It’s OK if NFL players don’t shake hands, especially after a Super Bowl

It’s OK if NFL players don’t shake hands, especially after a Super Bowl
It’s OK if NFL players don’t shake hands, especially after a Super Bowl

MINNEAPOLIS — When you win a Super Bowl, you can recall the moment with almost crystal clarity. Patriots right guard Shaq Mason remembers being on the field when James White shoved his way into the end zone in overtime last year.

“It was right beside me,” Mason says. “I actually didn’t react when we crossed the goal line. I didn’t react at all, because I was still in shock. So when James crossed the goal line, I was standing right there just looking, and then it finally just registered that, wow, we just won.”

The first person who Mason saw was right tackle Marcus Cannon, who was already celebrating, thus confirming to Mason that, yes, the Patriots had just won the Super Bowl, and yes, it was OK to start going crazy now.

What Mason can’t recall is ever shaking a Falcons player’s hand.

“It was too blurry to remember.”

The NFL takes decorum very seriously. More specifically, we take decorum very seriously. In 2016, Cam Newton cut his postgame Super Bowl press conference short after a loss, and America seemed to spend as much time trying to define “class” as celebrating the Broncos. The quarterback of the winning team, Peyton Manning, was once involved in a (conspicuously less documented) Super Bowl kerfuffle of his own, when he walked off the field after Super Bowl XLIV without shaking Drew Brees’ hand.

From Jim Harbaugh’s “slap, grab handshake” with Jim Schwartz, to Sean Payton and Dirk Koetter’s intense exchange earlier this season, coaches bear a lot of the scrutiny, too, for what they say and do soon after every emotionally charged game. Former Texas head coach Mack Brown has even advocated for ending the practice altogether.

“I’ve been a proponent of not shaking hands,’’ Brown said Monday. “Some guys don’t like each other. After the game, some guy may have run up the score or won in the last second. If someone scores 80 on you, you don’t want to go over there and tell him, ‘Good job.’

Making people shake hands after the Super Bowl seems especially cruel. Players have to put in decades of dedicated work to make it to the game. Losing one means not only having to deal with the loss, but reckoning with the work that lies ahead to make it back.

“You feel like you’re looking up at bottom,” former Cincinnati Bengals coach Sam Wyche says. “That’s how low you are. You’re down below the bottom, wherever that is.”

In that moment, shouldn’t you be forgiven for forgetting to find your opponent? Of every player I ask, zero can recall exactly what happened after they lost. After winning Super Bowl LI, Patrick Chung remembers seeing his family materialize: “My son, my sister, my mom, and dad,” he says, “it was great, man, having my family around to experience that with me. It never happens often.” Conspicuously, Chung can’t recall what happened on the field after the Patriots lost Super Bowl XLVI in 2012 against the Giants, just that “I got on the bus and went to the after party.” Ditto left tackle Nate Solder — “I don’t remember 2011 very well at all.”

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Super Bowl 50 - Carolina Panthers v Denver Broncos Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

That amnesia may not be coincidental. Isaac Bruce also won and lost a Super Bowl, and Bruce also has a much clearer memory of one more than the other.

“I still don’t remember shaking their hand,” Bruce says of the Rams’ loss to the Patriots in Super Bowl XXXVI. “I probably did that on purpose. That came down to the last dramatic play, you know, with Vinatieri making the kick.

“I tell you what my mindset was: ‘OK, either this kick is getting blocked or he’s going to miss and we’re getting ready for overtime.’ So I was still fully suited up, and I had my helmet buckled. And when it went through the upright I just made a beeline [to the locker room]. Because their entire team just ran on the field.”

Bruce isn’t sure whether he was making a voluntary or involuntary decision in the moment.

“Both,” he says. “It was both. It was a very charged moment. The game ended on a kick with no time left in the game. We were 14-point favorites. That’s like a huge downer, man. I don’t think either team planned on losing that game.

“You don’t practice that part of the game. You don’t practice the not winning. It’s going to be a party regardless, but you want to be happy at your party.”

Likewise, Hines Ward didn’t shake hands on the field with any members of the Packers after the Steelers lost Super Bowl XLV, though that’s a deceiving statement. Players of both teams often run through the same tunnel to get to their locker rooms and bump into each other. He says he congratulated Aaron Rodgers and Donald Driver after the game, out of sight from judgmental cameras. Ward always made a point to shake hands, he claims.

“You just don’t know what goes on behind the scenes,” Ward says. “I kind of decompressed the loss, did all my interviews, and just look at it like, ‘OK, here’s the next day in life, you’ve just got to move on.’”

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To a man, current and former players said that, to them, it never mattered whether their teammates skipped the postgame handshake with an opponent, and in fact doing so is fairly common.

“I’ve heard of many people who have chosen not to shake hands after the game, I totally respect that because people have a million different reasons,” Solder says. “I usually try to shake hands with the competitors because I try not to take anything personal.

“My teammates probably think I’m crazy, but we’ll be beat each other’s brains in throughout practice and then we’re friends afterwards, and that’s just the way that I approach it.”

Sometimes, it’s best if players don’t meet after the final whistle, especially for division rivals who have to meet at least twice a year. Ward laughs and says that he never shook hands with a Ravens player, win or lose — “It was a genuine dislike.” According to Bruce, a pregame handshake, before emotions really get going, is enough.

“Even a handshake after the game, it can be used as psychological warfare,” Bruce says. “I can try to rub it in your face, but the guy who’s getting it rubbed in his face, he can use it as ammunition next time. And then he’ll come after the game if he wins, and then he’ll want to shake hands.

“My mindset is, I already shook your hand once, I’m not guaranteeing you two.”

Wyche knows this dynamic as well as anyone can. He once took a timeout to kick a field goal with 21 seconds remaining in what would finish as a 61-7 blowout win over the Houston Oilers. He hated head coach Jerry Glanville — and I mean hated him:

‘’I just don’t like Jerry Glanville,’’ Sam Wyche, the Bengals’ coach, said of the Oilers’ coach. Wyche chased Glanville for a word or two after this demolition. Glanville kept running for his team’s exit, so Wyche simply stood and waved, and waved, and waved.

“I don’t like phonies,’’ Wyche continued, “and I don’t think Jerry is a very genuine guy. The cheap shots they tried after our quarterback was down, their big mouths. Jerry tries coming up and talking to me before the game and when the cameras start rolling he puts his arm around you and smiles behind those dark glasses.”

Today, Wyche says he and Glanville are much more cordial, and he regrets how tense their relationship became, “because it just got to be beyond competitive.” He says that as far as he can recall, he never ducked a postgame handshake himself, and encouraged his players to go meet their opponent, win or lose. Though he wasn’t always the most stellar example himself, Wyche always felt that it was important for the “10-year-old in the stands watching that game.”

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Again, however, he stresses that the Super Bowl is a different beast, and he would forgive his players for sulking.

“Because there would be no lesson to be learned that would be remembered,” Wyche says. “You have a whole offseason, and tons of meetings, and practices to go through. You start to reprogram a team for the next year at a later time. At that moment, you’re kind of running up and down the starting line with nowhere to go because there’s not another game coming up.”

Wyche had his own brush with Super Bowl failure. His 1988 Bengals played the 49ers in Super Bowl XXIII. He had been assistant for Bill Walsh’s 49ers from 1979 to 1982, and he was playing against his mentor in his mentor’s last game – Walsh had decided to retire during the regular season.

The game was another all-time classic. Down 16-13, the 49ers went 92 yards in less than three minutes to take the lead on Joe Montana’s famous third-down pass to John Taylor in the back of the end zone with 34 seconds left. Wyche says that if the ball had been incomplete, he knows Walsh would have kicked a field goal to send the game into overtime — “We’re almost like brothers” — and Wyche’s legacy might have been significantly different.

Head coaches Bill Walsh of the San Francisco 49ers and Sam Wyche of the Cincinnati Bengals
Photo by A. Neste/Getty Images

Wyche says he remembers everything that happened after the game.

“Bill comes across, and I come across, and we don’t shake hands, we embrace,” he says. “Bill literally — didn’t faint, but I had to hold him up. He just went limp for a little bit. Not for long, for two or three steps.”

Wyche says he had to physically hold up Walsh until the media finally crushed in, practically holding up both coaches with their weight.

“I think Bill was just so wrapped up in the moment — you don’t lose control of yourself, but you are just mentally and physically exhausted from the competition of the game,” Wyche says. “I said to him, ‘Bill you deserve it. I love you man. You deserve to win the game.’ He said the same back to me. ‘I love you, you know that.’

“Sometimes it’s so sincere that it becomes an emotional moment and a lifetime memory,” Wyche adds. “That was a handshake that I probably remember the most, and we didn’t shake each other’s hands.”

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