- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 16, 2003

Joe Horn calls home on his cell phone. Chad Johnson waves a sign. Terrell Owens pulls out a pen and autographs the ball.

These NFL touchdown celebrations are taking on a life of their own, making the old “Ickey Shuffle” and the “Fun Bunch” seem rather innocent and quaint.

Players spend the week devising new ways to get attention on the field, while the league tries to come up with ways to stop them.

“It’s starting to get away from football,” Bengals running back and choreographer Ickey Woods said yesterday. “I’m all about celebrating a touchdown, but when you start picking up cell phones and taking out pens and signing autographs, that’s entirely different.

“I don’t know what they’re doing now.”

They’re trying to outdo each other. On Sunday alone, three receivers pushed the envelope a little more.

After Cincinnati’s first touchdown in a 41-38 win over the 49ers, Johnson ran to a snow bank and retrieved a sign that said: “Dear NFL: Please don’t fine me again.”

He acknowledged he was trying to top Owens’ signature play — pulling a marker out of his sock and autographing a football after a touchdown last season. Later in the same game Sunday, Owens scored and flipped snow at the fans.

Finally, the Saints’ Horn topped them by dialing up his family on a cell phone hidden in the goalpost padding.

Horn reignited a debate that has raged through pro sports for decades. In a team sport, what’s the point of showboating?

“These guys, they don’t get as much self-promotion as basketball, where everybody could see their faces,” Redskins running back Chad Morton said. “Guys are trying creative ways to bring more attention to themselves. It’s like a marketing strategy for themselves.”

That’s why coaches and older players don’t like it. There’s a “look at me” attitude that doesn’t sit right.

“You should celebrate and have fun with it but don’t try to one-up everybody,” Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said. “You’re paid to score touchdowns. Enjoy yourself, be happy with your teammates but don’t make it about you. There are 10 other guys that helped that occur. Don’t make it so personal.”

On the other side of the debate are players who grew up with football video games featuring touchdown celebrations. They don’t understand why anyone would object to an attention-grabbing act.

Saints running back Fred McAfee bristled after hearing former Cowboys quarterback Troy Aikman say on a radio show that the cell phone celebration was appalling and deserving of a heavy fine.

“It’s like they don’t remember what it’s like to play football or be young and full of energy,” McAfee said. “It’s a game, like checkers. It’s entertainment.”

The league has wrestled with the divide since the introduction of the high-five celebration, which rankled traditionalists.

Houston Oilers kick returner Billy “White Shoes” Johnson took it to a new level and developed a generation of imitators. His wobbly legged touchdown gyration prompted the league to outlaw end zone celebrations before the 1984 season.

They didn’t go away.

Woods’ touchdown shuffle became the rage in 1988 while he led the Bengals to the Super Bowl. Even franchise founder Paul Brown, who abhorred self-promotion, performed the shuffle in the locker room during the playoffs.

Two years later, NFL owners voted to ban touchdown dances.

League policy prohibits staged routines. There was a crackdown on players hiding objects in their uniforms or on the sideline after Owens pulled the pen out of his sock last season.

Horn was penalized for his cell phone routine, and the league is looking into whether to fine him.

“The thing that bothered me more than anything is he put himself before the football team,” Saints coach Jim Haslett said, referring to the penalty. “To me, that’s selfish.”

Still, Horn got the desired result: attention. The cell phone call was a highlight on all the sports television shows, which just encourages others to follow his lead.

“Would I take it back? No, no. I knew exactly what I was doing,” Horn said. “And I understand — I’m quite sure that I’ll be fined.”

Other players see Horn’s antics as an affirmation that end zone celebrations are an integral part of the modern game, just as important as the coin toss and halftime.

“What do you want, guys just to go into the end zone and drop the ball and walk off?” said Saints returner Michael Lewis, who helped stage the cell-phone call. “Then it’s going to be that football isn’t exciting anymore.

“It’s boring.”

Associated Press writers Mary Foster in New Orleans, Joseph White in Washington, and Andrea Szulszteyn and Dave Goldberg in New York contributed to this report.

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