Once upon a time a football player would celebrate a touchdown by handing the ball to an official.
Once upon a time Charlotte was considered an underdog in its pursuit of a United States Football League team, a professional league that operated for three seasons in the mid-1980s. Once upon a time sportswriters wore ties when they covered games.
Times change. Yet some of us demand that our athletes be what they were decades ago, as if they’re preserved in ice. Be stoic, fellows, you hear me? And don't celebrate. I don’t think Hank (Williams, the country singer, or Baskett, the former NFL wide receiver) done it this way.
Steve Smith Sr., the former Carolina Panthers receiver who will someday be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame, told me once how tough it is to score a touchdown in the NFL. He scored 89 – 81 via touchdown pass, four via punt return, and two via rush and kick return. That’s 89 touchdowns in 16 seasons. This is a Hall of Fame receiver, and he averaged fewer than 6 touchdowns a season. So, yes, why wouldn’t he celebrate a touchdown by spinning the ball as if it were a top?
Why wouldn’t other players celebrate when they attain the end zone? When Cam Newton scored on his 9-yard leaping touchdown dunk against Atlanta Sunday, why wouldn’t his teammates and fans at Bank of America Stadium react as if they were part of something special?
Players feed off the emotion they generate and the emotion fans generate. When everybody cheers, that’s when the home-field advantage truly kicks in. That’s a reason fans so spend so much money to go to a game. When everything is right, they’re all in it together.
“When the Panthers are emotionless, that’s when good things don’t happen,” Newton said after Carolina’s three-point victory against the Falcons. He added: “If we can get Bank of America Stadium with a pulse, that’s when we’re at our best.”
Games are fun. As you know if you go to Carolina’s training camp in Spartanburg, or an occasional practice in Charlotte, the rest of the week tends not to be. The NFL is about repetition. The idea is to run a play so many times that it becomes natural, committed to memory and muscle memory.
Every day there is the probability that a meeting will break out. Players go to mandatory meetings, quasi-mandatory meetings and voluntary mandatory meetings. They go to more meetings than you do even if your misguided manager in one of those gleaming downtown offices believes that meetings are the way to run a business.
Game day is the reward. Game day is when a player gets to show who he is. Yet until this season the NFL punished players for post-touchdown displays of emotion. The rule this season was relaxed, and the result is a series of spontaneous and choreographed celebrations.
The best of them followed an October touchdown by Pittsburgh Steelers’ receiver Juju Smith-Schuster. While Smith-Schuster covered his eyes, teammate Le’Veon Bell ran behind the goal post and hid behind the padding. Smith-Schuster opened his eyes and Bell was gone. Smith-Schuster looked perplexed and looked around and finally saw Bell and chased him. It’s likely they set a record for most people ever to watch a game of hide-and-go-seek.
This wasn’t a penalty. This was performance art.
So was the celebration of Joe Horn, the New Orleans Saints’ receiver who grew up in Fayetteville. Horn had stuck a cell phone in the goal-post padding, and in a blowout victory against the New York Giants in New Orleans, Horn celebrated his second touchdown by pulling out the cell phone and pretending to make a call. This was in 2003. You can tell because he used a flip phone. You can also tell because he was fined $30,000.
Football is about hitting and hurting. It’s a rough game, as injuries to some of the best players in the league this season attests. So enjoy it. The joy is contagious. Against Atlanta Newton went to fans, asked for noise and slapped a few hands.
Of course there are times when a celebration is misguided. If your touchdown cuts your opponent’s lead to 21, you probably ought to keep the celebration to yourself.
And if you at any time celebrate with, say, the Heisman pose, you ought to be penalized and maybe kicked out of the game. If you’re clever enough to get to the end zone, you should be clever enough to come up with a celebration that hasn’t been performed thousands of times before.
About Cam Newton’s post-touchdown Superman pose: I went to a Carolina Panthers Challenger Flag Football game. The league is for kids with physical and developmental difficulties.
I saw, a player celebrate a touchdown by doing a beautiful rendition of Newton’s Superman. His teammates jumped and shouted. The other team jumped and shouted. The moms and dads and sisters and brothers on the sideline jumped and shouted. It was sheer and utter joy no matter whom you were pulling for.
When the Challenger League has a pulse, that’s when the players and fans are at their best.