Wednesday, November 4, 2015


When I was about thirteen my brother and I would play touch football in the street with a pal of his and that friend's older brother. Richie and Brian Moore. One day we were getting silly and changed the rules. We decided that you could throw a pass in any direction forward or backward even after you crossed whatever passed for the line of scrimmage. The older brother, Brian, started calling the game umba, pronounced ooombah.

So in the huddle we would say the play would be the umba as in, "okay, third down, let's do the umba." This meant you passed the ball and then started lateraling the ball back, and tossing it forward effectively playing keep-away with the defenders.

Occasionally you see professional or college teams playing a version of umba at the end of the game. A team that is behind and has no real chance to score on a conventional play will start lateralling the ball backwards in the hope that someone will get free and eventually score.

One cannot do the full umba in real football because one cannot pass a ball forward once it has crossed the line of scrimmage (starting point) for a play.  But you see teams passing the ball backwards hoping that someone might be able to, miraculously, move forward. Ninety nine times out of one hundred, the play ends with nothing close to a score.

Prior to last weekend the two most famous umba successes occurred in a (a) 1999 playoff game between the Buffalo Bills and the Tennessee Titans in which the the Titans actually threw only one lateral and (b) a Cal/Berkely Stanford game in the 80s in which there were five umbas. The Cal player scoring the touchdown actually slammed into the Stanford band at the end of the game as the marchers had come onto the field thinking the game was over.

On Saturday, however, the University of Miami played the umba like nobody else with eight laterals (some count nine) before scoring.  The enthusiasm for the Miami victory has been muted as, after the game, officials declared that the referees made errors in allowing the score.  Still it was called good at the end of the game and was something to behold.

Wherever Richie and Brian Moore are, and we have not seen them in over 50 years, they are smiling. When an umba play did not work, Brian was wont to say that "we could not do the umba for an umba bean."  Miami did the umba like the best umba bean of all time.

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