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After 33 years, the ‘Ickey Shuffle’ is coming back to the Super Bowl

As the Bengals prepare for their first NFL title game appearance since 1989, memories of Ickey Woods’ famous touchdown dance have returned as well

Elbert “Ickey” Woods congratulated winning quarterback Joe Burrow with a heartfelt bear hug and handshake moments after the Cincinnati Bengals defeated the Kansas City Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game on Jan. 30. And after the exchange, almost on cue, Burrow did a brief rendition of one of the most famous celebrations in sports history.

“He wasn’t even born when the ‘Ickey Shuffle’ came out,” said Woods, choreographer and creator of one of the NFL’s most familiar touchdown dances. “It’s lived on. It lived a good life, and I’d never in my wildest dreams thought that something I did more than 30 years ago would still be relevant to this day. And I’m still enjoying it.”

Early in the 1988 season during the Bengals’ last Super Bowl run, Woods was a rookie running back. He created a dance while joking around with his family, who begged him not to go public with it. Many of his teammates shared the same sentiments.

Despite the protest, a new craze was born.

“You play the game to have fun, and not being able to celebrate is crazy,” said Woods, who got the nickname “Ickey” as an infant because his older brother couldn’t pronounce his first name. “Now the NFL has lightened up because they realize this is entertainment.”

Before Woods’ meteoric rise as a rookie with the Bengals, he led the nation in rushing in 1987 with more than 1,600 yards for UNLV. Even before the Bengals selected him in the second round of the 1988 NFL draft and he had success on the field, Woods became known for his five-inch Jheri curl ponytail.

In 1988, a young Black man from Fresno, California, with an Ice Cube-esque hairstyle was not common in the Midwest. But then-Bengals owner Paul Brown didn’t care.

“He told me I could wear my ponytail as long as I kept scoring touchdowns,” Woods said.

And he did.

Cincinnati Bengals running back Ickey Woods carries the ball while being pursued by San Francisco 49ers linebacker Keena Turner (left) during Super Bowl XXIII on Jan. 22, 1989, at Joe Robbie Stadium in Miami.

Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Woods finished his rookie season with 1,066 yards and 15 touchdowns in 16 regular-season games. He averaged more than five yards per carry, and his rushing touchdowns in the regular season remain the most in franchise history.

Former Bengals safety Solomon Wilcots emphasized how Woods not only brought productivity and talent to the roster, but also a likable personality that was so infectious that even the stoic Brown loosened up.

“One day, Paul Brown came into the locker room and told Ickey how much he didn’t like the Ickey Shuffle, but he OK’d it because his wife liked it,” said Wilcots, who hosts The Opening Drive show on SiriusXM NFL Radio. “This is the same man who coined the phrase ‘Act like you’ve been there before’ when you score a touchdown, and give the referee the football after you score.

“So later in his life, he gives Ickey his blessing to do that Ickey dance. If you can win Paul Brown over, you know you did something right.”

On Oct. 9, 1988, Woods rushed for 139 yards and two touchdowns against the New York Jets, and the “Ickey Shuffle” was officially born.

Woods said he did variations of the dance earlier in the season, but after consulting with teammate Rickey Dixon, the dance went something like this: while switching the football back and forth in each hand, two hop steps to the right, two hop steps to the left and back to the right like a pogo stick, followed by spiking the ball.

“When he showed [some of us], I said, ‘Don’t you dare do that, please don’t do that,’ ” Wilcots said. “I told him, ‘You’re going to embarrass yourself and then embarrass me because I’m your boy and I’m not going to let you go out like that.’ But he went ahead and did it.”

The shuffle became such a hit that T-shirts were made and even a milkshake called the “Ickey Shake” was created to honor the dance. Today, the shuffle has even grown into an agility ladder drill.

“When he showed [some of us], I said, ‘Don’t you dare do that, please don’t do that.’”

— Former Bengals safety Solomon Wilcots

The Ickey Shuffle became so popular that the NFL initially banned the celebration as taunting. But the league quickly relented, allowing celebrations if not done in the end zone. So Woods took to performing his shuffle behind the team bench for Bengals fans.

“And our fans got more of a rush out of it with me doing it from behind the bench anyway. So I was good with it,” Woods said. “But it’s just another example of how things have changed since then.”

Some things remain the same, especially in recent years when a new generation of fans learned about the Ickey Shuffle from a Geico commercial in 2014.

“I was able to get a commercial with my mom doing it and I was able to get my own commercial with Geico,” Woods said. “And every time I do something out in the world, people want me to shuffle. I’m going to schools and teaching a new generation of kids how to shuffle.”

Woods will join the Bengals at Super Bowl LVI against the Los Angeles Rams at SoFi Stadium. Cincinnati’s return to the big game is celebratory for Woods, but it’s also bittersweet because he can’t share the moment with his son, Jovante, who died at age 16 in 2010 due to an asthma attack following a high school football practice.

Jovante’s death inspired Woods to create the Jovante Woods Foundation to raise money for awareness, research and even organ donations tied to asthma.

“Any time you lose a child, it’s devastating and indescribable emotionally,” said Tim McGee, a former Bengals teammate of Woods’. “But I’m superproud of his focus and dedication to raising awareness and funds for Jovante’s foundation in his memory.”

Unknown to Woods at the time, his son listed himself as an organ and tissue donor on his license. Not only have Jovante’s heart, liver and kidneys helped four people live, but his soft tissue and bone allowed cancer patients to regain use of limbs.

“We received heartfelt letters from some of the families that have accepted his organs,” Woods said. “They thanked him for helping their loved ones extend their lives. What Jovante did makes me feel proud.

“He loved the Bengals because I played for them. He’s probably in heaven smiling down at the guys, and hopefully we can get this victory and complete this thing.”

CBS Sports’ Jim Nantz (left) gives the Lamar Hunt trophy to former Cincinnati Bengals running back Elbert “Ickey” Woods after the AFC Championship Game on Jan. 30 at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City, Missouri.

Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Like this year’s Bengals, the 1988 team went from worst in the division the previous season to a division title and AFC championship. Woods believes this new generation of Bengals has much in common with the last Cincinnati team to advance to the Super Bowl, but also recognizes several differences.

“Our team was fortunate to have home-field advantage throughout the playoffs,” Woods said. “These guys had one home game, and two on the road against the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds, and beat them to advance to the Super Bowl.

“This is a great team, with all of their major pieces with less than five years of experience. I’m looking forward to this team doing some great things for the next 10 to 15 years.”

Branson Wright is a filmmaker and freelance multimedia sports reporter.