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In 1989 the Saints lost to the 49ers 24-20 in a game in which San Francisco wide receiver Jerry Rice started one touchdown celebration at about the five-yard line and fumbled the ball before he crossed the goal line. The Niners hurried to kick the extra point before a replay could be signaled, and later Finks issued a memo to his team promising $100 to any player who counted to five before he spiked after a touchdown. When the Saints beat the Los Angeles Rams 40-21 two weeks later, Finks shelled out $200 for two delayed spikes by Dalton Hilliard, who was caught by TV cameras actually counting to five on his fingers after one touchdown.
"This is all such a trivial deal," says Elmo Wright, the little receiver who may have started all the high-steppin' in 1971, his rookie season with the Kansas City Chiefs. "But it sends a signal to the players: 'Don't ever forget. You are under our control.' "
In other words, "You've got to sit on them," says Bills coach Marv Levy. "There's a rule for a game, just as for some guy who works in an office where the company policy is you're supposed to wear a tie to work, and he should wear a tie to work. It takes a dumb player who tries to flout the rules, who tries to bring attention to himself with things other than how he plays. He does not win the public. He wins a very ignorant segment of the public. There's no one in the Hall of Fame for how well he danced."
Marv, meet Bruce Smith, the most dominant defender in the league, a crunch master of hot-dog histrionics who is as close to Gastineau in style as he may be to Canton in ability. Smith doesn't wear a tie to work. Oh, yeah, one other thing, Marv: He plays for your team. Helped get you to the Super Bowl and within two points of winning it. Got flagged for celebrating after he sacked the enemy quarterback for a safety. Sounded like a substantial segment of the Buffalo public went fairly nutso after Smith's ensuing dance. In different years, in fact, Smith has danced the "Pee-wee Herman" (an arms-flailing hop), "the Fred Sanford Sack Attack" (an imagined heart-attack stagger), "the Hammer" (a stomp 'n' strut a la M.C.) and on occasion "the Pose" (an arms-folded, enough's-enough, Yul Brynner/King of Siam prideful, upright, standstill pose).
"The league wants to do away with taunting?" Smith says. "Ninety-eight percent of this stuff is not taunting. Hey, we're football players. We're used to abuse. Plus, we like to watch other guys' stuff. Like Verdin's. I like that one."
A sixth-year wide receiver-punt returner out of Southwestern Louisiana, the Colts' Verdin is nicknamed CNN because he talks 24 hours a day. He led the NFL in punt return average last season and is currently fourth in league history in that department. Verdin's Verdance is patterned after Michael Jackson's moonwalk, which is to say it's a copy of former Dallas Cowboy and Denver Bronco receiver Butch Johnson's "Colorado Moonwalk," which Johnson created only after the NFL outlawed his "California Quake," a splay-legged, feigned twin pistols-shooting number, which was only the very best thing ever to happen to pro football, including, of course, Woods's only-a-mother-could-love Ickey Shuffle, which was initially permitted by the league—probably because the dance caused TV to realize there was something called the Cincinnati Bengals—then banned to the sidelines behind the bench and is now outlawed all the way out of the stadium.
If this seems confusing, imagine how Verdin feels. "I don't understand what all the fuss is over," says CNN, who has worked out an updated but unfortunately yet-to-be-named new dance step with the help of who else but M.C. Hammer his own self. "I mean, we're supposedly in the entertainment business, and all I'm trying to do is entertain. Hey, that's me. That's my attitude."
And what about the new threat of penalties? "That's what we've got [Colt kicker Dean] Biasucci for," Verdin says. "He can kick it another five yards."
CNN has thought about writing a letter to Tagliabue. "I was going to ask him if he would fine the fans or raise ticket prices if they start doing the wave or making too much noise," Verdin says. "As long as we're not taunting players—you know, sticking your finger in their face or kicking 'em in the butt when they're down—what's the problem?"
The problem began long after 1971, when Wright brought his end-zone drum-major high kicks to the Chiefs from the University of Houston, where after each of his then NCAA record 34 touchdowns he would slam the ball down so hard that the artificial surface in the Astrodome took on all the features of male-pattern baldness. Spiking the ball, as it came to be known, certainly was more exciting than flipping the ball to the official or just leaving it there on the ground, as the rule said—i.e., "touching it down," whence came the word, if you can believe this, touchdown.