Elmo Wright, a dazzling split end on the 1968-70 UH football teams, was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame on Tuesday night. He becomes the fourth Houston Cougar to be inducted, joining Bill Yeoman, Andre Ware, and Wilson Whitley.
Elmo, now 72, was the NCAA record holder in receiving touchdowns (34) when he finished his eligibility. He was the 16th overall pick by the NFL’s Kansas City Chiefs. For many college football fans, Elmo Wright is known as the guy that invented the touchdown dance, but his career has much more significance than that.
Houston set an NCAA record in 1968 when its offense averaged 562 yards a game, beating the old record by 75 yards a game. The program had become known as a Veer-T rushing offense but had an unheralded yet powerful weapon, a 6′ sophomore split end named Elmo Wright. Wright finished his first year with 43 catches for 1,198 yards, becoming UH’s first-ever 1000 yard receiver, and was named to the Football News All-America team.
Elmo caught 11 touchdown passes in 1968 and set a (still standing) NCAA record for most 50+ yard TD receptions in a season (8). He became known for spiking the ball after a score, irking coaches and the NCAA so much so that they banned the practice before the 1969 season.
“When I went into the endzone, I was one happy camper,” Elmo said with a smile during a National Football Foundation press conference Tuesday.
Heading into his junior year, Wright was named to the prestigious Playboy Preseason All-America team. The players selected went to Chicago for a weekend of photoshoots and enjoying life at the original Playboy Mansion. Wright had a memorable incident with another player on the team, Florida’s Steven Tannen.
In that game, the season opener for both teams, Elmo caught six passes for 127 yards and three touchdowns against Tannen. It’s also the game where the end zone dance was born. In a 2005 interview with the New York Times, Elmo explained how the touchdown dance started:
“I was going up against an all-American from Florida named Steve Tannen, and I was thinking he was going to embarrass me. I trained very hard to get ready for that game,” Wright told the interviewer. “To make a long story short, on a little down-and-out pattern, I caught the ball and he dove at my feet. I started high-stepping to get out of it. There was no one else in front of me, so I kept high-stepping all the way to the end zone. I was just so excited.
“People were booing me. In the end zone, I kept high-stepping. It felt so good that I had scored that I did an accelerated version of the high step. I got to the sidelines and my teammates were saying to me, ‘I can’t believe you danced.’ It felt so good, I decided to keep doing it.”
Elmo would be vilified as a showboat over his final two seasons at UH but kept putting up the scores. This week, he said all he wanted to do was score touchdowns and celebrate them.
“I’ve had people tell me, “why do you dance?” I said I can’t imagine living in life without having a reason to celebrate. To me, back then, scoring touchdowns it’s what it was,” Elmo remarked with a smile.
Wright still holds several school records including yards per catch for a season (27.9 – 1968), yards per catch for a career (21.9), and most games over 200 yards receiving (four). But, perhaps most remarkable, while the Veer was breaking records, Wright finished with 100 yards in 15 of the 32 college games he played.
Elmo is the only player in UH history to ever average more than 100 yards per game in his career (104.6) and over one TD per game (35 total touchdowns – 1.09/game)
In the season opener in 1970, NFL scouts from all over the country turned out to see Elmo play. Wright gave them the show they wanted to see – he caught five balls for 154 yards and two scores.
“Have you ever seen anything like that?” asked Harry Buffington, the legendary head of National Football Scouting. “Elmo’s the greatest I’ve ever seen. How do you cover him? He’s unbelievable.”
“He is a real super player,” Dallas Cowboys player personnel director Gil Brandt said about Elmo later in 1970. “He’s the best receiver in the country.”
“We consider Elmo Wright one of the finest two receivers in college football,” Atlanta Falcons executive Tom Brantz said.
After his NFL career was cut short by injuries, he came back to the University of Houston and received his degree in 1975 and then an MBA in 1985.
“I went back also to get my MBA. I was always aware we were student-athletes,” Elmo stated this week. “I studied electrical engineering, by the way. I remember when I started, I couldn’t even spell electrical engineering.”
Looking back at his career, he wishes more people focused on what he accomplished and less on what he did afterward.
“People remember the dance but they forget that I broke an NCAA record for touchdowns,” Elmo lamented. “They forget that I had 27, 29 yards per reception. All they remember is the dance. I couldn’t believe that people expected me to dance, but forgot what I had to do before that: catch the ball and score a touchdown.”
In his final remarks before his enshrinement, Elmo thanked his family, teammates, QB Ken Bailey, and coach.
“Bill Yeoman, the last time I saw him, I want y’all to know, I was able to tell my coach I loved him. Didn’t know that would be the last time.”