Raise a Glass to Football's Greatest Trick Plays
A famous non-football fan once described the game as “violence punctuated by committee meetings.” That’s a bit harsh, but there’s no doubt that the sport can use some comic relief at times—beyond the occasional coach’s meltdown in the postgame presser (“Playoffs? ... Playoffs?!”).
Thankfully, football has a long history of levity in its many gadget plays, from the Flea-Flicker to the Fumblerooski to the Hidden Ball Trick. They all combine misdirection, grace under pressure, and a concentrated dose of absurdity that really lightens things up in front of all those humorless, sideline-stalking coaches.
As the tailgating season kicks off, and friends start gathering at sports bars and in living rooms to combine football-watching and revelry, let’s toast the top sly-dog plays in football history.
Statue of Liberty
The play: The quarterback takes the snap, drops back, and then, while faking a throw to one side of the field (his arm raised like Lady Liberty’s torch-bearing limb), tucks the ball behind his back with his other hand. A runner sweeps in, snatches the ball off the QB’s hip and bolts around the line while the defense reacts to the fake pass on the opposite side.
First time: In this age of uncertainty, one thing we can all agree on is that old-timey sports names are the best. The Statue of Liberty play (speaking of great names) was invented in the 1890s by Amos Alonzo Stagg, and first executed by Clarence Herschberger (Can we bring back ‘Clarence’ as a baby name? Beats hell out of ‘Dylan.’). The play was then made popular by Fielding Yost (no, really) in the early 20th century.
Best time: In 2007, a college team won a major bowl game by scoring a two-point conversion with the Statue of Liberty play. Pretty sure that’s the first and only walk-off Statue of Liberty play in football history. Also: Cojones.
The play: After the snap, the ball is intentionally placed on the ground (usually by the quarterback) and the offensive team sells a fake running play to one side of the field, while one player (frequently an offensive lineman) picks up the loose ball and runs in the opposite direction.
First time: This one goes back to the first decade of the 20th century, when it was invented by a famous college coach. How famous? They would later name college football’s most prestigious award after him.
Best time: In the second quarter of a Jan 2, 1984, bowl game between two college football powerhouses, one team called the fabled Fumblerooski when it needed a spark, having fallen behind 17-0. It worked beautifully—and hilariously—as a 275-pound offensive guard plucked the ball from the turf and, with his line surging right, rumbled left, gaining 19 yards and a touchdown.
The play: This variation of the Fumblerooski is named after a legendary former pro coach from Texas and features the ball being handed to a player between his legs (think of a snap in reverse), while the offense makes a misdirection play.
First time: Sadly, this information is lost to the sands of time.
Best time: In a Dec 10, 2006, pro game, a team from Southern California pulled off a multipart Bumerooski, with the quarterback taking the snap and slipping the ball between the fullback’s legs, then rolling right with the halfback and faking a handoff to a wide receiver, who followed them around the end on the right pretending to hold the ball. While all that was going on, the fullback faked a block—while in possession of the football—then ran left for a touchdown. Now that is a trick play.
End Zone Camouflage
The play: This bit of chicanery requires an end zone color scheme that matches the team’s uniform. The trick is to have a player lie down in the end zone on a kickoff, concealing his presence from the kicking team. After another player receives the kick and draws the defense, the camouflaged player springs up on the opposite side of the gridiron, accepts a cross-field lateral and charges forward into open territory.
First time: The history on this one is as murky as gray-clad player in a gray end zone, but we do know that a pro team attempted the camouflage return play in 2012 and appeared to succeed spectacularly, busting off a 93-yard TD return—only to have the six points taken off the board because the lateral was actually a forward pass. On Oct 4, 2014, a college team from Texas reeled off a 47-yard return with the play, hiding a purple-uniformed runner in its purple end zone.
Best time: The camouflage return is easily the cheekiest trick play of all, so pretty much any time it works is an occasion to salute. There was the time, on Nov 12, 2016, that a Midwest college team matched its blue unis with its blue end zone and unspooled a 35-yard return. But the choice here is that 2014 Texas team: they executed it like a special forces operation, they gained 47 yards, and best of all, they camouflaged their purple player in the purple hole of the white ‘O’ in their end zone lettering.
The play: This one comes into play with the clock winding down. The quarterback signals (the more dramatically the better) to his offense that he wants to spike the ball to stop the clock. After his team hurries into formation—and the defense relaxes, thinking the ball is about to be spiked dead—the QB instead fires a quick pass to an uncovered receiver.
First time: The Fake Spike was successfully executed for the first time on Nov 27, 1994, by a future Hall of Fame pro QB playing in Florida. It was attempted for the first time in an epic Jan 3, 1987, pro playoff game, but the quarterback overthrew his intended receiver on that occasion.
Best time: Down three with 38 seconds and just one timeout left in that 1994 game, the famous QB stepped to the line of scrimmage shouting, “Clock! Clock! Clock!” and making a ‘spike’ motion with his right arm. With the defense properly lulled, he took the snap and fired the winning touchdown pass. Bonus fact: the QB who’d made the first attempt at the Fake Spike, back in ’87, was the backup on this day, and he suggested it here.
Rabona Onside Kick
The play: To create a misdirection play on an onside kick, the kicker approaches the ball as he normally would, and then, borrowing a move from soccer, wraps his kicking foot around his plant foot and sends the ball in the direction opposite the one the defense expects. The kick is called a Rabona in soccer.
First time: A Texas college kicker was the first to pull off this ingenious move, executing it to perfection on Sept 21, 2013.
Best time: That first time had the genuine shock of the new: As the kicker’s team recovered the football, the TV announcers sputtered, trying to comprehend what they had just seen. Like all great trick plays, it took multiple replays for them to understand what actually happened.
Hook and Lateral
The play: A receiver completes a hook route about 10 yards downfield, catches a pass, then laterals the ball to a teammate who’s timed his route to go streaking by at just the right moment.
First time: On Jan 2, 1982, a pro team deployed this spectacular maneuver just before halftime of a divisional playoff tilt to spark a rally in one of the greatest games ever. Some observers referred to the play as a “Hook and Ladder,” which is a cool and worthy nod to firefighters, but unfortunately not the correct name. The actual title is a literal description of the play, ‘hook route + lateral.’
Best time: To paraphrase an old saying, no one ever forgets their first, and that’s definitely the case here, as the 1982 version of the play was an electrifying burst of invention, giving the team that pulled it off a huge momentum boost heading into halftime.
Hidden Ball Trick
The play: This sleight of hand is more common in baseball and, believe it or not, lacrosse, but it has been pulled off in football before. It involves two or more players huddling in such a way as to conceal the football from the opposition, and then each running off in different directions pretending he has the ball.
First time: You have to go all the way back to the 19th century—Nov 9, 1895, to be exact. That’s when the namesake of college football’s biggest award (the man was a true pioneer) had his players execute football’s first Hidden Ball Trick.
Best time: On Nov 7, 1992, a college football powerhouse from the South fooled everyone in the stadium, the press box, and the TV audience with a four-man Hidden Ball Trick. The quarterback lined up behind center in front of a two-man backfield. A receiver went in motion before the snap, and joined the QB and his two running backs behind the line of scrimmage. The four of them huddled, then three broke off running in different directions. As the defense pursued those three—red herrings all—the fourth bided his time … then took off with the ball for a nine-yard gain up the middle.
Hidden Ballcarrier Trick
The play: The offense puts two runners in the backfield, one in a normal position visible to the defense, the other kneeling down and literally hiding behind the big guys on the line of scrimmage. The QB takes the snap, surreptitiously gives the ball to the kneeling player, then fakes a sweep with the other RB in one direction. The kneeling player waits for the defense to react to the fake, then bolts the opposite way with the football.
First time: This play has probably been run for decades in pee-wee and high-school football, but to the best of our knowledge, the first time it was achieved at a higher level was in a Jan. 2, 2004, bowl game between two Southern schools. The subterfuge sprung an eight-yard touchdown run that gave the underdogs a 10-point lead. They would go on to win 27–14.
Best time: A mid-major bowl game on Dec 20, 2016, featured a Hidden Ballcarrier play that went for a 42-yard touchdown, and the most remarkable thing about the play was that one defender actually sniffed it out right from the jump. He pounced toward the ballcarrier, ready to flatten him for a loss, but the shifty runner cut back, avoided the tackle and streaked for a score as the rest of the D scrambled to recover.
The Big Man
The play: Shift the defensive tackle—or whoever’s the heaviest player on the team—from defense to offense, and have him pound the ball into the end zone in a short-yardage situation. Okay, this isn’t really a trick play, but it definitely makes football more fun.
First time: On Oct 21, 1985, a lovable giant from a midwest pro team scored his first career TD on this move, plunging in from the one against a defense that had zero chance of stopping him. Bonus fact: it came against his team’s archrival.
Best time: The same player did it again on Jan 26, 1986, and this time, the stakes were immeasurably higher, as the plunge took place in the league championship game. He became the largest runner—and first kitchen appliance—ever to score in the league’s biggest game.