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Image: Daniel Kramer

During week five of the recent NFL season, a rousing game of Duck, Duck, Goose broke out in the end zone at Soldier Field. Quarterback Case Keenum—formerly with UH, now with the Minnesota Vikings—joined his teammates in celebrating his touchdown pass against the Chicago Bears, the players quickly sitting in a circle, tapping one another, and giving chase before resuming the football game. In a year that saw a lot of creativity in the end zone, this was the celebration that would be named the best of the season in a survey of NFL players.

At that moment, back in Houston, another UH alum was no doubt smiling: 68-year-old Elmo Wright, All-American wide receiver for the Cougars back in the late ’60s, NFL player in the ’70s, and the man who invented this mini art form. These little bursts of theater—quick, often hilarious dances and skits the players perform after touchdowns, much to fans’ delight—have become an attraction to rival the game itself, sure to feature prominently in this month’s Super Bowl now that they’re legal again after years of being mostly banned.

But before 1969, nobody had heard of such a thing. It all started rather innocently. During his sophomore season in 1968, Wright took to slamming the ball to the ground. “They called it ‘bustin’ the ball,’” he explains. “It was kind of a problem with the referees, because they’d have to chase the ball down after a score.” College football soon outlawed the practice.

Friends pestered Wright about what he might do instead, but he had no idea. What happened next wasn’t a performance—at the beginning, anyway. In the first game of the next season, Wright faced off against Steve Tannen, a Florida defensive back known for his trash-talking. Early in the game, Wright caught a pass and avoided Tannen by high-stepping out of his grasp, then continued to high-step his way into the end zone.

“People started booing me,” Wright remembers. “So, when I got into the end zone, I just accelerated the high step. My teammates said, ‘I can’t believe you danced.’” He decided to keep dancing after that.

This was at the height of the civil rights era, and not everyone was happy with Wright’s little displays of joy. Race was definitely a factor, particularly when the Cougars played schools like Memphis, Ole Miss and Georgia. As well, some disliked the dancing because they viewed the sport almost like the military—individuality, they believed, should be discouraged. Wright saw things differently. “To me, it was just a game,” he says. “It was entertainment.”

Wright is quick to point out that he was also a good wide receiver. He led the NCAA in touchdowns in 1969 and was an All-American in 1970 on one of the few integrated college teams in the South. “Because I danced so often,” he says, “I got to be known as the guy who created the end-zone dance and not a pretty good football player.”

But Wright does enjoy being known as the father of the touchdown celebration, and he’s glad to see the NFL allow it again. “How could you not want people dancing in the end zone, but you’ve got Beyoncé at halftime?” he asks.

Wright continued his celebrations after reaching the NFL in 1971, playing for the Kansas City Chiefs before joining the New England Patriots and, finally, the Houston Oilers over his short career. And soon he wasn’t the only one. Close on his heels, Billy “White Shoes” Johnson’s wild touchdown dances popularized the practice. Others followed, including The Fun Bunch, a group of Washington Redskins players whose end-zone gatherings were considered so distracting that, in 1984, the NFL banned group celebrations entirely.

Individual displays continued through 2006, when, after a string of over-the-top post-touchdown activities—including a player hiding a cell phone inside a field-goal post to use as a prop in one absurd bit—the league began imposing 15-yard unsportsmanlike-conduct penalties on any player who took things too far. That meant no props, including the football itself.

Ahead of last season, though, the league had a change of heart—perhaps because fans love the practice so much—relaxing the rules and allowing groups of players to stage what have become increasingly elaborate skits after touchdowns. Recent on-field antics have included a simulated 100-meter relay; rousing games of Leap Frog and Hide-and-Seek; a potato sack race; and, yes, Duck, Duck, Goose.

Wright’s favorite practitioner of the art, he says, is former Bengals wide receiver Chad Johnson, one of the players the NFL cited when banning celebrations back in 2006 (and who has paid thousands in penalties over his career). His theatrical end-zone performances have included giving a football CPR, using a pylon as a golf club, proposing (fake) marriage to a cheerleader, and even doing the River Dance. “That’s a guy that clearly wanted to get into the end zone and dance,” Wright says, adding that it’s all about self-expression. “Football players have helmets,” Wright says. “To show your emotions, you have to use your whole body.”

Wright says his own celebrations were always spontaneous. “I never really thought about dancing until I got into the end zone,” Wright says, adding, “If you can imagine 60,000 people cheering. It feels so good.”

Injuries would end up derailing Wright’s NFL career. After only a handful of seasons, he returned to UH to get his MBA, then went on to serve as chief of staff for former Harris County Commissioner Jim Fonteno for more than two decades before retiring.

These days, Wright says, he only dances occasionally—most recently at his daughter’s college graduation, and after learning his nephew had survived a health scare. “Can you imagine living without something worth celebrating?” he asks. “Your end zone may not be the same as mine, but everybody needs a reason to dance.”

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