The Evolution of the One-Handed Grab

evolution one-handed grab

As the game of football has progressed, so too has the capabilities of the modern player. Today’s stars are bigger, stronger, and faster than their predecessors, as is the natural path of human evolution. Couple this with the advancements in the equipment being used on the gridiron, and the capabilities have become nearly limitless for the types of plays that can occur.

One play in particular that has become increasingly popular is the one-handed grab. What was once a rarity, and often occurred after a pass was deflected, has now become commonplace in pro football. Seemingly every week, clips surface of pass-catchers soaring through the air, snatching an errant pass with one hand, thus turning an incompletion into a highlight. Fans love it and players love it, and thus the one-handed catch will remain a Monday-morning mainstay on Sports Center’s Top 10.

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But when exactly did this phenomenal display of athleticism and skill become a staple of pro football? Was it a gradual progression? Did it burst onto the scene like a trendy hit dance move? Is it simply a phase in pro football, which will eventually fade away? And what caused this rise in single-handed play-making? Was it evolution? Changes in equipment? Changes in technique? The following will attempt to tackle these conundrums.

MAX MCGEE

Perhaps we should have seen this modern fascination with the one-handed catch coming. After all, it was Max McGee’s mesmerizing catch in 1967 that resulted in the first touchdown in the history of the Big Game. It was scoreless in the first quarter, and legendary Packers quarterback Bart Starr was facing pressure from the Chiefs’ pass rush. This caused him to fire a pass behind the open receiver McGee, who was cutting across the middle of the field. Displaying amazing body control and concentration, McGee was able to reach across his body and grab the erratic pass with his right hand, then motor the rest of the way for a 37-yard score. This catch and run got the ball rolling for the Green Bay, who bashed Kansas City 35-7 to become the first Big Game champions.

isolated football player catching ball

The story behind how McGee arrived in the situation where he could make this one-handed reception is even more amazing than the catch itself, though an editorial of this length could not possibly do it justice. To make a long story short, it was a minor miracle that McGee was able to make this grab with his state of mind at the time. As a result, it has become one of the most fabled Big Game performances of all time. For this reason, the completely unqualified author of this piece has dubbed Packers legend Max McGee the Patron Saint of the One-Handed Grab. His five-fingered magnificence during the inception of pro football’s biggest stage will forever be the blueprint for modern pass-catchers looking to make the next highlight-reel play. While it is likely that McGee was able to make this reception using simply what his parents gave him as hands, many of the followers of St. McGee have sought out a little extra help in their one-handed endeavors.

A STICKY LEG-UP

Before there were football gloves, there was a sticky substance applied to gloves to add more grip. It came in both a spray and paste form. For obvious reasons, it is clear that a product like this would be highly appealing to athletes looking to catch footballs at the highest level.

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And so, beginning in the 70’s, this became an incredibly popular thing in pro football. Specifically designed for defensive backs and wide receivers, players looking to get a better grip on the ball could turn to none other than this trusty, always-sticky goo. This led to the steady progression of the passing game, as players like Steve Largent and John Stallworth started breaking receiving records. This affected more than just pass-catchers, with quarterbacks like Dan Fouts and Fran Tarkenton setting records of their own as well.

The one-handed catch was a very possible occurrence. Similar to the new-era gloves used today, late 70’s and early 80’s receivers were able to use this substance to go out and grab a ball that was unreachable with two hands. With one paste-filled hand though, there was always a fighting chance that a wayward pass could turn into something breathtaking.

Unfortunately for the pass-catchers of this generation, all good things must come to an end. When you give athletes who are competing for their livelihoods an avenue in which to gain an advantage over their competitors, they will likely abuse it. This usually leads to governing bodies increasing regulations on whatever is being used to develop an edge, and that is exactly what happened in 1981.

Ironically, it was a defensive player in the Raiders’ Lester Hayes that caused the league-wide ban of this substance. He was known to apply obscene amounts of the sticky substance on himself, forcing the league to take action on the matter. It certainly helped him along the way, as he made five Pro Bowls and was named Defensive Player of the Year in 1980, the year before the ban. Hayes and his tacky hands led the league in interceptions that season – with a ridiculous 13 picks. Come 1981 however, he and the rest of pro football was forced to say goodbye to the beloved goo, due to the regulation that became known as the “Lester Hayes Rule.

This could have spelled doom for the future of the one-handed grab. Players now had nothing to rely on but good ol’ hands in order to catch the football. Thankfully for St. McGee’s followers though, many decided that the risk was worth the reward of an enhanced grip.

As Jerry Rice freely admitted, he used it during his playing career, which began in the mid-80’s. The all-time leader in basically every receiving statistic there is used to apply the substance to his gloves, which were far from as effective as the models used today. He also claimed that his peers were using the banned substance as well, which would account for the continued evolution of the passing game. Jerry was no stranger to the one-handed catch, and neither were his supposed sticky-handed peers. The one-handed catch was experiencing a slow and steady progression. It did not experience its true boom in popularity, however, until advancements in football gear changed the game of football forever.

FOOTBALL GLOVES

football players one hand reaching for ballHad Jerry Rice and his fellow wideouts of the 80’s and 90’s been wearing today’s football gloves, they likely would not have run the risk of using an illegal substance. In today’s game, players don flexible and sturdy gloves that massively improve their grip on the ball, regardless of the weather. Companies like Cutters gloves have developed revolutionary grip technology that has changed the game for players and teams alike. Never have pass-catchers been more prepared to deal with anything that is thrown their way and the numbers have reflected this newfound potential.

In 1984, Dan Marino set the record for most yards passing in a single season, with 5,084. Not only did he have two excellent receivers in Mark Clayton and Mark Duper, but they did not require the use of two hands in order to make plays. It was a monumental achievement, and a record that would stand for 27 years.

Then, about a decade ago, the gloves players were using started to really get tacky, and the numbers followed suit. Since 2008, the 5,000-yard milestone has been reached a whopping eight times, and Dan Marino’s 1984 campaign now sits at 7th on the all-time list. The advancement of football gloves is undoubtedly one of the major factors in the progression of the aerial attack in pro football. One-handed catches are more possible than ever with the modern – and legal – version of the grip technology.

Throughout much of this passing and receiving revolution, however, the one-handed catch never got the love it truly deserved. Seen as simply the result of a bad pass and modern advancements in equipment, these breathtaking grabs were not really discussed after the conclusion of Sports Center’s Top 10 countdown. That is, until the New York Giants took the field against the Dallas Cowboys on November 23, 2014.

THE CATCH

Eli Manning chucked up a pass to his rookie phenom, Odell Beckham Jr. He was being covered by Dallas Cowboys cornerback Brandon Carr, and he was starting to build up some separation as he raced down the sideline. Carr grabbed at Beckham, probably hoping to concede the pass interference penalty in lieu of a touchdown. In the end, he would concede both, as Beckham made what has been called the greatest catch in the history of football. This falling, one-handed masterpiece of a touchdown served as not only a coming-out party for Beckham, but as the crown jewel in the treasure chest of one-handed grabs. With this one showstopper of a play, the one-handed catch was suddenly thrust into the spotlight.

After Odell’s catch, the one-handed grab became America’s newest sporting fascination. We even turned to science in order to explain how he is capable of such feats, as the public seemingly could not get enough of these types of receptions. People in backyards or practice fields across the country were now trying their best to emulate Beckham’s greatness. Some were very inventive in their one-handed pursuits. Beckham himself took to breaking records, setting the standard for one-handed catches made in one minute. Keeping with the trend, as well as the spirit of competition, All-Pro Steelers wide receiver Antonio Brown then one-upped Beckham Jr. by breaking his record, raising the bar even higher for one of pro football’s most exciting displays of skill. Though the record is his, Odell Beckham Jr. made the one-handed grab trendy in today’s game.

football player grabbing ball

THE GOLDEN AGE OF THE ONE-HANDED GRAB

Beckham’s catch served to shine a light on many other receivers who make similarly difficult plays with regularity. Is Beckham the master of the one-handed grab? Is it the Bengals’ A.J. Green? Is it perhaps Beckham’s former college teammate at LSU, Jarvis Landry? The answer is up for debate. The point, though, is that this is an actual debate in the first place. This era of football, which can probably be considered the Golden Age of the One-Handed Grab, has become hooked to this play. It is now practiced, examined, emulated, and universally admired in the sports world and something that players like Odell Beckham Jr. are largely responsible for.

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Is the evolution complete? Have we reached the top of the mountain? Will the novelty of this play fade away, similar to the slam dunk in basketball or the home run in baseball? Time will tell. Perhaps, if there are continued advancements in the world of football equipment, we will see catches that are even more spectacular than Beckham’s good looks. Players will undoubtedly continue to get bigger, faster, and stronger, opening the door for future one-handed catchers to make the next grab that reaches 100 million hits on YouTube.

Max McGee passed away in 2007. However, the unofficial Patron Saint of the One-Handed Grab would surely be pleased at how his disciples have emulated and developed the catch. With Odell Beckham Jr. and company set to carry his mantle for years to come, the future of this beautiful reception is in good hands, so to speak.

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