I come from a family of 8 — 4 boys and 4 girls. Because I showed much interest and passion in watching the NFL on TV during my formative years, my dad would sometimes take me to an NFL game. Living in Southeastern Wisconsin, we’d travel to the old County Stadium in Milwaukee to see our favorite team play.
The stadium built in 1953 and in my mind an outdoor cathedral that housed the Packers several games each year until 1994. The arrangement with my father began in the early 70s, which meant it was after the Ice Bowl while the Packers still had a strong brand but a weak team. Because we loved gridiron battles and living one hour south of Milwaukee and many more hours from Titletown, we appreciated the chance to view live pro football at a convenient venue even if they won fewer games than they lost.
Whether or not I attended games with my father, we still bonded over the NFL on TV, and in particular, the Packers from Titletown. Late in the 1970s, NFL players started to celebrate in a new way. When a touchdown or interception occurred, some players would raise their arm high and collide their hands together — the beginning of the high-five. Based on my Internet research, this celebration began in the fall of ’77. Being young and trendy, I thought it was cool, but then again, I thought many new trends and colorful celebrations were cool, especially if they deviated from authority figures at the time.
My father, who was quiet about his political beliefs, was into law and order and status quo government and didn’t show much love for this new celebration. Perhaps he thought it was showmanship and not good sportsmanship. He didn’t see the need — an excessive show of celebration. If you make a big play or score a touchdown, pat the player on the backside or a quick handshake. I would sometimes say under my breath, “Welcome to the new NFL.”
To find examples of good sportsmanship, my father would regularly mention Paul Hornung of the Packers or Jim Brown of the Cleveland Browns and how they celebrated. When Brown was scoring one of his 126 touchdowns during his career, he’d flip the pigskin to the referee after scoring 6 points. Act as if you’ve been there before I would hear repeatedly for those years.
Once the high-five gesture became more common in the NFL and NBA, it didn’t take too long to become a thing in most college sports. Soon thereafter, high school athletes got in the act, in fact, it was so popular that high school and college fans would high five each other after their team’s spectacular play. At the time, TV visually conveyed the cool celebration, and young viewers begin to emulate the high-five on a frozen pond, backyard alley, open field, or city street.
It wasn’t too long before this gesture was as common as getting a beer at an NFL game either brewed in St. Louis or Milwaukee. Not surprisingly, the high-five began to grate on my dad’s nerves. He would sometimes voice his displeasure and talk over the TV and sometimes he’d voice his displeasure merely by shaking his head.
As the gesture became omnipresent, he started to claim a player could jam his finger or hurt his hand during the high-five. This claim didn’t always occur; however, it was mentioned or implied enough for me to know he was dead serious about the potential result. I suspect he wanted it eliminated or controlled so he was trying to find fault with it. Being his son, I respected his opinion. At least for a while.
As this celebration continued, so did the response about jamming of the finger. Year after year, it didn’t occur. I didn’t realize (until several years later) that perhaps he had engaged in over dramatization. It’s statistically impossible to say there was never an injury due to a high five, but certainly not as common as he claimed over the years. In addition, one of those finger jams may not occur in the NBA or NFL, although it could occur in someone’s living room or on an intramural basketball court. From a cost-benefit perspective, it’s mostly a benefit to those fans and players during thrilling parts of the game — adding personality and entertainment.
Many years have passed and occasionally have a chance to catch an NFL game on TV with my father. Sometimes, in today’s game, players will use the high-five. When they do, I smile and mention his obsession about the finger jam issue that was talked about many decades ago and say, “Dad, I think it’s a good idea to avoid this as players could jam their fingers or hurt their hand.” When this is mentioned, he continues to be steadfast that injuries may still occur with this celebration.
I don’t have any sons but if I did, I’d certainly tell them this story. I’d also tell them that not all NFL touchdown or interception celebrations are the same. From dancing, dunking the football over the goal post, patting each other’s helmets, or giving the football to a young fan, to name a few.
I might argue there are two common celebrations today that may look benign on the surface — the hip-bump and chest-bump. However, these two celebrations pose a much greater health risk than the high-five or some of these other celebrations. Many receivers, running backs and defensive backs may celebrate a spectacular play by simultaneously jumping high after a sack or touchdown or hitting each other’s hips or chest in celebration. Often, these athletic players are easily 1-2 feet off the ground. Empirically, there have been some minor and major injuries associated with this celebration over the last 3-5 years; including several ACL or MCL injuries associated with this celebration or merely jumping in the air after sacking the QB. Look, it’s fun to see tremendous physical specimens leap off the ground and connect anatomies with their battle mate. However, from my arm chair quarterback perspective, these celebratory gestures may pose a greater player risk than most other celebrations.
So if I had a son or grandson and he asked me about the risk-reward scenario with different NFL celebrations, I’d deviate from what I heard some 35 years ago. High-fives are a fine way to celebrate a great play on the gridiron and even though there may be a slight risk to a hand or finger during that celebration, it’s highly unlikely to occur. However, in today’s NFL, when you see players engage in a chest-bump or hip-bump or individually jumping in the air, that would concern me more, especially as a general manager or coach of that respective team. I’d maybe recommend a little dancing, hugs, and verbal congratulations. And yes, high-fives would be encouraged as long as they were not 1-2 feet in the air.