John Elway’s eyes drift from the Stanford huddle to the stands at Husky Stadium. On this clear Halloween afternoon in 1981, the future Hall of Famer from Port Angeles sees what everyone else at the University of Washington’s football coliseum can—and what few, if any of the 53,504 in attendance, have seen before.
During the second half, while Stanford tries to stave off a UW comeback, the Husky faithful start a revolution, quite literally. Section by section, the fans rise and shout sequentially, raising their arms skyward before descending into their seats. The cheer commences in the student section but circles the field multiple times, its cacophony disrupting Elway and the rest of Stanford’s offense in a 42-31 Huskies victory. The Seattle Daily Times describes it as a “rolling roar” and, later, as the “Weller Wave.”
The spectacle spawned by Tacoma-born UW alum Robb Weller wasn’t the first documented appearance of what became an international phenomenon. But 40 years after it rippled across the sports world—and as fans return to Husky Stadium this fall—the wave remains as controversial as when Weller originally popularized it.
During his college years in the early 1970s, Weller was something of a local celebrity for his role as yell leader, commanding the school’s cheering section; his name made the papers more than many players’ did. With a microphone in hand, he’d entertain his classmates before and during games with quick wit (an “N-B-C” chant during an ABC broadcast was infamous) and colorful language that rankled some older crowd members. He was perhaps best known, however, for his “attitude checks.” He’d cue different parts of the student section, via color-coded cards, to stand, shout, and sit in unison—spurts, not a wave, of enthusiasm. “It was to prove to our parents on the other side we were sober enough where they should still keep sending us money for college,” Weller recalls.
Almost a decade later, on that fall homecoming Saturday, Weller revived the “attitude check” twice against Stanford. Both times the Huskies responded with a touchdown. When band director Bill Bissell urged him to prompt the vertical cheer a third time, Weller thought that might be overdoing it. Go side to side then, Bissell suggested. Weller acquiesced. He ran from the end zone closest to Lake Union to the 50-yard line and watched as the student section undulated as he passed. To his surprise, the movement didn’t stop with the undergrads; alums picked up the cadence and sent it around the rest of the stadium. The wave, as we know it, was born.
Sort of. For many years, UW was feted for inventing this form of sports revelry. But just over two weeks before Weller’s wave, Oakland A’s fans had pulled off a clunkier version under the direction of “Krazy George” Henderson during a televised playoff game. “I’m tired of some of the Seattle media, University of Washington, and Robb Weller claiming the wave when all the evidence points to me and all the Oakland A’s fans,” Henderson wrote in a 1984 letter to the Times.
Still, many observers view the UW wave as the catalyst for its adoption elsewhere, from the Kingdome to the University of Michigan’s Big House to Mexico City’s Estadio Azteca. Today, as then, detractors deem it a hokey distraction from the field, a bit of forced fun. Proponents appreciate it as peak fandom: euphoric escape.
For Weller, it was a happy accident—unscripted, unlike much of his adult life. His years behind the yell leader mic prepared him for TV gigs in Seattle, Chicago, and New York City. Eventually, he hosted Entertainment Tonight. Today he owns a production company while splitting time between Olympia and Beverly Hills.
His most famous work wasn’t televised; the game between Washington and Stanford didn’t make the networks. Weller says he didn’t know about Henderson’s wave in Oakland. He wonders how it surfaced at nearly the same moment in history as his, how a stadium movement still stirs such passion. “I have no idea how this happened.”