Before it became a rallying cry for enthusiastic college basketball student sections or hopeful U.S. soccer fans, the trendiest chant in American sports began as something much less grandiose.
It was the brainchild of a Naval Academy Prep School student who never expected it to spread across his own campus, let alone across the nation.
Tasked with inventing a cheer for his 50-member platoon in fall 1998, Jay Rodriguez conceived of the now-famous "I believe that we will win" chant and taught it to his peers. Classmates say it was such an instant hit that members of other platoons joined in the rest of the school year whenever Rodriguez led the chant at Navy Prep basketball and football games.
"The first time we heard it, we all thought, 'This is awesome,'" said John Reeves, who attended Navy Prep and the Naval Academy with Rodriguez. "Jay was really good at coming up with stuff like that because he was very intelligent and very creative. It caught on like wildfire."
To the bewilderment and amusement of those who know its humble origin, "I believe that we will win" has steadily gained popularity the past 15 years, evolving from a platoon chant, to a Navy football tradition, to a staple of sporting events nationwide.
It started with Rodriguez's Navy Prep class bringing the chant to the Naval Academy and teaching it to the rest of the brigade. Over the next decade, students at other high schools and colleges caught glimpses of 4,000 Midshipmen jumping up and down in the bleachers performing the chant and introduced versions of it at their own basketball and football games. By 2010, rooting sections for several Major League Soccer franchises decided to borrow the chant after noticing the fun that fans at schools like Utah State and San Diego State were having performing it before games.
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The fervor for the chant has reached new levels in recent months as it has become the anthem for the U.S. soccer team. In the build-up to the World Cup, ESPN unveiled a series of "I believe that we will win" commercials, the first showing footage of thousands of red-white-and-blue-clad American fans performing the chant and the second with celebrities like Kevin Costner, Ice Cube and Barry Sanders doing it.
"The first time I heard the "I believe" chant for a U.S. game was in Kansas City [in 2011]," said Justin Brunken, co-founder of the U.S. soccer support group known as the American Outlaws. "It was a chant that just grew from there and caught on and on. It resonated with the crowds across the country and became synonymous with what we believe in and became the battle cry for this World Cup."
"I believe that we will win" might never have spread had Rodriguez not taught the chant to classmate Corey Strong early in their plebe year at the Naval Academy. Strong, a cheerleader, grabbed a microphone and led the entire brigade in the cheer during the fourth quarter of the 1999 Army-Navy football game as the Midshipmen were finishing off a 19-9 victory over the rival Cadets.
When Strong bellowed "I" into the microphone, the rest of the brigade shouted it back at him. When Strong followed that by screaming "I believe," the brigade once again responded in kind. Pretty soon 4,000 Midshipmen were jumping up and down in uniform in the bleachers pumping their fists and yelling "I believe that we will win" in unison over and over.
"It was deafening," Strong said. "The following year we did it again at the Army-Navy game, and we beat Army again. At the end of the game, I saw a good friend I grew up with in Memphis. I said, 'How's it going, man? We beat y'all again.' He said, 'I hate that damn cheer.' So everybody loves it except for West Point grads."
The chant likely would have become a staple of every Navy football game thereafter except that the Midshipmen weren't good enough for that to be realistic.
Navy went 1-10 in 2000, 0-10 in 2001 and 2-10 in 2002, though two of their three victories during that era did come at Army's expense. Still, it was hard to persuade the brigade to shout "I believe that we will win" when the team was getting pummeled 70-7 by Georgia Tech, 24-0 by Boston College or 65-19 by North Carolina State.
Momentum changed in coach Paul Johnson's second season in 2003 when Navy entered the annual Air Force game with a 2-2 record that included blowout wins over VMI and Eastern Michigan and respectable losses to TCU and Rutgers. Spurred on by a handful of lacrosse players who remembered the chant from their year at Navy Prep with Rodriguez or from previous victories over Army, the entire brigade performed a thunderous pregame rendition of "I believe that we will win" while the teams were still in the locker room.
"I was used to trying to stay calm before games because I knew I had to go out for the coin toss, but you could hear it through the locker room door," said linebacker Eddie Carthan, a senior co-captain on that team. "Mind you we were 3-30 the last three years, so we weren't used to hearing our crowd. Something great had to happen for our crowd to be into the game, much less pregame before we'd even warmed up yet.
"The more they got into it, the louder it got. We started looking around at each-other in the locker room and it was unspoken but the look that each of us had was, 'Yes, I do believe we actually can win.'"
And Navy did win 28-25, snapping a six-year losing streak to Air Force and paving the way for an eight-win season and a bowl appearance. With the Navy athletic department printing "I believe that we will win" shirts and the local media spotlighting the rallying cry, the chant reappeared before or during every home game that season and during most big football games ever since. Midshipmen even performed it outside Bancroft Hall after the death of Osama Bin Laden in 2011, though they fittingly changed the words so that the chant went "I believe that we have won."
The leaders of the chant at football games in the early years were often Navy lacrosse players, most of whom would sit bunched together at the top of the stadium. They led the chant before the game and whenever the score was close and they felt the football team was in need of a morale boost.
"They loved it," said Chris Pieczonka, a Navy lacrosse player who graduated in 2005. "The football players would come to our games in the spring time and they were so loud. They created this whole group called the Navy Lacrosse Hooligans. They'd find out who were playing, start doing their research and they'd have the whole roster and their girlfriends and everything. We were really grateful for that, so we wanted to show the same support."
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Naval Academy students, athletes and fans assumed the tradition would remain unique to their institution, so it came as a huge shock when they began noticing that other schools and other teams started borrowing it in recent years.
Strong couldn't believe it when he began graduate school at San Diego State a few years ago and listened to the Aztecs' student section give a deafening rendition of the chant before a game. Reeves was equally surprised when he was watching a football game on TV and heard the students performing the chant. Carthan had no idea the chant had spread until he stumbled across one of the ESPN World Cup commercials this spring.
Though many at Navy wish the public was more aware of how the chant started, they are also proud of having a hand in launching something that has caught on nationwide.
"The ultimate demonstration of respect is when you borrow something like that," Reeves said. "It went from one enlisted sailor at the Naval Academy Prep School and now it's the chant of the U.S. soccer team as they play and represent our country. I think that's incredible."
How does Rodriguez feel about his chant having gone global? That's unclear since he's stationed in Japan and didn't return messages this week, but his wife gave a hint earlier this week with a Facebook post linking to one of the ESPN commercials.
"Somebody better send us a check," Isis Rodriguez quipped. "My babies need new shoes....LOL... Annapolis grads 99-03 know."
Yes, they do know. A chant with humble roots has improbably spread to the point where it's almost inescapable.
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