MANHATTAN, Kan. — The band directors tell the rookies not to look up during the song because it will make them dizzy.
It’s easy to see why. When the band strikes the opening notes of Kansas State’s unofficial second fight song, a chaotic dance party breaks out in the student section.
Tuba players rock back and forth and thousands of students follow in nothing resembling unison, turning the section into a giant purple optical illusion. Trying to pick one head out among the mass is impossible from field level. As one leans back, three others lean forward. You can see everything happening, but nothing specific. Getting dizzy watching the swirling mass of humanity is inevitable.
Welcome to the proudest tradition in Kansas State sports: "The Wabash Cannonball," a rollicking brass-heavy rendition of a folk song that dates back to the early 1900s. The tradition began in Manhattan in 1968, when Nichols Hall, the home of the music department, was destroyed in a fire. So was all of the sheet music.
Except for one song that then-band director Phil Hewitt had brought home in his briefcase that evening: "The Wabash Cannonball."
The tradition has taken on a life of its own ever since.
“It grew to a level that nobody expected it to, that nobody anticipated,” current band director Frank Tracz said.
Part of the growth is the dance, which involves twisting your torso in the beginning, rocking back and forth in the middle, and at the end, “breaking down into a slow, sort of dirty grind,” according to tuba player Evan Looft of Wichita, Kan.
“The band gets into it, and the whole crowd just erupts into random cheering and screaming,” Looft added.
The “Pride of Wildcat Land” plays the song before every kickoff. Occasionally, to rile up the crowd, the band’s director Frank Trace will throw up a “W” signal with his hands, and the band knows what to do next. So does the crowd.
“In traditions training they teach you how to Wabash,” sophomore Ross Jensby said.
The first sheet-music version titled "The Wabash Cannonball" is from 1904. The song is about a fictional train that homeless people would hop aboard to get from place to place. Since then, Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard among others have recorded versions of the Wabash.
Fifth-year senior Ronald Spiess felt that the spirit of the song embodied what Kansas State University is all about.
“You just keep on going along and doing what you can to get by, and that’s spelled out through the Kansas State work ethic,” Spiess said. “Most of Kansas State are Kansans, we’ve got the Midwest work ethic. We always give our all, we don’t back down from a fight, we just keep on going, no matter what.”
The song has become arguably more popular than the Kansas State’s actual fight song, “Wildcat Victory.” Certainly during the pregame, fans were much more active and excited during "The Wabash Cannonball" than the fight song.
“It’s like a more fun fight song, you come to see the football game, but then you hear the Wabash, and its like, ahhhhh …” Looft said, trailing off as he spreads his arms out, looks up at the sky and exhales loudly.
The popularization of the song has led to other "The Wabash Cannonball" namesakes: A board game where players invest in different train companies (it’s available in the app store, in fact); an award-winning goat cheese that is described as having a “hint of citrus flavors and a touch of spiciness”; and a motorcycle club in Southern Indiana that claims to have been in existence since 1937.
Kansas State isn’t the only school playing the tune either. According to the website for the University of Texas’ marching band, it plays the song before the fourth quarter of every game, the tradition starting in 1970 because it was Longhorns coach Darrell K. Royal’s favorite song.
However, The Pride of Wildcat Land isn’t worried about what the Longhorn Band is up to. The consensus: confidence
“We play it better, absolutely, no question,” Tracz said.
Spiess said it’s the emotional factor that makes The Pride of Wildcat Land’s version the best.
“Even if Texas plays the same version, they don’t play it like we do,” Spiess said. “It’s in the heart of each and every Wildcat. It’s ours and no one can take that from us.”
Tracz put it best, saying that a good performance of "The Wabash Cannonball" is what it’s all about.
“It’s college kids, it’s college players, it’s college cheerleaders, it’s college fans, it’s college sports,” Tracz said. “This is what it’s supposed to be.”
Just don't look up. Then all it will be is dizzying.