Sportswriters rarely get to experience games the way the fans do, but last week, with friends in town, a longtime NFL writer caught Seahawks-Panthers as just another member of the crowd. One thing became clear: This wasn’t the press box
SEATTLE — It was late Saturday, and we were sailgating outside Husky Stadium. Sailgating, for the uninitiated, is a thing out here. It’s like tailgating, but on a boat. Or like boating with a football stadium looming in front of you. Either way, same concept: beers and camaraderie and sports radio and music and adults clad in team colors with their faces painted.
Anyway, my college roommate, Paul, and his wife, Nicole, were visiting from Brooklyn. I planned to take them to the Seahawks game last Sunday against the Panthers at CenturyLink Field. Paul, the captain of our boat this evening (they’ll let anybody captain, apparently), wasn’t buying the 12s which is what locals call the Seahawks’ rabid fan base. (They’re also sometimes referred to as the 12th Man, but that gets complicated, because Texas A&M dominates that copyright. Hence: The 12s). Paul is an Eagles fan. He doesn’t buy into much. He didn’t boo Santa Claus. But he wanted to.
So we’re on the boat, and Paul is asking why everyone he saw that Friday seemed to be wearing a Seahawks jersey. I told him it’s the local tradition. Blue Friday. His response was the sort that New Yorkers make from the center of the known universe. Those aren’t real fans, he scoffed. They haven’t suffered. They’re all hopped up on coffee and weed.
“So you’re rooting for the Panthers, then?” I asked him.
“Definitely,” Paul said.
We arrived downtown, near the stadiums, about three hours before kickoff. My friend Jake had dropped us off down there after stopping by for breakfast. Jake is what you might call a more recent Seahawks fan. There are a lot of those around these parts—12s since ’12, I like to call them. As in, 2012.
I was at Jake’s house last summer when Walter Jones, a player I covered for five years for The Seattle Times, was being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. I asked Jake to turn up the volume on the TV. Big Seahawks fan that he is, he asked, “Who is Walter Jones?”
Only the best player (arguably, I guess, with apologies to Steve Largent) in franchise history.
Jake pulled off near the north parking lot as Paul remained unimpressed. He pointed out the lack of tailgating around the stadium. There was a bigger turnout at the sailgate the night before.
We walked toward Will Call to pick up the tickets, through a thicket of fans. They sported bright green mohawks, their faces painted blue, their jerseys new, for the most part from the current era. They chanted “SEA-HAWKS” and “Wiiillllllllssssoooonn.” Paul’s complaints momentarily halted.
It was time to hit a bar.
Now, sportswriters rarely get to enjoy the events they cover, not on the same level, anyway, as a fan. I’ve covered the NFL since 2002 in some capacity, and I can count the number of games I’ve watched from the stands on one hand. I saw the Seahawks topple the Giants, 24-21, behind the 11 false-start penalties New York accumulated back in 2005. And I had watched maybe two Jets games in New York with Paul’s brother, my friend Joe. I hadn’t been in the stands at CenturyLink since before I moved to New York City and lived there for seven years.
Two, really obvious things you don’t notice from the press box.
• It’s loud everywhere, but particularly here. Perhaps someone has told you that before. In fact, you’ve probably heard that 5,472 times from someone who became a Seahawks fan three years ago. But it’s true. My ears are still ringing, and I’m writing this on Tuesday.
• Nothing says NFL Sunday like a bunch of hammered fans. I’m not saying this is unique to Seattle. I see it at stadiums through the league. I even took a picture of Paul next to a sign at the Seahawks game. “Having a beer, enjoying the game … GOOD,” it read. “Too many beers, ruining it for others … NOT SO GOOD … STAY WITHIN YOUR GAME.” And yet, to find someone who’d failed to stay within his game, you had only to look right … or left, or directly in front of your or behind you. It was that prevalent.
THE MMQB PODCAST WITH KLEMKO, BENOIT AND KING
We settled into bar seats at The Lodge Sports Grille near the stadium. The patrons sipped IPAs and checked their fantasy lineup scores. Paul was starting to come around. He said something about a unique football experience. Next time I looked over at him, there it was! A “12” sticker affixed to his left cheek.
He was all in. So was Nicole, a Giants fan most Sundays. We entered the stadium and climbed to our seats in the top row of the north end zone. The long walk provided a spectacular view of downtown. They griped some about the seats—as did my friend Johnny, a Hawks fan who accompanied us—but sportswriters are accustomed to the long view. In every new stadium, the press box is somewhere between low-earth orbit and outer space.
I couldn’t root for the Seahawks—journalistic principles, after all—but my companions were not so constrained. They stomped the bleachers when Seattle needed a third-down stop. They jeered Cam Newton. They high-fived the strangers who sat around them.
For the second half, we set up on the concourse, directly underneath the “12” flag that flies in the north end zone and is raised by a former player or celebrity most games. (We got hip-hop star Sir Mix-a-Lot, a Seattle native.) We stood at the rail and watched Newton lead the Panthers on a comeback. Paul made a crack about flying back to New York with that giant flag in his carry on. He still had the sticker attached to his face—one sticker, he noted, because safety Earl Thomas plays with eye black under only one eye.
The Seahawks led 23-14 midway through the fourth quarter. Then Newton went to work. He found Greg Olsen down near the goal line, and Jonathan Stewart, a running back from this area, plunged in for the score. No one panicked, least of all the newest 12s. Not when the Panthers forced a punt and Jon Ryan’s boot went 68 yards into the end zone. Carolina still had 80 yards to go.
The railing where we stood was packed. Everyone was screaming. It felt like a certain win—the fan experience, after all. Except that Newton completed one pass, and then another, and then, suddenly, Olsen split the defenders and was all alone behind the secondary. From our vantage point, you could see the play unfold, could see just how open he was. Paul could have hit him in the end zone from our perch.
He scored, and the stadium went silent, and Paul and Nicole and Johnny and I left to consume more food than I thought humanly possible over in nearby Chinatown. Watching Paul watch the Seahawks had reminded me of why fans love sports in the first place, why they read the stuff we write about these games, why there never seems to be enough information or statistics or analysis to feed the typical NFL fan.
And, in typical fan fashion, Paul was over the 12s again by the end of dinner. The Eagles were set to the play the Giants on Monday night, a big game in his divided household, and he was already talking smack. The sticker had been discarded somewhere along our walk. Johnny, the true Hawks fan in the bunch, said little as we ate. He worried about a lost season.
“We’ll get ’em Monday,” Paul said.