Tales from the Vault: Of Meats and Men

Steve Seidman, Tales from the Vault

It’s summertime, and the living is queasy, especially if like most Americans, you’ve been eating too many hot dogs.  But as The Vault Keeper polishes off another plump, juicy frank and wipes away a smidgeon of mustard from his cheek, he serves up a survey of gridiron “hot dogs” – and argues that they’re just as enjoyable as the ones sizzling on the grill.

Let Me Be Frank

Some call them frankfurters. Others call them franks.  Then there are those who refer to them – usually not without snickering at some point – as wieners or weenies.  But for most of us, the cooked sausage that combines beef and pork is known as the hot dog.  It’s been estimated that Americans devour an average of 60 hot dogs per person annually.  While the number seems a tad high, it’s probably been inflated by the heroics of champion competitive eaters such as Joey Chestnut, who recently wolfed down 68 hot dogs in 10 minutes.

From foot longs to cocktail weenies, from Chicago-style dogs to Coney Island dogs, from Kosher to cured, Americans have always had a soft spot in their hearts (and a hardened spot in their arteries) for the humble hot dog.  A hot dog on a bun is such a recognizable part of America, that when President Franklin D. Roosevelt feted the visiting King and Queen of England with a picnic at Hyde Park in 1939, FDR made weenies the focal point of the menu.  The president did this because: a) he wanted to put America’s best foot long forward and b) he was aware that the hot dog is linked to our national identity.  That’s why they’ve been celebrated in cinema (who could forget HOT DOG: THE MOVIE?) and song, and song … and more song  In any case, hot dogs are largely associated with summertime and the majority of ‘em are eaten between Memorial and Labor Day.

Of course, after Labor Day, the NFL kicks into gear and “hot dog” takes on another connotation entirely.

Brat’s Entertainment

As a food product, hot dogs have largely been associated with baseball, but as a byproduct of human behavior, “hot dogs” are the provenance of the NFL.  Pre-game dancing and prancing, and post-play celebrations have become as fundamental to the sport as blocking and tackling.  The ability to gyrate and gesticulate aren’t measured at the scouting combine, but “hot dogging” is a key reason why the NFL is as much about entertainment as it is about athletic skill.  Your “Lambeau Leaps,” your “Mile High Salutes,” and your “Dirty Birds” are all trademarks of the modern NFL.

The term “hot dogging” refers to daring maneuvers aimed at the audience, and also to flamboyant, over the top displays of showing off or “show-boating.”  Surfers and skiers were probably the first athletes to personify the term.  You could make the case that if it wasn’t for “hot-dogging,” Extreme Sports wouldn’t exist, meaning ESPN would still be filling airtime with Australian Rules Football.

Certainly, there are hot dogs in other endeavors – the original Mercury 7 astronauts proudly referred to themselves as “hot dog pilots.”  As “The Me Generation” evolved during the 1970’s, and with the proliferation of paparazzi and tabloid culture, attention-grabbing came to include chest-thumping, fist-pumping, finger-pointing and an almost pathological need to stay in the spotlight for as long as possible.  Remember Jack Palance doing push-ups on stage after winning an Oscar for CITY SLICKERS? How about Kanye West doing anything?  What is THE JERSEY SHORE if not a bunch of people “hot dogging” for the camera?  George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” was rubbing it in, POTUS-style.  But President Bush can’t compare with certain fictional characters. Take Conan the Barbarian, as portrayed by Arnold Schwarzenegger. When Conan explains that his ideal battle scenario is “to crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women,” now that is rubbing it in.  Here, Conan reveals the heart of a Warrior – and the heart of a “hot dog.”

The origin of the term “hot dog” in relation to spotlight-grabbing remains unclear. Some trace it back to the turn of the 20th century phrase “putting on the dog” which was a slang expression for a showy dresser.  It doesn’t seem to have anything to do with the hot dog as a snack.  But it’s interesting to note that theatrical and movie actors who tend to over-emote on stage/screen have long been called “hams.”  (see Pacino, Al).  So, here we have two instances of “spotlight hogging” that relate to processed meat.  Why is this so?  Got me. But is it a coincidence? I think not.

The Tale: Swagging The Dog

To many NFL fans, “hot dogging” moments are spontaneous expressions of joy that lighten up a sport that relies on heavy hitting. But to the majority of pro football purists, most broadcasters and columnists, and virtually all crotchety old coots, these moments demonstrate bad sportsmanship and demean the integrity of the game. “Act like you’ve been there before” is a common criticism leveled at the end zone antics of pro football “hot dogs.”

Giants receiver Homer Jones is generally considered to be the first player to spike the ball after scoring a touchdown.  Think of Jones as the NFL’s Charles Feltman, who in 1867 opened up the first Coney Island hot dog stand.  Before Jones began spiking during the late 60’s, end zone celebrations were unheard of.  Fun-loving stars of the 50’s like Bobby Layne did their celebrating off the field, and the thought of milk-and-cookie straight arrows such as Raymond Berry and Otto Graham doing back flips in the end zone is too absurd to even contemplate.

After Homer Jones, spiking became standard practice, and eventually the spike evolved into more elaborate forms of end zone celebration.  Without question, Billy “White Shoes” Johnson was pro football’s pioneer of the post-touchdown par-tay.

“White Shoes” was to “hot dog” performance what Nathan Handwerker was to hot dog purveyance.  In 1916, Handwerker quit his job with Charles Feltman, and opened up Nathan’s Famous, Inc. Nathan’s went on to become the most famous hot dog brand in America.

Johnson was an exciting punt returner and a reliable receiver for the Oilers and Falcons.  He scored 25 touchdowns during a 13 year career that spanned the 70’s and 80’s, which meant that on the average of twice a season, the rubber-legged Johnson would perform his patented hip-shaking, knee-knocking end zone dance.  He called it “The Funky Chicken” (chicken and turkey became popular fillings for hot dogs as America became more health-conscious, but there is no known connection between “The Funky Chicken” and chicken franks).

There was little variation in Johnson’s repertoire. He did “act like he’d been there before” – because the last time he had been there, he had done exactly the same thing. Johnson’s gyrations perfectly mirrored the Disco Era, and “The Funky Chicken” was the first signature end zone celebration.  In its wake we’ve seen the Cowboys’ Butch Johnson firing his “Six Guns,” Philly’s Harold Carmichael “rolling dice,” “The Icky (Woods) Shuffle,” Detroit’s Johnny Morton doing “The Worm,” the Giants’ Victor Cruz’s performing “The Salsa Dance” and so many, many more.

My own favorite was Tight End David Hill, who played for the Lions and Rams from 1976 to 1987.  Hill was 6-2, 229 pounds, and a lot of that weight was “behind” him, if you catch my drift.  Hill’s end zone dance didn’t have a catchy name, but it was notable for the way he delayed the spike until he finished shaking his rather large, um, posterior.  You might say that Hill not only brought the hot dog – he also supplied the buns.  Moreover, Hill’s signature moves helped bring end zone dancing into the MTV era, as footage of his rump-tastic routine was featured in the sports-themed Dire Straits video, “Walk of Life.”

Right Up In Your Grill

Jets pass rusher Mark Gastineau was probably the first defensive “hot dog.”  In 1981, one year before the quarterback sack became an official NFL statistic, Gastineau started dancing after dropping the opposing signal-caller.  Gastineau basically did little more than spin around while waving one arm in the air, yet his whirling and twirling antics drew heavy criticism along the lines of “act like you’ve crushed a quarterback before.”

When I edited the 1981 Jets highlight film, my first cut featured a 30 second segment consisting of various quickly edited shots of Gastineau doing his post-sack thing.  Of course, I thought this bit of montage was pure “move over, Spielberg” genius, but the Jets President of Football Operations, who had been a long-time NFL executive, didn’t agree.  When he watched the rough cut, he politely suggested, “take that s**t out of the film.”  What can I say?  The man was old school.  So was Rams’ Hall of Fame Offensive Tackle Jackie Slater.  During a 1983 Rams-Jets game at Shea Stadium, Slater found Gastineau’s dance so distasteful that he shoved the Jets pass rusher in mid-twirl, precipitating a massive bench-clearing brawl.

Gastineau’s rather primitive celebration paved the way for more creative defensive “hot dogging.”  Dolphins lineman Mike Charles, although barely remembered today, busted a move that was pure genius.  He called it “The Levitator,” and it featured Charles standing over a prone passer while waving his outstretched his arms as if trying to raise the dead, voodoo-style.  Other notable defensive celebrations: 49ers Linebacker Ken Norton paying tribute to his boxer father by landing a flurry of punches on the nearest goalpost, Eagles linebacker Jeromiah Trotter and his post-sack “Ax Man” swing, and 49ers defensive back Merton Hanks’ “Chicken Neck Dance,” which isn’t to be confused with the “Chicken Dance” performed by Deion Sanders, who stands as a Herculean figure in “hot dog” history.

What’s The Wurst That Could Happen?

Hot dogs present a choking hazard, especially for the small fry.  I wouldn’t say that hot dog packages should have a Hazmat symbol emblazoned on them, but their size and shape makes them tough to eject from the windpipe.  So, a certain amount of caution is required when sitting down to a hot dog feast.

Choking is also a danger for NFL “hot dogs.”  Putting too much mustard on a “hot dog” move is poor form, and injury is often the result.  Cardinals Placekicker Bill Gramatica leapt high in the air and pumped his arm after a successful field goal attempt.  But it all came to a bad end when Gramatica landed awkwardly and suffered a torn ACL.  To add insult to (literally) injury, the kick wasn’t even a game-winning field goal.  It happened in the, um, first quarter, actually.  Gramatica had not acted like he’d been there before, and for the remainder of his brief NFL career, he definitely never went there again.

Leon Lett, DeSean Jackson, and Plaxico Burress are among the most noted “hot dog” chokes.  For generations to come, no Football Follies film will be complete without footage of their classic blunders of premature “hot dogging.”


Best in Show

Curiously, America lacks a national Hot Dog Hall of Fame, although there seems to be one that’s in its gestation stage.   Meanwhile, there are several restaurants across this great land of ours that are named the Hot Dog Hall of Fame.  Then there’s The Corner Bar in Rockford, Michigan that boasts a Hot Dog Hall of Fame established in 1968. This HOF includes over 5,000 members – Corner Bar patrons like the woman who ate 42 and ½ chili dogs in four hours.  It was a record that stood for 23 years – an era of innocence that predated the rise of competitive eaters, who incidentally, participate in the Corner Bar’s chili-dog competition, which happens to be the only one of its kind.

While there is of course, a Pro Football Hall of Fame, of course, there is not as yet a Pro Football “Hot Dog” Hall of Fame.  When they finally get around to building one, I offer the following three players for consideration as charter members.

1)Billy “White Shoes” Johnson  –Take “The Funky Chicken,” the eponymous footwear, and the trademark goggles, and you’ve got a guy who had the perfect persona to popularize the end zone celebration.  Johnson was so cool, that when Kool and the Gang performed their hit, “Celebration,” “White Shoes” could have been in The Gang.  Heck, the dude could have replaced “Kool.”

2)Steve Smith — Not content with mere dancing after a TD, the Panthers’ wide receiver developed such mini-skits as “Paddling the Boat,” “The Sword Fight,” “Sliding Down the Fire Pole,” and above all, “Changing the Diaper.”  These bits transcend “hot dogging” and should be considered classic examples of comic pantomime.  Sure, Chad Ochocinco and Terrell Owens had their moments of “hot dog” hilarity, but c’mon,“Changing the Diaper?” That one alone puts Smith in Charlie Chaplin territory.

3) Deion Sanders — No one who ever high-stepped into the end zone stepped higher or more flamboyantly than Deion, perhaps the flashiest player whoever “hot dogged” in the NFL. The do-rag, the jeri-curls, “The Chicken Dance,” and then, of course, “The Deion Shuffle” (which was light years ahead of the somewhat awkward “Ickey Shuffle”)…..these all established Deion as a “hot dog” to relish.  Deion’s natural flair for entertaining led to a gig hosting “Saturday Night Live”.  Consider this: if a “Hot Dog” Hall of Fame somehow opened tomorrow, Deion would be the only member who’s also in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. ‘Nuff said.

Administering Last Bites

Our ode to hot dogs and “hot dogs” wouldn’t be complete without an important distinction: in the course of an NFL game, there are those who are “hot dogs” but there are also those who eat hot dogs.  Baseball immortal Babe Ruth was reputed to have once eaten 24 hot dogs between a double-header.  But there are no reports of him ever eating hot dogs on the field.  In the NFL, Dallas Head Coach Barry Switzer, Cowboys Quarterback Troy Aikman and Jets signal-caller Mark Sanchez are among those who were sighted munching down a tasty dog while a game was in progress.  But perhaps no player ever displayed his hot dog love more fervently than Wide Receiver Carl Pickens.

Pickens was known for pestering the Bengals equipment manager for in-game hot dog delivery, and when NFL Films interviewed him at his home a few years ago, Pickens had an actual hot dog stand regulation grill in his kitchen. The highest compliment that can be paid to Pickens is this: no matter where the man ate his hot dogs, he always acted like he had been there before.

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