What Dat? It’s the story of “Who Dat”

New Orleans Saints flags fluttering from its roof, the black SUV

rolled past a bus stop on Tchoupitoulas Street early in the

morning.

“Who Dat!” came the cheer from the SUV’s open windows.

“I Dat!” cried the fans at the stop.

“You Dat!”

Then, everybody together: “We Dat!”

Smiles and fist bumps all around.

With the Saints in the Super Bowl for the first time, the team’s

“Who Dat” cheer has become something a little bit more: a

greeting, a chant, a taunt and a ritual in a city where love of the

home team has rarely correlated to victories in 43 years of

football.

The origins of “Who Dat” aren’t clear, though the phrase

apparently goes back to late 19th-century minstrel shows.

The story of “Who Dat” and the Saints goes back to one of the

club’s rare hopeful moments in its first two decades. In 1983, New

Orleans hired coach Bum Phillips, a guy who wore a white cowboy hat

and promised big wins. The Saints opened 4-2, and for the

ever-optimistic fans, the future looked bright.

That’s when Ron Swoboda – who had heard a New Orleans high

school use it – decided the “Who Dat” chant perfectly captured

the hopeful mood. The chant, “Who dat, who dat, who dat say gonna

beat dem Saints,” is frequently shortened to just “Who Dat.”

“Things were looking so good for the Saints, people were

thinking playoffs and rightfully so,” remembered Swoboda, who

gained fame with a clutch World Series catch for the 1969 New York

Mets, and was a local sportscaster in 1983. “That ‘Who Dat’ chant

seemed to connect the fans to the team and how they felt

them.”

Swoboda got five Saints players- Dave Waymer, Brad Edelman, John

Hill, Reggie Lewis and Louis Oubre – to chant the “Who Dats”, and

Aaron Neville to sing “When the Saints Go Marching In” on a

record that became an instant best-seller in New Orleans.

“It was a fun thing to do,” Neville said. “We wanted to do

something the fans would like and something that would show the

team the kind of support they had.”

After Neville’s first recording, at least 11 more versions have

been recorded, including a recent one by Neville himself. Among the

others are such classics as: “Are You A Who Dat?”; “Who Dat is

Coming Out”; and, “A Who Dat Christmas” by the Who Dat

Children’s Choir.

“’Who Dat’ belongs to this city,” said 69-year-old Rick Sins,

a season ticket holder since the first year. “That’s the way a lot

of us talk, anyway. But it’s ours. You saw how fast the NFL backed

down on that issue.”

The slogan has been reproduced on T-shirts, head bands, signs,

the back windows of cars and sides of buildings throughout the

area.

The NFL, which was not bothered by the merchandise for years,

moved to stop T-shirt shops from selling shirts with the slogan on

them immediately after the Saints beat the Minnesota Vikings in the

NFC championship, earning the right to play the Indianapolis Colts

in the Super Bowl on Sunday.

Saints fans were incensed, and argued the NFL couldn’t claim

ownership of a saying or symbol that predates the Saints.

The outcry was so loud that Gov. Bobby Jindal asked the state

attorney general to look into a possible lawsuit if the NFL was

attempting to declare ownership rights of the phrase.

Attorney General Buddy Caldwell had a conference call with the

NFL’s general counsel to discuss the cease-and-desist letters

claiming the “Who Dat” shirts were a trademark infringement.

“They’ve conceded and they’ve said they have no intention of

claiming the fleur-de-lis, which would be ridiculous, or the ‘Who

Dat,’ which would be equally ridiculous,” Caldwell said. The

fleur-de-lis is a traditional symbol of New Orleans that’s featured

on Saints helmets.

“That is pure New Orleans, honey,” said the 49-year-old Ruby

Celestine, one of the fans at the bus stop. “Everybody in the

world knows Who Dat. Because We Dat!”