Back in 1984 I was in my fourth year of what eventually became a twenty-five-year career as a Lincoln Mercury dealer in Seattle, Washington.
The Seahawks were an expansion franchise owned by the Nordstrom’s and, despite a respectable won-loss record with Jim Zorn at quarterback and Steve Largent pulling down his passes, they were having trouble filling the old Kingdome. Ten thousand or more tickets went unsold at each home game.
I had signed on as a radio and TV advertiser for Seahawks games from the moment I bought my dealership in 1980. KIRO had the contract to broadcast all things Seahawk and my sales manager’s brother was the GM at KIRO. I was a fan and an easy sell and willing buyer. My dealership and KIRO both had a vested interest in the Seahawk’s success. KIRO and Seahawk management worked hand-in-glove on promotions to boost fan interest in the team.
One Monday morning my KIRO advertising rep and I met to discuss media buys for the upcoming season. During our meeting he solicited my advice on what promotions might win over more Seattleites, get them more involved in supporting the team. He said there was going to be a big meeting with Seahawk management the next week to decide what promotions to adopt and he was trying to get ideas from advertisers. Asking for advice is the sort of thing a good sales representative does to keep a client involved. Nevertheless, I took him seriously.
In 1984 Seattle was definitely a different place than many cities in America. Some say it still is. Seattleites viewed themselves as civilized. To a fault they drove, acted and spoke courteously, but many looked down their noses at professional sports. Support for the University of Washington Huskies was rabid but playing sports professionally was viewed as a bit crass.
As my rep and I discussed the issue, I told him the Seahawks needed a more collegiate connection with the fans, more rah-rah like the Huskies had. My thoughts went back to Army football. I told him how the entire Corps of Cadets attended every game and stood in support throughout; how we were the 12th man, the rocket*, the roar that might just spur the Army Team on to victory. I told him how, in the Navy game of 1968 on a signal from the rabble rousers (West Point cheerleaders), we all stripped off our dress grey tunics to expose 12th man sweatshirts we wore underneath; how at the Penn State game of that same year the 300 of us who attended carried two air horns each and on a signal from the rabble rousers blasted them in unison completely silencing 50,000 Penn State fans. I encouraged him to find some way to instill a kind of collegiate connection between the Seahawks and fans that the Corps had as the 12th man.
My KIRO rep left my office that day pumped up on the idea of a promotion centered around the concept of fans as the 12th man on the field. Two weeks later he came back and said the team’s management had decided to adopt the 12th Man concept and they were trying to decide just how to implement it. Later that year the Seahawks retired the number 12 and made the 12th Man a centerpiece of their marketing. The rest is history.
In a Seattle Times story, the Seahawks credited a woman named Karen Ford with calling and suggesting the 12th Man jersey for the fans. In fact, there may have been many people who suggested the same or similar ideas. But I will always believe my sales rep got the ball rolling with the enthusiasm he got from my stories about Army football and the BOTL.
Imagine my frustration years later when Texas A&M sued the Seahawks for using “the 12th Man” promotion. It was supposedly THEIR long-standing tradition, one which they had registered as a trademark. The Seahawks caved and since 2006 have paid Texas A&M to use the expression “the 12s” to describe their fans, renegotiating usage rights every five years.
The Seahawks have gone on to appear in two Super Bowls and win one. Their new stadium, Century Link Field, is filled to capacity at every home game and the 12s are the noisiest, most disciplined fans in the NFL. So, I guess the Seahawks can afford it, but it still irks me.
A little web research revealed that idea of the fan as the 12th man on the field did not begin at West Point and Texas A&M’s claim that it began there in 1922 is questionable at best. Through the years the expression “12th man” used to describe fans (or even a referee) appeared in countless newspaper stories about many different college teams of many different sports. However, the 12th Man traditions at Texas A&M and West Point are so similar, I believe they migrated from West Point to Texas A&M, brought there by tactical staff who were West Point grads. Texas A&M did not register their trademark until 1990.
Here is a link to a video summary of that Penn State game in 1968. It is amazing what you can find on the web: November 2, 1968 – Penn State 28, Army 24 (10 Minutes or Less) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cHPHXR29T_c
*A traditional West Point football cheer led by the cadets that goes like this:
BOOM! – Ahhh
U – S – M – A, Rah! Rah!
U – S – M – A, Rah! Rah!
Team! Team! Team!
** Editor’s Note: This photo shows the Corps of Cadets at the Army-Navy game, November 30, 1968. The Army football team, energized by the unexpected show of support, went on to beat Navy 21-14!