On Saturday night, a pair of college football players celebrated touchdowns prematurely, dropping the pigskin just before they crossed the goal line. The fling-the-ball-away-before-reaching-the-end-zone move has become a gridiron epidemic in recent years, or perhaps high-definition television and slow-motion replay have at last allowed us to see the balls that have been dropping around us all this time.
Below, I’ve collected every play I could find in which a guy released the ball in a celebratory pre-end-zone manner. Some methodological notes: I did not include, for instance, Florida State running back Dalvin Cook’s recent fumble against Ole Miss, which was embarrassing and happened near the end zone but did not happen as a result of premature celebration. I also did not include the time when Plaxico Burress spiked a live ball and other similar plays; while awesome, Burress’ move was not end-zone adjacent and thus does not count for these purposes.
As of this moment, I’ve collected 35 of these plays and have video/GIF evidence of 31 of them. In 34 of the plays, a player drops the ball on his way in to the opponent’s end zone. What’s the outlier? Read on to find out.
If I missed a play, or if you can track down one of the videos I can’t find, send me an email.
Update, Sept. 20, 2016: I’ve added four more examples sent in by readers: the St. Louis Cardinals’ Pat Tilley in 1985, the San Francisco 49ers’ Jerry Rice in 1989, Nebraska’s Calvin Jones in 1992, and the Green Bay Packers’ Sterling Sharpe in 1992. I’ve also updated the numbers throughout to reflect the new dropped touchdown total.
Update, Sept. 26, 2016: Added one more example: Alabama’s Mark Barron in 2009.
Update, Oct. 29, 2016: Added Oregon's Pharaoh Brown.
Update, Nov. 27, 2016: Added Missouri's Ish Witter.
Update, Dec. 2, 2017: Added Florida Atlantic's John Franklin III.
Update, Sept. 8, 2018: Added Georgia’s Deandre Baker.
Date: Sept. 8, 2018
Player: Georgia cornerback Deandre Baker
Play: Originally ruled a touchdown and stayed a touchdown. Not reviewed by officials, because Baker’s teammate Juwan Taylor picked the ball up for a touchdown.
Did Georgia's Deandre Baker drop this early? pic.twitter.com/jaqmXWV9gq— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) September 8, 2018
Outcome: Georgia beat South Carolina 41-17.
Date: Dec. 2, 2017
Player: Florida Atlantic quarterback John Franklin III
Play: Originally ruled a touchdown. After official review, the referees determined Franklin dropped the ball before reaching the end zone and North Texas recovered for a touchback.
John Franklin III just dropped the ball before crossing the goal line for FAU and then celebrated a lot. Lmao pic.twitter.com/pULug3rx7o— Dr. Saturday (@YahooDrSaturday) December 2, 2017
Outcome: Florida Atlantic beat North Texas 41-17.
Date: Nov. 25, 2016
Player: Missouri running back Ish Witter
Play: Originally ruled a touchdown and stayed a touchdown. Though Witter dropped the ball before he crossed the goal line, his teammate J’Mon Moore recovered it in the end zone.
Player at Mizzou dropped ball like DeSean Jackson type celebration then teammate happened to pick it up--scored touchdown pic.twitter.com/h0dDdy6oKe— Field Gulls (@FieldGulls) November 25, 2016
Outcome: Missouri beat Arkansas 28-24.
Date: Oct. 29, 2016
Player: Oregon tight end Pharaoh Brown
Play: Originally ruled a touchdown and stayed a touchdown. The play was not reviewed by officials despite the fact Brown appeared to drop the ball on the 1-yard line.
Outcome: Oregon beat Arizona State 54-35.
Date: Sept. 17, 2016
Player: Cal running back Vic Enwere
Play: Originally ruled a touchdown. After an official review, the referee said incorrectly that there was no immediate recovery by the defense; in reality, a Texas player picked the ball up within a couple of seconds. Cal was awarded the ball on the 1-yard line.
Outcome: Cal beat Texas 50-43.
Date: Sept. 17, 2016
Player: Oklahoma kick returner Joe Mixon
Play: Originally ruled a touchdown and stayed a touchdown. The play was not reviewed by officials despite the fact Mixon clearly dropped the ball on the 1-yard line. Fox broadcasters were also very slow to notice that Mixon let the ball go.
Outcome: Mixon’s Sooners lost to Ohio State 45-24.
Date: Sept. 17, 2016
Player: South Carolina State kick returner Ahmaad Harris
Play: The outlier! This one doesn’t quite fit, but it’s too amazing not to include. Harris caught a kickoff in the end zone, flipped the ball to the ref without taking a knee, and watched as Clemson recovered the ball for a touchdown. Whoops.
Outcome: South Carolina State lost to Clemson 59-0.
Date: Sept. 10, 2016
Player: Clemson punt returner Ray-Ray McCloud
Play: Originally ruled a touchdown. After official review, the referees determined McCloud dropped the ball before reaching the end zone and Troy recovered for a touchback. Given his experience, McCloud told reporters on September 17 that he had the life experience to console Ahmaad Harris. (See above.)
Outcome: Clemson beat Troy 30-24.
Date: Oct. 24, 2015
Player: William & Mary running back Kendell Anderson
Play: An all-time great, because Anderson dropped the ball in a celebratory manner at the 4-yard line. The ball went through the end zone for a touchback.
Outcome: It didn’t matter, because William & Mary beat Hampton 40-7.
Date: Jan. 12, 2015
Player: Oregon wide receiver/running back Byron Marshall
Play: Originally ruled a touchdown and stayed a touchdown. After official review, referees determined Marshall held on to the ball just long enough for this to count as a touchdown. Marshall made history here, as this was the first-ever celebratory almost-not-quite-a-touchdown in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game.
Outcome: Marshall’s Ducks lost to Ohio State 42-20.
Date: Nov. 8, 2014
Player: Utah wide receiver Kaelin Clay
Play: The most amazing dropped ball boner of all time. Clay caught a long pass against Oregon for what looked like a touchdown. The ESPN announcers called it a touchdown and the cameras focused on the celebratory Utah crowd. Meanwhile, Oregon’s Joe Walker was running up the sideline. Clay, it turned out, had dropped the ball, Walker picked it up, and the Oregon player ran it back for a touchdown of his own. Amazingly, the official on the goal line saw it all the way and called the play correctly. The Oregon touchdown was upheld on review.
Outcome: Clay’s Utah Utes lost to Oregon 51-27.
Date: Oct. 4, 2014
Player: Mississippi State wide receiver Fred Brown
Play: Originally ruled a touchdown and stayed a touchdown. Not reviewed by officials, though Brown dropped the ball before crossing the goal line. Please enjoy the video evidence below via the lowest-quality clip in the history of YouTube.
Outcome: Mississippi State beat Texas A&M 48-31.
Date: Aug. 30, 2014
Player: Oregon wide receiver/running back Byron Marshall
Play: Originally ruled a touchdown. After official review, referees determined Marshall dropped the ball too soon and gave possession to South Dakota because the ball went out of bounds in the end zone. The astute reader will note that Marshall somehow did this twice in the same season. (See the national championship game above.)
Outcome: Oregon beat South Dakota 62-13.
Date: Jan. 1, 2014
Player: Iowa safety John Lowdermilk
Play: Originally ruled an interception for a touchdown. After official review, referees determined Lowdermilk tossed the ball away before crossing the goal line. Since the ball just sat there in the end zone and nobody picked it up, the refs awarded the ball to Iowa at the spot where Lowdermilk released it. Iowa would score a touchdown three plays later.
Outcome: Iowa lost to LSU in the Outback Bowl 21-14.
Date: Nov. 30, 2013
Player: USC running back Javorius Allen
Play: Originally ruled a touchdown and stayed a touchdown. Not reviewed by officials, though Allen likely dropped the ball before crossing the goal line.
Outcome: USC lost to UCLA 35-14.
Date: Sept. 12, 2013
Player: Texas Tech running back DeAndre Washington
Play: Originally ruled a touchdown. After official review, referees determined Washington dropped the ball before reaching the end zone. As there was no clear recovery by the defense, Texas Tech retained the ball and subsequently scored a touchdown.
Outcome: Washington’s Red Raiders would go on to beat TCU 20-10.
Date: Sept. 5, 2013
Player: Denver Broncos linebacker Danny Trevathan
Play: Trevathan ran back an interception of the Ravens’ Joe Flacco for an almost-touchdown but dropped the ball at the 1-yard line. The ball went out of the end zone for a touchback. Miraculously, the referees got this call right in real time. Way to go, refs!
Outcome: Trevathan’s Broncos won 49-27.
Date: Dec. 1, 2012
Player: Kansas State cornerback Nigel Malone
Play: Originally ruled an interception for a touchdown. After official review, referees determined Malone dropped the ball before reaching the end zone. As there was no clear recovery, Kansas State was awarded the ball and subsequently scored a touchdown.
Outcome: Kansas State beat Texas 42-24.
Date: Nov. 11, 2012
Player: Denver Broncos punt returner Trindon Holliday
Play: Originally ruled a touchdown and stayed a touchdown. Not reviewed by officials, though Holliday likely dropped the ball before crossing the goal line.
Outcome: Denver beat Carolina 36-14.
Date: Dec. 3, 2011
Player: LSU punt returner Tyrann Mathieu
Play: Originally ruled a touchdown and stayed a touchdown. Not reviewed by officials, though slow-motion replay showed Mathieu probably flipped the ball to the ref before crossing the goal line.
Outcome: LSU won the SEC Championship Game 42-10, with the Honey Badger single-handedly destroying Georgia.
Date: Sept. 24, 2011
Player: Oklahoma State wide receiver Justin Blackmon
Play: This one is borderline. Blackmon lost the ball as he cruised into the end zone, fumbling it out of bounds for a touchback. Was he celebrating too soon? Maybe. But he didn’t drop the pigskin intentionally, which makes this more akin to Dalvin Cook’s accidental fumble than any other play on this list.
Outcome: Oklahoma State still won, knocking off Texas A&M 30-29.
Date: Sept. 11, 2010
Player: Toronto Argonauts defensive lineman Ronald Flemons
Play: A Canadian! Again, this one is borderline, as Flemons didn’t dump the ball on purpose. The Argonauts defender lost the ball, knew he lost the ball, and was unable to recover the ball. The B.C. Lions recovered in the end zone for a touchback.
Outcome: The Argonauts lost to the Lions 37-16.
Date: Sept. 11, 2010
Player: Notre Dame wide receiver T.J. Jones
Play: Originally ruled a touchdown and stayed a touchdown. Not reviewed by officials, though Jones dropped the ball before crossing the goal line.
Outcome: Notre Dame lost to Michigan 28-24.
Date: Sept. 10, 2010
Player: Marshall wide receiver Aaron Dobson
Play: Originally ruled a touchdown and stayed a touchdown. Not reviewed by officials, though Dobson dropped the ball before crossing the goal line.
Outcome: Marshall lost to West Virginia 24-21
Date: Oct. 17, 2009
Player: Alabama safety Mark Barron
Play: Originally ruled an interception for a touchdown and stayed a touchdown. The play was not reviewed by officials despite the fact Barron may have dropped the ball before he crossed the goal line.
Outcome: Alabama beat South Carolina 20-6.
Date: Sept. 15, 2008
Player: Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson
Play: Originally ruled a touchdown. After official review, referees determined Jackson tossed the ball away before reaching the end zone and gave the Eagles possession at the 1-yard line. Philadelphia scored on the next play. Kudos to ESPN’s Mike Tirico for catching all of this in real time.
Outcome: Jackson’s Eagles would go on to lose to the Dallas Cowboys 41-37
Date: Sept. 2, 2006
Player: Georgia punt returner Mikey Henderson
Play: Originally ruled a touchdown. After official review, referees determined Henderson tossed the ball away before reaching the goal line and that it went out of the end zone for a touchback. This was Henderson’s first career punt return. A little more than a minute later, he returned another punt. This time, he scored a touchdown for real. (If you can find video of this play, let me know.)
Outcome: Georgia beat Western Kentucky 48-12.
Date: Jan. 15, 2005
Player: Long Beach Polytechnic wide receiver DeSean Jackson
Play: The reason this maneuver is sometimes known as “pulling a DeSean Jackson.” In the U.S. Army All-American Bowl, a high school all-star game, Jackson caught a pass, streaked down the sideline, did a celebratory front flip, and left the ball on the turf just short of the goal line. Though initially ruled a touchdown, the referees quickly huddled and ruled the ball dead on the 1-yard line.
Outcome: On account of the permissiveness of the American military, Jackson was nevertheless named the MVP of the game as his West squad beat the East 35-3.
Date: Jan. 1, 2001
Player: Oregon State wide receiver Chad Johnson
Play: Originally ruled a touchdown and stayed a touchdown, though the future Chad Ochocinco clearly dropped the ball before crossing the goal line. As this was before the replay review era in college football, the call on the field stood.
Outcome: Oregon State would go on to demolish Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl 41-9.
Date: Jan. 31, 1993
Player: Dallas Cowboys defensive lineman Leon Lett
Play: A variation on the theme. In Super Bowl XXVII, Lett picked up a fumble and ran it back more than 60 yards for a not-quite touchdown. As he neared the goal line, Lett extended the ball out in his right hand, allowing the Buffalo Bills’ Don Beebe to knock it loose. The Bills got the ball on a touchback.
Outcome: The Cowboys won Super Bowl XXVII 52-17.
Date: Dec. 6, 1992
Player: Green Bay Packers wide receiver Sterling Sharpe
Play: With snow covering the field at Milwaukee County Stadium, Sharpe confused the 5-yard line for the goal line, slowing to a jog and strolling sideways before he reached the end zone. Though Detroit Lions cornerback Melvin Jenkins managed to jar the ball loose, Sharpe recovered the fumble and ended up scoring anyway.
Outcome: Green Bay beat Detroit 38-10.
Date: Oct. 31, 1992
Player: Nebraska running back Calvin Jones
Play: Originally ruled a touchdown and stayed a touchdown. There’s no definitive camera angle, though it looks like Jones probably drops the ball before the goal line. As this was before the replay review era in college football, the call on the field stood.
Outcome: Nebraska beat Colorado 52-7.
Date: Aug. 1, 1992
Player: New York Jets wide receiver Rob Carpenter
Play: Here’s how the New York Times described it:
After adjusting his route and catching a long pass from Browning Nagle in last Saturday's exhibition opener against the Philadelphia Eagles, Carpenter celebrated by spiking the ball to the ground as an official signaled a touchdown and blew his whistle to stop play.
There was one big problem: The official thought Carpenter was in the end zone, when, in fact, he had just crossed the 5-yard line. The premature spike was the kind of mistake that could earn a newcomer a seat at the end of the bench, but the coaching staff forgave Carpenter and blamed the official for prompting it with the accidental whistle.
Alas, I haven’t been able to find video of this one.
Outcome: The Jets won 41-14. But who cares, it was preseason.
Date: Oct. 8, 1989
Player: San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Jerry Rice
Play: Originally ruled a touchdown and stayed a touchdown. Rice, holding the ball aloft to celebrate a long touchdown catch, clearly loses control before he reaches the end zone and fumbles out of the back of the end zone. The replay official who missed the call was suspended by the NFL.
Outcome: The 49ers beat the Saints 24-20.
Date: Nov. 4, 1985
Player: St. Louis Cardinals wide receiver Pat Tilley
Play: According to the New York Times, Tilley “caught a deflected pass, outraced the Dallas secondary toward the end zone, gleefully held the ball aloft in his right hand as he sprinted past the 10-yard line and, in a wildly premature burst of celebration, spiked it while he was still a yard or two short of the goal.” The field judge on the goal line nevertheless called it a touchdown. There appears to be no video of this play online.
Outcome: The Cardinals beat the Cowboys 21-10.
Date: Oct. 18, 1971
Player: Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver Dave Smith
Play: A description from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:
Taking a pass from Terry Bradshaw, Smith was on his way to a 50-yard touchdown against the Chiefs when he raised the ball over his head and triumphantly began to pump his left arm as he neared the end zone. However, before he could cross the goal line, Smith lost control of the ball—he did not spike it, as some have suggested—and, instead of a touchdown, the ball rolled through the end zone for a touchback.
I couldn’t find video of Smith’s dropped ball either.
Outcome: Smith’s Steelers lost 38-16.
If you made it this far, congratulations. Here are some statistics.
Total fumbles: 36
Plays that were originally ruled a touchdown for the fumbler’s team: 27
Plays that stayed a touchdown for the fumbler’s team: 17
Plays that turned into touchdowns for the non-fumbler’s team: 1
Games in which the fumbler’s team ended up winning: 25
Know about any more of these plays? Find video of Mikey Henderson, Rob Carpenter, or Dave Smith? Email me.