The strangest compliment in football.

The stadium scene.
Feb. 2 2005 6:57 PM

Who's Your War Daddy?

The strangest compliment in football.

Illustration by Mark Alan Stamaty

For college football maniacs, national signing day is a chance for rebirth. Fans spent Wednesday obsessively clicking on recruiting Web sites to check out their team's haul of future stars. A great recruiting class might include a couple of five-star players, a few blue-chippers, some gamers, and perhaps a slobberknocker. But if a coach is really lucky, he'll get himself a war daddy.

Josh Levin Josh Levin

Josh Levin is Slate's executive editor.

A war daddy? What in the name of Bear Bryant is a war daddy?

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"War daddy" is the rare bit of football jargon that somehow manages to be both ubiquitous and obscure. A die-hard fan who can parse the differences between a mike linebacker and a will linebacker probably hasn't heard of a war daddy. When I suggested to former Army head coach (and war daddy enthusiast) Todd Berry that you don't hear about war daddies very often, he clucked, "Oh, in the coaching profession you hear it quite a bit."

War daddyhood is in the eye of the beholder, so definitions vary wildly. Recruiting experts, fans, and coaches all agree that they don't come along too often. When a war daddy does arrive, he must combine elite ability with extraordinary toughness. Many picture a dominant, run-stuffing defensive tackle. But while most war daddies do play defense, they are in rare circumstances seen on the offensive side of the ball. In 2003, UCLA coach Karl Dorrell said Bruins quarterback Drew Olson was a war daddy because "he gets hit a lot, makes a mistake or two but gets back in there." Bobby Burton, editor in chief of leading recruiting site Rivals.com, says a war daddy can be "any guy that's not just good—he's unbelievable."

When Bill Curry was head coach at Georgia Tech in the early 1980s, he instituted a war daddy head count. Before every game his assistants would declare that the Yellow Jackets should be ready for a tough game as they were facing, say, a six-war-daddy defense. Curry says his players would titter during the weekly announcement. But no one was laughing after Tech ran into the war daddy to end all war daddies, Tennessee's Reggie White. After the Minister of Defense tormented Tech's linemen, Curry heard one of his huge tackles weeping. "War daddies can make a grown man cry," he says.

Richard Mann, wide receivers coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, has a hard time putting war daddies into words. In the middle of describing a play in which Bucs rookie wideout/war daddy Michael Clayton pummeled a linebacker with a downfield block, Mann stops himself. "You know a war daddy when you see one. If you would see the tape you would know what I'm talking about." After ticking off a few more war daddy receivers—Keyshawn Johnson, Hines Ward—Mann hangs up. A few minutes later, he calls back. "It's Richard Mann from Tampa Bay," he says. "Muhsin Muhammad from the Carolina Panthers—that guy, he's a goddamn war daddy now. That guy will knock your ass out." Then he hangs up again.

While the phrase makes some kind of sense—football is a war and the best players are the daddies, or something—war daddy's etymology remains shrouded in mystery. The term's popularity with football coaches probably has a lot to do with the fact that "war daddy" is so fun to say, especially in a Southern drawl. Give it a try yourself: War daddy, war daddy, war daddy. It's addictive—we've been calling each other "war daddy" in the Slate offices all day. (Some of us have already moved on to Daddy Warbucks and daddy o' war.)

While the Oxford English Dictionary doesn't have a "war daddy" listing, there are several definitions for "war baby," including "a young or inexperienced officer." It makes sense, then, that a war daddy would be a player who lords it over the thumb-sucking war babies on the other team. (This tribute page to a beloved ROTC instructor named War Daddy Jackson bolsters the baby/daddy thesis.)

Football seems to be the only sport that features war daddies, although, as Pedro Martinez will tell you, the concept of the "daddy" as a signifier of sports domination has recently become fashionable. But on the gridiron, the phrase dates back as far back as the 1950s. Harold "War Daddy" White coached the football team at Mississippi's Perkinston Junior College. Donald Massengale, who played fullback and center for War Daddy in 1953 and 1954, says his old coach was a legendary hard-ass. On the phone, Massengale recites a poem called "Ode to Woe" that compares Coach White to supposed tough guy Bear Bryant. The last two lines: "So, if you're a Bear man and think you had it tough, laddie/ You should have been at Perk with our old War Daddy."

In the decades since War Daddy ruled the Gulf Coast, the phrase has spread from ocean to ocean. Some coaches have even turned spoken flattery into a wearable tribute. Jim Wacker, the late head coach of Texas Christian and Minnesota, reserved a black "War Daddy" practice jersey for rare players. Whoever Wacker anointed was required to remove the sacred garment after a week but was allowed to continue wearing a war daddy T-shirt under his shoulder pads in perpetuity. In September 2003, Carolina Panthers quarterback Jake Delhomme wrote in his online diary about the great satisfaction of winning that team's war daddy T-shirt. "It is my first one," he wrote, "so I'm pretty proud."

For everything coaches say about the toughness that war daddydom requires, they never cite the tough guys who aren't good at football. Former Georgia head coach Jim Donnan says he's coached five war daddies in his career (he calls them "WDs" for short). All of them—Lawrence Taylor, Tony Casillas, Keith Jackson, Champ Bailey, and Richard Seymour—had or are currently having great NFL careers. The one war daddy that Bill Curry mentioned who wasn't a standout pro was Ted Roof, who once made 25 tackles in a single game while covered in blood pouring from an open wound. The lesson: If you're not an All-Pro and you want to be a war daddy, you'd better make sure to get soaked in your own blood.

There will be at least one war daddy in the Super Bowl—in true war daddy fashion, the Patriots' Richard Seymour is going to tough out a knee injury and play in Sunday's game. But is there anything out there for guys like Seymour—who's won two Super Bowls and been a war daddy in college and the pros—to aspire to? Bill Curry suggests that even a Grade A war daddy can reach a higher level. "If you talked about the highest compliment, you'd have to say a sophisticated war daddy," Curry says, "somebody who can go on the field and perform like that and come off the field and act like a gentleman."

Special thanks to Jesse Sheidlower of theOxford English Dictionary.

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