 1984 celebrations rules were passed, even Johnson was flagged. He then skirted the new fun-suffocating legislation by moving to the sideline, and away from the end zone.

But a touchdown-celebration icon had still seen a flag thrown in his direction, which planted an early seed for the heavy-handed restrictions that came later. The Redskins' Fun Bunch was in part responsible, and thus the outlawing of fun began.

Although a few members changed over the years, at the end of its run the Fun Bunch consisted of wide receivers Art Monk, Charlie Brown, Virgil Seay and Alvin Garrett, along with tight end Rick Walker and running back Otis Wonsley. Those six were the core pass-catchers who propelled the Redskins to a win in Super Bowl XVII. They were such a tight, team-oriented collection of players that each touchdown was a team accomplishment and warranted a team celebration.

“We just wanted to do something special as a team for our celebration, and Rick Walker—who was sort of like our mentor at the time—came up with [the high-five],” Brown told B/R. “We were so much a team-oriented group, and we weren’t individualized.”

In that moment the Fun Bunch became a group of overgrown, laughing, jumping and high-fiving kids. Which is exactly what they were, with youthful exuberance at the heart of their approach to team unity. Fans latched onto the celebration immediately, and soon T-shirts showing the Fun Bunch’s signature pose were scattered throughout RFK Stadium at home games.

“Our celebration wasn’t intended to taunt the other team or players, and our head coach Joe Gibbs knew that," Brown said. "He never saw anything wrong with it.”

Opponents generally seemed to agree, except for one 1983 afternoon in Texas Stadium.

Monk scored on a 43-yard reception during the third quarter of an eventual 31-10 blowout win over the Dallas Cowboys. As the Fun Bunch gathered in a circle for the customary group high-five, two extra bodies that didn’t belong were in the middle: Cowboys safety Michael Downs and cornerback Dennis Thurman.

“I was frustrated,” Downs later told Sports Illustrated's Paul Zimmerman. “I took it personally. I just didn’t want to see that in Texas Stadium.”

Credit: Hogs Haven

The aforementioned excessive-celebration rules followed shortly after during the 1984 offseason. The Fun Bunch wasn’t mentioned directly, but for Brown, the changes came with a stench.

“What a lot of people think is that because we beat Don Shula in the Super Bowl and Tom Landry in the NFC Championship Game [during the 1982 playoffs], either one or both of those guys were on the competition committee, which is where the rule change stemmed from.”

The competition committee at the time was indeed headed by Redskins rivals: Shula and Cowboys general manager Tex Schramm. So there’s fuel for the theory held by Brown and pretty much anyone associated with the Redskins.

Maybe the key to an acceptable celebration lied in location, and keeping your fun confined to home field. Just as Ickey Woods did with his oddball shuffle.

 

The next step: A shuffling cold-cuts man

Elbert “Ickey” Woods was soaking in some family time the night before a Week 4 game against the Cleveland Browns in 1988. The Cincinnati Bengals fullback was playing with his two oldest kids. Or rather they were up “acting silly,” as he told Bleacher Report, with Woods’ mother watching.

“We had some music going, and I said, ‘Mom, if I score tomorrow, this is what I’m going to do.’”

Then he demonstrated an early version of the dance he now uses to celebrate the purchase of delicious cold cuts.

Mothers have oh so many jobs, many of which fade away as their children become adults and can provide themselves with the basic necessities of life. But one motherly instinct often doesn't die, even if her son is old enough to have children of his own.

A mother always (usually?) tries to keep her kids from doing something embarrassing. Especially if that something could be beamed into living rooms around the country.

So Woods’ mom had a predictable response to his shuffle.

“She said, ‘Boy, you better not do that,’” at which point the still-nameless dance became his mission.

“I said 'Yeah, Mom, I have to,'” and then on his second touchdown the next day Woods shuffled his way into our hearts.

The steps were simple. So simple that you’re probably doing them right now. Release the Ickey Woods that lies within, because modern medical science has proved it’s impossible to be sad when you’re jumping, spinning and twirling your finger.

If you do need any help, just follow the intricate instructions Woods laid out to teammate and defensive back Rickey Dixon at the time. He had encouraged Woods by giving a rave review after his first effort (“that thing was whack!”).

“I said I’ll go one, two and three to the right, then one, two and three to the left, then one, two, three back to the right, and then hop back three times and spike the ball.”

Woods, of course, was more than merely some end-zone Twinkle Toes. He scored 15 rushing touchdowns that season and, including the playoffs, finished with seven 100-plus-yard games on the ground. His average of 5.3 yards per carry led the league during a year when Cincinnati advanced to the Super Bowl, losing 20-16 to the San Francisco 49ers.

He’s remembered mostly for the shuffle and also a career cut far too short by a knee injury. And yet even one of the most beloved NFL touchdown celebrations of all timedone by one of the most beloved NFL characters of all timewas restricted by league rules.

Prior to the 1989 season, a new provision of the planned-celebrations rule was passed. Now, premeditated celebrations away from the end zone were also prohibited, though the exact banned area was specific. The NFL didn't want players stepping just beyond the end zone and celebrating. But the sideline? No problem.

''Our interpretation of 'off the field' would extend to five feet off the back line of the end zone, or in plain view of the opposing team,” Joe Browne, the NFL’s director of communications at the time, told the Associated Press (via New York Times).

The Fun Police had struck again, but Woods had a solution. The Ickey Shuffle, he said, was for Bengals fans. So he only did it at home, and he went to his own sideline near the bench, which put his dancing within the new rules and removed any remote possibility that his actions could be misread as taunting.

Still, for a moment it seemed the shuffle would also be sucked back by the league’s fun Hoover.

“I was enjoying myself,” Woods said. “I always dreamed of playing in the NFL, and when I was coming up as a kid it seemed like every time I was close to the next level, before I got there people were able to celebrate.

“I thought, ‘I’m in the pros now, and there’s no way they’ll be able to stop me.’ Sure enough, I get out there and start dancing, and they come in with the 'no dancing in the end zone.' So I took it to the sideline.”

The rules rope loosened later in the '90s. The same language was on the books regarding prolonged, premeditated and excessive celebrations. But there was little uproar when cornerback Deion Sanders perfected his Prime Time Dance while strutting 20 yards or so shy of the end zone, often directing his prancing at an opponent.

And there was little backlash when Atlanta Falcons running back Jamal Anderson unleashed the Dirty Bird, which later became one of the most '90s football things to happen.

For a time, it seemed originality was critical. If a player’s chosen strut was his own creation, the fans liked it and opponents weren’t overly irate, then flags remained in pockets. The rules were written and in place, but enforcement was left to an official's judgment.

“I think the beauty of those dances is that they were original,” former Philadelphia Eagles kick returner and two-time Pro Bowler Vai Sikahema said when thinking back to the golden era of touchdown high-stepping. “We didn’t use popcorn, cellphones or Sharpie markers.

“There was so much originality, and it was obviously thought-out and hilarious. It still appeared to be spur-of-the-moment and didn’t take up a whole lot of time. Then the NFL stepped in and started flagging people, and it got out of hand.”

Sikahema had his own piece of originality. He was born in Tonga, and when his family immigrated to the United States, Sikahema’s father had a grand plan to fulfill his American dream: He would teach his son to be a boxer and eventually the heavyweight champion of the world.

That career didn’t take off, but he excelled as a returner for eight NFL seasons. The final two years of his time in the NFL were spent in Philadelphia. After taking a punt back 87 yards for his first (and only) return touchdown as an Eagle, Sikahema put in some work on the heavy bag in tribute to his father.

“Nobody knew that I had been a boxer,” he told B/R. "So when I scored that touchdown, I knew my father was watching, and we had trained for years before I ever started playing football. I fought close to 80 amateur fights as a kid.

“It was my way of communicating to him that all his boxing training wasn’t for nothing, and it paid off, just maybe not the way either of us had expected.”

It was the one and only time Sikahema practiced his haymakers in the end zone, a celebration later duplicated by others, including former San Francisco 49ers linebacker Ken Norton Jr., whose father was the heavyweight boxing champion for two years in the late '70s.

But Sikahema's goalpost-punching struck a deep chord and resonated with an entire city because of the rich boxing history in Philadelphia.

“I came into the locker room after the game and of course reporters stuck microphones and cameras in my face, asking me about it. Then someone said, ‘You must have done that for the great fighting city of Philadelphia! And Rocky Balboa and Joe Frazier!’ And I hadn’t even thought about that. But just being a goof I said, ‘Absolutely, that’s exactly what it was for.’”

He stayed in Philadelphia and is now the sports director at NBC 10. Reflecting further, Sikahema thinks attitudes toward touchdown celebrations have changed over time.

“The reality is players of my generation never saw touchdown celebrations as showing the other team up. It was just a fun thing that guys did, and if you got scored on, well, you’re supposed to stop that.”

 

The end(?): Joe Horn's cellphone and Terrell Owen's star spike

Eventually, touchdown celebrations morphed into a contest of their own, one former New Orleans Saints wide receiver Joe Horn intended to end on a Sunday night in 2003.

During a time when new levels of lunacy were being reached among wide receivers who frequented the end zone—from Terrell OwensSharpie to Steve Smith’s rowing and pretty much everything Chad Johnson did—Horn had the showstopper.

“My kids couldn’t go [to the game] because it was too late with school on Monday,” Horn told B/R. “So I was going out the door that evening, and I told my youngest son that I would call him, because he started crying. He wanted to go to the game.”

So he tried to call his son not only from the game, but during the game. After catching his second of four touchdown passes against the New York Giants, Horn dug a cellphone out from under the goalpost padding with the help of fellow wide receiver Michael Lewis.

The Saints were given a 15-yard penalty, and Horn was later fined $30,000 for excessive celebration. He still doesn’t have any regrets.

“At the end of the day, most of the fans who paid their hard-earned money to buy NFL tickets and watch it on TV, they enjoyed it,” he said. “They like their football to be exciting. Things like that made football fun. Then, of course, you had the corporate people at the time who called it 'hot-dogging.' But it was all in fun.”

How Horn, Owens and others defined "fun" didn’t fit the league’s description, which is why a few years later in 2006 the use of any foreign object during celebrations was banned, along with going to the ground.

“Individual celebrations are getting out of hand,” competition committee chairman Jeff Fisher said at the time, via the AP. “The players’ association was unanimous in wanting to get it under control.”

Over a decade later, Horn still thinks prop-based celebrations were harmless and that the negative reaction came from an overbearing league with a thirst for control.

“Unfortunately for the players, the person who didn’t like it being done is the only person who runs the league other than the owners: the commissioner,” Horn said. “It wasn’t the fans.

Mike McGinnis/Associated Press

“Why can’t I take a cellphone out from under the goalpost and flip it if I’m not hurting anyone? Why can’t Terrell Owens take a Sharpie out if it’s not hurting anyone? Me taking a cellphone out isn’t hurting anyone physically.

“But they allow the Green Bay Packers to do the Lambeau Leap. You allow players to jump into the stands when they can actually hurt themselves or a fan if their helmet hits them in the chin or something. You allow that and let it happen, but you ban celebrations with props.”

He’s not wrong, as the Lambeau Leap does present at least a mild physical risk for both fan and player, especially if the former is, um, sufficiently lubricated. The possibility of actual harm is still somewhere between minimal and zero for every other celebration, unless you’re Chicago Bears defensive end Lamarr Houston or Detroit Lions linebacker Stephen Tulloch.

Or if you’re anywhere near former Giants linebacker Michael Boley.

But the NFL is concerned about harm to the shield, and it’s telling what players from previous generations thought of the antics from Horn and Owens.

“I think the tide turned when Terrell Owens ran to the middle of Cowboys Stadium and stood on top of the star,” said Sikahema.

“That’s the moment I remember thinking, ‘You know what? That’s not good.'”

Brown also pointed to Owens’ skyward gaze from the star as an example of reaching an extreme.

“I think that’s taking it a little too far, and I think from his perspective it was all about 'me,'” he said. “Whereas from our perspective, it was all about the team, and not taunting or hurting anyone.”

However, the godfather of touchdown celebrations thinks strict rules have subtracted from the league’s personality.

“Anything that isn’t hurting the game and you’re not getting any negative criticism from doing it, then let them do it,” said Johnson.

Ultimately, even when rules are written, enforcement is tied to officials' judgments, and Johnson said generally their decisions are good ones that show an awareness of a game’s complexion.

The NFL touchdown celebration isn’t quite dead yet, though it's inching closer to extinction. We still have a Superman and a Hynocerous. We still have a salsa dancer and New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski’s modern take on the spike that he’s turned into a moneymaking venture.

For a fee, you can break stuff with him, if that’s your thing.

But gradually, the league’s fun wrench has been tightened. It’s a process that started over 30 years ago and is still ongoing, with a greater emphasis placed on already existing taunting rules as recently as 2013, according to ProFootballTalk.

On a fundamental level, football is a game we watch for entertainment and that kids play for fun. Starting with Jones' spike, touchdown celebrations became an extension of that childlike mentality, along with a natural outlet for individual expression.

But progressively the walls have closed in, and now fun can only be experienced within certain parameters. Even spinning the ball and the military salute could prompt flying yellow laundry if an official thinks those acts (and others, like a home run swing, via Slate) are directed at an opponent.

The "No Fun League" moniker has been used so much now it feels cliche. But too often it’s also true.