Billy 'White Shoes' Johnson's Funky Chicken to Ocho Cinco's Riverdance, celebrations have become the show within the show

December 28, 2007 

SACRAMENTO -- It started with a dare.

It sparked a revolution.

William Arthur Johnson, a slight sophomore receiver in 1971 at tiny Widener College in Chester, Pa., had taken a shine to soul singer Rufus Thomas' popular dance of the day, the Funky Chicken.

Feeling disrespected by rival Drexel in the week leading up to their showdown, Johnson was goaded into claiming that if he scored against the Dragons he would do something unheard of at the time -- he would dance after his touchdown.

"I was just having fun when I said that," Johnson said with a giggle, 36 years later.

"But I knew if I scored I had to stay true to my word."

Having crossed the goal line, he went to a corner of the end zone and his legs turned to jelly, his knees buckled and they swayed to and fro as he held the football aloft to back up his boast.

William Arthur Johnson was gone. In his place danced Billy "White Shoes" Johnson.

And football has not been the same since.

From the White Shoes Wiggle to the Fun Bunch to the Ickey Shuffle to Terrell Owens preening on the Dallas Cowboys' midfield star to Chad Johnson's Riverdance, seminal moments all, the evolution of the touchdown celebration has been equally lauded and loathed as it became part of the NFL fabric.

And while Johnson was not the first to celebrate a score with a prolonged routine or dance in the NFL -- football historians and Johnson himself credit Kansas City's Elmo Wright for high-stepping into the end zone in the early 1970s, just before Johnson's arrival in the league -- it was Johnson's good-natured histrionics that took it to the next level and inspired following generations to become more elaborate.

Call "White Shoes" the Godfather of the TD Celebration.

"If it's a good thing, I'll take the honor," Johnson, now the Atlanta Falcons' assistant strength and conditioning coach, said with a hearty laugh. "If it's a bad thing, I'll pass it on to someone else."

Too late.

"Oh, yeah, I got mine from Billy 'White Shoes,' " said Ickey Woods, author of the side-to-side and eponymous shuffle. "It was all about getting the crowd involved."

So much so that Woods said he purposely performed his routine only at home games, in front of Cincinnati Bengals fans.

"I wasn't trying to show anyone up; I was just trying to get the fans involved," said Woods, who now runs a Youth Foundation for inner-city kids and is owner and coach of the Cincinnati Sizzle of the National Women's Football Association.

"A lot of the celebrations today are just me-me, instead of the team thing. Guys are just trying to outdo guys."

If "White Shoes" is the Godfather, then "The Ickster" is his consigliore. Still, the performances of Johnson and Woods would be considered tame by today's choreographers in cleats.

Johnson, he of Riverdance fame or infamy, depending upon your perspective, budgets money for fines he'll incur for his wildly creative celebrations, which also have included a faux marriage proposal to a cheerleader, performing CPR on a football and paying homage to Tiger Woods, using a pylon as a putter on a pigskin.

The Bengals receiver has heard from critics.

"I don't know what it is about them, but they need to know this is a new era," the self-proclaimed "Ocho Cinco" told reporters after his 2005 Lord of the Dance take. "The old times are gone and this is how it's going to be, so enjoy it."

When with the 49ers, Owens delighted many a Cowboy hater while making himself the most hated man in Dallas (at least until he signed there) this side of Lee Harvey Oswald, with his star stomp.

It has made the so-called "Sharpie incident" -- in which he pulled a pen from his sock after a score, signed the ball and gave it to a friend in the stands -- his mocking dance of Ray Lewis and his using a cheerleader's pom-poms all tame by comparison.

"Everybody always thinks that I'm being disrespectful," Owens told the San Francisco Chronicle after the 2002 Sharpie-gate.

"Anything that I do, people will try to make me the bad guy. I'm just trying to have fun. I'm just trying to be creative."

Seen at once both as creative geniuses and showboating grandstanders, the showmen of the gridiron feel the NFL has targeted them unfairly, what with the league cracking down on what it deems excessive celebrations.

A year ago, owners voted 29-3 in favor of stricter guidelines. The only hard and fast rule, though, is no props.

"Touchdown celebrations are a popular and appropriate part of the game," NFL spokesman Greg Aiello said in an e-mail.

"But there is a line that has to be drawn between celebrating and taunting. Taunting an opponent is against the rules because it demonstrates poor sportsmanship and can instigate retaliation, including fighting."

Paging the Fun Bunch ...

Now, the 1980s Washington Redskins already had the Hogs (their, um, beefy linemen) and the Smurfs (their, ahem, smallish receiving corps) but the Fun Bunch gathered in the opponents' end zone to punctuate a score with a group high-five.

The Cowboys did not take kindly to such dramatics in their house and, as White Shoes put it, "a melee occurred." So much for the Fun Bunch.

Then Woods came out of nowhere (a second-round pick out of UNLV who led the nation in rushing, actually) in 1988 to lead the Super Bowl-bound Bengals in rushing as a rookie, scoring an AFC-high 15 rushing touchdowns and dancing after every one.

The Fresno native never had celebrated a score before but when he got to the NFL, "I was like, They can't stop me now," Woods said.

So one night, he practiced for his mother what would turn out to be the iconic routine, which consisted of three hops to the left, three more to the right, swiveling hips, an index finger in the air, some howling "Whoo, Whoo, Whoos" and culminated with a spike of the ball.

"Boy, you better not do that," she told him.

"I did it and she was fine with it," Woods said. "I did an Oldsmobile commercial with her later so I think she was OK with it."

Even his veteran teammates, guys like Boomer Esiason, Cris Collinsworth and Anthony Munoz, gave the brash rookie a pass as he started doing the dance behind the Bengals' bench rather than in the end zone because it took so long to complete it risked a delay of game penalty.

"We were winning, man," Woods said.

"The fans got into it. We were winning so everybody kind of took it in stride. Most everybody encouraged it because it meant we had just scored."

Well, there was one guy who took umbrage. Sort of.

Jim Breech, Cincinnati's kicker and a Sacramento native, was distracted by the roar of the crowd as he lined up for the PAT.

"Jimmy said, 'Can you wait until after I make the kick? It gets kind of loud,' " Woods recalled with a chuckle.

Vernon Davis did not have quite the same serendipitous rookie campaign with the 49ers last season.

The tight end was warned by coach Mike Nolan after spiking the ball and raising his arms in Owens fashion after his first professional touchdown, in an exhibition game at Dallas, and was flagged for excessive celebration when he put his foot on the pylon at Seattle.

Davis has taken to merely copying the Green Bay Packers' famed Lambeau Leap, as he has jumped into the stands at home after his two most recent scores.

Anyone for a Candlestick Catapult?

"I don't plan it, I just feel it," Davis claimed with a grin.

"Whatever I'm feeling, I'm going to do it.

"Sometimes I might plan out things, but if I want to do a dance, I go to Delanie Walker because he's the best dance choreographer I ever seen in my life."

It's those orchestrated routines that get traditionalists in a tizzy.

Among today's star players, Indianapolis receiver Marvin Harrison is perhaps the most anti-TD celebration.

"I don't know why I'm not flamboyant, but I do enjoy what I do on the field and I definitely (appreciate) the opportunity to go out and just play and be competitive ... not to be part of Hollywood," Harrison said during Super Bowl week.

"I don't think I need to be T.O.-big or bigger than what I am today. The bottom line is, what have you done on the field? Not off the field, not the antics."

What hath "White Shoes" wrought?

Even he shuddered to think what awaited him after scoring his first NFL touchdown for the Houston Oilers in 1974, when the 15th-round draft choice went into "autopilot" and broke into dance.

"I was surprised I did it myself; it was automatic," Johnson said.

"I went to the corner and danced and then I thought, 'Oh, man, I'm the biggest hot dog going. They're going to kill me.' "

He slunk back to the Oilers' sideline, expecting a tongue lashing from then-defensive coordinator Bum Phillips.

"Shoot," Phillips told Johnson, "if that's what it means for you to score, keep on dancing."

So he did, for 14 highlight-reel seasons.

"Scoring a touchdown in the NFL is a tough thing to do," said Johnson, who had 35 career TDs.

"I never spiked the ball. I never taunted anyone. After I danced, I was done. I was spent."

The revolution, though, was just getting started.

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