Would Billy Johnson without the "funky chicken" be just another guy who wore white shoes? Would Elbert Woods without the "Ickey Shuffle" be just...icky? Who would Mark Gastineau be without the "Sack Dance"? Well, O.K., who would Brigitte Nielsen be? Or Lisa Gastineau, Mark's ex? Or any other Gastineau companions or photo-op partners or tattoo sharers whom Mark and his infamously whacked-out waltz kept out of career oblivion, the divorce poor-house and assorted other hellholes while the former New York Jet defensive end was permitted to raise his arms, beat his chest, stomp his feet, whirl his head, bop his booty, rant, rave and otherwise engage in prolonged, excessive or premeditated celebration?
These are significant questions as the NFL begins another season, one especially dedicated to the proposition that Nobody Finds Laughter. Give the NFL the rights to Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, and the world would be safe from clowns.
The NFL's Grinchinization is at full cry again simply because in the off-season, the league vowed to crack down on the enforcement of Rule 12, Article 14c, regarding "demonstrations," by which a five-yard penalty is imposed for—are you paying attention?—"any prolonged, excessive or premeditated celebration."
The rule also notes, in a shocking departure from form, that "spontaneous expressions of exuberance will be permitted." This means that high fives and touchdown spikes are still O.K.—Wow! Excuse us for living!—an obvious sop to commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who has always wanted to get down and dance the nude lambada with a lamp shade on his head at the annual league meetings.
September 1, 1991
However, the NFL's Competition Committee (known in player circles as the Fun Police) tried its best to get the crackdown established by law, not by simple reaffirmation, and recommended that the penalty for such unsportsmanlike conduct routines as Indianapolis Colt Clarence Verdin's "Verdance," Houston Oiler Ernest Givens's "Electric Slide," Atlanta Falcon Andre Rison's "Highlight Zone," Tampa Bay Buc Broderick Thomas's yet to be unveiled "Buc Jump" and Anybody Who's Anybody's celebration-of-choice "Nestea Plunge" be increased to 15 yards for a player's second offense in a game. One member of the comp committee, who shall remain brainless, even suggested "expelling these jiggly-wiggly guys from the game; just get rid of 'em." But when the stiffer penalty was brought up for consideration at the NFL's meetings in Hawaii in March, saner heads prevailed—probably with lamp shades on—and the 15-yarder was overwhelmingly dismissed without a vote.
"You know what I told the owners at the meetings?" says Atlanta Falcon coach Jerry Glanville. "Suppose that guy from Buffalo [kicker Scott Norwood] makes the field goal to beat the Giants in the Super Bowl. The kick goes up and the Giants think it's wide and they're celebrating. Then it hooks good and the Bills are jumping up and down. What have you got, offsetting celebrations? The game's tough enough. Why just make it tougher?" But the scoundrels have.
"What do the players think? It doesn't matter," says Buffalo Bills defensive end Bruce Smith. "They're taking all the enjoyment out of the game. I haven't got anything [new celebrations] planned. It's not worth it anymore."
What was it that chain-gang guard said in Cool Hand Luke? "What we've got here is a failure to communicate."
The men who set the rules in pro football are ancient, Geritol-guzzling, fuddy-duddy relics, rooted in the late 1950s and '60s, when the NFL exploded upon the American consciousness featuring that legendary party animal, Vince Lombardi. A generation gap later we have players who were brought up on glitz, MTV and those hallowed twin peaks of national With-Itness, Arsenio Hall and M.C. Hammer. Is it any wonder gridiron folks just got-to-got-to-got-to-got-to dance?
"I don't say this in a derogatory sense, but the players are like children," Jim Finks, the president and general manager of the New Orleans Saints who is also chairman of the competition committee, says in a nonderogatory sense. "They push you as far as they can. If you don't stop them, they're going to do it their way. This isn't about Ickey Woods. Where does it stop? Somebody's going to out-Ickey Ickey."
In 1989 the Saints lost to the 49ers 24-20 in a game in which San Francisco wide receiver Jerry Rice started one touchdown celebration at about the five-yard line and fumbled the ball before he crossed the goal line. The Niners hurried to kick the extra point before a replay could be signaled, and later Finks issued a memo to his team promising $100 to any player who counted to five before he spiked after a touchdown. When the Saints beat the Los Angeles Rams 40-21 two weeks later, Finks shelled out $200 for two delayed spikes by Dalton Hilliard, who was caught by TV cameras actually counting to five on his fingers after one touchdown.
"This is all such a trivial deal," says Elmo Wright, the little receiver who may have started all the high-steppin' in 1971, his rookie season with the Kansas City Chiefs. "But it sends a signal to the players: 'Don't ever forget. You are under our control.' "
In other words, "You've got to sit on them," says Bills coach Marv Levy. "There's a rule for a game, just as for some guy who works in an office where the company policy is you're supposed to wear a tie to work, and he should wear a tie to work. It takes a dumb player who tries to flout the rules, who tries to bring attention to himself with things other than how he plays. He does not win the public. He wins a very ignorant segment of the public. There's no one in the Hall of Fame for how well he danced."
Marv, meet Bruce Smith, the most dominant defender in the league, a crunch master of hot-dog histrionics who is as close to Gastineau in style as he may be to Canton in ability. Smith doesn't wear a tie to work. Oh, yeah, one other thing, Marv: He plays for your team. Helped get you to the Super Bowl and within two points of winning it. Got flagged for celebrating after he sacked the enemy quarterback for a safety. Sounded like a substantial segment of the Buffalo public went fairly nutso after Smith's ensuing dance. In different years, in fact, Smith has danced the "Pee-wee Herman" (an arms-flailing hop), "the Fred Sanford Sack Attack" (an imagined heart-attack stagger), "the Hammer" (a stomp 'n' strut a la M.C.) and on occasion "the Pose" (an arms-folded, enough's-enough, Yul Brynner/King of Siam prideful, upright, standstill pose).
"The league wants to do away with taunting?" Smith says. "Ninety-eight percent of this stuff is not taunting. Hey, we're football players. We're used to abuse. Plus, we like to watch other guys' stuff. Like Verdin's. I like that one."
A sixth-year wide receiver-punt returner out of Southwestern Louisiana, the Colts' Verdin is nicknamed CNN because he talks 24 hours a day. He led the NFL in punt return average last season and is currently fourth in league history in that department. Verdin's Verdance is patterned after Michael Jackson's moonwalk, which is to say it's a copy of former Dallas Cowboy and Denver Bronco receiver Butch Johnson's "Colorado Moonwalk," which Johnson created only after the NFL outlawed his "California Quake," a splay-legged, feigned twin pistols-shooting number, which was only the very best thing ever to happen to pro football, including, of course, Woods's only-a-mother-could-love Ickey Shuffle, which was initially permitted by the league—probably because the dance caused TV to realize there was something called the Cincinnati Bengals—then banned to the sidelines behind the bench and is now outlawed all the way out of the stadium.
If this seems confusing, imagine how Verdin feels. "I don't understand what all the fuss is over," says CNN, who has worked out an updated but unfortunately yet-to-be-named new dance step with the help of who else but M.C. Hammer his own self. "I mean, we're supposedly in the entertainment business, and all I'm trying to do is entertain. Hey, that's me. That's my attitude."
And what about the new threat of penalties? "That's what we've got [Colt kicker Dean] Biasucci for," Verdin says. "He can kick it another five yards."
CNN has thought about writing a letter to Tagliabue. "I was going to ask him if he would fine the fans or raise ticket prices if they start doing the wave or making too much noise," Verdin says. "As long as we're not taunting players—you know, sticking your finger in their face or kicking 'em in the butt when they're down—what's the problem?"
The problem began long after 1971, when Wright brought his end-zone drum-major high kicks to the Chiefs from the University of Houston, where after each of his then NCAA record 34 touchdowns he would slam the ball down so hard that the artificial surface in the Astrodome took on all the features of male-pattern baldness. Spiking the ball, as it came to be known, certainly was more exciting than flipping the ball to the official or just leaving it there on the ground, as the rule said—i.e., "touching it down," whence came the word, if you can believe this, touchdown.
Soon enough, White Shoes Johnson was spaghetti-leggin' it all over the end zone for the Houston Oilers. And long, tall, 6'8" Harold Carmichael was pretending to roll dice with his teammates every time he scored for the Philadelphia Eagles. "The funny thing was I never shot real craps in my life," says Carmichael, who may have had the strongest arm in football. "What I really wanted to do was fling the ball 100 yards into the other end zone. You know, an opposite-field spike."
All great inventors have been pariahs at one time or another, so honk if you've heard a coach say, "I don't like this silly celebrating in the end zone. The great ones always act like they've been there before" Yawn. That's easy to say if you're talking about Jimmy Brown, O.J. Simpson or Walter Payton. But how many of their 291 combined no-spike touchdowns are as memorable as Pittsburgh Steeler Dave Smith's TD spike against the Chiefs on a Monday night in 1971? O.K., so Smith caught the ball, broke into the clear and spiked on the seven-yard line, turning his touchdown into a touchback. Picky, picky.
Attention-wise, no end-zone provocateur made more out of his reserve's role than brazen Butch Johnson with his California Quake in the early '80s. Inspired by a rapturous young woman in the stands, whom he spotted waving and undulating her physique after his touchdown catch, Dallas's Johnson suddenly broke into his own shimmy-shake. "Some reporter asked if I had a name for my dance, that it looked like some kind of orgasm," Johnson says. "I figured I'd better get a name real fast." Johnson was from Los Angeles. To add some Texas flavor, he soon included drawing and shooting pistols to his repertoire—"I shot the defender, the official and later everybody in the stands," he says—and, helped by a professional choreographer, eventually turned his dance into a mini nightclub act.
Ah, progress. As long ago as 1983 the bell tolled for these pigskin prophets against protocol. In an early-season game at Shea Stadium, Ram offensive tackle Jackie Slater took exception to Gastineau's berserk prance following a quarterback sack. Slater shoved Gastineau from behind in middance, whereupon a bench-clearing brawl ensued and 37 players wound up being fined. Slater received a slew of congratulatory calls and letters from around the league and later was voted to the first of his six Pro Bowls in seven years. "Gastineau was a jerk. He tried to embarrass people," says Billy Ard of the Green Bay Packers. "As long as it's [celebrating and] not out to embarrass people, I don't see what's wrong with it. The league is like a communist government. What are they paranoid about?"
Perhaps mass death. In December '83, as the Washington Redskins' "Fun Bunch" of receivers gathered in the Dallas Cowboy end zone to scream and jump and cavort and slap five and otherwise re-create their usual Fun Bunch stuff after a touchdown catch by Art Monk, Dallas defensive backs Dennis Thurman and Michael Downs broke into the circle to announce a cancellation of the celebration, or words to that effect, which caused another near brawl.
In the final week of the '83 season, after Dolphin defensive end Mike Charles dropped Jet quarterback Richard Todd for a loss in a Miami blowout, Charles knelt in front of Todd and began raising and lowering his own quivering limbs in a mock attempt to levitate his victim. Hilarious, right? The Jets didn't think so. When Charles turned away, he was shoved from behind by Jet guard Marvin Powell, and then Todd fired the ball at the back of Charles's helmet.
Voilà! In 1984 came a new addition to the NFL Code of Conduct, which specifically outlawed "imitations of gunfighters...wild flailing of arms and legs...high-five circles in the end zone." At the time, supervisor of officials Art McNally said, "We took steps to prevent what could have been a very ugly situation. It was like a bomb waiting to go off."
The new rule resulted in only nine penalties in '84—for such things as spiking by a player other than the one who scored, and spinning the ball like a top. But the damage to the creators had been done. Washington's Otis Wonsley of the dead-as-a-doornail Fun Bunch remembers, "There wasn't any electricity. Without [the Fun Bunch] it's like we were playing with handcuffs on."
Johnson, traded to the Denver Broncos in that off-season, holstered his twin revolvers for good in favor of the Colorado Moonwalk. "They said you had to be spontaneous, couldn't duplicate," says Johnson, now a Denver businessman. "So I kept changing, from the moonwalk to a bullfighter to something else, anything. What the heck. I guess I was 10 years ahead of my time. If I hadn't become an entrepreneur, I'd still be in showbiz."
Show biz? The NFL? Wash out your mouth with soap, man.
The final laughs may have escaped from the NFL balloon in the 1985 season when the roguish Chicago Bears of the headbanded, moon-shooting punkster Jim McMahon, the dog-barking Otis Wilson and the kitchen appliance-monikered William (Refrigerator) Perry rode roughshod through then commissioner Pete Rozelle's worst nightmares. Sooner than later, these acts were mere fond memories.
Alas, now the smile-provoking Ickey Shuffle is gone forever, as well. Despite Bengal coach Sam Wyche's promise to play tapes featuring The Best of Ickey on Riverfront Stadium's giant screen TV whenever Woods scores a touchdown, we'll probably have to be invited into the Ickster's living quarters to see the real thing.
Finks says the new crackdown, which includes a postgame no-fraternization rule, stems from two incidents last season. One was 49er safety Ronnie Lott's near-dustup with Giants quarterback Phil Simms following a Monday Night Football game in December. The other was the annual, generic macho taunting by Miami. That's the University of Miami. In the Cotton Bowl. No kidding. "The Cotton Bowl proved that if you don't take control of your game, god only knows what it leads to," Finks says.
Which makes perfect NFL (Narrow-minded Fools' Logic) sense to everybody else, too. Let's see. Because some college kids acted up while bored to bits whaling away on pitiful Texas, professional entertainment artistes such as Messrs. Givens, Rison and Thomas will be deprived of their funnin'? Not to mention that we'll be deprived of ours?
Though Buffalo's veteran sack-dancer Smith sounds as if he has given up, there is still hope.
Houston's wideout Givens, whose Electric Slide consists of some severe leg stretches, sweeps, extensions and spastic quivering, and, he says, "alone brings 5,000 to 7,000 fans to our stadium," says he will try to circumvent the rule. "The way to go around it is just do it," he says. "The NFL should spend time worrying about drugs and labor issues, not what a guy does after he scores. What I do doesn't hurt nobody."
Even Thomas, Tampa Bay's budding monster linebacker, is ready to challenge authority. "I don't want nobody turning this into no gentleman's game, no Sunday opera," he says. "People come to our games with their shirts off and their faces painted to see some——! The Buc Jump is a party dance. It's from Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Old people can do it, little kids, even you can do it. I'm shuffling like on hot coals and stepping real fast. It's beautiful."
So there is new rebel blood in the old game after all, none flowing thicker than in the state of Florida. In Miami, Rule 12, Article 14c may be in for some further tests by the Dolphins' rookie receiver Randal Hill. This is the same controversial fellow who led the Miami Hurricanes in woofing, tweeting and celebrating last year, culminating in his finishing off a touchdown catch in the Cotton Bowl by galloping into the tunnel, where the refs couldn't flag his antics. In the first Dolphin minicamp, Hill performed a Nestea Plunge after one catch, then drew and fired a couple of pretend six-shooters after another. Later he pledged to quiet down. That was before Hill announced he was getting his name legally changed to Randal Thrill Hill.
Hey, White Shoes and Butch: We miss you, you knuckleheaded Showtime Johnsons. But just get a load of who's coming. And be still, thy hearts.