A ‘Who Dat’ history: The story behind the New Orleans Saints rallying cry
It was fall 1983, and as part of a prep sports preview package for WVUE-TV, sports anchor Ken Berthelot and photographer Avis Landry captured video of the St. Augustine High School Purple Knights football team engaging in a daily pre-practice chant. Meant to psych the team up, it went, “Who dat?! Who dat?! Who dat talk about beatin’ St. Aug?” When WVUE sports director Ron Swoboda saw it, he knew they had something special. “I thought, ‘I love this cheer. We’ve got to play this a few times during the week,'” Swoboda said in a 2010 interview with The Times-Picayune. The package first aired on Sept. 1, 1983. It was immediately clear that Swoboda wasn’t the only one taken with it. Three days later, it could be heard echoing through the Superdome for the New Orleans Saints’ home opener against the St. Louis Cardinals. It has yet to cease.
Since that 1983 season, cries of “Who Dat?!” have become a key part of Saints fan culture, with opposing teams being showered by it routinely. In 2010, Saints quarterback Drew Brees codified its game-day usage with the introduction of what has become a pre-game ritual: After the coin toss, a pre-determined player or guest will raise his or her hand over their head on the field. When they drop their hand, that’s the cue for everyone in the Superdome to launch into three thundering rounds of the “Who Dat” chant.
- The use of “Who Dat” as a cheer at athletic events predates the 1983 WVUE story by as much as a decade. Although its origin is murky, Nicholls State University English professor Shana Walton, who led a research team hired by the NFL, said in 2010 that the chant was being used in the early 1970s by majority-black schools in South Louisiana.
- The phrase “Who Dat” in a non-athletic context can be traced back further, to the 1890s and a song called “Who Dat Say Chicken in Dis Crowd,” a song from Edward E. Rice’s vaudeville show “Summer Nights.” In the 20th century it was part of a vaudeville and minstrel show comedy bit in which one character would ask, “Who dat?,” with another responding, “Who dat say, ‘Who dat?'”
- Near the end of the 1977 comedy “Smokey and the Bandit,” after Burt Reynolds’ character raises Jackie Gleason’s lawman character on the radio, Gleason responds — clear as day — with the words, “Who dat?”
- In 1983, broadcaster Sal Monistere heard the Who Dat chant at the Superdome and got the idea of turning it into a song that could be played on the radio. Recruiting Aaron Neville to do the singing, they recorded the song “Who Dat?” at First Take recording studio, owned by Monistere’s brother. It became a local hit.
- The “Who Dat” chant on that recording was done by five Saints players — Dave Waymer, Brad Edelman, John Hill, Reggie Lewis and Louis Oubre — performing as “The Singing Saints.”
- Neville, a longtime Saints fan, didn’t have to be asked twice to participate. “It (was) a no-brainer,” Neville said in 2010. “I had been with the Saints since the late ’60s when they used to come see me and my brothers. It was a special treat for me being in with some of the Saints, doing the ‘Who dat?’ cheer.”
- The song was a sign of the general optimism surrounding the Saints’ 1983 campaign, after having just missed out on making the playoffs a year earlier. The “Snake” referred to in the lyrics is former Saints quarterback Kenny “The Snake” Stabler, and “Bum” is a reference to head coach Bum Phillips.
- Since the 1981 season, fans of the Cincinnati Bengals have been using a similar chant, replacing “Who Dat” with “Who Dey?” But that’s stupid.
In New Orleans, “Who Dat” isn’t just a cheer. It’s a greeting. It’s an exclamation of joyous approval. It’s an expression of black-and-gold loyalty and civic pride, all wrapped up in one. It’s also become a part of the New Orleans identity. The NFL found that out the hard way when, shortly after the Saints’ 2009 Super Bowl victory, it attempted to claim as its own the trademark to the phrase. Pushback from the Who Dat Nation was swift and strong. The NFL eventually backed off. As U.S. Rep. Steve Scalise (R-Jefferson) said at the time, “If the NFL owns ‘Who Dat,’ then a football is round. No matter how hard they try, nobody can dispute the power and energy of the Who Dat Nation.”