Remember a time when the Kingdome was considered a state of the art stadium? When Steve Largent was just an obscure, undersized, less than speedy receiver obtained for an eighth round draft pick? When wins were rare, and playoff appearances were unheard of? These were the Seahawks’ early years, which bottomed out with the 1982 firing of original head coach Jack Patera, and began to turn, toward an AFC Championship Game appearance, with the hiring of Chuck Knox. Along with Largent, standout players Jim Zorn, Dave Krieg and Curt Warner would give the 12s reason to cheer amidst a great deal of losing.
The Seahawks franchise is celebrating it’s 42nd anniversary on Saturday, June 4 (while the team played its inaugural season in 1976, the city was awarded an NFL franchise on June 4, 1974). We decided to take a trip down memory lane and spend some time talking to 12s in Seattle’s local bars about their favorite players and memories from years’ past.
In the early evening in Ballard, a former fishing town bordered by two bays, a stacked shipping container has been painted blue and lime green. Still one of Seattle’s oldest cities, the container’s decor is indicative of not only the now-lively bar and restaurant scene, but also of a shift in the excitement of local sports fans. A giant ’12’ is displayed on one side.
In a nearby bar, four men are sitting around a table watching the Golden State Warriors defeat the Oklahoma City Thunder in game seven of the NBA Conference Finals. All are parents of children at a local middle school, and have been in a fantasy league together for more than a decade. For the last four years, they’ve gotten together to watch the Super Bowl (a period that includes two appearances from Seattle).
“Back in the ’70s, when it was slim pickings, who did we have?” says one friend, Kip. “We had Jim Zorn, Curt Warner, Steve Largent…”
“There was a play, I don’t know if you remember, he got nailed with a dirty hit,” says another friend, Jack. “And then a year later — that guy intercepted the ball and [Largent] made the tackle. Are you familiar with that?”
“That’s where I think… He was such a student of the game,” adds Kip. “That’s why he so good. It wasn’t that he was physically different, he just did everything. It’s just something.”
“I think it was the same game–”
“See I don’t think it was the same game. I think it was later.”
“It was on the interception return–”
“It was on the return and Largent got him, just laid him out–”
“Largent,” says Kip, grinning. “God… you guys are going back.”
Jack is referring two games in 1988. In the season opener, Denver Broncos safety Mike Harden decked Largent with an illegal elbow to the head. Largent was knocked unconscious, suffered a concussion, and lost two teeth and his facemask. In the December rematch in the Kingdome, Harden intercepted a Dave Krieg pass in the end zone, and on his return was flattened by a flying Largent, who had raced across the field to deck his nemesis. Slammed to the turf, Harden fumbled, and Largent recovered. (Often overlooked is the fact that a defensive penalty made it a non-play, but it remains an all-time Seahawks highlight.)
“I would say Marshawn Lynch is my favorite,” offers another man. “The Seahawks hadn’t been good — for a long time — and then he showed up along with Pete Carroll… it all sort of happened together. He just had the right attitude. I love watching him play. I hope he decides to come back for another year!” he says with a laugh. “My favorite [thing about him] really were all the Super Bowl interviews. I just love the personality that came along with [Lynch].”
The conversation switches to coaching.
“Pete Carroll has been a big impact, definitely. He likes to let [those players be themselves],” says Kip.
Is he the best coach the team has seen?
“I think it’s hard to argue with that.”
“Holmgren’s a pretty good coach,” says another. “But he was old school. Knox was good…”
“It’s interesting because you’re talking to guys, I mean, 50’s and 60’s,” says Jack, as Kip and another friend continue to debate past coaches across the table. “We grew up with this league. This league has really kind of come of age in our youth. I remember gathering Sunday night, I mean, you’d watch two games and it was all about the run it was very little the pass. They beat the [crap] out of each other on the field. Mud bowls and ice games. So we’ve seen a huge arc here of the game and how it’s matured, and it still captures the imagination of generation to generation.”
The Knox era ended after three seasons without a playoff appearance and the retirement two years earlier of the last original Seahawk, Largent. Knox resigned to return to the Los Angeles Rams. President and General Manager Tom Flores took over as head coach, but two years later owner Ken Behring ousted Flores, hiring his son David as president and bringing in Dennis Erickson as head coach. From 1990 to 1996, the Seahawks recorded just one winning season (finishing 9-7 in 1990).
The Seahawks had to make Husky Stadium their home for a few games after ceiling tiles fell in the Kingdome, and in an even scarier move, Behring shipped team headquarters to Southern California.
“I’m a Californian, and this is where I want to be,” Behring told the Los Angeles Times in February of 1996.
Behring closed the facility, moving vans hauled the team’s equipment out of the building, and players spent the offseason working out in Anaheim. Then-Seahawks defensive tackle Cortez Kennedy even filed a grievance with the NFLPA over the relocation of the offseason training (days later, Behring called Kennedy overweight and questioned his work ethic).
Thankfully for Seahawks fans, the move was short-lived. The NFL threatened to fine Behring $500,000 and an additional $50,000 for every week the team practiced in California. Behring relented, and Seahawks returned to Seattle.
A problematic Kingdome lease prompted Behring to sell the team to Paul Allen. Allen brought in his own management team, which in 1999 replaced Erickson with Packers coach Mike Holmgren, who assumed GM and head coaching duties.
The changes re-invigorated the fanbase: from 1999 to 2008, the Seahawks put together six winning seasons. Running back Shaun Alexander became a three-time Pro Bowler and was voted both the 2005 NFL AP and the PFWA MVP. Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck was also voted to three Pro Bowls, and still owns the franchise records for most career pass attempts (2,559), most career passing yards (29,434) and most career games with 300 or more passing yards (19).
With a new leader, a new stadium, a new conference and new stars Hasselbeck and Alexander, the team’s first Super Bowl appearance was on the horizon. But so was the departure of Holmgren, and the disastrous season of Jim Mora.
Mora was head coach for just one season, 2009, when the team finished 5-11 and lost several players to injuries. Rumblings of a toxic atmosphere were prevalent, and the team’s general manager, Tim Ruskell, resigned mid-way through the season.
With Mora gone, some Seahawks fans were left scratching their heads over the team’s choice for his replacement. Each new NFL head coaching vacancy prompted a recitation of the usual suspects of former head coaches as replacements, including former Steelers coach Bill Cowher or Jon Gruden, a Super Bowl champion with Tampa Bay. But the Seahawks went a different direction, hiring Pete Carroll. Wait, didn’t that guy get fired after his first two attempts at coaching in the NFL? The head coach of USC, a team reviled in the Northwest? But Carroll and his right-hand man, GM John Schneider, soon assembled the pieces that would result in a Super Bowl victory, including third round draft pick Russell Wilson and struggling Buffalo Bills running back Marshawn Lynch. And having their backs would be a group of defenders that came to be known as the Legion of Boom.
“I grew up watching Shaun Alexander, and he was my favorite at the time,” says Kevin Johnson, over beers with two friends. “Ever since then I’ve been more team-focused, I guess. I don’t have a specific player. But I remember watching the Seahawks having a losing record going to the playoffs against the Saints. And I was living in Colorado at the time, but I was born here. And Everyone thought it was going to be a blowout, and watching that play where Marshawn took off [was amazing].”
Johnson was in Cambodia during Super Bowl XLVIII, where Pete Carroll’s Seahawks defeated the Denver Broncos 43-8. Seattle’s Legion of Boom put on one of the best defensive performances in NFL history.
“That was pretty incredible,” says Johnson. “I was watching it with a friend. It was really cool watching it overseas and seeing them dominate the Broncos.”
Johnson and another friend, Kevin Lee, spend time discussing the Seahawks’ newest draft class.
“I think it’s pretty amazing how they draft. Just these players that most people don’t know anything about, and then they end up becoming stars. Like Doug Baldwin was undrafted. And I feel like they came up with these really big defensive backs ideas, with Kam Chancellor and Brandon Browner.
“I just feel like Pete Carroll always has some sort of trick up his sleeve, and John Schneider… I’m interested to see what happens. I feel like the strangest things always happen.”
“My obvious choice is Russell Wilson,” says Phillip, a patron in a bar in Seattle’s rapidly developing South Lake Union neighborhood. He’s seated with a woman, and the pair have been discussing the Seahawks prior to this conversation. He’s been asked about his favorite Seahawks player of all time.
“This is a guy who most people didn’t give him a chance. Coming out of Wisconsin, he didn’t fit the typical profile of a football player quarterback. And he comes to Seattle and takes the team to the Super Bowl in how many years. It’s an excellent achievement.”
“We went to the games when it wasn’t so great,” he says, reflecting on the team’s performance in the 90s. “The different kind of excitement is that the community is more involved than ever before. You go to the stadium and it’s packed in a way, but you don’t hear about the Seahawks in town. So it’s different, and I think it’s because of the management we have now.”
“My favorite game… we lost that game. It was [the playoff game against] the [Carolina] Panthers. And I’ll tell you the reason why: we were down going into the second half 32-0, and we almost won that game. No Marshawn Lynch. Who comes back in the second half? 30 points down, and they come within three or four points of winning the game. And the Panthers don’t score at all. Who does that?”
The Panthers had raced to a 31-0 halftime lead, and Seahawks fans could be forgiven for thinking a loss short of the NFC championship game was a near certainty. But the Seahawks came out of the locker room and scored two touchdowns before the third quarter was half over, and the 31-14 score shook the Carolina faithful. A successful fake punt by the Seahawks further quieted Bank of America Stadium. The Panthers were able to stop the ensuing drive, but a touchdown narrowed the margin, and a Steven Hauschka field goal with 1:12 remaining made it 31-24. A spectacular Seahawks comeback seemed possible. But recovering the onside kick proved impossible for Seattle, and a third straight Super Bowl appearance was not to be.
The 12s can look on the bright side of that loss. The comeback was inspiring. The team enjoyed extra offseason rest by not having to fight all the way through the Super Bowl, and had a higher first-round draft pick too. Veterans on the 2016 team know what it takes to win the Super Bowl, and know how to apply the lessons gleaned from falling short. It’s the Seahawks way for those veterans to share their knowledge with the younger players, all while competing with each other every day to make the team stronger. With more than a few prognosticators singling out the Seahawks once again as Super Bowl contenders, 12s can pack 42 years of pride and perseverance into the enthusiasm with which they utter their favorite two words: GO HAWKS!