It all started in the late ‘80s when a school friend who liked the Chicago Bears suggested I pick an NFL team for the forthcoming season. I chose Seattle Seahawks. I’m not sure why. It might have been the blue and silver colours. I’d never been there or indeed anywhere in America. And I didn’t know anything about the NFL. But they were my team and they have remained my team ever since. American football, with its endless intricacies, strategies and stats, appealed to my inner nerd, much like cricket.
And the curious thing is that of the various sporting teams I follow (West Ham football, Middlesex cricket, England cricket, football etc) the Seahawks is the one that I care about the most – my palms are even sweating as I write this. It may be because until very recently NFL is a sport that has not crossed my professional path. Winning helps, of course, and on Sunday the Seahawks will attempt to win the Super Bowl for the first time in their relatively brief history: they were formed in 1976 when they were one of two new teams, along with Tampa Bay Buccaneers, introduced to the NFL.
The Seahawks have been to the Super Bowl once before, in 2006 when they lost without any great drama to the Pittsburgh Steelers. This year feels different, partly because they unquestionably deserve to be there but also because of the emotional energy I’ve invested in following this season.
Last time they were in the Super Bowl I had an inconvenient magazine deadline that meant that staying up half the night was really not practical if I wanted to function properly on the Monday. So I only watched some of it and listened to other bits of it. I don’t feel I really experienced it. This time it’ll be different. I even have a meeting on Monday that has been put back to the afternoon for my benefit, thanks to the immense Phil Walker, editor of All Out Cricket.
I’ve watched every play of the Seahawks’ 18 games so far this season, most of them via the miracle of the NFL Game Pass subscription service. You can even watch the games in condensed form, each play one after the other bang, bang, bang. No time-outs, ad breaks etc. And for those who are troubled by how long NFL games last (normally three and a bit hours), the abridged version takes about 40 minutes.
But there was nothing condensed about watching the Seahawks’ victory over San Francisco that got them to the Super Bowl. I watched every agonising moment and was still utterly wired at 3am when it finished. I even got to write about it for Gridiron magazine – my NFL reporting debut and a career highlight. As the game was still in the balance with 22 seconds left I felt like I was a cub reporter all over again at Hayters agency, 20-odd years ago covering Millwall v Charlton. That evening the lead changed hands five minutes from time and penning six measly paragraphs for the Daily Star felt like being asked to write a Times leader column about the Suez crisis with 30 seconds notice.
I can’t recall who it was who said of the 2005 Ashes that it was the first time that cricket had felt like something other than a private perversion. My Seahawks obsession feels like that. The NFL is enjoying its greatest surge of interest since the 1980s novelty wore off but my interest still feels like a desperately niche market. I don’t know any other Seahawks fans personally and until this past week they’ve been so far under the radar as to be almost invisible. That’s probably part of the attraction.
It’s pretty much 25 years since I first actively remember following them. I’d quickly got into Touchdown magazine and the First Down newspaper and I found out about American Armed Forces radio where you could listen to games in old-school, crackly glory. Exotic doesn’t even begin to describe it.
In the last game of the 1988 season the Seahawks beat the Raiders (still in LA then) 43-37 to qualify for the play-offs. I was beside myself. They lost in the play-offs to the Cincinnati Bengals who went on to lose a thrilling Super Bowl 20-16 to San Francisco. I loved that Super Bowl. I’d seen the previous two and they’d both been tediously one-sided. I always compare the rhythm of American football to one-day cricket. Each play is a self-contained piece of action, like a single delivery in a cricket match and a one-sided match is a painfully boring slow death. A close one, on the other hand, is a gripping, excruciatingly drawn-out human drama, just like the best sport should be.
Super Bowl XXIII was an epic. The Bengals’ Stanford Jennings returned the second-half kick-off for a touchdown and Joe Montana led the 49ers down the length of the field for a game-winning drive. But what I really loved about that game, what I still really love remembering about it, were the player introductions. I may be wrong but I don’t think they do it any more but back then they introduced the starting line-ups to the crowd individually like the start of a boxing fight. I can still remember the exquisitely-balanced cadences of the stadium announcer with the 49ers star names: “At wide receiver … out of Miss-iss-ippi Valley State … number 80 … Jerrrrry Riiiiiice.” And finally: “And at quarterback … out of Notre (pronounced know-tre of course) Dame … two-time Super Bowl MVP … number 16 … Joe Montaaaaana.” And Montana jogged insouciantly out, smiling politely and acknowledging sheepishly the manic high-fives of his delirious, pumped-up team-mates who formed an on-field tunnel of hype and hoopla. There was no better illustration of the pick ‘n’ mix nature of an NFL squad. Big men, small men, fast men, fat men, and then the quarterback where heart and head have to meet in a perfect combination of brain and brawn. Part cricket captain, part brain surgeon.
Most people I know who don’t like NFL say it’s boring. Most of those who say that also like cricket, which I find an amusing paradox. Most people who don’t like cricket say it’s boring. And, like cricket, American football does reward patience and some intellectual investment. I have to confess – and this is an admission (another one) of super-geekery – that the way I really came to understand the NFL was through the Madden video game. All the various formations and the hundreds of plays on offense and defence there for you to experiment with and try to understand.
I lost interest a bit through the ‘90s. TV coverage was on Sky now, which I didn’t have, the internet hadn’t quite become second-nature and the Seahawks were also a bit rubbish.
In 1998 I was a freelance cricket writer wondering what to do with my winter, I decided it was time finally to go and watch my Seattle Seahawks. Since it was a private perversion I was ready to go on my own but I happened to mention my plan to Andy Wilson, cricket and rugby league writer and generally top bloke. Because his chosen sports both had summer seasons, his autumn was also free. He had a passing interest in NFL and a certain affinity with it because of its similarities in concept with rugby league.
We flew to Seattle for the weekend. We left on a Friday lunchtime and arrived at pretty much the same time of day because of the time difference. On Saturday we drank as much as craft beer as we could stomach (well, more than in fact) and watched Fun Lovin’ Criminals in a tiny downtown club. I’d never heard of them but this, it seems, was Andy’s part of the cultural exchange. They were bloody great. On Sunday morning, hungover, we switched on the TV and it was wall-to-wall football. Being on the west coast with its three-hour time difference meant that there was live football on TV from 10 in the morning. Brilliant. Then we went to see the Seahawks beat the Chargers at their old indoor stadium, the Kingdome. While it was magnificent to see them up close there was something wrong with the sanitised combination of artificial turf and a domed stadium, like going to the theatre or cinema rather than a sporting event.
The Seahawks have since moved to an outdoor stadium where they have created this cult of the ‘12th Man’ (no player ever wears the No.12 jersey) and feed off a crowd noise so loud that it breaks records, apparently, and damages opponents’ ability to communicate with each other to such an extent that the Seahawks have lost at home only once in two years. Sadly I’ve yet to yet to visit CenturyLink Field. Andy and I do wistfully yearn for a reprisal of our Legless in Seattle trip.
I’ve seen the Seahawks on one other occasion, away at the Oakland Raiders where I was advised in advance not to wear any team colours. I laughed off this advice since the received wisdom was that our own football-style rivalries of hateful abuse just didn’t exist in the NFL. Not entirely true as it turned out. I didn’t wear any colours and was glad of it when I went to the gents and heard a variety of anti-Seahawks chants. It wasn’t exactly West Ham-Millwall but still.
The digital age makes the NFL more accessible than ever. The Wembley games are amazing events but I have to say I’m not keen on a franchise in London. Part of the attraction of the NFL and the Seahawks is this sense of exoticism. OK, it’s not the Amazon rainforest but it’s still out there, another world, both literally and figuratively. All the hype, bluster and nonsense that goes with it is broadly the same hype, bluster and nonsense that goes on the Premier League. Just with a few more smiles, a bit more gusto and cheerleaders. I love it and I’d like it stay (except for the occasional visit) over there.