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Players in all the major team sports can be seen using a small towel to wipe off sweat or dirt, usually around the bench or during breaks in play. However, only in football do we see players wearing towels during game action.
Football players wear towels on the field during play to keep their fingers, hands, and forearms dry, to avoid losing control of the ball. Towels are a tool used in an ongoing effort to assure the best grip possible on the football.
Pro footballs are made of leather, which most folks know can get quite slippery when wet. Even if the football is dry, rain water, snow, or sweat on a player’s hands can impact the grip on the ball.
In football, this is terribly important because fumbling the football or dropping passes or pitches could mean all the difference in the world between winning and losing. With so much on the line, many football players in key positions keep towels tucked into their game pants.
Other sports don’t really have a need for this practice, as players can visit the bench when concerned about hand dryness. Many football positions, especially at quarterback, do not always have the opportunity to dry the hands between plays.
In football, key players must have the ability to firmly grip the ball for accurate passing, deft catching, nimble running with the ball ~ and for simple ball hand-offs and transfers.
Position players expected to carry or handle the ball: quarterback, running backs, wide receivers, tight ends, and some special teams players like punters, field goal snap holders, and kick/punt returners.
We already touched upon the who (players), what (towels), when (during football plays), and why (to dry hands). Let’s take a peek at the where and how.
First off, the towels are worn by players on the football field. The geographic answer complete, here’s what we really asked about: Where on a player’s body or uniform.
In plays, football players wear towels at 4 points, all of them along the top/waist of the pants:
- Front: Most quarterbacks, and some running backs just tuck towels into their pants below their belly button, letting it hang down quite a few inches for fast and easy access. Some wide receivers also may do this, but not many as the towel could interfere with catches made at the body’s midsection. Centers almost always carry a towel here to allow him to wipe off the ball before the snap.
- Back: Almost always, the only football player tucking a towel into the backside of his pants are centers ~ to be readily available for the quarterback to use in approaching for the snap of the ball to initiate play. If you watch games closely, look for a quarterback to walk up to the center’s raised rear end and flip a towel up so it won’t disrupt the ball exchange.
- Side: Besides the center, all of the positions players noted above could choose to just tuck in a towel on either side of his pants, and let it fly ~ literally. This is most common for wide receivers, most of which are not keen on the up-front towel, plus a towel on the side can fly wildly during sprints, sometimes making the player look pretty cool.
Note: Some defensive players also might choose to wear towels, namely all of those not on the line of scrimmage ~ linebackers, safeties, and cornerbacks ~ because they could have to handle the ball without warning if the opposition loses control of it.
How Football Players Wear Towels During Play
As stated above, football players wear towels tucked into their waistline. How they choose to do it is up to them, in terms of everything, which can mean:
- Size. Football towels can come in any size, as long as they are not overbearing like full-size bathroom towels. Those used are usually more thin and elongated than an average rectangle, like 4 inches by 12 inches, or 4.5 inches by 11.5 inches. The length is important to leave enough to both tuck in safely, and to use for the hands. Some receivers use what looks like a long, thin strip of textile.
- Color. As football towels became popularly accepted in the 1970s, soon thereafter manufacturers began creating them with team logos, in team colors, with themes (e.g. camouflage, and possibly brand logos depending on league rules.
- Tuck. Football players do not want a towel attached permanently to his uniform, nor even tucked in tightly, for fear a defensive player could use it to his advantage to make plays or tackles. Some players will wear them very loosely, because if they are lost during play they can easily get a replacement.
- Material. Cotton was the primary material used for football towels for many years, and it still is used a lot. However, other moisture-absorbing materials might be used like the chamois used to dry cars after washing, or new technologically advanced textiles.
- Brand. Some players might have a preference for a brand, which might make the towels lighter, or more absorbent.
Generally, any position player who does not depend greatly on using the hands ~ especially the palm and fingers on the front side ~ refrain from tucking in towels during game play.
This means offensive and defensive linemen, and almost all special teams players (on kickoffs, field goals, and punts). On kick teams, the center, kick holder, and punter often wear towels because they will be handling the ball in critical moments.
Fans and Towels at Football Games
As with a lot of football gear, like jerseys, fans might want to wear the same items as they see on the field. As use of the football towel gained popularity in the 1970s, so did towels held ~ and waved ~ by fans in the stands.
Often this is during special promotions when football flags adorned in team colors and/or team logo are given away to spectators as they enter the stadium. At these games it is common to see a vast majority of fans waving towels.
In fact, for the most important games like in the playoffs, many teams do just that: hand out free towels to fans as they walk in.
Aside from waving towels wildly, fans could wear towels in unique ways to show some team style. (More on that below)
The spectacle of thousands of fans screaming and waving uniformly colored towels above their head is quite the visual, intended to both show support for the home team, and also to intimidate the opposition.
Probably the most famous of these towels was the “Terrible Towel” manufactured specifically for fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers. The Terrible Towe is always mostly bright yellow, and tinged or framed with black for the team-color combination. Originally donning just the team logo, eventually, the makers just plainly put “Terrible Towel” on them.
Fans also can be seen waving towels for their team at enemy territory, at road games. While this seems a fine way to show true team spirit, these fans also can be in jeopardy of physical violence by fans of the home team.
Besides assisting to improve game play, towels are used by both players and fans for another element: style.
Many players will choose towels carefully designed to match well with the uniform worn that day, whether the dark jerseys for home games, or the whites of the road.
Others might choose colors or patterns designed to do the opposite: to stand out and be seen more easily on a player’s body.
Other ways football towels can be utilized stylistically:
- On the head. Fans can be seen to wrap football towels around their head like a headband, or over the whole head like “do-rag” bandanas.
- Hanging out from a hat. Fans, and sometimes players, tuck towels into their hats so they hang from the backside, usually to fend off sun, wind or cold. Plus it looks cool!
- Draped. As opposed to being tied around the head, like the item above, towels can be just draped over the top of a player’s head. This occurs sometimes to help warm up or cool off a fatigued player, or for the reasons above: block the sun, cold, or wind.
Earlier we mentioned that during play covered the when question about using towels in football. We wanted to offer some details into another when: when exactly during games.
Towels are likely to be seen on the field when a very important kick, whether a punt or field goal, is about to occur. This is because the snap from the center is not merely handed off to the ball handler, like with the quarterback, but “long snapped” several feet.
In fact, these long snaps are not soft tosses easy to handle. To cut time and ensure a proper flight of the ball, these balls are snapped hard, to travel very fast and true to the receiving player. These balls can be snapped as fast as a person throws a football overhead.
Therefore, during a very important moment in a game, in instances where a ball may be mishandled, you are probably more likely to see use of a towel on the football field.
The punter and field-goal holder, in particular, almost always have a towel with them. Dry hands at that point ~ of receiving long snaps ~ is crucial. Fumbling or dropping the ball at that point most often means the ball cannot be kicked, or worse.
For this same reason, kickoff and punt returners usually wear towels. It is during catches of the football, like when they catch a kick and begin to return it, when most turnovers in football occur.
Hence, the element of prevention: the football towel.
Question: Why do football players wipe their forearms?
Answer: To prevent sweat from dripping onto the hands and fingers. Think about gravity. If you dry your hands but have sweaty forearms, when the arms are down at your side, sweat has a direct path downward ~ and onto the hands.
Q.: What happens when a towel falls off a player during game play?
A.: It falls to the ground and play continues. Unless a towel is dropped to purposely gain some kind of advantage, referees ignore dropped towels (or uniform parts) and let the play continue. Probably the only time you might see towels discussed on the field is if they fall and are confused with the flags thrown by referees for penalties.
Q.: Do we only see towels in football games on TV?
A.: No, towels are used at every level of football including college, high school, and youth play.
Q.: How do some players make their hands disappear into a towel tucked in front?
A.: Those are designed differently, with a pouch specifically to keep hands warm and dry, like that you see on a hoodie sweatshirt. These are usually actually belts that go around the entirety of the waist, so the player can choose to slide it to the side (or in the rear) if it gets in the way or they don’t need it.