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Fans loved the ‘Ickey Shuffle.’ The NFL hated it.

During the 1988 season, the Cincinnati Bengals running back Elbert “Ickey” Woods invented one of the most beloved touchdown celebrations: the “Ickey Shuffle.” (Video: Julie Yoon/The Washington Post)
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With the Cincinnati Bengals heading to the Super Bowl for the first time since the 1988 season, expect to hear plenty about the touchdown celebration that launched a national craze back then: the “Ickey Shuffle.”

Or, as the NFL described it several decades ago, an “unrestrained dance … deemed to be contrived exhibitionism that has no place in the sport.”

By the time of that pronouncement, the charmingly goofy celebration concocted by Bengals running back Elbert “Ickey” Woods already had been banished from the end zone, leaving him to perform it on Cincinnati’s sideline. But even that was not enough for a stodgy corporation that, when confronted with an act of individual joy that would look innocuous today and was embraced by fans then, very much lived up to its reputation as the No Fun League.

What the NFL didn’t realize — apart from the fact that its outrage over the “Ickey Shuffle” was largely out of step with both prevailing sentiment and the trajectory of sports culture — was that Woods’s reign of post-touchdown terror was already near its end. After Woods burst onto the scene as a rookie in 1988, his career was over after just three more seasons that included two major knee injuries.

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Woods chose to stay in the Cincinnati area, where he remained beloved as a symbol of happier times for the Bengals while he worked a succession of odd jobs. Eventually, his “Ickey Shuffle” was brought back to life in several 2014 Geico commercials and made its mark on a younger audience. Then this season arrived, re-energizing a Bengals team that notched its first playoff win in 31 years, during which tight end C.J. Uzomah broke out a version of Woods’s dance after catching a touchdown.

In a sign of how much Woods means to the organization, the Bengals brought him to Kansas City to serve as an honorary captain for the AFC championship game. Following Cincinnati’s stunning comeback win over the Chiefs, quarterback Joe Burrow briefly broke out the shuffle as he and Woods embraced at midfield.

In the beginning …

On the Friday before the championship game, Woods proved prescient in telling a group of schoolchildren that he was going to watch the Bengals “bring home the victory.” He also made sure to show the gleeful kids at Cincinnati’s St. Rita School for the Deaf the proper way to perform his signature move — and provided a history lesson.

Before a Week 4 game in 1988 against the Cleveland Browns, he revealed to his mother that he planned on doing a touchdown dance if he scored.

“Boy, you better not do that!” Woods said his mother exclaimed.

“I have to, Mom. I have to,” he replied. Sure enough, Woods unveiled a prototype of the dance after he scored against Cleveland, but upon hearing from a teammate that it was “wack,” Woods added some extra steps. The finished product was launched two weeks later, when Woods reached the end zone against the New York Jets.

The Browns game was something of a coming-out party for Woods, a second-round pick out of UNLV who had been used sparingly by the Bengals to start the season. He scored twice against Cleveland and added 13 more touchdowns over Cincinnati’s next 10 games, plus three more during its playoff run.

That gave Woods plenty of opportunities to perform his dance, quickly making him a household name. T-shirts and other merchandise flew off shelves, and Woods and his mother did the shuffle in an Oldsmobile commercial.

A strong reaction

The “Ickey Shuffle” also landed on the radar of NFL game officials, who began hitting the Bengals with taunting penalties every time Woods did it. Putting the kibosh on “overly demonstrative acts by players” had been a point of emphasis for the league since 1984, when it altered its rule on taunting to include celebratory behavior such as the sack dances of Jets pass rusher Mark Gastineau and the group high-fives by Washington’s “Fun Bunch.”

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The Bengals found something of a loophole to the rule, albeit one that involved a bit of delayed gratification for Woods and those cheering him on.

“Coach [Sam] Wyche asked me to do the shuffle on the sidelines so as not to be penalized,” Woods said in December 1988.

For his part, Wyche declared around that time that the penalties were “crap.”

“This is a game for emotion and for the fans,” said Wyche, who coached Cincinnati from 1984 to 1991. “That’s a bonehead rule, and the NFL ought to take it out. The officials told me, after they blew the whistle, they wish they’d take it out. It was the only thing we agreed on all day.”

Even the team’s 80-year-old owner, NFL legend Paul Brown, was inspired to mimic Woods’s moves. “It’s ridiculous, but people laugh when they see it,” said Brown, who acknowledged he favored a more stoic response to scoring touchdowns. “I told him, ‘I think it’s all right to do your little dance.’ I don’t care much for it, but my wife likes it.”

Not every member of the Bengals, though, was as supportive of Woods, who led the team that season with 1,066 rushing yards. Fellow running back James Brooks complained before the Super Bowl that “the ‘Ickey Shuffle’ has kind of pushed me into the background.”

“I will never get a gimmick if that’s what it takes to get more attention,” added Brooks, an eighth-year veteran at the time who made four Pro Bowls while with the Bengals. “That’s not my style. Ickey can stand on his head or walk on his hands, but I won’t do it. What he does means nothing to me.”

Tom Rathman, a fullback for Cincinnati’s Super Bowl opponent, the San Francisco 49ers, derided Woods as “a showman” and declared, “I’m into football, not gimmicks.”

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Given the biggest stage in American sports to potentially build on that showman image, Woods instead shared a self-deprecating assessment: “The ‘Ickey Shuffle’ is just some stupid dance.”

“I don’t know why I started doing it this season, but the fans seem to love it, and I enjoy making the fans happy,” he continued. “Everything that has happened — the yards, the dance, the endorsements and the Super Bowl — has surprised me. I’m just trying my best to keep a level head with all this going on.”

No more ‘hot-dogging’

A dose of humility soon arrived when the 49ers, led by quarterback Joe Montana, scored a last-minute touchdown to beat the Bengals, 20-16, in Super Bowl XXIII. Then calamity struck in the second game of the 1989 season, when Woods tore the ACL in his left knee. It took him 13 months to return to the field, but he managed to play 10 games in 1990, scoring six touchdowns and shuffling away on the sidelines.

At the March 1991 NFL owners’ meetings, the league firmly closed that loophole when its competition committee announced it was “unanimously opposed to any prolonged, excessive or premeditated celebration by individual players or groups of players.” In a list of acts it deemed unacceptably “contrived exhibitionism,” the committee included “unrestrained dances, wild flailing of arms and legs, simulated dice games, ‘high-five’ circles in the end zone [and] imitations of gun-fighters.” Players who committed these acts on the field would incur 15-yard penalties, and sideline demonstrations could be subject to fines.

“They now use the word ‘celebratory,’ but that’s new for hot-dogging,” committee member and New York Giants general manager George Young said. “And ever since you had the TV camera, you’ve had a noticeable increase. We’ve also had guys hurt themselves, people getting pulled groins and hamstrings with these silly high-fives. … None of this is meant to eliminate the fun, but we are trying to make it more professional.

“I’m not a dinosaur,” Young continued, “but what kind of message do we send to kids?”

‘It’s good to celebrate’

At St. Rita last month, kids appeared to be very much enjoying what they were seeing from Woods.

“It’s okay to celebrate your accomplishments,” school president Angela Frith said in a subsequent phone interview. “I don’t think it needs to be turned into a bragging moment, but for our kids — especially for our kids — it’s good to celebrate your successes. Sometimes there are a lot of obstacles you have to overcome and challenges you have to overcome, so it’s okay to say: ‘Hey, I did that. I was able to do that.’ ”

“When we’ve done the ‘Ickey Shuffle,’” she added, “it just brings smiles and laughter to people.”

It probably helped the youngsters that Woods’s introduction helped clue them into exactly who he was. A January 1989 Sports Illustrated cover featuring his face and the headline, “Super Bowl bound: Ickey and the Bengals,” was projected onto a screen behind him.

“A lot of you don’t know me,” Woods said to laughter. Despite the contrast in physique between the current Woods and the leaner, SI-cover athlete he used to be, the Bengals’ all-time single-season leader in rushing touchdowns showed he still had some nimble feet.

A right knee injury in the summer of 1991 limited Woods to just nine games that year, and he was released by the Bengals the following spring. Just like that, at the tender age of 26, his once-meteoric NFL career was over.

Now 55, Woods made clear at the St. Rita event that he has maintained his sense of perspective.

“I tell everybody that I was fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time,” he told the children. “We were winning ballgames, and we made it to the Super Bowl that year, and that’s why the ‘Ickey Shuffle’ took off. … I was blessed by the good lord up above to put me in that situation.”

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