In the studio, he muttered “Commanders” over and over, hoping to find a punchy, catchy phrase to complete the hook. But nothing seemed quite right. Eventually, for reasons that still mystify him, he blurted out: “Left hand up! Who are we? The Commanders!”
Later, at home in Capitol Heights, he played the demo for his wife, Chaquita. She asked why he had said “left hand up.” After all, most people are right-handed.
“I don’t know,” Woody said, for the first of many times.
Early on, Woody and his nephew, Wayne Sellers, a 25-year-old security guard who sings in the third verse, promoted the song on their personal social media profiles. Slowly, it gained a wider audience, and it was mostly mocked. But throughout the fall, the sentiment shifted. Clips from the music video they made went viral. Talk show hosts praised the tune for audiences in the hundreds of thousands. The Wizards’ DJ spun it at Capital One Arena. A company created “Left Hand Up” T-shirts for $28 each. Quarterback Taylor Heinicke put his left hand up during an interview. Before a game this month, the Sellers tailgated at FedEx Field, and many of the fans streaming by had visceral reactions to the song, shooting their left hands into the air or racing over to take selfies.
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The reception has stunned the Sellers. Normally, Woody’s posts on YouTube get about 100 views. The video for “Commanders Song” recently crossed 107,000.
“I didn’t see that coming,” Woody said. “Where we at right now, I had no idea. … This is, like, so amazing. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”
During the meteoric rise, the Sellerses said, their dream was for the team they have loved their whole lives to play their song at FedEx Field. Recently, the Commanders invited them to perform it at their next home game, Nov. 27 against Atlanta.
The Sellers will be there. Wayne plans to take the day off from his seasonal job as a concourse security guard at FedEx Field.
‘We done crossed over’
The Sellerses represent a significant portion of the Commanders’ fan base that has survived the past 20 years: the Black community in the area. Their track taps into the nostalgia that has sustained many fans, but it’s more than a requiem. It provides intergenerational connective tissue for a franchise that has told fans again and again that, despite its new name, it’s not an expansion team.
The anthem never mentions embattled team owner Daniel Snyder, and its sole agenda is, as Woody sings, to “tell you something about some good fans.” The result is the first popular piece of grass-roots Commander’s culture.
The rappers bridge the rich heritage and complicated present with symbolic verses. Woody raps with an end-rhyme, crowd-engaging style popular in the glory days he references the Hogs, John Riggins, Doug Williams and Joe Gibbs. Wayne is all modern, breathy autotune, and though he name-checks the great hopes of his childhood, Santana Moss and Albert Haynesworth, the longing for success in his time is palpable in the lines: “You know what I want: Super Bowl on my mind. We got three rings, but I think we need nine.”
“I’m not going to sit here and say, ‘Yeah, that’s what I wanted it to do,'” Woody said, laughing. “It’s just because that’s my time, that’s my era. I can remember the Super Bowl where [Williams threw for four touchdowns].” He trailed off, lost in the memory of watching the game with his brother, Wayne’s father, who was shot and killed in 1999. He continued: “I get choked up because it was such a good feeling.”
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In late July, the Sellers recorded their music video. They rented the Glow Bar/Nexxt-Gen Event Center in Clinton, hired a photographer and videographer and invited about 50 relatives and friends. Woody asked the crowd to join in when he rapped, “Left hand up!” and “We want Dallas!” He posted the video to YouTube on Aug. 3.
For the first few weeks, Woody estimated the video received one like for every 10 dislikes. Cowboys fans led the clowning, but Commanders fans joined in. Some comments were particularly nasty, but the Sellers said they didn’t mind.
“I loved it,” Wayne said. “A troll is going to draw eyes to the song.”
After Washington won in Week 1, Woody said, the tone of the comments started to change. Each week, there were more views and more fans. On Oct. 4, after a bad loss at Dallas, former NFL punter Pat McAfee played the song on his popular YouTube show, which has more than 2 million subscribers. Three producers in the studio sang along, putting their left hands up.
Woody’s phone started blowing up.
“I said, ‘Uh-oh, this could be big,’ ” Woody recalled. “When I watched that and I saw the guys in the background singing the words, I said, ‘Oh, my goodness.’ “
In days, the video shot to 20,000 views, then 30,000, then 40,000. Woody’s Apple Music artist profile showed listeners in Switzerland and the Bahamas. He noticed the new fans weren’t mostly Black as they had been in the beginning.
“I noticed the people that were really liking it happened to be Caucasian,” Woody remarked. “You said, ‘We done crossed over.’ “
In the next month, the Commanders went on a three-game winning streak, and Snyder announced he was considering selling the team. Fans seemed energized, and the Sellers’ anthem had found the right audience at the right time. Comments poured in, and a few noted that, although they hated the name “Commanders” at first, the song was warming them to it.
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Eric Sollenberger, a lifelong Washington fan better known as PFT Commenter on Twitter, suspects there are two other reasons the song blew up. Its organic origins contrast with the manufactured culture the organization has pushed for years — reflected even by the name Commanders — and the criticism the song received early on galvanized a suddenly optimistic fan base.
In the past few weeks, Sollenberger, who has nearly 1 million followers, has become arguably the song’s highest-profile champion online. He regularly praises good news by tweeting photos of celebrities and historical figures, from Jesus Christ to George Washington to Miley Cyrus, with their left hands up.
‘I never imagined there was another level’
No matter what happens next, the Sellerses, said the song has given them more than they ever expected. And in a way, it is the culmination of nearly 40 years of practice.
In 1983, Woody was in the Army at Fort Hood in Texas when he met a soldier who was always DJing in his room. He loved listening and loved the art of the turntables, and when he met another DJ while deployed in Germany, he resolved to teach himself how to be one.
In the late 1980s, Woody bought a small set. It took him about eight hours to figure out how to get everything hooked up. Over the next decade, hip-hop grew, and when he watched music videos, he looked past the rappers to the turntables. In 1998, he decided to try DJing professionally and went to the pawnshop to buy better equipment. He practiced hard for about a year, bombed the first gig and kept spinning. Over the years, he carved out a side business, playing parties and weddings.
“It’s not even about the money,” Woody said. “Just looking out there, and I got control of 100 people or 200 people or 150 people or 30 people. … That’s very fulfilling for me, just to see people enjoying the music. And then to get the compliments: ‘Do you have a business card?’ Or, ‘We had such a good time.’ I love that. I simply love that.”
In 2019, Wayne had recently returned from college in Arizona, and Woody thought he seemed a little adrift. Wayne worked as a bouncer and at Costco and as a security guard, spending his free time in the studio rapping, and Woody proposed they do a song together. They put their plans on hold during the two seasons of the Washington Football Team, then resumed in the spring of 2022. What happened next, Wayne could only describe as “God’s plan.”
“I never imagined that there was another level of this,” Woody said. “I just was so happy with where I was at. I didn’t think that this would ever happen.”
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In the Commanders’ facility, Coach Ron Rivera said he had never heard the song. Running back Antonio Gibson said he had heard from a teammate that “it sucks.” Wide receiver Terry McLaurin said he had seen social media posts of “the two guys” but was only vaguely familiar with the song, although he knew it included the line, “Left hand something.”
“That b—- go hard,” safety Kam Curl said, approvingly, and cornerback Benjamin St-Juste nodded. Curl pointed out the song was “way” better than the one a group of fans used the day of the rebrand, which substituted “Commanders” in the Farmers Insurance jingle. Recently, when left tackle Charles Leno Jr.’s wife showed him the song, he laughed.
“It’s cheesy, but I love it,” he said. “Left hand up!”