More than a number, 12 is an identity for Seahawks fans

Seattle's football faithful have been loud for decades, and a Super Bowl trip means they're finally being heard

Linebacker Heath Farwell carries the 12th Man flag as the Seahawks are introduced before their playoff game against the New Orleans Saints.
Harry How/Getty Images

SEATTLE — The number 12, at least here in Seattle, has made its way into the upper echelons of numerical notables in culture, joining the ranks of one (the loneliest number), 11 (“it’s one louder, isn’t it?”), 867-5309 (Jenny) and 42 (Jackie Robinson and, of course, the answer to life, the universe and everything).

The number refers to “the 12th Man,” the nickname for the Seattle Seahawks’ devoted, tenacious and record-breakingly (opponents might say insufferably) loud fans. This week in Seattle and its suburbs, you can’t throw a 10-yard pass without hitting someone — or something — adorned with the number 12.

The number falls frequently from the lips of Seahawks coaches and players in their pregame preparations and postgame recaps. It is on cars and trucks, in windows and on balconies, on jerseys and T-shirts. It’s shaved into men’s hair and painted onto women’s pedicures. It’s even the root of many a bargain — 12-cent cups of coffee at Starbucks, $12 Seahawks tattoos around town. 

A 12 flag flies above the Space Needle in Seattle; another 12 is lit in a building's windows.
AP/PRNewsFoto/Space Needle

“Oh, my gosh, it has become the hallmark of Seattle,” said Paul Johns, assistant director of fan development for the Seahawks. “It’s just beautiful, the fan enthusiasm.”

Let us pause for a brief primer on the terminology: One fan is a 12, a group of fans are 12s, the entirety of the crowd in the stadium is the 12th Man, and when one or more fans are performing activities in support of the Seahawks, they are twelving, as in, “Put your jersey on and come down, we are twelving so hard in this sports bar!”

Many people outside Seattle often assume the 12th Man phenomenon originated this year, or maybe during the team’s 2005 season — the last and only other time the Seahawks made the Super Bowl, Johns said. But the 12th Man tradition goes back decades and stretches well beyond Seattle. 

History, controversy

In football there are 11 men allowed on the field at one time. In December 1984, the fledgling Seattle NFL franchise (at the time just eight years old) retired the number 12 to honor the fans, the symbolic 12th man on the field.

“The number actually retired the same year I did,” said Johns, whose career as a wide receiver and punt return specialist was cut short by a neck injury in the fall of that year. “This 12th Man thing didn’t just come around the bend, it goes back a long time.”

It all goes back to the Seahawks making us feel like we’re a part of the team.

Jill Borchers

Seahawks season ticket holder

The 12th Man tradition started as early as 1922 at Texas A&M where, as the story goes, the Aggies were taking a beating, playing well into their reserves. The coach called student E. King Gill, a former football player, down from the press box to suit up. The team won, and Gill was the only player left standing on the sidelines. He later said, “I wish I could say that I went in and ran for the winning touchdown, but I did not. I simply stood by in case my team needed me."

That sentiment has fueled decades of Aggies fans, and in 1990 the university trademarked the term “the 12th Man.” In 2006, Texas A&M sued the Seahawks to protect that trademark. The two parties settled on a deal — the Seahawks could use “the 12th Man” in a limited capacity and would pay the university a lump sum of $100,000, plus $5,000 annually. Dozens of soccer clubs around the world — including Germany’s Bayern Munich, Scotland’s Rangers FC and Argentina’s Boca Juniors — have also retired the number 12 in honor of their fans. On the Seahawks’ website there’s a section called “Spirit of 12,” which acknowledges the agreement with Texas A&M in fine print at the bottom.

It’s a compromise appreciated by countless Seattle fans who share the Aggies spirit — they may not be able to score the touchdowns, but they can contribute (including making the kind of noise that forces opposing teams into operational deafness, which often leads to penalties for false starts and delays of game, missed snaps and more).

“It all goes back to the Seahawks making us feel like we’re a part of the team,” said Jill Borchers, a season ticket holder. “Did you know that the Seahawks’ uniforms have a 12 stitched into the back of the neck where the tag would be? And down the side of each pant leg, and on each collar, there are 12 feathers. The fans are incorporated into everything they do, right down to making us feel like we’re on the field with them.”

Enjoying rare success

Borchers, who has been attending Seahawks games since fourth grade, sits near cornerback Richard Sherman’s mother, Beverly (or, as fans call her, Mama Sherman). After Sherman’s game-saving deflection of a would-be 49ers touchdown that earned the Seahawks a trip to the Super Bowl, Borchers started running up and down the aisles near her seat.

Seahawks fan Jill Borchers (right) hugs Beverly Sherman, the mother of cornerback Richard Sherman.
Courtesy of Jill Borchers

“I couldn’t contain myself. When I ran up the stairs, she was standing there and we hugged,” Borchers said. “We were both crying so hard our knees buckled. She was screaming, ‘The Super Bowl, I can’t believe it, I can’t believe it!’ As a Seahawks fan, we don’t feel this way very often.”

Part of the fans’ solidarity, she said, may come from Seattle’s dearth of Super Bowl rings.

“The (Seattle Super) Sonics won the title the day I was born, and I was there when the Storm won the WNBA title, but this is something else,” said Borchers, who is heading to the Super Bowl this weekend, hoping to be present for that first as well. “It’s tough not having a championship. I think that’s why this fan base is so special. We do all this without all that.”

At Marination Ma Kai, a popular Hawaiian-Korean fusion restaurant just across Elliott Bay from downtown Seattle, customers can enjoy a Spam slider or a kimchi rice bowl and a perfect nighttime panorama of the Emerald City. In the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl, this view included, from left to right: the Space Needle (topped with a 12 flag); several high-rise buildings strategically lit with massive, multistory 12s; and CenturyLink Field glowing blue.

Seahawks fans Xavier, Stephanie and Jon Collier.
Jennifer Warnick for Al Jazeera

Jon and Stephanie Collier were eating dinner there Wednesday with their 4-year-old son, Xavier, who was wearing a Marshawn Lynch shirt.

“When we dropped him at preschool today, the woman in the office said, ‘Oh, Xavier, you’re wearing your jersey today.’ He looked up at her and said, ‘Seahaaaaawks!’” Stephanie said.

They said they love what’s happened to a city that socially is known for being a bit frosty.

“One of the things that’s so neat about this is that right now, you can go almost anywhere in Seattle and start up a conversation with almost anyone,” she said, adding with intentional surprise, “People are talking to each other.”

The city’s social warmth isn’t the only thing that’s changing. Collier said lately she’s found herself going head to head with friends on Facebook in defense of Seahawks players, including the outspoken Sherman — something she never would have done a year or two ago.

Everyone is welcome

Jon Collier, in a Seahawks shirt and hat, said the reason he’s so into the Seahawks right now is the quality of people on the team.

“And that we’ve come so far with a team that was kind of just pieced together,” he said, referring to the number of undrafted or low-drafted players, such as fifth-round pick Sherman and undrafted receivers Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse, who have made huge clutch plays this season and throughout the playoffs.

“Like the Bad News Bears go to the Super Bowl,” added his wife.

“This is something that defines us as a community,” he said. “We’ve had Nirvana and Macklemore, Amazon and Microsoft — all we need is a Super Bowl.”

Some fandoms seem to have prerequisites — length of devotion, for instance — for someone to be considered a hard-core, true supporter. But in Seattle, it seems all are welcome, whether it’s a devotee who has had season tickets since “Smokey and the Bandit” was in movie theaters or someone who bought a number 12 Seahawks jersey this week.

“There’s room for everyone on this bandwagon,” said Johns. “We’ll even slow down for people to walk beside it. We don’t leave anyone out.

“I love that people are taking this 12th Man mania and embracing it, so they can look back years from now and say, ‘I was a part of that. I was there in 2014 when the team,’ hopefully, ‘won their first Super Bowl,’” Johns said. “Man, it gives me the chills right now just thinking about it.”

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