I thought about Elmo Wright on Sunday, right after DeSean Jackson got himself and his Eagles in some trouble for channeling a little of old Elmo’s spirit. I think about Elmo Wright whenever a player gets flagged for taunting or excessive celebration or flagrant joy or egregious capering, and I think about Elmo Wright whenever a broadcaster responds by harrumphing and jamming another large stick up his ass, which I guess means that I think about Elmo Wright a lot.
Elmo is credited with football’s first end-zone dance—a high-stepping number he rolled out in 1969 as a junior wide receiver at the University of Houston. It wasn’t much, as dances go. In fact, it’s probably a stretch to call it a dance at all (here’s an example, from Elmo’s days with the Chiefs). It’s more of a drum major’s move, really—something you do while the marching band is murdering Earth, Wind & Fire. Whatever it was, people didn’t like it, and I would imagine the response at the time wasn’t all that much different from the NBC broadcast crew’s response to DeSean Jackson’s taunting penalty against the Giants, which was as follows:
Cris Collinsworth: “That’s ridiculous.”
Al Michaels: “That is ridiculous.”
Collinsworth: “You know … you wanna get paid. You wanna get the big bucks. You wanna get treated like a superstar. You can’t do stupid stuff. That was stupid.”
You want stupid? OK, try to follow along here: With the Eagles pinned near their own end zone, Jackson caught a 50-yard heave from Vince Young and then got shoved out of bounds along the New York sideline, whereupon he flipped the ball to a Giants assistant and brushed some invisible dirt off his chest. That earned him a 15-yard penalty. Under normal circumstances, those 15 yards would’ve been deducted from the end of the run. During the play, however, a Giants tackle had been flagged for illegal use of the hands, a 10-yarder. Even though one of these was a dead-ball penalty and the other was not, and even though one of these involved a player potentially gaining a playing advantage through underhanded means and the other did not, and even though no one watches football for all the fine modesty and self-effacement on display, it was ruled that the penalties canceled each other out. They were coincident, the logic of the ruling went, and therefore equivalent. No matter that the Eagles were effectively punished for the Giants’ penalty—that if New York hadn’t been penalized, Philly would’ve had the ball 35 yards further down the field. That’s stupid. Very.
I’m sure the offsetting-penalty technicality has been on the books for years, but it struck me on Sunday as the perfect expression of the Roger Goodell era—the actual football, the stuff that happens after the snap and before the whistle, is no more important than the league’s self-presentation. The game and the marketing offset each other.
And so I thought about Elmo Wright again.
A few years ago, I spoke with Elmo by phone. I was working on a magazine story about preening wide receivers. Elmo was living in Houston, having recently retired after working for Harris County for nearly three decades. We tend now to think of former NFL players as grim figures—shattered old men limping and doddering arthritically through their emeritus years. But Elmo was, quite possibly, the happiest man I’ve ever interviewed. He was sharp, and he was funny, and there was hardly a moment when one of us wasn’t laughing at something he had just said. He was contagiously—the NFL would say excessively—happy.
I asked him about that first dance.
“When I got in the end zone, I threw the ball down,” Elmo said, “But they outlawed that in college after my sophomore year, and everybody was asking me, ‘What’re you gonna do?’ I had no intention of doing anything.” Houston opened the 1969 season in Gainesville against Florida. At one point, Elmo caught a ball in front of Florida’s All-American defensive back, Steve Tannen. “He dove at my feet, and I high-stepped to get away from him, and when I turned upfield, no one else was near me. I kept high-stepping going all the way to the end zone, and I went I got into the end zone, people were booing me.” He started high-stepping a little faster, and people kept booing—“If it wasn’t for the booing, I probably wouldn’t have accelerated”—and a routine was born.
“It was the Civil Rights era,” Elmo said. “Houston was playing a lot of teams in the South. You had to have some courage to be dancing in the end zone.”
All right, so I doubt DeSean Jackson had Bull Connor’s dogs on his mind when he flipped the ball to that Giants assistant. (And I realize that not every end-zone flash mob draws an excessive celebration penalty.) But in the Roger Goodell era, pro football is slowly getting sapped of Elmo’s spirit, that exuberant mix of Fuck you! and Fuck yes!
“The dance has gone beyond the game,” Elmo went on. “When people are celebrating, they do a little dance. One thing that got me: There was a doctor”—I think he was talking about something he had seen on TV—“doing operations or medical work in poor countries. He was operating on a little baby’s finger—no more than an inch and a half long. He was doing this intricate deal and he was looking down through a microscope, and once he finished the operation, he [and another doctor] did a little fistbump. I said, They got it!”
Elmo laughed. “Management didn’t get it,” he said. Put yourself in a receivers’ shoes. “Just think about what the job is,” he said. “I’ll walk you through a [play]. Say you’re with the coach, and he says, ‘Red Right Forty-Three Forty-Six Slant,’ and you run out there to tell the quarterback the play. He calls it in the huddle, you run out left, you see the defensive back lined up in front of you. Quarterback says, ‘Red! Red!’ and now he changes the pattern. Now you have to run a whole different pattern. You don’t know whether the ball is coming to you or not. You have to turn and try to get open. If you’re good at it, you make the defensive back think you’re going to the left, then you break right, and meanwhile the ball is on its way, and if you have the skill to catch the ball, you catch it, and once you catch it, you have to maneuver. If you do all that, and you finally get into the end zone—is that not worth a celebration?”
Fuck yes it is.