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The story behind Atlanta’s national anthem “KNIGHTS” tradition

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Hear from the man who started it.

Columbus Crew v Atlanta United FC - Eastern Conference Knockout Round Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

24 years ago, one of Atlanta sports’ longest lasting traditions began -- or at least ignited -- with this guy.

That gloriously ponytailed gentleman in the suit and rose combo is Rick Morgan. Rick, a former Atlanta rock musician, spent much of his time in Atlanta singing, but his most lasting contribution to Atlanta culture are the seconds he decided not to sing. You can sometimes catch it faintly over the TV broadcast at Atlanta United games but you have to be there live to really experience it.

The National Anthem is as routine a happening as any at sporting events. Protests against police brutality excluded, the only time it’s ever notable is if something goes catastrophically wrong (like none of the mics working YYY) or if Whitney Houston is singing it. Much of the crowd absent-mindedly sings along to kill the time until the game starts and then forgets about it in perpetuity. At Atlanta United games this is still mostly true. The singalong is boring. The crowd mumbles while the singer does their best to win a Grammy push back kick off.

But then...

“...andthe rah kits red glare, thebombs brrrr sting in a-e-air, gay-ayve proof through the *SHOUTING*”

A portion of the crowd springs to life to scream...something. If you attended a game uninitiated to the tradition, you likely spent some time reckoning with some things after you got over the shock of someone yelling in your ear during the national anthem.

“Oh cool we’re yelling things. Yelling things is fun. Wait. What were they yelling? Unite? Nights? Knights? Ok cool, yeah, I’m going to yell Knights too……………….wait, why the hell are they yelling Knights?”

The answers all come back to a minor league hockey team and the rocker in his prom night best, Rick Morgan.

Before soccer came to the South to cohabitate with the Hawks, Braves and Falcons, hockey offered a fourth option to Atlanta sports fans. It was decidedly less successful.

The first edition of Atlanta hockey began in 1972 with the expansion, Atlanta Flames. After years and bunch of empty seats at the Omni, they left for Calgary. Hockey didn’t return until 1992 when the minor league International Hockey League (IHL) awarded Atlanta a new team to skate around the frozen floor of the Omni. The Atlanta Knights were born and brought Atlanta something the Flames never did: A winning team.

The Knights won the division in their inaugural season and attendance clung to around 8,000 fans per night. Somewhere in those 8,000 regulars, a scattered group of fans began to exchange the lyrics “Gave proof through the night” with “Gave proof through the KNIIIGHHTS!”

Rick Morgan was among those fans that first season. The following year Morgan became the permanent anthem singer for the Knights.

“I was in a rock n’ roll band and a friend of my was the marketing guy for the Atlanta Knights,” Morgan said in a phone interview last week. “He said, ‘Why don’t you come sing for opening night for 93-4 season?’ I did and they said ‘Can you do the whole weekend?’ and then they said ‘Can you do the whole season?”

While other singers may have shied away from 8,000+ fans shouting during the middle of their performance, Morgan outright encouraged it.

“I had gone to a couple of games at the end of the first season and a few of us were yelling “Knights” in the crowd” he said. “When I got to be the singer I just carried that into what I was doing. During the anthem I would hold up the mic and do it with them. It just kind of caught on.”

By the time the Knights reached the 1993-94 Turner Cup, the IHL a crowd of over 15,000 was fully prepared for their cue during the anthem. That crowd helped push the Knights to the first Atlanta professional championship since the Atlanta Chiefs of the North American Soccer League in 1968.

Rick Morgan continued to sing the anthem before every Knights game until the team left Atlanta in 1996 to make way for Atlanta’s second NHL team, the Atlanta Thrashers. Even with the Knights gone and Morgan moving away to Alabama, the national anthem still received the “Knights!” treatment.

And then, in 2011, the Thrashers left. “Knights!” seemed to leave with them. You could head to Gwinnett and hear a few shouts at the minor league hockey games but it never caught on with the other Atlanta teams. But six years after the Thrashers became the third Atlanta hockey team to be shipped off to Canada, Atlanta United began and, for whatever reason, “Knights!” returned from the dead.

Sometimes there’s fewer voices behind it than others, but it’s always there. Although Morgan doesn’t get behind the mic much anymore, he’s happy to know the tradition he reared 24 years ago has found life, even if it’s with the fanbase of a sport he’s not entirely familiar with.

“It pleases me,” Morgan said. “I’ve never been to a Major League Soccer game. I can’t say I’ve ever been to a soccer game. But it sounds pretty interesting, maybe I’ll have to go to Atlanta and check you guys out. And I guess if you want me to sing, I’ll come do it.”