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NFL Traditions We Love

Deep Dive

Football is back, baby. And today, in honor of the 32 teams across the U.S., we’re breaking down some of the best (and weirdest) traditions.

September 12, 2021
SOURCE: AP
SOURCE: AP

QUOTE OF THE DAY

We could call it the Terrible Towel...Yes. And I can go on radio and television proclaiming, “The Terrible Towel is poised to strike!”

— The late Myron Cope, discussing his idea for the now iconic “Terrible Towel,” a staple among Pittsburgh Steelers fans. Boy, did the radio host’s idea strike.

💦 Gatorade showers

SOURCE: AP PHOTO/ELISE AMENDOLA

As a coach in the NFL, you haven’t truly won a big game until you’ve been soaked in a bath of flavored electrolytes. Gatorade showers aren’t unique to one particular team, and they aren’t unique to football anymore either, but they remain a popular NFL tradition. The bigger the game, the bigger the bath.

While there are differing opinions about when the tradition began, the New York Giants popularized the trend in the '80s. It began in 1984, when defensive tackle Jim Burt received criticism from head coach Bill Parcells before one of their biggest games against the Washington Football Team.

  • After the squad pulled off a 37–13 victory, Burt surprised Parcells with a Gatorade shower in response to his harsh coaching leading up to the game, a gesture of cold revenge.
  • His teammate, Harry Carson, was his accomplice and continued the baths in celebration after each Giants win from that point on, including their Super Bowl XXI championship in 1987.

The tradition has been so cemented into football culture that gamers can even dunk their coach in some Madden video games. And we can’t forget one of the most popular Super Bowl prop bets: the color of the Gatorade poured over the winning coach. Hint: orange is a good guess.

💛🖤 The Terrible Towel

SOURCE: ASSOCIATED PRESS

Possibly the best-known tradition in the NFL, the Pittsburgh Steelers’ Terrible Towel, or the “luckiest towel in sports,” first appeared in 1975 thanks to the aforementioned Cope.

  • In an effort to excite fans at Three Rivers Stadium and “soak up the competition,” Cope waved a yellow dish towel from his radio booth during a playoff game against the Baltimore (now Indianapolis) Colts.
  • Cope encouraged fans to bring towels of their own to the game too, and when they all began waving their yellow rally rags, the Steelers produced big plays, resulting in a 28–10 victory. And thus, the magic of the towel began.

The Black and Gold had a great season that year, making it all the way to Super Bowl X, where the team provided fans with specially printed towels that read: “Myron Cope’s Official Terrible Towel.” Sure enough, the fans waved and the Steelers performed, securing a 21–17 victory over the Dallas Cowboys, all “thanks to the Towel.”

  • Superstition soon followed as opposing teams or players that dared disrespect the towel become subject to its “curse.” In 2008, the Tennessee Titans felt the wrath of the Terrible Towel after a group of players stomped on one after beating Pittsburgh.
  • Tennessee went on to lose their next two games, just barely missing a chance at playing in Super Bowl XLIII. Who did make it to the Super Bowl that year? You guessed it, the Steelers. Oh, and they won, no less. Spooky.

The towel’s magic continues today. In 2010, Pittsburgh began inviting a celebrity to do a “Terrible Towel Twirl” before kickoff at each home game, and many recognizable names have had the honor, including Channing Tatum and Wiz Khalifa. Black and yellow, black and yellow.

🧀 Lambeau Leap

SOURCE: MATT FLYNN/ASSOCIATED PRESS

At Lambeau Field — home of the Green Bay Packers — there’s only one appropriate touchdown celebration: the Lambeau Leap. It all began in 1993 when LeRoy Butler launched himself into the stands after he scored his first career NFL touchdown.

Today, seats in the “Jump Zone” are the most coveted in the stadium. But players who jump often have less than ideal experienceswith fans. Some have been covered in beer, ketchup, popcorn and in true Wisconsin fashion, even cheese curds.

  • Worst of all, there have been reports of inappropriate touching by unruly fans. Um, not okay.
  • Also, the leap is actually pretty high, with most of the wall around 6 feet tall. Imagine scoring a touchdown and then making a jump like that...

The NFL cracked down on excessive touchdown celebrations in the early 2000s and has consistently made changes to the rules since. But, lucky for Packers fans, the Lambeau Leap was grandfathered into the rules, allowing for the tradition to continue.

  • In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, the first six to eight rows of seating in every stadium were off limits to fans last year, making the leap at Lambeau Field impossible in order to protect players and fans alike.
  • NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has said he expects stadiums to be at full capacity, but with the Delta variant and a handful of unvaccinated players on the roster, maybe this tradition can wait another year.

💙💚 The 12s

SOURCE: MARK J. REBILAS-USA TODAY SPORTS

The Seattle Seahawks’ first stadium in the late '70s was the Kingdome, a concrete-covered facility that echoed with the cheers of fans for the home team. In preparation, visiting teams trained with special noise systems in an attempt to mimic the loud rumble experienced during games.

  • Seattle fans quickly earned themselves a reputation as some of the loudest in the league.

In a tribute to the fans and their vocal support, in 1984 Seahawks president Mike McCormack retired the No. 12 jersey. The number symbolized the “extra player” (the fans in the stands) that contributed to every Seahawks win.

  • In a 2005 battle with the NY Giants at the Seahawks’ new home, Qwest Field, the 12s created so much noise that the Giants’ offense couldn't hear their play calls, forcing 11 false start penalties.
  • The Giants’ kicker also seemed to be affected by the crowd, missing three game-winning field goal attempts, and the Giants lost in overtime. Oof.

In 2011, the 12s turned the volume even higher during a battle with the then-reigning Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints. During a game-winning 67-yard touchdown run by Marshawn Lynch, eruptions from the stands registered as a 1-to-2 range magnitude earthquake. Can’t make this sh!t up.

Before every home game, the Seahawks invite one person — a celebrity, beloved community member or former player — to hoist a number 12 flag. So special.

🦃 🍽 Thanksgiving Day

SOURCE: TIM FULLER/USA TODAY SPORTS/REUTERS

Dating all the way back to the league’s inception in 1920, the oldest tradition in the NFL is the annual Thanksgiving Day game. Since 1934, the Detroit Lions have always played on the holiday in November, only missing the tradition due to World War II between 1939 and 1944.

  • The Turkey Day contest tradition for Detroit began as an effort to attract more fans and, with network ties at NBC, owner George A. Richards solidified the slot for the Lions.

Not long after, in 1966, the Dallas Cowboys joined the Thanksgiving Day club when general manager Tex Schramm took a page out of Richards’ book and sought out a way to get more national attention and more fans in the stands for “America’s Team.”

  • Most NFL teams have now played on Thanksgiving against either the Lions or the Cowboys, but the two squads have become synonymous with Turkey Day. Gobble gobble.

🔵🔴 Bills Mafia

SOURCE: MICHAEL F. MCELROY/ESPN

One of the newer traditions in the NFL, Bills Mafia has already made its mark. As some of the most committed fans in football, Bills supporters have endured a lot. After four consecutive Super Bowl appearances in the 1990’s, the squad hasn’t seen similar success for a while, but their support system has only gotten stronger.

  • The name may be misleading, but the “Mafia” has no relation to illegal activity. The term instead points to the lifelong commitment it is to be a fan of the Bills and their legacy of defending “the family.”

In November 2010, Bills fans came to the defense of wide receiver Stevie Johnson after he dropped an important pass during a game against the Steelers. Stevie tweeted about the drop and received criticism from ESPN’s Adam Schefter.

  • Crowds of online Bills fans, defending their family, responded to Schefter with criticism of their own. Thus the Mafia was born.
  • With this year looking bright for Buffalo, will the Mafia get the chance to cheer their beloved Bills on to a Super Bowl win?