SAN FRANCISCO — If anyone can relate to the pure and unadulterated joy that Cam Newton feels after scoring a touchdown, the kind of elation he will feel if he scores on Sunday in the biggest game of his life, it is Elmo Wright.
As the father of the end-zone celebration after a touchdown, Wright knows the feeling that Newton — and any other player, for that matter, who breaks into some sort of dance — experiences when he has produced the most important scoring play in football.
“The dance or the celebration is like the punctuation mark of a sentence,” said Wright, 66, a former University of Houston receiver whose touchdown celebration in 1969 started a tradition that has become almost as much a part of the fabric of football as the forward pass. “You have to realize what the guy did to be in a position to score a touchdown. Whether it’s Cam or anybody else, that’s what it’s all about. I feel sad that most people watching it don’t get it. It shows the passion for what you’re doing.”
Wright, who eventually brought his touchdown celebrations to the NFL with the Kansas City Chiefs in the early 1970s, could never have known the kind of tradition he would unleash when he scored a touchdown in Houston’s first game of the 1969 season. When the Cougars visited the Florida Gators, Wright caught a pass against All-America cornerback Steve Tannen and slipped out of his grasp on his way to the end zone. Wright had to raise his legs in a high-stepping motion to evade the tackle, and he wound up high-stepping his way into the end zone. Once he got there, he ran in place as the sellout crowd booed him.
While that kind of celebration would be tame by today’s standards — Newton, for instance, does an elaborate post-touchdown dance routine and finishes it off with the “Dab,” when he pretends to kiss his right forearm, as well as his signature Superman routine — Wright’s actions were considered highly controversial and were met with criticism from fans, opposing players, and sometimes his own coaches, who felt he was showing up the other team with his moves. Wright, who is African American, said there were many white fans who felt a black player shouldn’t be acting that way on the field.
“This was after 1968, the year Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated,” he said. “We had just integrated our team, and you can imagine playing against Georgia and Ole Miss. So when I started to dance, there was this mindset of a lot of people at the time, and my teammates were telling me, ‘You’re crazy. You’re going to get assassinated,’ ” said Wright, who lives in Houston. “That wasn’t the protocol. You were supposed to act like you’ve been there. But I was just so happy to score. It was the culmination of a lot of hard work.”
The beginnings of Wright’s end-zone celebrations actually began two years before that touchdown against Florida. As a freshman, he had suffered a fractured pinkie and couldn’t do any of the three things he loved — play football, play the saxophone or play the piano in church. He was also grieving the loss of his older brother, who was killed during the school year in a car accident.
“I thought my life was over,” Wright said. “When I went home for the summer, I realized the only thing I could do was run. We had this road in my hometown [of Brazoria, Texas], where there were these utility poles about 100 yards apart. So I would run the first 100 yards in a sprint, run backward the next hundred yards, then sideways, and then zig zag. I remember this was like the longest touchdown in history.”
The first time he ran, he passed the graveyard next to a church, where he saw a freshly dug grave. It was his brother.
“I looked over and could see it was a fresh grave, so even though I was tired, I was able to keep running past the church,” he said. “I kept going. I was grieving and crying, and at the end of the road, I stopped and came back.”
“I couldn’t catch, but I could run all day long,” he said. “I was in excellent shape, and I was doing more than anyone in college ball. That was 2 ½ miles out and 2 ½ miles back, and I did that three times a day.”
When he caught the ball on Tannen, he realized he had such strength in his legs, and that was the reason he was able to score the touchdown. By running in place, it was a Forrest Gump moment of sorts, where he simply kept on running even when the race was over.
“When I went down the sidelines, there was no one close to me, and I was just prancing down the sidelines,” he said. “People were booing me. It was unbelievable.”
He remembers thinking back to a book he’d been reading.
“We were studying ‘Don Quixote,’ and he saw things differently,” Wright said of the Spanish novel about a man who could barely distinguish fantasy from reality on his many adventures. “So when I was in the end zone, I was thinking the fans love me. They were throwing things at me, but I pretended as if they were throwing flowers. They had never seen anything like that. I was just so happy to be in the end zone, and I had so much conditioning in my legs, so that’s what I did.”
Wright wound up having a sensational career at Houston, and his 14 touchdowns in 1969 were tied for the most in college football. He was a first-round pick of the Chiefs in 1971, but injuries marred his NFL career, and he had just six touchdowns in four seasons with the Chiefs.
Other NFL players have since adopted a variety of touchdown celebrations, including Oilers wide receiver and kick returner Billy “White Shoes” Johnson, Cowboys wide receiver Butch Johnson, Falcons, 49ers, Cowboys and Washington cornerback Deion Sanders, who copied Wright’s high-step moves into the end zone, and now Newton, who is the first quarterback to celebrate his touchdowns with so many dance moves.
Wright sees the celebrations as an appropriate metaphor for success.
“What you do in your life, you should celebrate,” he said. “If you have a goal and you’re successful, why shouldn’t you celebrate? Cam Newton works so hard at what he does, and when he’s successful, he’s just showing how happy he is for achieving his goal. If you’ve overcome some sort of adversity, then it feels good to succeed. You pay the price, and you’ve earned the right.”
And that goes for the people closest to Wright. About 17 years ago, he attended the college graduation of his daughter, Eliza, at Barnard in New York. Wright was so overcome with emotion at watching her walk across the stage to get her diploma, he secretly wished she’d break into a dance. She didn’t, so he did.
“I just did a little sashay, almost like ‘the Twist,’” he said. “Tears were coming down my face. It was an amazing feeling. If you do something that’s worthwhile, why shouldn’t you dance?”