Texas A&M thrives with the support of the 12th man
All colleges have their traditions, but few are willing to go to court for them. Even fewer are willing to start an intra-sport rivalry for control of a number. But Texas A&M takes the number 12 very seriously.
For nearly 100 years, the Aggies have laid claim to the concept of the "12th Man." The story goes that a former Aggie football player named E. King Gill came down to the sidelines during a particularly fierce 1922 matchup between A&M and Centre College.
Gill had given up football for basketball, but he noticed the need for bodies and was willing to oblige. As Aggies dropped like flies, it seemed more and more likely that Gill would have to suit up and head into the game as a substitute. Though they never called Gill's number that day, he soon came to symbolize the "next man up" mentality of the proverbial 12th Man—ready, willing and able to support the team at a moment's notice.
Eventually, the idea of the 12th Man came to represent Aggies fans as a whole, who had gained a reputation as some of the loudest and most dedicated fans in the nation. In 1983, the Aggies began a tradition of putting walk-on players on special teams as a sort of 12th Man unit, and soon offered up the No. 12 jersey as a reward for lesser players who worked hard throughout practice. Off the field, the 12th Man Foundation became a major source of scholarships and financial support for the university and its student athletes.
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More than 2,000 miles away, a pro team claims 12th Man as their own. Scan the crowd at a Seattle Seahawks game, and you are bound to see dozens upon dozens of 12th Man jerseys. The NFL squad adopted (or stole, depending on your proximity to College Station) the notion of a fan base as the unofficial 12th Man on the field, and the Seahawks earned that reputation through CenturyLink Field's absolutely oppressive noise levels on game day.
This was a no-go in Aggieland, where wedding cakes and 12-pound hot dogs serve as constant culinary reminders of what 12 means to A&M. The university had trademarked the phrase well before Seattle began using it, which led to a monetary agreement to share the phrase in 2006. The Seahawks renewed the deal in 2011, but it will expire next year and Seattle has already begun to amend the idea of the 12th Man, shifting to the less copyright infringe-y moniker "12s" for its raucous fans.
In the end, it barely matters who controls the rights to a silly number. At Texas A&M, the 12th Man is so woven into the fabric of being an Aggie that the relationship is akin to a loving couple celebrating the diamond anniversary of their common law marriage. The official document is only worth it for financial purposes.