In Praise of the 12th Man

What follows is a guest post by Erik Ian Larsen, a former writer for the Chicago Tribune and an award-winning sports columnist. You can find the rest of his work at The Sports Tzu or follow him on Twitter @erikianlarsen.

Being a Seattle sports fan hasn’t been easy. Losing the Sonics was devastating, both to the fans and the city. We lost a team, 40 years of history, a sense of community, and all we got back was a few million dollars and a bag of empty promises from our state legislature. Watching the Mariners go from the top of the American League to the 100-loss juggernauts they’ve become is painful, as was Ken Griffey Jr.’s difficult retirement and the dwindling attendance numbers at Safeco Field. And seeing the Seahawks never fully recover from the horrors of Super Bowl XL, cascading to the bottom of the NFC West, felt like a mountain of unfair proportions was being dropped on the Seattle sports fan.

I lived in Chicago for six years. I watched the Bears and Seahawks playoff game that same Super Bowl year at a bar in Wrigleyville, surrounded by buckets of Bud Light and loud Chicago accents. I’ve seen some of the craziest, wildest, most dedicated fans in my life, in any sport, while living in Chicago. I once interviewed Glenn Timmerman for the Chicago Tribune, a man who dedicated his entire life to tattooing Bears players’ signatures on his body. He’s even got a Bears logo on the back of his head. These people are serious, I thought. I was so proud to experience that, to live in that city, to go tailgate at Soldier Field and marvel at the acres of drunk fandom spewing into the parking lots outside the stadium. They had everything, plasma screen TVs, grills, authentic Italian cooking, right out of the back of their trucks and RVs. It was like sports heaven, and I thought I had witnessed and been a part of the best fans in the world.

SEATTLE - SEPTEMBER 26: Fans of the Seattle Seahawks cheer during the game against the San Diego Chargers at Qwest Field on September 26, 2010 in Seattle, Washington. The Seahawks defeated the Chargers 27-20. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

Then I went to the Seahawks game on Sunday. [Read More]

I used to regale my wife with stories of Chicago sports. Of Soldier Field. Of Cubs fans in summer. Of Sox fans yelling at Cubs fans in summer. And, in comparison, we have the normally stale, “family-friendly” environments of Seattle sports that have always diluted the experience for me. But as we walked toward Qwest Field, thinking we were getting to the stadium so early parking would be a breeze, I saw that same intensity, that same passion in Seahawks fans that I thought only existed in other cities. At 10 a.m., half the city was drunk, cooking brats on full grills and watching the morning games on satellite television. I was blown away. It felt like Chicago. It felt like those heralded, almost legendary Bears fans. But it was Seattle.

The fans were decked from head to toe in Seahawks gear, throwing footballs around in whatever strip of pavement was available … parking isn’t exactly great down there. They didn’t have the tools that Chicagoans have: Huge, dedicated parking lots for tailgating and integrated public transportation that allows you to enjoy your time irresponsibly. But Seattle fans made it work, and in some cases, the atmosphere was even livelier because of its spontaneity and creative necessity. I was proud of my city, proud of my fellow fans. Three hours before kickoff and my wife and I felt like we were three hours late to the party.

I’ve been to Seahawks games before, always had an amazing time and have tried to tell all my Bears friends that the 12th Man is, without a doubt, the loudest fanbase in sports. But holy cow was I unprepared for Sunday’s game against the Chargers. It wasn’t just the sheer volume of noise that made the effort by the 12th Man impressive, it was the timing, execution, and the impossible persistence of the sold-out crowd that filled me up with civic pride.

Watching a game in-person is tough these days, it’s why I tend to prefer the comfortable confines of my couch where drunk people don’t spill beer on my coat or stick their hand in my beer (both of these happened). TV timeouts are obnoxious and completely kill the flow of the game. Big turnover and the crowd’s going nuts? TV timeout! Huge third down and the stadium is rocking? Oh, Chargers just took a timeout, let’s go to a commercial! It sucks watching the players stand bored on the field, and it’s compounded by the fact that they show commercials on the jumbotron … I came to the game to escape commercials, and now I have to watch them anyway? Sigh.

But the 12th Man, the collective voice of Seattle sports that’s still kicking and screaming for a championship and our NBA franchise back, didn’t care. They stood the entire game, sitting down during timeouts but rising as a unified force once the referees blew their whistles to resume play. It felt like a college crowd, the kind of belligerent love that forces you to stand up and shout for your team. They were smart, cognizant of every intricacy of the game, bellowing toward the field in unison on every single Chargers down. Every. Single. Down. San Diego’s players were overwhelmed by the fans, shouting at one another to calm down after consecutive false starts in the red zone and piling up delay-of-game penalties as they tried to relay the playcall from point A to point B.

The noise was deafening, it was the type of crowd noise you don’t think is real, that you think is being piped in by some Michael Bay special effects. But it was real, and it had an enormous impact on the game. Every Seahawks player and coach mentioned it after the game. It wasn’t a PR ploy to endear themselves to the fans, it was serious awe from pros that thought they’d seen and heard it all. That crowd was incredible, and, coming from Seattle, where all the crap of the sports world seems to have fallen in recent years, that crowd was eye-opening. Seattle fans aren’t tame, they aren’t fair-weather; they are just as crazy and dedicated as any NFL fanbase in the country.

The Seahawks won that game 27-20, thanks to four sacks, five turnovers, and Leon Washington’s legs (inspiring in itself). But, for me, Seattle sports really won. Seattle sports were the story. I hope NFL fans heard the noise in the Midwest and the East Coast, I hope David Stern heard the noise all the way in New York, and I hope Howard Lincoln heard it all the way in … wherever Howard Lincoln stalks off to after another loss. Seattle sports won on Sunday, and that’s because Seahawks fans, the celebrated 12th Man, are even better than everyone thought.