Stiff-arms are indisputably great. When a gigantic child recently stiff-armed a somewhat smaller child into 2037, a significant fraction of the internet stood up and cheered. After all, who doesn’t want to be unceremoniously tossed into the future right now? Doug Brooks was merely bestowing a large favor upon the brave pretender. A blessing of the very forceful kind.
Derrick Henry is, of course, the reigning champion of all things stiff-arm. And what Brooks can do to enthusiastic-but-underweight high-schoolers, Henry can do to fully-fledged NFL-ers. Here’s his latest effort, which turned Alex Myres into a particularly dejected sort of paste:
Henry has reached something close to the apotheosis of stiff-armery, the purest distillation of the move. It’s quite hard to envision anyone getting much better at it. But if this is the triumphant climax of the stiff-arming art, one end of the timeline, what’s the other? Where did this move come from? Whose shoulders is Henry mauling from?
The first use of ‘stiff-arm’ I can find in the American press comes from 1803 in the Wilkes-Barre Gleaner, who report that Stiff-Arm’d George has been banished from the State of Pennsylvania for murder. I assume this has zero to do with football, but I thought it was a cool nickname, and wanted to share it. To get to stiff-arms on the gridiron, we have to fast-forward almost a century and wander off into the wilds of Montana. There we meet one Donald Gillis.
The Butte Miner’s Nov. 13, 1895 preview of the big football game between Butte and Reliance — totally without bias, I’m happy to assume — includes this blurb on Gillis, star running back and civil engineer:
Gillis is good in interference, and a sure tackler; but his strong point is in running with the ball, and it is very seldom, that he fails to make a gain. He has the trick of giving the “stiff arm” to would-be tacklers down to a fine point, and no one man can stop him in a run.
Gillis, we discover, learned his footballing trade at the University of Michigan. Perhaps it was there he picked up the trick? I can’t actually trace the etymology back any further, even if I switch sport to rugby and its variants of ‘fending’, so I’m happy to call Gillis the first-documented stiff-armer. If you find anything earlier, please let me know!
At any rate, the move exploded in popularity from the 1890s onward — we start seeing usage spike almost immediately after Butte vs. Reliance, and the name spreads in a curious example of linguistic osmosis. By 1935 the stiff-arm is central enough to the sport’s image that the Heisman Trophy depicts running back Ed Smith mid-stiff-arm.
From there it’s a clear run to NFL running backs and Derrick Henry. Except … here’s the Heisman:
And here’s Henry:
There’s an interesting difference here, physiologically, one you can also see when comparing Brooks’ high-school stiff-arm to the image above. While the Heisman trophy and Brooks are fending off opponents, arms outstretched, Henry extends his arms into the contact. This does a couple of things:
- It prevents his elbow locking and taking the full force of, say, a 200-lb man running straight into it without any flex.
- Allows Henry to use his absurd strength rather than ‘just’ the compressive strength of the bones in his arms.
Normally, the stiff-arm is so effective because you don’t have to use your strength to fend off a tackler. You let the your arm’s structure do all the work. But Henry’s the king of stiff-arms because he can stiff-arm you in any number of ways. He can play the traditional keep-away-from me game, or he can lean into the much more active, ****-off version, which is what he deployed against Myres. And then he has one more trick.
According to the New York Times, who interviewed his high-school coach about Henry’s technique, he has three separate stiff-arms. The type you haven’t seen so far is reserved for defenders who try to go low, and make the error of allowing Henry to simply plow them into the dirt. He does this at 1:24 in the video below:
(All of the video is worth watching, whether you’re a stiff-arm connoisseur or not.)
As a defender, how do you deal with all of this stiff-arming? The answer is that you probably don’t. Attack in packs at all times, and hope like hell that if you do have the misfortune to end up one on one against Derrick Henry in open space you don’t end up on a highlight reel. I reckon Donald Gillis would be proud.