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A Spike in Sports Celebrations

hines-wardThe urge to celebrate victory is as old as the Iliad.

Achilles exults over the fallen Hector in Homer's epic poem, though a Homer of a different sort blazed the path toward epic exultation in modern sports.

How you feel about Homer Jones depends on if you see such strutting as Homeric acts of spontaneous joy or unsportsmanlike showing off.

The New York Giants wide receiver caught his first pro touchdown pass in 1965 against the Philadelphia Eagles - and immediately threw the ball hard to the ground.

The spike begat the Funky Chicken, which begat the Gatorade shower, which begat the fertile imaginations of Terrell Owens and Chad OchoCinco, forever upping the ante for new ways to keep up with the Homer Joneses.

"These acts become part of the ritual of athletic achievement," says Rick Grieve, associate professor of psychology at Western Kentucky University. "And it feeds on itself: First the pros do it, then you see it on high school and college fields, then younger kids."

The Los Angeles Lakers and Pittsburgh Penguins acted like kids when they won championships last month. The Lakers jumped for joy; the Penguins mobbed their goalie. Standard celebratory stuff - unlike a year ago, when Boston Celtics guard Paul Pierce drenched coach Doc Rivers with red Gatorade, a startling indoor variation on the familiar outdoor tableau.

Something about winning invites wetness. Perhaps the most joyful celebration in sports is at the LPGA's Kraft Nabisco Championship, where winners traditionally leap into the lake at the 18th green.

But the one seen most often is the Gatorade shower, which Grieve calls an example of celebration as self-fulfilling prophecy: The Giants began dousing coach Bill Parcells after wins in 1985. They kept doing it because they kept winning - superstitious meets repetitious - all the way to a Super Bowl win the following season.

Others copied it, and eventually the garish showers evolved into a visual cue of what winners do. The progression reached its illogical conclusion when Pierce dumped that red river on Rivers, as parquet floors do not soak up the sticky stuff in the forgiving manner of grass.

"The Gatorade shower," Grieve says, "has become part of the culture."

It began as a whim. Giants nose tackle Jim Burt was irked at Parcells for riding him hard the week before a big game against the Washington Redskins. In the closing moments of a Giants win, Burt impulsively grabbed a cooler of orange Gatorade and

"I dumped it all over him," Burt says. "Everyone else froze. They didn't know whether to laugh or run the other way."

Then, crucially, Parcells smiled.

"That made it OK to do," Burt says. And so the Giants kept doing it, with linebacker Harry Carson assuming the role of hit man, which was OK by Burt. "It's only original once," he says.

That doesn't mean Burt is tired of it, even if many others are.

"I laugh every time I see it," Burt says. "I think it's a nice tradition, a good legacy to have."

New twists

Sports celebrations become part of the wider culture given enough replays on SportsCenter and hits on YouTube - Iliads of a coarser age.

"There is nothing hidden in the subconscious that drives athletes to do these things," Grieve says. "It's just a fun way to enjoy the elation of the moment: 'Look at me. Look what I did.' "

The look-at-me element bothered legendary football coach Paul Brown 40-some years ago. Hardly anyone anymore obeys his austere advice to touchdown scorers: "Act like you've been there before."

These days celebrations fall mainly into two categories: spanking-new but controversial (See: Busch, Kyle and Ovechkin, Alex) or overdone and unoriginal (See: shower, champagne, or shower, Gatorade).

When Busch won a NASCAR Nationwide Series race near Nashville last month, he took the trophy, a hand-painted guitar, and tried to smash it. That was cool when rock guitarist Pete Townshend did it but came off as boorish in front of the folks who had just awarded it to Busch, who said he did it because he promised his crew guitar shards if he won.

When Ovechkin scored his 50th goal in March, the Washington Capitals star pretended to warm his hands on the embers of his too-hot-to-touch stick. Canadian hockey analyst Don Cherry called it disrespectful. Ovechkin begged to differ.

"If you win the lottery, a million dollars, you go to the bar and drink a lot," Ovechkin told sports reporters. "I scored 50 goals, and I just celebrated."

'Dennis Rodman effect'

Green Bay Packers often celebrate home touchdowns by jumping into the end-zone stands, a happy tradition known as the Lambeau Leap. Golfer Chi Chi Rodriguez liked to brandish his putter as a sword after long birdie putts. Alan Kulwicki celebrated NASCAR wins by driving clockwise around the track, and other drivers adopted it in his honor after he died in a 1993 plane crash.

Those types of celebrations make people happy. Not all celebrations do. LeBron James boogied on the bench with teammates during a late timeout as his Cleveland Cavaliers pummeled Boston 107-76 near the end of the regular season. The Celtics fumed. Charles Barkley said on the radio: "When you have to rehearse crap, that crosses the line, in my opinion."

And there is the rub. Some celebrations are musty and old (chest bumps, high-fives). But try something new (snow angels, worm crawls) and prepare to be pilloried (See: Owens, Terrell).

Owens caught a touchdown pass for the San Francisco 49ers on Monday Night Football in 2002 and pulled a Sharpie out of his sock to sign the ball - and the end zone would never be the same.

"I call it the Dennis Rodman effect," Grieve says, "premeditated efforts to push the envelope on outrageous."

NFL fans have seen a cellphone pulled out of goalpost padding (New Orleans Saints wide receiver Joe Horn said he was calling his mother), a football as chainsaw (New York Jets running back LaMont Jordan mimed cutting down goalposts) and a ball burped as if it were a baby (Seattle Seahawks running back Shaun Alexander rocked it to sleep).

All of that is fine by Buffalo Bills fan J.J. Alfieri, who will cheer Owens this season. "I know sometimes T.O.'s antics irritate some people," Alfieri says. "But I think self-expression is good. It adds to the spice of the game."

Burt draws a distinction between spur-of-the-moment celebrations, such as that first Gatorade shower - "If I'd had time to think, I never would have done it" - and planned ones.

"Cellphones and Sharpies, that's over the top," Burt says. "Chad Johnson is me-me-me, when it should be all about the team."

OchoCinco, the TD artist formerly known as Chad Johnson, once dropped to a knee and pretended to propose to a Bengals cheerleader. Another time he two-stepped an Irish jig. And one week he held up a sign that said, "Dear NFL, please don't fine me again," for which he was fined, again.

Fine line

Fines and penalties for celebration have earned the NFL its nickname, No Fun League.

NFL players are not allowed to use props, such as brandishing the ball as a sword, or to choreograph routines, such as the Redskins' "Fun Bunch" high-fiving in high-flying unison in the 1980s.

Those who flout the rules are subject to fines and 15-yard penalties for "excessive celebration," a term evocative of New Year's Day hangovers.

NCAA football rules say a player must "return the ball to an official or leave it near the dead-ball spot" after a play.

Tell it to Washington quarterback Jake Locker, who scored a touchdown with two seconds to play against Brigham Young last September to pull within 28-27, an extra point from overtime. Ah, but Locker tossed the ball high in the air - penalty, 15 yards - moving possession from the 3 to the 18, and the longer point-after try was blocked.

Just imagine the hue and cry if a penalty had been called when Santonio Holmes tossed the ball high after his sensational, tiptoe catch gave the Pittsburgh Steelers the go-ahead score with 35 seconds to play in February's Super Bowl.

Holmes shook the football as if pouring powder on his palm, then flipped the ball high in two-handed homage to James, who begins Cavaliers games by clapping his hands and popping powdered rosin in the air.

NFL vice president of officiating Mike Pereira later said the play should have drawn a 15-yard penalty. If it had, the Steelers would have kicked off from the 15, rather than the 30. Could the Arizona Cardinals have scored with better field position? We'll never know.

This much is sure: The NFL fined Holmes $10,000.

Homer Jones' legacy

Funny thing: Homer Jones spiked the ball in 1965 expressly to avoid a fine.

Jones says he always wanted to throw the ball in the stands after a TD, a move made famous years earlier by Frank Gifford and Alex Webster, who were nearing the ends of their Giants careers as Jones was beginning his.

"But (NFL Commissioner Pete) Rozelle changed the rules, and it was a $500 fine if you threw the ball in the grandstand," Jones says. "So when I crossed the goal line, my mind snapped on the reality that, in 1965, $500 was a lot of money.

"So I threw the ball down, and people liked it and I carried it on through my career, like a trademark. And pretty soon a lot of players were doing it."

Jones, 68, is retired and living in Pittsburg, Texas, where he says he often is asked if he really is the man who invented the spike.

"I tell them, 'That's what's been said. I don't remember anyone doing it before, so it must be me.' That's the history of it. That was the beginning of all of it. And 'White Shoes' came next."

That would be Houston Oilers kick returner Billy "White Shoes" Johnson, who danced in end zones in the 1970s, his Funky Chicken a funky forerunner of the high jinks to come.

"I think all the dancing and so on carries it a little further than I ever thought it was going to go," Jones says.

But, um, Homer, you got the ball rolling. Are you saying you don't like what the spike hath wrought?

"I don't particularly care for it," he says.

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