ST. PAUL, Minn. – For most of the NFL’s storied history, the end zone was merely a destination, a territory for touchdowns and touchbacks and an occasional safety.
But the sanctity of the end zone was forever changed on Nov. 18, 1973, at Arrowhead Stadium.
During a 38-14 victory over the Houston Oilers, Kansas City Chiefs’ wide receiver Elmo Wright caught a touchdown pass.
He then ran in place at a frenetic pace, pumping his knees and arms, stopping just long enough to slam the ball to the grass.
At that moment, on that field, the end zone evolved into a party zone, a place to showcase one’s spunk and funk.
Since then, many NFL observers might not remember how particular players got into the end zone, but they certainly recall what they did once there.
Elbert Woods had his “Ickey Shuffle.” Ernest Givens his “Electric Slide.” Billy Johnson his “Funky Chicken.”
Famous group celebrations include the choreographed efforts of the Washington Redskins’ “Fun Bunch,” the Atlanta Falcons’ “Dirty Bird” and the St. Louis Rams’ “Bob-n-Weave.”
“Those celebrations made the game fun to watch as a fan,” Vikings tight end Byron Chamberlain said.
“I remember growing up and watching the Fun Bunch.
“It was a group celebration and choreographed. But it wasn’t harmful or degrading toward the other team, and I looked forward to seeing the Redskins score just so I could watch them.”
Celebratory gyrations aren’t relegated to offensive players. Defenders celebrate sacks, interceptions and important tackles, and special-teams players celebrate big hits or big returns. In 1983, Los Angeles Rams offensive tackle Jackie Slater took exception to Mark Gastineau’s “Sack Dance.” Slater shoved Gastineau from behind in middance, initiating a bench-clearing brawl that resulted in 37 players being fined.
In 1984, due largely to the choreographed routines of the “Fun Bunch,” the NFL rules committee wrote an “excessive celebration” amendment, which basically allowed a spike. But NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue changed the rule so only taunting was prohibited in 1991. Then, in 1999, led by the efforts of Green, the rules committee co-chairman, the NFL banned group celebrations.
Green said “youthful exuberance” is acceptable, but he added that celebrations or actions that incite the opposition cannot be tolerated.
“You’ve got 46 guys playing the game, and we’ve got the most aggressive game,” he said.
“I think we have not had the kind of riots they’ve had in baseball or hockey and basketball, and I think we haven’t because we try to control the game.”
Athletes in other sports have famous celebrations that are borderline taunts but the NFL is not concerned about what other leagues do.
“We’re the market leader. We’re the most popular sport, the one that’s watched the most, and the one that generates the most money.
So regardless of what anyone else does, we have to run the game the way we think it’s fit, and sportsmanship is the name of the game,” Green said.
The players have no problems airing their dislike of the NFL’s conservative approach.
“When they adjust or they try to make rules, they go too far,” said Vikings receiver Cris Carter, who used to celebrate by getting on one knee, and pointing skyward.
“It’s entertainment. Michael Jackson is an entertainer. It’s like if concert promoters told him he can’t moonwalk, or do certain dances. As far as being graphic and lewd and things like that, yeah, they should be restricted.
“But it’s still a game. Guys should be able to celebrate.”