Why Football Referees Hold Their Fists Up After A Play

Written By: vIQtory
Updated: December 29, 2023

Football Players can often be seen, after a big play, holding up their fists after a big play or crucial stop. What does it mean, and why do they do it?

Referees hold up their fists to signal fourth down. Players started doing this to celebrate stopping the opponent, often forcing a punt on 4th down.

In this article, we will show you why teams hold up their fists during the game.

Why Do Referees Hold Up Their Fist?

Referees have signals in which they communicate with each other. It wasn’t until recently that referees had earpieces to communicate verbally to one another.

In youth, high school, and most college games, referees must signal to one another to be on the same page about what down it is.

Because the technology isn’t available to all crews, they must use hand signals to one another. This is how referees communicate with one another.

In high school, typically, volunteer parents will be holding the down markers.

To ensure the parents holding the down markers don’t cheat, referees will use a special black band on their hands to keep track of the plays. Along with the black band, referees will communicate with one another using special hand signals.

These hand signals are important and are used every down. If you’re looking to follow along with the signals, here are the widely known signals among the referee community.

First Down Signal

The sign for a first down is simply holding up one finger. This sign is to communicate with the other referees what down it is before the snap.

To signal to the chain crew to move the chains for another first down, the referee will also signal first down with his hand like this:

Second Down Signal

The second down signal is often shown with the index and pinky fingers. This is why the second down signal should never be confused with the first down signal or the third-down signal between the referees.

As most side judges are 53.3 yards away from each other, it may be tough to see the signals.

Third Down Signal

The third-down is held up by 3 fingers, as shown in the picture below. The referees will often see this signal as they spot the ball short of the first down the line, signaling 3rd down.

Fourth Down Signal

As shown in the picture below, the fist is one of the more common referee signs displayed by referees and celebrated by players. 4th down will likely bring out the punt team, which is a small victory for the defense as they can get off the field and rest.

In longer games in the NFL and college, resting on the bench is a big help for stamina and reserving energy.

Because of this universal referee signal, players started to put their fists in the air to signify fourth down. This was a way to celebrate reaching fourth down to hype up other teammates.

Teams are more likely to go for it on fourth down in youth, high school, and sometimes college, sacrificing field position. However, in the NFL, teams are more like to punt the ball on 4th and 1 if they’re anywhere behind the 50-yard line.

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What Is The Black String On The Referees’ Hands?

The black string on the referee’s hand helps them keep track of the downs. They put it around their finger to remember in between plays. The index finger is first down, the middle finger is second down and the ring finger is third down.

In football, referees consistently talk to players, coaches, and each other. On top of the communication, they need to be on the lookout for any penalties in their area.

With all of this going on, the head referee and the side judge with the chains must know what down it is at all times. This way, they don’t miss a down or give a team another down.

This was made famous in Colorado vs. Missouri in 1990.

In this game, the referees lost track of downs and essentially awarded Colorado a 5th down, and they were able to punch it in. This is a prime example of referees relying on the down marker rather than the black band on the finger.

The referees will keep the black band on each finger to signify which down it is. The black band looks like this.

For instance, the first finger is first down, the second finger is 2nd, and so on.

Like how an umpire has a clicker to signify balls and strikes, and the football referee has a band on their hands, which helps them keep track of downs. A simple system that proves efficient down track.

The referee mustn’t rely on the down markers to track what down it is. Parents for the home team often operate the chains and down markers in youth and high school games. Parents may get too caught up in the game and forget to change the down marker if the game is exciting.

Parents could also favor the home team and purposely cheat to give their team an advantage.

Keep Learning

There is so much more to learn about referees and the rules of football.

If you’re looking to improve your football knowledge, we recommend you check out our Beginners Guide To Football below.

The Ultimate Football Guide

Why spend hours on Google and YouTube trying to learn football yourself? We’ve created a simple guide to help make you the smartest person in the room.

Football players can often be seen holding their fists up after they make a stop on 3rd down. This is a way to celebrate that they held their opponent to 4th down, which often requires a punt.

Players put their fists in the air to signify that they’ve made it to fourth down. This often means that the other team will have to punt, meaning the defense won that drive, as the offense will now take over in place of the defense.

This sign can be seen in youth, high school, college, and professional football. Referees across the world use these signals to communicate with each other.

This signal is universal among all athletes, as it helps the referee signal what down it is. It’s also a way to unify the defense to celebrate and prepare for the next drive, hoping to replicate the success.

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