The cheer that declares “I believe that we will win!” has been pumping up fans of the US Men’s National Team for almost a decade. You’ll likely hear it as the United States plays in the Qatar World Cup this month, but it first echoed in a stadium at US Naval Academy football games, thanks in part to members of another athletic team at the school.
US fans have already been heard yelling the cheer during USMNT games in Qatar. But according to former Midshipmen, the cheer debuted at the 1999 Army-Navy football game and is perhaps most associated at the school with Navy’s 2004 lacrosse team, a squad with a special place in Annapolis lore. That team came within a goal of winning the national championship and was led by Brendan Looney, a future Navy SEAL who was later killed in Afghanistan.
“It started before us, but it wasn’t really a big go-to chant,” Graham Gill, an All-American lacrosse player at Navy who went on to be a naval aviator, said during an interview about the cheer prior to the US’s last World Cup appearance in 2014.
“I grew up in New Jersey, and I remember basketball games and all the cheers were just taunting back and forth and that’s all it was. This is more positive, and it’s showing the team that the crowd is behind them.”
Born at the Prep School
“I believe that we will win” was born at the Naval Academy Preparatory School in 1998, when Jay Rodriguez, a future Navy pilot, thought it up as a training cheer. Another prep-schooler, Corey Strong, carried “I Believe” to the Academy as a cheerleader.
Strong told ESPN that he first tried the cheer with the school’s full student body, known as the Brigade of Midshipmen, at the 1999 Army-Navy football game. Just a freshman, Strong suddenly found that he was recognized around campus.
“I would randomly be walking to class and people would see me and say ‘I believe,’” Strong told Coffee or Die Magazine.
Strong passed the cheer along to members of the school’s lacrosse team while they served together over a summer as student instructors at the prep school.
“Probably the craziest athletes on campus are the lacrosse players,” Strong said. “So if someone was going to get excited and do something with the cheer, it would be those guys.”
By 2003, the cheer was in the hands of Dwayne Osgood, a lacrosse player from Penn Yan, New York. Osgood went on to commission as a Marine and made several combat deployments.
“We were the stewards of the chant from 2003 to 2005,” Osgood said. “I would stand up with a couple guys holding my legs. It took one or two tries for the brigade to catch up, but after I did it for two or three games, the brigade was looking for it.”
A Team of Triumph and Tragedy
The 2004 team that Osgood and Gill played on holds a distinctive place in Navy athletic history. On the field, the squad was the best in school history, reaching the national championship game where it lost to Syracuse by a single goal.
At the heart of the team’s roster were brothers Stephen, Billy, and Brendan Looney.
Brendan, a senior, did not play lacrosse until arriving at the Naval Academy, but with his size, athleticism, and determination, he made himself a key player on the 2004 team as a hulking defensive midfielder.
Looney’s roommate and best friend at the Academy was Annapolis native Travis Manion. Though Manion did not play lacrosse, the two men bonded over a shared desire to pursue Navy careers outside of traditional fleet positions.
Looney was determined to be a SEAL, while Manion was focused on becoming a Marine infantry officer.
While leading Marines in an ambush in Iraq in 2007, Manion was killed by a sniper. He was 26.
Looney was at BUD/S, the SEAL’s grinding selection course, when he learned of Manion’s death. Pushed by the memory of his friend, he graduated as his class Honor Man.
In September 2010, Looney was one of nine Americans killed in Afghanistan in a helicopter crash. He was 29.
After Looney’s death, Manion’s parents agreed to have their son relocated from a family grave to Arlington National Cemetery, so the two best friends could be buried beside each other.
From the Brigade to Qatar
Gill said the team was ready with “I Believe That We Will Win” for the 2003 edition of the school’s annual showdown with the US Air Force Academy.
The day of the game, Gill and the other lacrosse players sat in the front of the student section, waiting for a dramatic moment.
“People had been saying, ‘Do it now,’ but he was like, ‘We gotta wait,’” Chris Pieczonka, a midfielder on the team, said.
With Navy ahead 28-25, Osgood stood, faced the brigade and began:
A few returned the cheer: “I!”
The voices grew: “I believe!”
“I believe that we!”
Louder still came the response: “I believe that we!”
And with the final rhythmic line — “I believe that we will win!” — Gill recalls: “The whole brigade went crazy.”
That spring, football players returned the favor, showing up to lacrosse games en masse to belt out the cheer as the team set campus records.
For the next decade, “I Believe” percolated through college sports across the country, notably at Utah State and San Diego State. By 2014, fans of the US Men’s National Soccer Team had adopted the cheer as a de facto anthem during World Cup qualifying. Ice Cube, Cam Newton, and Abby Wambach recited it in ESPN commercials.
In 2019, Pitbull recorded a hype-up song featuring the cheer, “I Believe That We Will Win World Anthem.”
For the 2004 team, “I believe that we will win” still has juice. During an interview for this story, Gill had to stand and pace around his house, unable to sit while thinking about “I Believe.”
None of the players from the team were surprised when “I Believe” caught on around the World Cup.
“It caught me off guard, but it didn’t surprise me that much either because it’s so appropriate,” Gill said. “It made me excited that we are part of what started it and carried it on and had a little part of what it’s become.”