Over and over, the troll comments: the Seahawks’ 12th Man is a farce and stolen from Texas A&M. Seattle’s fans are a bunch of loser copycats who ripped off the tradition-soaked name of the Aggies fan base.
I couldn’t sleep the night before Super Bowl XLVIII. There was nothing left to do to prepare for the big day — crock pot ready, fridge stocked, toddler prints cleaned off TV. So I kept reading articles, tweets, anything I could find about my Seattle Seahawks. I ventured into the comments and their 12th Man trollings, always a bad idea. But as an office chair historian I couldn’t help but ask myself:
Did Seattle really steal the idea of the 12th Man?
Let me walk you through my browser history for 12am, February 2nd, 2014.
On the Seahawks.com page devoted to fans, there’s one snippet about history:
The Seattle fans had such an impact on the success of the team in the 1980’s that Seahawks President Mike McCormack retired the number 12 jersey on December 15, 1984 forever. A tribute to the best fans in the NFL.
So now we have a date. But that does nothing to disprove the thought-theft claims.
How about Wikipedia’s 12th Man entry?
The Seattle Seahawks continue to use the phrase, having settled with Texas A&M out of court after a trademark lawsuit filed by Texas A&M… The Seattle Seahawks retired the number 12 jersey on December 15, 1984, in honor of their fans.
Wikipedia tells us nothing more, and indeed it references Seahawks.com as its source for the second sentence. The first nicely frames the entire argument of the haters: Seattle infringed on the Aggies’ trademark, ergo Seattle stole the idea.
After several other documented instances of the use of “12th Man”, Texas A&M had a roster shortage in 1922 and pulled a player out of the stands to sit on the bench. Luckily they didn’t have to worry about NCAA eligibility back then. (Hilariously, the first sentence about Texas A&M is followed by “citation needed”.) So Texas A&M have a legit, 90-some year claim on the continuous use of the term. Even if they didn’t file for a trademark until 1990. Luckily we can avoid the whole topic of trademark infringement and still look back and consider the genesis of Seattle’s 12th Man. Was it independent conception or dirty pirate thievery?
— Seattle Seahawks (@Seahawks) May 21, 2014
Eleven of 12th Man
To do that, we must turn to the digitized archives of the Seattle Times. Assuming you have a Seattle Public Library card, that is… Did I mention this article is really only targeted at Seahawks fans? (Many of you can get a card even if you don’t live in the city! Then you can get into museums for free~~)
The first mention in connection with sports came in 1937, but it was soccer. The Washington State Football Association, which was actually soccer teams in Seattle, put together an all-star team to send down to Portland. After goalie, fullbacks, halfbacks, and forwards they named one substitute labeled the 12th Man.
Later in 1937 the Times described UC-Berkeley football coach Stub Allison as a 12th Man that the University of Washington Huskies would need to face on the field at California Stadium.
A January 1954 article retold a 1929 game between the Huskies and the Oregon Ducks. Larry Westerweller, a Husky defender, ran from the sidelines and barely tackled a free-running Duck halfback. It technically was not against the rules. The Ducks were awarded a touchdown anyways and college football made interference a no-no for the 1930 season.
Another chuckle-inducer in 1954 showed a photograph of a Notre Dame game with a rabbit — Peter O’Hare, get it? — running around next to an unfolding play.
A January 1956 article described Washington State College (later renamed Washington State University, U-dub’s arch-rival) christening their student body the “12th Man” to encourage support for the football team. Times writers mocked them for months, wondering if the extra player would help them win more than the single victory in 1955
Finally in 1974 the Seattle Times mentioned Texas A&M’s 12th Man for the first time. The Aggies visited the Huskies, and the Times sportswriter made fun of them, saying that the 12th Man tradition no longer required standing up for the whole game. The manly act of camaraderie had been replaced with each guy standing up and kissing his date after a touchdown.
A July 1976 article had a great quote, “Those fans, they are magic. It’s like having a 12th man on your side.” But that article wasn’t about the Seahawks, it was describing the fans of Seattle’s new Sounders soccer club.
We will skip all of the terrible articles in 1978. Seahawk defensive tackle Dave Kraayeveld was errantly the 12th Man on the field to defend a potentially game-winning field goal by Denver in overtime. The kicker missed initially, but hit his do-over. Why did the Times have to write about this so many times? Poor guy. Skip 1980 and 1981 too. Let it go! Poor guy.
After that one brief mention in 1974, Texas A&M reentered the news in 1983 with a few articles. They discussed Aggies Coach Jackie Sherrill leveraging the 12th Man concept to pad his kickoff coverage unit. He had walk-ons compete for a spot and created a buzz among students and alumni. The recruits were even better than expected: one of them gave an Arkansas player a concussion, another was so good that he became a backup cornerback, and yet another was offered a scholarship the next year. It was a great way to stoke the flames of fandom and deserves more mention in the Wikipedia 12th Man article.
But in Seattle, Dave Kraayeveld was still getting the mention as the 12th Man. It was a bad word in 1983 and most of 1984.
Spontaneous 12th Womanhood
That all changed with a Seattle Times article on December 9, 1984 page D4 (484 in the digital scans). Here it is:
No. 12 jersey: from bench to bleacher
Seattle Seahawks No. 12 jersey spent most of its professional football career on the bench. Now it will spend the rest of its life in the bleachers.
For the first time in National Football League history, a football jersey has been retired not to the traditional locker room, but to the fans…
No. 12 was picked because Seahawks management considers their fans the “12th man” on the field, what with their screaming and washing down the Kingdome with The Wave.
No. 12 also was picked because it wasn’t being used. It was worn through the 1982 season by Sam Adkins, who… signed as a quarterback [in 1977] and spent most of his career keeping track of plays…
[The] jersey is being sold only through The Bon. The first batch of 2,000 arrived Thursday and were sold out by afternoon… “If it continues to be as popular as this, we will sell 20,000 to 30,000… People were standing in line (in the downtown store) to get one.”
A dollar from the price of each jersey sold will be donated to Northwest Harvest, the central agency for food banks in the Seattle area. The jersey is identical to ones worn by the Seahawks except for [an ad] and the word “FANS” across the back where the player’s name goes.
The idea for the jersey came from Randy and Karen Ford of Tukwila… After watching the last Seahawks-Raiders game and hearing other teams describe Seahawk fans as the “12th man on the field,” [they] called the Seahawks and suggested getting a jersey for the fans…
For coming up with the idea, the Fords will be presented with the original No. 12 Seahawk jersey just before the home game against Denver next Sunday.
It’s pointless to keep searching after that. First of all, the database ends in 1984. But even if you switch over to the modern archive, there are thousands of results to dig through. Narrowing it to (“12th man” ford) pulls out two gems.
On January 22, 2006 Karen Ford wrote a letter to the Times to correct an article from the 18th. She wanted folks to know that although her ex-husband had called the Seahawks, the idea for the 12th Man was hers. When their marriage ended, she kept the 12THMAN license plate.
On January 28, 2006 — a week before Seattle faced Pittsburgh in Superbowl XL — the Seattle Times dropped the bomb that Texas A&M was suing for trademark infringement. Due to her recent letter, they turned to Karen Ford for her opinion.
Seahawks fans greeted the idea that someone could own the “12th Man” with disbelief.
“The law’s a funny thing,” said Karen Ford , who says that she and her ex-husband Randy Ford suggested the Seahawks retire jersey No. 12 in honor of the fans. The Seahawks did so in 1984. For the Aggies, who have been abuzz over the trespass, this is no laughing matter.
Two Minute Drill
Karen came up with the idea of retiring #12 with no reference to Texas A&M. Our question is answered.
We can even loop back to the trademark question. Karen thought of it in 1984, six years before trademark was filed. The phrase “12th Man” is common across sports. Even if the Aggies could uphold their trademark in court, surely no unbiased observer would consider the Seahawks or their fans to be perpetrators of a mindcrime.