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Monday, Feb 19, 2018
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Hey, football, where the heck did ‘hut’ come from?

It is easily the most audible word in any football game, a throaty grunt that might be the sport's most distinguishing sound.

Hut!

It starts almost every play, and often one is not enough. And in an increasingly complex game whose signal-calling has evolved into a cacophony of furtive code words — "Black Dirt!," "Big Belly!" "X Wiggle!" — hut, hut, hut endures as the signal to move.

But why?

"I have no idea why we say hut," said Philadelphia Eagles center Jason Kelce, who in a Pro Bowl career of seven years has probably snapped the ball thousands of times to "hut" but still cannot explain it. "I guess because it's better than yelling, 'Now,' or 'Go.' Some people have used 'Go' and that's awful. That doesn't sound like football."

Baltimore Ravens tight end Benjamin Watson said: "I've never thought about hut except that it seems forceful. The quarterback yells a sharp sound and guys start running at each other."

Joe Theismann, the former Washington quarterback in the NFL and an All-American at Notre Dame, reckons he shouted "hut" more than 10,000 times during games and practices.

"I started when I was 12 years old and I've been hutting my way through football for 55 years — but I have no clue why," Theismann said.

Although former New York Giants defensive end Justin Tuck offered no insight into the source of "hut," he was unequivocal that quarterbacks had no choice but to use it.

"Can you imagine if they said, 'Bacon-bacon-bacon?'" Tuck told NFL Films several years ago. "Everyone on the line would be like, 'Where, where?'"

A dig into the etymological roots of "hut" must begin at … "hike!"

That call was the brainchild of John Heisman, the pioneering coach for whom the trophy for the best college player of the year is named.

Beginning in the late 1890s, Heisman helped spread the growth of the game like a coaching Johnny Appleseed through jobs in Ohio, Alabama, South Carolina, Georgia and Texas. A tireless innovator, Heisman, promoting the forward pass, divided the game into quarters and, in 1898, came up with "hike" as a way for an entire team to know when the ball would be snapped into the backfield.

Before then, backs used silent gestures to begin plays. Heisman, a part-time stage actor who had been trained as a lawyer, prized gifted oratory and preferred a dynamic sound that would spring his charges into action. Hike fit the bill and also aptly described what was happening: a ball hiked backward from the ground.

Quarterbacks nationwide dutifully summoned the ball with a resolute "hike" for most of the first half of the 20th century.

In time, however, like so many things in football — where there is too much time to think between game weekends — the unadorned hike became increasingly complicated.

Again, Heisman played a part. Another of his innovations was a sudden shift of backfield players before the snap, which allowed Heisman's teams to overload one side of a formation. To augment the advantage, an element of deception was added, with code words used to signal the shift.

Then, as the forward pass became a bigger part of football in the 1910s, concealing the offense's play call became a major imperative. Some teams even approached the line of scrimmage knowing they might change the play called in the huddle before the ball was snapped. This required much more than a single, shouted "hike." Additional coded signals were soon developed, a system now known as an audible.

A century of football evolution later, quarterbacks throughout college and the NFL regularly call plays not in the huddle, but as they wait at the line of scrimmage. Fans watching at home hear a host of seemingly disconnected terms and words, even the names of cities — who can forget Peyton Manning's "Omaha!" — and animals.

Much of it is mumbo-jumbo, phony phrases meant to confuse the defense.

"My friends outside of football ask me, 'What's all that chatter at the line?'" Weston Richburg, the Giants center, said. "I tell them, 'Ignore it, because we do.' I mean, some of it matters. But a lot of it doesn't."

When it does matter, yelling a color like blue or red can be a code for the play being changed. Or, barking "Eagle 18" can be a signal that the ball will be snapped on the next sound coming from the quarterback's mouth no matter what that sound is.

Sometimes the directive to snap the ball is not a voice command at all. Known as a silent count, it is communicated with a hand motion or when the quarterback lifts his leg off the ground.

Wide receivers, lined up far from the center of the formation, usually cannot hear the quarterback's signals because of crowd noise. They try not to move until they see the football leave the ground.

Defensive linemen, at least most of the time, do the same thing.

"I don't listen to anything," Eagles defensive tackle Fletcher Cox said. "The fastest thing on the field is the football when it's snapped. When it moves, so do I.

"Because those quarterbacks are paid to trick me. I shut them out — what are they saying anyway? Hike? Whatever."

Still, for roughly the past 60 years, the signal has most assuredly not been hike.

"Hike is a term used by people outside football," Spencer Long, the Redskins center, said. "Hike is too hard to say. That's probably why they got rid of it."

Giants quarterback Eli Manning, referring to his father, Archie, a college and NFL quarterback in the 1960s and 1970s, said: "I don't think even my dad said hike. I think our family has always been hut guys. But it's a good question: Why do we say that?"

It turns out hike evolved into hut because of football's longtime love of military terminology.

After studying "hut," Ben Zimmer, a noted linguist and lexicographer, published findings several years ago that linked the term to the cadences used by marching soldiers. In U.S. military settings, it was often a substitute in basic marching commands, as in "hut, two, three, four" instead of "one, two, three, four."

And drill sergeants in the middle of the 20th century also called troops to order with, "Atten-hut!"

Many football coaches and players in the late 1940s and early 1950s had served in the armed forces during World War II. Returning to football fields after the war, they borrowed hut as a clear, concise command that could be heard by a large group of men scattered across a plain.

Theismann was happy to finally have an answer.

"With the great synergy between football and the military, it figures that it had something to do with following orders," Theismann said. "Then again, think of the chaos and the penalties there would be if we didn't have a word that got everyone moving together as a team.

"So that's what it comes down to. Why do we say hut? Because it works."

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Bucs Beat

Hey, football, where the heck did ‘hut’ come from?