The former Bengals star on how his famous touchdown dance came to be, the odd jobs he’s been working, his thoughts on the negativity surrounding Cam Newton’s celebrations and his charity work after the tragic loss of his son
CINCINNATI — Ickey Woods is tired. He just returned from a trip to Florida, where he was organizing a golf outing for his charity dedicated to his son, Jovante, who died, at 16, from a sudden asthma attack five years ago. A white van painted with photos of Jovante is parked on one side of the circular gravel driveway outside Woods’ home on the northeast side of the city, just a half-mile off I-75. Woods sleepily squints into the sunlight as he opens up the door to greet The MMQB Super Bowl Road Trip.
Although it’s been nearly three decades since he first danced in the end zone at Riverfront Stadium, Woods’ “Ickey Shuffle” is still relevant today, thanks to a recent GEICO commercial in which he spikes deli cold cuts. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think it would still be paying me today,” he says, shaking his head. When we ask for shuffle tutorial, Woods summons a burst of energy. At the end of the shuffle, Woods lets out his signature shout, “WOO!” and his booming voice fills the room.
On our way out to California, The MMQB stopped in to talk to the Bengals icon about the second life of his signature dance, the criticism of Cam Newton’s on-field celebrations, and his focus on asthma research.
The MMQB: You started a foundation in honor of your son to do asthma research. What kind of work does the foundation do?
WOODS: I started a foundation in his name, the Jovante Woods Foundation. I go around the country raising money for asthma research, and how I do that is through memorabilia, through fundraisers, and things like that. A couple of Mondays ago, on Jan. 11, was his birthday, and we donated $100,000 to the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Asthma Research division. They are doing some great things. We also have a scholarship fund called Jovante Woods 3.8 To Be Great Scholarship. We give to a young lady or a young man who not only excels athletically, but academically as well. It’s a $1,000 scholarship for students.
The MMQB: Is that how you spend most of your time?
WOODS: Yes, I’m always going somewhere trying to put a fundraiser together or talk to some corporate people about donating money. We’re a long ways from where we need to be. Never in my wildest dreams did I think it would take my son from me. He dealt with asthma since he was 2. We had a couple of hospital stays but my thinking was, If he takes his medicine, he’ll be OK. We had maybe three hospital stays before that where it was really bad; we’d go to the hospital, they’d put him on the treatment and he comes home. Never in my wildest dreams did I think we would go to the hospital with him and he wouldn’t come home. We started doing some research on asthma and we come to find out that asthma is the fastest growing disease in America, but it’s the least amount of money spent trying to find a cure or trying to treat it. Asthma has risen 80 percent from kids 0-19. And then a real alarming statistic that just kind of blew me out of the water is that 11 people a day die from asthma. Most people don’t know a lot about it—that’s where we come in to educate people, and we raise some money for research. Unbeknownst to his mom and I, Jovante checked on his driving permit that he wanted to be an organ donor. We honored that and he was able to save four lives with his organs and countless others with his tissues. We also do a little bit of organ donation work as well, so we do a lot of great things with the foundation. We’ve been at it for five years, and it’s getting bigger and better. Now we are going to start going after some of those corporate dollars to help us out. We are plugging away at it, and with my name recognition, it helps us a lot. The GEICO commercials helped us knock down a few doors.
The MMQB: You mention the GEICO commercial in which you do the Ickey Shuffle. Has that been a large part of your livelihood?
WOODS: Most definitely. It’s something that will always be a part of me. Never in my wildest dreams did I think it would still be paying me today, but you have got to take what you can get. The GEICO commercial was really good for us and then we had the spin off with the T-shirts and things like that. The younger generation now knows me as “Mr. Cold Cuts”—where the older generation knows me for the “Ickey Shuffle”.
The MMQB: How did the idea for that GEICO commercial come about?
WOODS: A marketing company called me out of the blue one day. I was sitting upstairs on the computer doing some work and a guy from the Bengals office asked me if I was interested in doing a commercial, and I said, Yeah why not? So he gave them my number. About 20 minutes later, a lady named Suzanne from the Martin Agency called and asked if was I interested in doing a commercial. I said yeah, with who? She said she couldn’t tell me who it was until I signed a gag order. So she sent over a gag order and I signed it and she told me the client was GEICO. I was like, OK, GEICO, car insurance? What does car insurance want to do with my shuffle? She didn’t know the exact premise, but I thought why not, so we put some numbers together and made it happen.
I flew out to L.A. and we actually shot three versions of the commercial. The grocery store version that aired, and then we did one where I was in a living room playing the game Yahtzee and I throw the dice and jump up and yell ‘Yahtzee!’ and start dancing. And then they had another version where I was out watering the front lawn and the paper boy comes by and throws the paper. I snatch it out the air and break into the shuffle and say, ‘I still got it!’ They went with the grocery store cut which was pretty funny and there were a few spinoffs from that with Christmas and Thanksgiving and the Ickster.
The MMQB: How many takes did you need to get it right?
WOODS: I probably did about six or seven takes, but in the first two takes, they had me going back to the grocery cart and going over and reaching into the cart and picking up something and act like I was reading it. We did a couple of times and I was like, ‘I ain’t doing that s--- no more. I’m going to have to find something to do.’ So we shot it again and I just threw the last part in, I got to the cart and I just jumped and said, ‘WOOO! I’m gonna get me some cold cuts today!” And they said, ‘Oh, we love that, we love that.’ I threw that last bit in at the end, improvised it. We had fun with it.
The MMQB: How much money have you made directly from the Shuffle?
WOODS: I don’t have a figure, but it has helped the foundation more than it has helped me personally. Because everything I do, I pretty much do for the foundation. When somebody wants me to go somewhere and speak, they make a donation to the foundation and for the GEICO commercial they made a decent donation to the foundation. That’s why we were able to donate $100,000 to Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. So we try to work with that and give some of that money back so hopefully we find a better way to treat asthma.
The MMQB: How did you create the idea for the Shuffle?
WOODS: I was up acting stupid the night before the game against the Cleveland Browns in the 1988 season with my two oldest kids. I flew my mom in for the game and we were up acting silly and dancing. I said, ‘Mom if I score tomorrow, this is what I’m going to do!’ She said, ‘Boy you best not do that!’ So I scored and the first time I did it, I just jumped in the air and put my hands between my legs. After the game, Ricky Dixon, who was our first-round draft choice, he was like ‘Woods! Woods, What was that, man?’ And he was like, ‘I don’t know, that was my celebration dance!’ And he was like, ‘Man that s--- was wack, Woods!’ I said, ‘What do you mean wack Rick? What do you think I ought to do, should I put some steps to it?’ And he was like, ‘Yeah, yeah! Why don’t you put some steps to it?’ So the whole week before the next home game I thought, What could I do, what could I do? And I couldn’t think of anything. Then five minutes before it was time to go out and get warmed up against the New York Jets, it just hit me. I said, ‘Rick, check this out! I’m going to go 1-2-3 to the right, 1-2-3 to the left, 1-2-3 back to the right, and I’m going to hop back three times to spike the ball.’ He was like, ‘Man, that is going to be live!’ I tell everybody I was just fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time. We were winning ball games and we made it to the Super Bowl that year. If I played for a losing team it probably would have never caught on. So it really was a blessing from the good Lord that I was in the right place at the right time.
The MMQB: Do you have a favorite touchdown celebration that a current player does?
WOODS: I like Cam and his Super Man. It’s about having fun. I like to see guys out there having fun, because we played this game as kids and the reason we played the game is because we loved it and had fun with the game. You get to the professional level and they kind of take a lot of fun out of the game. They don’t want the guys to celebrate. For me it was a fun thing and for me, I only did it at home games. I never did it on the road. It was something that I did for our fans and the crowd at home.
The MMQB: What do you think of the negativity surrounding Cam Newton’s celebrations?
WOODS: They talked about it on NFL Network and all the sports talk shows. He’s a young African-American getting his game intact and he’s playing some football. Now when Aaron Rodgers was running around doing the belt, the discount double-check, you heard nothing about that. Gronk spikes the ball and there’s nothing about that. Then a young African-American guy is out there getting it in and everybody wants to throw negativity, but nobody says anything when he takes the ball and gives it to a kid after every touchdown. It kind of gets up under my skin when that happens, but it is what it is. He’s the man to respect right now and he’s getting it, so I’m happy for him.
The MMQB: Your dance spurred the NFL to institute excessive celebration. What do you think when you see a player get flagged for that today?
WOODS: Well, that’s what the NFL stands for: No Fun League. They take all the fun out of it. The guys are out there trying to have some fun. It’s at the discretion of the referees now and I think the referees are letting a little bit of the fun come back into the game because they are letting guys do things that they normally wouldn’t let guys do. I think the only time they really throw a penalty is if it’s like a couple of guys celebrating. But if it’s just one guy, then they’ll let him celebrate. If you celebrate for too long then they will throw the flag. But I think it’s good for the game if you take a couple seconds to celebrate.
The MMQB: You’ve had several different jobs since your NFL career ended in 1991. What kind of work have you done?
WOODS: I was always in sales. I always had the gift of gab. I could sell ice to an Eskimo if I had to. I have the gift of gab so I did sales, I sold meat door-to-door, I did whatever it took to put food on the table for my kids because they didn’t ask to be here and I grew up without a father so I made it a point that my kids would never have to go through that. Whatever it took, I did it to put food on the table and clothes on their backs. I didn’t care too much about what people thought about me because opinions are like a-------, everybody has one and they stink. I don’t worry about what people think about me, I keep it moving and as long as my loved ones are taken care of, I’m good. I had six kids. I lost my middle son to asthma five years ago when he was 16 years old. I still have five kids and five grandbabies and I do whatever I can to take care of them.
The MMQB: Did people ever recognize you when you went door-to-door hawking products?
WOODS: Yeah, my name got me in the doors so that was one thing I had going for me. One of the reasons I stayed in the Cincinnati area is because I played football here, so when I come to a door, people would sort of be in awe. That would get me in the door but then it was up to me to sell my products. Most of the things I sold pretty much sold themselves and all I had to do was put it in front of people.
The MMQB: Were people surprised to open the door to find someone they use to see play professional football?
WOODS: People were surprised because they think football players make a lot of money, but when you make big money, you spend big money, and people don’t understand that a lot of football players don’t make the big money. You only have a handful of players that are the multimillionaires. I didn’t make the big money because my knees went out on me, so I didn’t get a chance to get to the multi-million dollar contracts, but we don’t harp on that. Life is too short to sit back and have regrets, so you have to move on.
The MMQB: You also own the Cincinnati Sizzle, a women’s professional football team that plays in the Women’s Football Alliance. How did you get involved with that team?
WOODS: My ex-wife actually came home one day and said she was going to try out for the team. Sarcastically I said, ‘If they need a coach, I’ll help coach.’ She came home and said, ‘Honey, guess what?’ That was 12 years ago. I’ve been the owner for 12 years now. I don’t have much involvement today. I go to a few games, I go to a couple practices, but for the most part I am busy with my son’s foundation so I really don’t have a lot of time to spend because I do a lot of work of my fundraising on the weekends and that’s when they play a lot of their games.
The MMQB: Who are you picking to win the Super Bowl?
WOODS: I’m an AFC man by heart, but I just think the Panthers have a complete team. There is really no flaw in that team. They’ve got defense, special teams, offense is playing lights out, but they are going against the No. 1 defense in the Broncos, so we’ll see what happens. I’d like to see Peyton Manning go out on top and win the Super Bowl because I think this probably is his last year. I’d like to see him go out on top, but the Panthers might have something to say about that! It just seems like they are destined to win this year and nobody is going to stop them. They are playing on all cylinders right now, the way they dismantled the Cardinals was unbelievable. If the Broncos can stay in it until the second half, they have a good chance because it seemed like on the Panthers first four offensive possessions against the Cardinals, they scored either a touchdown or a field goal. The Denver defense has got to slow them down. I just hope to see a good game and I hope Peyton plays well.
The MMQB: Do you think your Bengals are ever going to break through and win a playoff game?
WOODS: I do. This year I think if we would have won if Dalton had been playing. We still should have won that wild-card game, but young guy Jeremy Hill fumbles the ball late in the game and that’s what killed us. We were in the game and we get that interception and then we run. Still to this day, I don’t know why we even ran a play. You take three knees, you kick a field goal and then they’ve got to go 80 yards to beat you. There aren’t any timeouts left there, there’s probably only 40 seconds left on the clock. And then Ben’s shoulder was hurting so he couldn’t throw the long ball. It was just a bad decision all around and it just seems like, hey, we just can’t get over that hump. It’s been a good 25 years now. They haven’t won a playoff game since I played! That’s been awhile. It’s rough being a Bengals fan. I go to all the home games and run a concession stand there to raise money for my son’s foundation.
The MMQB: You played in Super Bowl XXIII as a rookie. What do you remember about that game?
WOODS: Personally, I thought we should have run the ball a lot more because the run game is what got us to the Super Bowl and then we get to the Super Bowl and try to turn into a passing team. James Brooks and I were a little upset about that and we voiced our opinion and caused a meeting on the sideline and said, ‘We need to quit being selfish. We can run and pass the ball.’ But evidently we couldn’t pass the ball because after the game we tried to say Boomer’s shoulder was hurting. We were a little ticked off because we felt we could have ran on the 49ers. We did a pretty good job of running on the 49ers, I know I rushed for about four yards a carry and 79 yards on 18 or 20 carries. I just couldn’t understand why we didn’t run the ball more. Before we got to the Super Bowl, we probably ran the ball 40 to 45 times. We get to the Super Bowl and we run the ball 34 times. We were a little upset about that, but we still had opportunities to win the game. We had the Stanley Wilson incident the night before the game and that really hurt us. We had a lot of adversity but we were still in the game and then we get the ball back and we go into the most horrible prevent defense. I hate that defense because it doesn’t do anything but prevent you from winning the game. You sit back and let the quarterback sit in the pocket and pick you apart instead of keeping the pressure on him. We put the pressure on him for 57 minutes and he does nothing and then you take the pressure off of him and the last three minutes of the game he drives 92 yards and scores a touchdown.
Life on the Road
Compiled by Gary Gramling
After Ickey’s house, it was off to Indianapolis to meet with one of our favorite Fan Network writers, Angie Six, for a discussion about a Colts fan’s thoughts on what could be Peyton’s final game. She’ll have a piece sharing her thoughts this weekend.
Then it was off to Chicago, with a quick break to watch Kalyn Kahler’s alma mater as the Wildcats… uh, placed a distant second in their game against Michigan State.
TRANSACTIONS: Robert Mays was officially promoted from the Super Bowl 50 Road Trip practice squad to meet up for a Bear of a story. After that, Emily Kaplan and Robert Klemko join the tour while Mays and Jenny Vrentas take a more efficient mode of transportation the rest of the way: aeroplane. Meanwhile, I mercifully get the hook as Dom Bonvissuto takes over at the wheel. As for Kalyn Kahler and John DePetro, the van remains their home for another week. Send snacks.