What Dat? It's the story of the 'Who Dat' phrase

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 team'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 the season 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 New Orleans 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 that 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 wasn't 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 Game, earning the right to play the Indianapolis Colts in the Super Bowl.

Saints fans were incensed and argued that the NFL couldn't claim ownership of a saying or symbol that predates the franchise. 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!"

Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press

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