Dancing to the score NFL: The ballet of pro football begins once the goal line is crossed: Imaginations soar, there are gyrations galore, and if you don't, you're a bore.

December 05, 1997|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

The man who forever changed the course of business in NFL end zones was not, as fate would have it, a frequent visitor to the area himself. During a five-year pro career in the early 1970s, Elmo Wright scored a grand total of seven touchdowns.

But oh, how he changed the game on one of those rare visits.

On Nov. 18, 1973, Wright, a speed receiver for the Kansas City Chiefs, scored on a long touchdown pass from Len Dawson in what would become a 38-14 victory over the Houston Oilers.

Once across the goal line, he began running frenetically in place, knees pumping, arms churning, seemingly out of sync with his surroundings. Then, moments after he started, he stopped and slammed the ball to the ground.

The end-zone celebration has not been the same since.

Eight years earlier, Homer Jones, a receiver with the New York Giants, had delivered the first spike in NFL history. With his burst of raw energy, Wright loosened the psychological valve on pent-up emotions around the league.

Today, he says he is stunned by the evolutionary path these celebrations have taken.

"What they've done is taken it to a level past the original intention," he said from Houston, where he is chief of staff in Precinct 2 of the Harris County commissioner's office. "Certainly, in my mind, they take the word dance literally. You've got to understand, this is the MTV generation. A lot of things have happened over the years. It's evolved.

"The time I did it, it was more celebration. It made me feel good, and I went through the high step to express it. I never went into the end zone unhappy."

The 'Big Bird' thing

In today's NFL, end-zone celebrations fall somewhere between controlled exuberance and blatant over-indulgence.

There is the exotic Lambeau Leap by the Green Bay Packers, the snappy Mile High Salute by the Denver Broncos, and the Funky Chicken by San Francisco 49ers safety Merton Hanks, the double-jointed wonder who jerks his head and upper body around violently as if he were a wounded bird.

Hanks, curiously enough, got the idea from watching "Sesame Street."

"That guy who does the Big Bird-type thing, Hanks, I hate that," said Harold Carmichael, a 6-foot-8 wide receiver for the Philadelphia Eagles from 1971 through 1983.

"Now you see guys strutting after catching a pass or making a sack. A lot of these guys are taking it too far. I think somebody's going to do something crazy and embarrass the NFL. Like moon people."

There were people who felt Carmichael was taking it too far when he and some of his teammates celebrated Eagles touchdowns by rolling an imaginary pair of dice in the end zone in 1974.

But the Dice -- authored by reserve running back Po James -- had a short shelf life, and soon enough, Carmichael either spiked the ball or handed it to an official.

"I stopped spiking and started flipping it to the referee," Carmichael said. "Why? I was growing up, becoming more mature. This is what we get paid for."

There would be other players who helped nudge end-zone celebrations to new heights and more bizarre extremes.

Origins of dance fever

Billy "White Shoes" Johnson was the first player to truly dance in the end zone in 1974 as a rookie with the Oilers. He scissored his legs, held the ball aloft, then rolled it up his arm and down his neck.

In the early 1980s, Butch Johnson of the Dallas Cowboys shot off imaginary six-guns, blew away imaginary smoke and put the guns in an imaginary holster. When the NFL outlawed the California Quake, Johnson wound up in Denver doing the Colorado Moonwalk and variations thereof.

By 1988, a running back for the Cincinnati Bengals, Ickey Woods, unveiled the Ickey Shuffle at Riverfront Stadium, which was known as the Jungle. Woods did a series of hop steps, shifting the ball from hand to hand as he skipped side to side. Woods' act ultimately was banished to the Bengals' sideline by the NFL's celebration police. But Woods got a lot of mileage out of the act when the Bengals reached the Super Bowl that season.

Lenny Moore, a Hall of Fame running back and flanker with the Baltimore Colts from 1956 to 1967, says the end-zone conduct is a microcosm of society and that it can be viewed on a number of levels. One being race since the majority of performers are black.

"Blacks have been denied opportunity and full venue of freedom, even now," Moore said. "Any way that the black athlete in particular can show that, 'Hey, I made it, I'm here, so look at this, you can't keep me out.'

"Any achievement made by black athletes and entertainers is a welcomed addition simply because of the denial of all those other years."

Yet, having said that, Moore went on to say he doesn't care for today's celebratory spin. In his time, Moore simply turned the ball over to the referee.

"My personal view is it's a whole lot of wasted, excess energy," he said. "You train all week to try to preserve something for the third and fourth quarter, and then go out there and do all that stuff?

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