Into the belly of beast mode with Seattle's 12th Man
About a month ago I got the phone call from Sports -Illustrated's NFL editor, Adam Duerson. "Can you go to Seattle? I need a 12th Man story."
Me: I'd rather not. I hate the Seahawks.
Duerson: Right, I forgot. You're a 49ers fan.
Oft-claimed fact: Seattle's fans are the best in the NFL. We know this because the Seahawks tell us so. No other franchise spends as much time glorifying its supporters. In 1984 the team retired the number 12 in honor of its metaphorical 12th Man. An azure number 12 flag has been raised at the stadium before every home game since 2003. Coach Mike Holmgren even dedicated a game ball to the 12th Man in 2005, after the Giants committed 11 false starts and chunked three field goals in a 24-21 OT loss at CenturyLink Field.
In 2006, Texas A&M officials noted that their school had originated the 12th Man idea eight decades earlier; they'd even trademarked the phrase in 1990. Faced with a lawsuit, the Seahawks did what any self-respecting franchise would: They renamed their fan base.
Just kidding. The two sides settled the dispute out of court. The details weren't made public, but they reportedly included financial considerations and public acknowledgment of the Aggies' ownership. When I spoke to one of the lawyers involved, he told me he couldn't elaborate. He did, however, advise me to keep my eyes open at CenturyLink Field -- and there it was, a giant placard in the southwest corner that reads Seattle: Home of the 12th man.
A clarification: I don't really hate the Seahawks. That's the kind of thing you say to an editor when you're trying to get out of a story. Plus, it's not as if they're the Niners' longtime rivals. For years Seattle was just a mediocre team with one great player, receiver Steve Largent. San Francisco fans were too busy building death rays aimed at the Cowboys to think much about the Seahawks. Division rivals? The two didn't even share a conference until 2002.
Of late, however, things have gotten interesting. The Seahawks are annoyingly good, 8-1 this season and two wins up on the 49ers in the NFC West. ... And there was that bit about their fans tussling with San Francisco fans. ... And their All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman prancing about on the sidelines. . . . And their coach, Pete Carroll, making his Pete Carroll faces, acting like a soccer dad hopped up on ephedrine (in what's clearly a more annoying manner than a certain Niners coach who also acts like a soccer dad hopped up on ephedrine). Which is to say that if I did hate a team, the Emerald City would be a good place to start.
Little-known fact: There's a man 30 miles north of Seattle who controls the fate of the Seahawks. He doesn't play for the team or work in its front office. He isn't rich. But he is powerful.
Every day during the playoffs last winter, Dale Carlson hoisted a 21-foot pole outside of his house in Snohomish, Wash., and flew a 12th Man flag. Sure, it was only a piece of fabric, even if an enormous one flapping in a residential neighborhood, above a property line. And yes, the actual Seahawks were unaware of this act of loyalty. What is relevant is that with the flag up, they beat the Redskins in the wild-card round 24-14. The connection was clear. Giant, ugly flag equals victory.
Then, crisis. The local home owners association told Carlson his banner violated its rules; it needed to come down. And with the flag sidelined, Seattle fell to the Falcons 30-28. Just as expected.
To Carlson, a 48-year-old commercial fisherman and a season-ticket holder since 1991, this was unacceptable. So he did what any of us would. He hired a lawyer. And, as any sane lawyer would, Eric Lindell represented Carlson pro bono. The cause demanded it.
In the end Duerson won. I arrived in Seattle in October, the day before the Titans game, and was immediately assaulted by local stereotypes. Pearl Jam was playing in the airport. There was a Microsoft office next to my hotel and a Starbucks inside it. It was not, however, raining.
The next morning I walked past a blonde in a Russell Wilson jersey working the front desk, took the elevator with a guy in a Marshawn Lynch shirt and drove through a cold, gray mist to CenturyLink. Outside my parking garage a bar offered breakfast beers for $4. A haggard man tried to sell me a Seahawks poncho. Another yelled in a distressingly avian cadence, Sea-HOCKS!
Indisputable fact: CenturyLink is loud as hell. We know this not just because TV people proclaim it repeatedly between cutaways to men groping salmon at Pike Place Market, but because the team had it vetted by the Guinness Book of World Records. During a 29-3 win over the 49ers in Week 2, the crowd noise at CenturyLink reached a then record 136.6 decibels. As the Seahawks' website points out, this tops the level at which "serious hearing damage" occurs, only 13.4 decibels short of "eardrum rupture." But, hey, everyone needs goals. (The Chiefs' Arrowhead Stadium has since hit 137.5; naturally, Seahawks fans plan to try again on Dec. 2.)
This clamor is a huge point of pride for Seattle-ites. They will tell you about the time, in 2011, when Lynch scored on a 67-yard run and the roaring was so loud that it caused a minor earthquake, henceforth known as the Beastquake. They will tell you how the team has a .684 record at CenturyLink since the stadium opened in 2002 --versus .397 on the road -- and, of course, how visiting teams averaged a league-high 2.36 false starts per game between 2005 and '12. Sea-HOCKS!
The players are similarly proud and no doubt full of theories about why the 12th Man hysteria evolved here, in a wet Northwestern city that until recently was never really known for sports. So, guys?
"No idea," says receiver Doug Baldwin, a Stanford grad who joined the Seahawks in 2011. "But it's unlike any other environment I've been in."
"Don't know," says Sherman. But, he adds, "when you make an interception, you feel the ground, you feel the air shaking around you."
Center Max Unger thinks for a moment. "[Seahawks owner] Paul Allen is a big music guy, and I think he designed the stadium to be as acoustic as possible. I think our fans know that, and they use it."
Now we're getting warmer.
It was time to go in search of the 12th Man. By 11 a.m. on game day, two hours before kickoff, I stood inside the Triangle Pub in the shadows of CenturyLink, surrounded by a mass of predrunk fans in number 12 jerseys, many with their own names stitched across the back. A sign overhead read, welcome to the triangle pub: once a brothel, now a landmark. Enormous sausages sizzled on an outdoor grill. Work-booted men with non-ironic mustaches huddled in the corner, many of them eyeing my wool 49ers beanie with a mixture of suspicion and contempt.
My friend Mark Staton had warned me against the headwear. An assistant professor of marketing at Western Washington, Mark is the kind of Seattle- and sports-savvy guy who says things like, "The Venn diagram of Seattle Sounders and Seahawks fans has relatively little overlap." He had agreed to act as a guide of sorts.
Two large gentlemen approached. One wore a thick silver chain and a sour expression; the other, in dreadlocks and a Fu Manchu, appeared to weigh as much as Mark and me combined. Both wore Seahawks jerseys. They suggested it would be wise for me to remove my hat.
Oft-repeated fact that Seattle-ites wish were not: As recently as 1971, a billboard near the airport read, Will the last person leaving Seattle turn out the lights.
Once upon a time, this was a lumber town. The original Skid Row -- or Skid Road, so named because of the logs that skidded down a steep hill to the sawmill -- was located near what is now CenturyLink's main parking lot. The area was home to one of the largest Hooverville slums of the Great Depression, crowded with bars, brothels and workers' camps. Today it's ringed by expensive office buildings and condos.
That logging boom was followed by a shipbuilding boom and then the Boeing boom. With each boom, though, came a bust, and the '70s were a doozy. Unemployment hit 13%, double the national average.
During that decade two things happened. One, a nascent software company called Microsoft moved from Albuquerque to the Seattle suburb of Bellevue; and two, the NFL awarded the city an expansion franchise. With the latter, suddenly all of the down-on-their-luckers had something to pour their energy into, and in the years since, this shared history has created a bond.
What often goes unmentioned is the generational divide this has created in the 12th Man. Largent-era fans, from the late 1970s and '80s, are typically blue-collar and hail from outside the city; because the Seahawks are the only NFL franchise in the Northwest, they've become the default team for Alaskans, Idahoans, Montanans and Oregonians. Then there are the new fans -- the ones ready to spend $140 on retro Largent jerseys. For those who've stuck with Seattle through the Mariners' neverending rebuilding and through the SuperSonics' being stolen away in the night, the appearance of bandwagoners is not necessarily welcome. "I used to go to games in Seattle, and I wouldn't see any Seattle fans," explained Barry Waits, an old friend who's been attending games since 1980. "I just went to the Texans-Seahawks game in Houston, and number 12 jerseys were everywhere. In Houston. It just doesn't feel right."
Silver Chain's name turned out to be Rick Rhodes, and Rhodes turned out to be an affable flight attendant. After 10 minutes of bluster he backed down and showed me photos of his Seahawks man cave. Then he told his Seattle story.
Rhodes first scored season tickets in 1999, back in the Kingdome. In 2006 he lost them in a divorce settlement even though, he said, "that's the one thing I really wanted." Three years later he got new ones, up in Section 327 of CenturyLink. He goes to every home game, travels to some road games and considers bandwagon fans to be "like the plague." For years he has bid reserve at Alaska Airlines every week, volunteering for the worst weekday shifts, so that he can be free on football weekends. "Having no life just to see the Seahawks -- is this even worth it?" he asked.
Rick never answered his own question. I assumed it was rhetorical.
As the 1 p.m. kickoff neared, the sun crashed through the gray morning sky and fans sporting clear plastic backpacks plowed through turnstiles. The backpacks were a compromise of sorts. Because the public funneled more than $100 million of tax money into the $430 million complex, fans are allowed to bring food inside. So everywhere within a six-block radius, vendors sell crackers and candy and bags of nuts. "That's what they get for all that tax money," Mark notes, "literally peanuts."
The clear bags are also a response, partly, to fan violence, including a brutal assault on a visiting Vikings fan in 2012. Now undercover police, adorned in the opposing team's jersey, roam CenturyLink's corridors. This is the dark side of Seattle's celebrated, ferocious crowd. Of any NFL crowd.
Later, at our seats in the northeast corner of the lower bowl, we watched as Seahawks faithful rose for the kickoff and stayed on their feet through the first quarter. Then, early in the second: the Titans' first false start. You'd have thought the crowd had won free beer for life. One 12th Man in a green wig unleashed a Gatling gun of high fives, shouting, "That's all us!" His buddy, a balding 12th Man built like an O-lineman, joined in. After a big play, the two lifted up their respective 12th Women like a pair of meaty ice dancers. Both men later "showed their breasts" -- for breast cancer awareness month. Throughout, they were admirably loud.
Which brings us back to the noise. It turns out that Max Unger was right. Sort of. Paul Allen, of course, did want a deafening den for his team. From their 1976 inception through '99, the Seahawks played in the Kingdome -- raucous, yes, but the giant coffin was outdated by the '90s. When Allen began exploring the idea of purchasing the team, a new home was part of his plan, and he wanted one similar to Washington's Husky Stadium, with its cantilevered, noise-trapping stands and collegiate feel. His charge to prospective architects: Bring that experience to the NFL.
Over the course of one long weekend the firm of Ellerbe Becket (now AECOM) set up a makeshift headquarters inside Allen's office. Principal architect Paul Griesemer called it a "SWAT team approach." The result was the raw concept for what would be called Seattle Stadium, and then Qwest Field, and then CenturyLink: a small and tall footprint, a roof that covers 70% of the field, seating for 67,000 and sight lines toward the city and the water.
The cacophony was a happy by-product. "We talked about what the coverings might do, but the real driver was trying to create such a compact stadium," says Griesemer. "It's an incredibly tight site -- one of the tightest in the NFL -- so all those seats are really close to the field." Which is to say: As long as the fans supply the noise, CenturyLink does the rest, its curved surfaces reflecting and enhancing the sound. "There's a focusing effect that goes right down to the sideline," explains Griesemer. In the years since, he says, other teams have approached AECOM about creating a similar atmosphere. What he tells them is equal parts pride and sales patter: Every franchise is unique; replicating the Seattle experience is impossible.
Indeed. Midway through the second quarter, I felt as if a white-noise machine had been implanted in my head.
At halftime, with Tennessee leading 10-7 in a messy affair, we bid farewell to our friends. Green Wig Man & Co., it turned out, had been going to Hawks games together since grade school and now worked at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. I'd later learn that the day's activities had taken their toll on the boys, one of them puking in the car on the ride home, earning him the nickname Puke-opotomous.
Stopping at a vendor, Mark asked about a Richard Sherman jersey for his six-year-old son. "No Shermans at all," the lady said. "Few and far between right now." Mark nodded; should have known better. After all, defense really is this group's thing. More than Wilson (third in the NFL in passer rating since he arrived!) or the reliable, plodding Lynch (4.3 yards and a cloud of dreadlocks!), the defense is what energizes CenturyLink. It's the fans' license to go primal for 20-second intervals, to forget their jobs and their mortgages and the gray sky.
That noise record against the 49ers? Bill Stewart, the Seattle-area sound engineer tasked with measuring the sound level that night, had flapped his arms in encouragement from the south stands, trying to rile up fans when Lynch scored the first touchdown. No dice.
No extra encouragement was needed when the defense was on the field, however. The first time the record fell, at 131.9 decibels, was right after defensive end Michael Bennett took down Colin Kaepernick for a nine-yard sack. Unger remembers "legitimate pain" in his ears. "I'm glad," he says, "we don't have to worry about that on offense." That mark was one-upped, to the record 136.6, during a goal line stand midway through the third quarter -- third-and-three and Kaepernick went down again, this time in the arms of linebacker K.J. Wright. No matter that at the time, Stewart's measuring devices were situated in the opposite end zone.
Sure, it helps that this D is really, really good -- No. 1 in interceptions, No. 2 in yards per game, No. 3 in points per game and sacks, and No. 4 in fumble recoveries. But it's just as much about how the Seahawks play. They're punishing. Predatory. Seemingly blue-collar, just like their fans. Big plays are celebrated, and smack is talked. ("You happy, bro?" in Sherman's pet phrase.) Fans and players alike take the mythology seriously, the legionofboom nickname for the secondary adorning not just the backs of fans' jerseys but also the floor mats by the D-backs' lockers. This is arguably a small, silly gesture, but it fosters a tribe within a tribe, holding these men up as special.
Perhaps that's part of the 12th Man phenomenon, the idea of being different, together. It's enforced by the flag raisings and the retired jersey. Validation comes in the number of false starts tallied, earplugs worn, decibel records broken. It's voiced with every strained, hoarse squawk: Sea-HOCKS!
Unavoidable fact: Not every game can be against the 49ers. In the end the Seahawks won 20-13. Maybe it was the 1 p.m. start or the nonconference opponent, but the fans had a hard time summoning the usual vitriol. (A Tacoma News Tribune beat writer later told me it had been the quietest home game of the season.) Furthermore, everyone seemed so ... happy. We sat everywhere from the north end zone Hawk's Nest to the midfield sideline, six rows back, and we witnessed primarily a succession of elated, often-alcohol-sedated-folks. Most were quite nice. In a weird way, it was disappointing.
A week and a half passed. Seattle sneaked away with a win at Arizona and a nailbiter in St. Louis -- the types of games, far away from home, that this franchise has typically lost.
I rang Dale Carlson's lawyer, Eric Lindell. "The flag -- yeah, it's flying again," he told me. "There was such a loud public outcry from the 12th Man that it worked out. He's flown it every game this season. To be honest, Dale would fly that thing regardless of what the home owners association [ruled]."
Of course he would. But while an act like Carlson's is admirable in its own strange way, it's not what sets Seattle's 12th Man apart. After all, there are plenty of NFL fans who, like Carlson, believe their actions can affect a game. No, the distinction of all those folks yelling inside the aluminum shell of CenturyLink is that they actually can affect a game.
And whether that's a matter of ardor, acoustics or sports voodoo, even a 49ers fan has to admit: That's pretty cool.