Joining the Team

Joining the Team

How the Seattle Seahawks won over a reluctant NFL fan and an entire city

Illustrations: Alexander Mostov

Richard Sherman was my gateway drug. It was 2014, and I had only been watching football for a single season by the time the cornerback for the Seattle Seahawks shot to stardom. He’d just deflected a possible game-losing pass from San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick to his Seattle teammate, securing the Seahawks a place in the Super Bowl. 

Sherman then gave an interview that instantly went viral. “I’m the best corner in the game! Don’t you talk about me!” He taunted 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree. It was full of braggadocio and bravado, and I loved him for it. The Internet, it seemed, did not.

I had first heard of him thanks to a tweet of his, mocking Tom Brady, golden boy quarterback of the New England Patriots. “U Mad, bro?” wrote Sherman after the Seahawks upset the Patriots in 2012. It amused me that someone repping the quaint and quiet Pacific Northwest was so damn brash. 

I spent the next couple days devouring everything I could about Sherman. He’d grown up in Compton, attended Stanford and was possessed of a razor-sharp intelligence. I watched hours of him practicing on the field.

This guy was a star.  

Soon I was a bona fide “12,” a horrible nickname given to Seahawks fans. We were “12s” because as a unit during home games, the fans served as the proverbial “twelfth man” on the field, and we had as much to prove as the players did by booing the other team into submission. 

There had always been “12s”—people who painted their faces blue and green, who went to every home game for years and years, and suffered through losses and dismal seasons when the team still played in the Kingdome. They came to work on Friday in full Seahawks gear for “Blue Friday,” an unofficial local day of fandom, which was given a legal proclamation by Governor Jay Inslee on January 6, 2017. There had always been Seahawks fan and booster clubs. Long before coach Pete Carroll’s era, the 12s were notorious around the NFL for being loud and putting the fanaticism back in fandom. In 2010, 12s even caused an actual earthquake cheering Marshawn Lynch at Century Link Stadium, in his infamous run dubbed the “Beast Quake.” 

But until quarterback Russell Wilson arrived in 2012 with the current crop of charismatic and social justice-minded players, the city’s hipsters and non-sports fans (like me) would not have dared confess our fandom. Now, nearly everyone I know follows the Seahawks. People who were never football fans are now football fans. Geeks. Cool kids. Feminists, too. 

12s even caused an actual earthquake cheering Marshawn Lynch at Century Link Stadium, in his famous run dubbed the Beast Quake.

This team was different, especially Lynch, the enigmatic and charismatic running back who regularly bucked the NFL’s strict rules of conduct. Now with the Oakland Raiders, Lynch’s inner drummer was syncopated and offbeat: he ate Skittles before the games because they helped calm his stomach; he wore colorful cleats on the field that weren’t approved by the League; tiring of the press corps’ inane questions (“You won the game, how did that feel?”), he stopped saying anything meaningful in post-game press conferences, instead offering a response that became an instant classic: “I’m just here so I don’t get fined.”

Lynch was the team’s rebel, on a team filled with them. Seattleites, with their pink and green hair, big bushy beards and man buns, straight, gay, lesbian, trans, and everyone in between who’d been ostracized for much of their lives, could get behind a band of misfits with a chip on their shoulders.

The Seahawks also began having an impact beyond the stadium. Defensive end Michael Bennett announced his support for Bernie Sanders and wore a Black Lives Matter T-shirt to camp. Wide receiver Doug Baldwin and Sherman publicly debated the causes and solutions of police brutality with intelligence and acumen. This, after all, was Seattle, where we elected a socialist to city council, had legal weed, and passed marriage equality long before much of the country had cottoned on. Our cool progressive city now had a cool progressive team.

The fans, new and old, also liked the football that Russell Wilson excelled in—running, dodging, escaping defenders, hurling a last-minute ball into the end zone like some kind of football wielding Houdini. They liked how Lynch bulldozed his way through four or five defensive linemen, breaking tackles like it was nothing. They loved the “Legion of Boom”—the defensive secondary that included Sherman, as cocky and arrogant as he was talented, who could finesse a ball out of the air with a lanky fingertip, denying the other team points seemingly at will.

And they liked winning. A lot. A decade after losing to the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Super Bowl, and seasons of middling mediocrity with records like 7-9, 6-10, 8-8, 12s, their team was finally on the other side, winning a Super Bowl and managing the rare feat of returning the year after, only to suffer a shocking loss to the Patriots in the waning minutes of the game. 

The first football game I ever watched without total disdain was on September 24, 2012 in Redwood, a now-defunct bar in the Capitol Hill neighborhood. Redwood was artfully decorated to appeal to a blue-collar clientele that didn’t really exist in that hipster enclave, but if you squinted, you’d have an approximation of a dive bar in the Midwest, with worn wooden booths, crunched peanuts underfoot, and a giant screen playing football.

Uber-People copy.jpg

The game was the Green Bay Packers vs. the Seahawks. It was in the middle of the referee strike, so the men manning the field were dubbed “replacement refs.” My journalist friend and I, both with low to zero interest in football, watched with passive amusement as the home team fell behind and patrons’ faces fell into pained frowns. With just 30 seconds left in the game, the Seahawks’ new quarterback, Russell Wilson, had the ball. 

“There’s about to be a lot of sad people in this bar,” I said to my friend’s friend, who was the only person in our group who understood the game at all. “Maybe,” he said. “Maybe not. He could get a Hail Mary.”

And then Wilson did. The bar erupted, and everyone high-fived each other. 

The Fail Mary, as it is now known, was a contested ending with two different receivers from both teams coming down with the ball. One ref had his hands up in a touchdown pose, the other ref crossed his arms in the universal gesture for “nope.” The play was reviewed in Seattle’s favor. The Seahawks won, 14 to 12 and the patrons of Redwood were ecstatic. Elation over a team sports win, it turned out, was a contagious feeling.

The next time a friend invited me to watch football, I didn’t say no. I told him, “This is the one and only time you are allowed to mansplain to me.” So he did. He told me about the plays and explained the rules, over and over. We watched every week. It was like learning a new language. 

Soon, I lost the Us vs. Them animosity I had previously held toward football fans. I understood what they understood. I started to appreciate the complexity of the game, the physical grace and power of the players. I learned their names and positions. 

When I got into an Uber decorated with Seahawks memorabilia, rather than sitting in silence and scoffing with some misguided sense of superiority, I could trade stories with the driver. We could talk about Richard Sherman’s amazing fingertips, commiserate over the last loss, and contemplate whether world domination would once belong to the city of Seattle. Together, no matter how far apart we might be in other ways, we could both be 12s.

Tricia Romano has been editor-in-chief of The Stranger, a staff writer at The Seattle Times, and columnist for The Village Voice. She received the Front Page Award from the Newswomen’s Club of New York for her March 2006 cover story about sober DJs and promoters.