Touchdown celebrations were invented by Elmo Wright of the Houston Cougars

Elmo Wright (#17) high-steppin’ with the Kansas City Chiefs via the NY Times

The Houston Cougars of the 1960’s were already innovating on the field thanks to head coach Bill Yeoman’s groundbreaking Veer offense, but it was a young wide receiver named Elmo Wright that would have a far deeper impact on the game.

Background

Elmo Wright, who played for the Houston Cougars from 1967-70, was an All-American wide receiver who thrived in the Veer offense, helping light up the scoreboard and rewrite the record books. During his sophomore year in 1968, a season for which he still holds the single season record for most td catches longer than 50 yards with eight, Wright would spike the ball in the end zone when scoring a touchdown to celebrate. The spike was invented a few years earlier in 1965 by Homer Jones, a graduate of neighboring Texas Southern, while he was playing with the New York Giants.

In the offseason before the upcoming 1969 season the NCAA outlawed spiking the football. Also during the same offseason, Wright was invited to the Playboy All-American party in Chicago featuring the best college players for the upcoming season. At the party Wright met a cocky young cornerback from the Florida Gators, named Steven Tannen, who told Wright he wouldn’t catch any passes on him during the Houston-Florida season opener later on that fall.

A New Celebration Begins

On September 20th, 1969 the 7th-ranked Cougars traveled from Houston to Gainesville, Florida for their season opener to play Steven Tannen and the Florida Gators. Wright was ready to prove Tannen wrong:

“In our first game my junior year, I was going up against an all-American from Florida named Steve Tannen, and I was thinking he was going to embarrass me. I trained very hard to get ready for that game. To make a long story short, on a little down-and-out pattern, I caught the ball and he dove at my feet. I started high-stepping to get out of it. There was no one else in front of me, so I kept high-stepping all the way to the end zone. I was just so excited.

People were booing me. In the end zone, I kept high-stepping. It felt so good that I had scored that I did an accelerated version of the high step. I got to the sidelines and my teammates were saying to me, “I can’t believe you danced.” It felt so good, I decided to keep doing it.”*

It’s hard to imagine now how groundbreaking and shocking it was to people to see a player dancing on the field, but 1969 was right in the middle of a very turbulent era for American society. For context, Warren McVea had just broken the color barrier at UH only three years before Wright joined the Cougars and Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated during Wright’s freshman year.

“It was the Civil Rights era,” [Wright] said. “Houston was playing a lot of teams in the South. You had to have some courage to be dancing in the end zone.”**

A Game Changed

It’s hard to underestimate how much adding in a little showboating has changed football. With the rise of cable television, ESPN, sports talk radio, SportsCenter highlight shows, and the internet: Football has been boomed into millions of homes around the country. Having a bit of flair for entertainment certainly has helped build the league’s brand and catch the interest of many people who otherwise might not have been into sports.

Since then we’ve seen such memorable end zone celebrations such as: the Electric Slide, the Ickey Shuffle, the Sack Dance, the Funky Chicken, the Lambeau Leap, the Fun Bunch, the Mile High Salute, the Dirty Bird, and of course the celebrations of people like Billy “White Shoes” Johnson, Terrell Owens, Michael Irvin, Deon Sanders, Randy Moss, Chad Johnson, etc.

Dancing has it’s share of critics, but one has to appreciate the pure emotion and joy of players who are working their butts off on the field:

”People would say, ‘Why do you dance?’ ” Wright said. ”The bottom line is, when you put out that kind of effort, to me it was natural to emote. I would simply ask someone: What is it in your life that you feel so passionate about that once you accomplish it, it made you feel like dancing? What is it? When you finish, you somehow have actually gotten to the point you know that this is it. It’s not going to get any better.

”And then when it’s over with, 60,000 people are cheering. That’s an unusual situation to be in. And just imagine: Before you do it, you just went running down the field, people trying to knock your head off.”***

Wright finished his stellar college football career with the Cougars and was drafted in the first round of the 1971 NFL Draft by the Kansas City Chiefs. He would also see playing time in his career with the Houston Oilers and the New England Patriots before his career was shortened due to injuries. His legacy lives on as a true innovator and a Houston legend!

[Edit: It was pointed out by readers on r/CFB that my headline is a bit misleading. Wright didn’t invent touchdown celebrating but he was the first person to have danced in the end zone after scoring a touchdown. This article’s title isn’t perfect but I will leave it as is.]

Notes: *Quoted from this New York Times article. **Is from this Slate article. ***From this Houston Chronicle article.