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The Evolution Of Officials Signaling Touchdowns
Unfamiliar actions pop up from time to time when watching vintage football game films. One of those instances arose the other day when David Kinder II of WKYC in Cleveland spotted officials using unusual signals in a YouTube showing several Ohio State touchdowns in 1957. The video appears later in this story, but I had come across similar examples in the past, researched their meaning, and came up empty. This time I figured it out.
An example of this signal occurs at the end of an 8-second video posted on Twitter by Old Football Film. Watch the 1950s Texas fullback score on a 4-yard run and notice the signal given by the Head Linesman wearing the white hat who emerges in the lower left of the video. The Head Linesman appears to signal a first down as the fullback crosses the goal line.
A second example comes from a 10-second video posted by Old Football Film in which a 1950s SMU team completes a pass followed by a lateral and score. As in the first video, a Southwest Conference official wearing the Southwest Football Officials Association's unique uniform makes a similar arm-extending motion as the ball carrier crosses the goal line.
What are these officials doing? The answer lies in understanding that officiating has evolved with the rest of the game, including how officiating crews signal the scoring of touchdowns.
The earliest signal for a touchdown followed the procedure for a rugby try. The referee raised one arm above his head, using the other hand to point to the spot where the ball crossed the goal line. Pointing to that spot was vital since it defined the location from which the scoring team could walk the ball onto the field to attempt the goal after touchdown or attempt a puntout.
Regular readers know I enjoy inserting Dad-joke humor into my story titles, and one of my favorite examples of that came with the story When Football Officials Tooted on the Field. The article describes how football officials adopted whistles in 1887 and began using them to signal the end of plays and the occurrence of penalties. The fact that officials blew their whistles for two reasons led to confusion on the field. By the early 1900s, the rule makers recommended that only the referee use a whistle and the other officials use horns or bells as their signaling device. That became a formal rule in 1924 and continued in college football until the 1950s, so you can spot officials carrying horns on the field in period images.
While crews largely followed that horn or bell rule, many aspects of officiating mechanics varied until states and regions formed officials' organizations in the 1920s. Those organizations developed standards, trained officials, and assigned them to games based on their experience and effectiveness. Still, the regional nature of these organizations meant there were differences in mechanics by region, for the same reason the officials' shirts differed by region. In addition, football did not have a consistent penalty and other signals until the late 1920s to mid-1930s, and the conferences' supervisors of officials sometimes prescribed crew mechanics that differed by conference.
Against all that background was a related issue: the referee was the king of the officiating crew. He blew the whistle to stop play, he signaled when the clock started and stopped, and only he determined whether a touchdown was scored. However, since the referee stood behind the offensive backs at the start of the play, he was not always in a position on the field to see whether a player stepped out of bounds, caught a forward, or crossed the goal line. He relied on other crew members to provide him with relevant and timely information about what they saw on the field. One way crews communicated was by hand signals. This issue came up in a 1943 article about a long-time referee who did not award a touchdown on a disputed play:
Bill was referee in that game and some years later, believing that plays inside the two-yard line should be checked by more than one man, a rule was passed in the Eastern, Southern, Southwestern, Missouri Valley, and Southeastern Conferences that the head linesman and field judge should be abreast of any play occurring from the two-yard line in and that they must signal a score by raising one arm. The referee thereupon either approves the signal by raising two arms or denies it by refraining from the scoring signal.
The Western Conference [Big Ten], Pacific Coast Conference, and Rocky Mountain Conference adhere to the old custom.
Perry, Lawrence, 'For The Game's Sake,' Time-Tribune (Scranton, PA), September 4, 1943.
(Note that the names and roles of officiating crew members have changed as crews have grown due to the influence of the passing game. The line judge now handles the part of the 1940s field judge.)
The conferences were inconsistent over time in whether or not the other crew members signaled to the referee and in the signal they used. As the earlier video shows, some signaled the referee by extending a level arm into the end zone. This practice is seen in the image below from a 1957 Big Ten game where one official extends his arm into the end zone while the referee signals the TD.
Others performed the same function using a different signal. They raised one arm directly overhead, signaling that the ball was dead since it had broken the goal line's plane.
Additional instances of officials signaling touchdowns using the level arm approach can be seen in the 1957 Ohio State video mentioned previously. The signals can be seen in the two-minute and nineteen-second video after plays starting at the 0:26, 1:23, and 2:07 marks.
It is also worth noting that some conferences allowed the field judge to use a whistle in the 1940s to stop downfield plays such as long passes and punts. The 1953 NCAA rule book indicated that the other officials could carry and use whistles to stop play provided their conference or regional authority provided permission to do so.
Of course, the entire officiating crew uses whistles during games today and gives the preliminary touchdown signal. Still, the touchdown does not become official until the referee and the replay booth confirm the touchdown.
Also, thanks to Darrin Hayes of PigskinDispatch.com and a former high school official for clarifying elements of the dead ball signal.
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