The image is iconic, as synonymous with victory as anything else in sports: the coach, smiling, drenched in sticky, ice-cold Gatorade. The players, triumphantly holding the cooler high above their coach’s head as the neon-colored sports drink rains down. They are winners, and everyone knows it. As Mike Ditka once said on ESPN’s E:60, “If you’ve never had a Gatorade bath, you haven’t done anything very exceptional.”
But the Gatorade shower was not always a ubiquitous symbol of sports success. In fact, it was over three decades ago that the New York Giants originated the prank at the expense of then-coach Bill Parcells. And it was 30 years ago this year that Parcells received the most memorable Gatorade shower of his incredibly noteworthy career at Super Bowl XXI in Pasadena, California. It was the very first time the biggest football game of the season had seen a Gatorade dump. Someone else received their first Super Bowl Gatorade shower that day, too: Bill Belichick, who was then the defensive coordinator of the Giants, and is now head coach of the New England Patriots. If the Pats overtake the Atlanta Falcons in Super Bowl LI on Sunday, he’ll likely receive another cooler bath, exactly 30 years from his first.
Legend has it that former Giants nose tackle Jim Burt originated the chilly tradition at a game his team won against Washington in 1984 (the year is often cited as 1985, but in this clip from the October 28, 1984 game between the Giants and Washington, you can hear John Madden and Pat Summerall call the action and cite the score: 37-13. That Giants win occurred during the 1984 season). According to Burt’s teammate, former linebacker Harry Carson, “Parcells got under Jim’s skin all week so at the end of the Washington game he said to me, ‘Parcells is such a prick. Let’s get him!'” But Carson tells Rolling Stone it was all in good fun; the mood on the field was joyful.
So after the Giants win, Carson says Burt exacted his revenge on Parcells by dousing him in a shower of the electrolyte-filled beverage. In the broadcast booth, Madden and Summerall were in disbelief. “Jim Burt takes the whole bucket and pours it on Bill Parcells’ head… and that’s what you get when you win!” they can be heard marveling. “I was the only one who had the guts to do it without knowing what his reaction was going to be,” Burt later said. Carson remembers Burt asking him to do it together because Carson and Parcells had such a good relationship. “He can’t be mad at me if you do it with me,” Carson recalls Burt saying. But Parcells’ reaction was the best you could hope for: the coach just smiled. “It’s fun,” Parcells told United Press International in 1987. “It’s not all life and death.”
Burt may be credited with dumping the first bucket, but it’s Carson who ran with it during the Giants unforgettable 1986 season, turning it into the tradition it is today. By then, Burt thought the act had lost its originality but Carson kept it going. Carson says that Parcells was incredibly superstitious so once the thirst quencher was dumped on the coach’s head after the first win of the season, he felt like he had to do it for each successive win. “He started to catch on, so I’d wear disguises like a hat or jacket from our medical staff to sneak up on him,” Carson remembers.
Thirty years ago, when lifelong Giants fan Parcells led his team to the championship, it had been thirty years since the franchise’s last Super Bowl title. The 1986 Giants were a team with a dominant defense led by Lawrence Taylor, who had the best season by a linebacker to that point in NFL history with 20.5 sacks. They featured a run-heavy offense, powered by running back Joe Morris, who pulled the weight of the subpar passing game at the hands of oft-struggling quarterback Phil Simms.
But there was magic on the field for this group of players; improbable plays that sometimes made it feel like every game was destined to go their way (which, by finishing the season at 14-2, isn’t far from the reality). Carson remembers them as a group that was bonded together, both on and off the field. In Week 4 against the New Orleans Saints, tight end Mark Bavaro broke his jaw but he went back out onto the field and finished the game, playing for several weeks with his jaw wired shut. He was eating his food through a straw, but he still played football. In Week 11, Simms threw a huge last minute pass that allowed the Giants to score on the drive, lifting them to victory over the Minnesota Vikings and turning the struggling QB’s season around. And in the team’s Week 12 win against their eventual Super Bowl opponent, the Denver Broncos, the unlikely hero of the game was the oldest member of the team: 33-year-old “old man,” defensive end George Martin, who intercepted a pass from Broncos quarterback John Elway and improbably (and pretty awkwardly) ran the ball back 78 yards to score a touchdown.
By the time Super Bowl XXI came around on January 25, 1987, Parcells had been on the receiving end of 16 Gatorade showers, but the 17th would be the sweetest by far. The game was tight through the first half, with the Giants down by a point at halftime. But the team regrouped and came back out for the second half and never looked back. They opened the half with a fake punt on fourth down, allowing punter Sean Landeta to scramble for a first down when the Broncos defense neglected to cover him. The Giants would go on to score 30 points in the second half, which remains a Super Bowl record. Simms had the game of his life, finishing 22-25 in terms of completed passes and being named Super Bowl MVP, earning him his very own Gatorade shower.
And at the end of it all, a shower of Gatorade rained down on Bill Parcells’ head. Carson donned a yellow security jacket as a disguise and snuck up on his coach, surprising him with the deluge, while Madden and Summerall commentated for the folks at home – all 87.2 million viewers, a national audience full of people who were seeing the act for the very first time. “Everyone is staying in the stadium… he’s got it,” the broadcasters say, full of anticipation. “Parcells is up there without the headset… and they get him!”
There were fans in the stands with signs that said “Gatorade me,” and homemade Gatorade dunk buttons, going wild. The Gatorade shower was officially a phenomenon. It was a marketer’s dream come true – “the best free publicity anyone could have gotten,” says Carson.”Today, the brand is proud that the Gatorade dunk is a beloved football ritual, as much a part of the game’s iconography as players’ end-zone spikes and celebrations,” says Brett O’Brien, Gatorade’s Senior Vice President and General Manager. “Gatorade’s mission is to fuel athletic performance, and the dunk has helped our brand become part of the fabric of sport.”
Carson is now 63 and a broadcaster with the Giants network, as well as Executive Director of the Fritz Pollard Alliance Foundation, which promotes diversity and job equity in the NFL. He has a tip for any wannabe dunkers: “Make sure you’re way ahead in the score. Be certain you are going to win or you’ll be embarrassed.” And he’s proud to be remembered for something that’s become a tradition in the sport he has dedicated his life to. Whether someone remembers him for his on-field performance or as the guy who dumped the Gatorade, “It’s all great, because they still remember me.”
After the game was over and the Giants were champions, Parcells asked his players for a short ride on their shoulders. They obliged, hoisting their beloved coach up into the air and carrying him all the way off the field, covered in sticky, sweet victory.