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Gimmie Some Kind of Sign! Official Football Signals

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After last night’s game, a fan approached our vehicle as we were leaving the stadium and asked about one of my hand signals.  It’s highly irregular and most unusual for a fan to get near the officials after the game because most schools provide security for the officiating crew—usually armed members of local law enforcement. 

Last night, we had no security.  The gentleman only wanted to know what the signal was for when I put my right hand on my chest almost up to my left shoulder.  As a matter of protocol, the officials also avoid speaking with anyone after the game and refer them to their respective coaching staff.  Since he only asked about the signal, I shouted from behind the closed car window, “Substitution!”  He was pleased, and I was glad he didn’t have a gun.

Pass interference fouls are often cause for high drama on the gridiron, as the fans on each side of the field anxiously await the signal to see which team was judged to be guilty.  Another situation—and much more simple—that causes some drama is a measurement to determine if the team with the ball made the line to gain.  It is often said that “football is a game of inches,” and it is no more so than when we measure for a first down.  The stadium goes quiet and fans of each team await as the chains are brought out onto the field, stretched tight, and a decision is made.  Other than the signal indicating a score, few signals cause more favorable reactions from the fans than to see that their team made a first down.

Signals by the officials to communicate with fans and the announcers came about in 1929, and some of the first ones are detailed in this article featuring former Georgia Tech coach W.H. Alexander. While some of the original signals are still used for the same purpose, many have changed and quite a few have been added as the game has evolved and rules have changed.  As seen in this diagram, 46 signals are used today.

Two commonly used signals are often victims of misnomers.  While most football fans are familiar with the term “offsides,” it is not to be found in our high school rule book.  We use the term “encroachment,” and the signal is given with both hands on the hips.  The rolling fists in front of the body is a signal often identified by press box announcers as “illegal procedure”—the older term.  Now we use it for either a false start or illegal formation by the offense.  When the ref is miked up, he can specify the call.

One significant difference in high school and college communication between the referee and the audience is that we do not identify the guilty player in high school football. We simply point in the direction of the offending team and announce, “Block in the back, on the return team,” and let the individual remain anonymous.  (The coach will want to know and we inform him discretely.)

By learning the signals, you can enjoy the game at a whole new level.

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