Why Do American Footballers Say “Hut, Hut, Hike!”

Michael R. asks: Where did the football saying hut… hut… HIKE! come from?

quarterback-hikeAn integral part of the game, immediately prior to the start of play, the football quarterback begins his cadence. More than just “hut,” the offensive leader on the field uses short commands to prepare the team, adjust to the defense’s line up and even change the play. Whether it’s “53 is the Mike,” “Omaha,” “Red 32,” “Set” or “Hike,” each shout is an important tool in the quarterback’s bag of tricks.

The Short Words

The most well known cadence, “hike,” was the brainchild of John Heisman (of the eponymous trophy). Prior to its introduction, commonly the quarterback signaled the center to give him the ball by simply scratching the center’s leg. During the 1890-1891 season, Heisman was playing center for the University of Pennsylvania when a leg scratch from an opposing player tricked into hiking early. To fix the problem, Heisman introduced using a word to start the snap, and that it be “hike,” which already meant to lift up and also had the added benefit of being a short, sharp sound.

“Hut” was a later introduction, although by the 1950s it was commonly in use in football. Linguists trace its origins back to military cadence, particularly of World War II, when drill sergeants would holler “Atten-hut!” Another short, sharp sound, it was perfect for preparing the team for battle.

Sharply yelling single syllable words to get attention has a long history. Early on, animals were directed with such commands (and still are today) and common locutions included “hup,” “hip” and “hep” (with “hup” dating back to the 18th century).

Other short football commands include “set,” after which the linemen get into their stance, and “move” which may direct many players to adjust according to a planned shift, or could just stir a few to action (e.g., the tight ends assume a 3-point stance).

Longer Phrases

Colors and numbers are frequently used in combination, such as “Green 19,” “Blue 82” and “43-2,” for any number of reasons. Sometimes, the phrase indicates an audible (change in play called at the line of scrimmage to adjust to a troubling defensive scheme), and other times, it clues players in to their blocking assignments. Often the phrase will put a receiver in motion or simply designate when the ball is about to be snapped. And frequently, a great deal of it (if not all at times) is gibberish.

Typically, a team will have a live color – after hearing this color, offensive players know the predetermined snap count (the number of “huts” after which the ball will be hiked) is about to begin (e.g., “Green 32, Green 32, hut hut.”)

Even though one color is live, other colors will be used (gibberish), to distract and confuse the defense, and sometimes even to cause them to jump offsides if used with a hard count (e.g. if green is the live color, “Blue 18, Blue 18, hut, hut, HUT hut.”) The live color can be any color, although according to Brett Favre, “a lot of teams use black or red as a hot. When you hear that, there’s an audible coming.” Nonetheless, as he concludes, “everyone’s different.”

Another typical cadence denotes ” the Mike.” Traditionally, “Mike” was shorthand for the middle linebacker, and a common cadence heard in the NFC North (and before that the Central) from 2000-2012 was “54 has the Mike.” However, several commentators note that this phrase is not necessarily applied to the Mike, but to the defensive player that requires special attention – such as who the fullback should block.

A cadence that comes in many forms but generally means the same thing is the word(s) used to indicate a change in the snap count. Peyton and Eli Manning sometimes use “Omaha,” (Eli says Peyton stole it from him), and Tom Brady uses “Alpha.” Defenses are wise to this use, and in fact during a 2009 Giants-Dallas game, Eli used it too much – to the point where Chris Collinsworth thought he was tipping the snap.

Adjusting yet again, now these quarterbacks use “Omaha” and “Alpha” in other ways, such as when Peyton began incorporating it into his hard count (with great success, apparently). In order to clue the offense in, they will have established a “freeze” word that he yells before “Omaha,” so no offensive players move, but the defense jumps.

Football insiders Randy Moss and Brian Urlacher have a different take on “Omaha,” and though it was used to direct the offense to run the planned play, but in the opposite direction.

A Rise in Gibberish

Fans have noticed an upswing in chatter from quarterbacks over the last several years, and most believe this is due to placing microphones on centers and guards in 2011.

Used by the networks to bring the sounds of the game to the viewers, prior to 2010, the official, who was positioned in the defensive backfield, wore the on-field microphone. After 2010, the official was placed in the offensive backfield (due to safety concerns), but with the quarterback’s back to him, many sounds were muffled before it reached the mic. The solution: wire up some offensive lineman.

Another example of unintended consequences, now every code and cue uttered by the quarterback is clearly audible to everyone, including defensive players and coordinators. As a result, defenses were better able to decode cadences, which, once again, stirred offenses to adapt – now with a combination of hand signals, gesticulations and a great deal of meaningless chatter to hide the few important code words.

As one veteran defensive lineman noted: “He’s holding up two finders . . . calling out all these colors, ‘purple, blue’ . . . it’s funny . . . when you see someone on TV jump offisdes . . . but the fact of the matter is that you get out there on Sunday and it could happen to you.”

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