In the verisimilitude of NFL stadiums these days, almost all fans are suited up and ready to go, only a set of shoulder pads and a helmet shy of offering to trade places with the players. Faux Tom Bradys are decked out in their No. 12 Patriots jerseys. Mock Dez Bryants in their No. 88 Cowboys jerseys. Artificial No. 13 Odell Beckham Juniors in Giants blue and No. 12 Aaron Rodgerses in Packers green.
This appearance or semblance of truth—this blurring of spectator and performer—has been a multiplying phenomenon for roughly a quarter century, ever since merchandizers hit on the financial bonanza of mining sports loyalists’ dress-up fantasies. Where once it was enough just to ride the bandwagon, attired in mufti, it has become standard procedure to walk around with another person’s name and number on one’s back.
And it isn’t just young men, whose age and gender at least roughly coincide with the athletes they are pretending to be. Older folks, little kids, women and girls assume player identities as well.
Whether this is motivated by a visceral belief that fans, by increasing the number of Eli Mannings or Andrew Lucks on site each Sunday, can affect the game’s outcome is difficult to pinpoint. But wearing a player’s shirt has become so routine that the NFL, as well as other professional leagues, publicizes lists of top-selling jerseys. (Brady currently is No. 1.)
In this strange circumstance of visual cloning, then, it is refreshing to note the Seattle Seahawks’ variant on the theme. In Seattle, football fans indeed wear blue or white team shirts, often with the name and number of quarterback Russell Wilson (No. 3) or running back Marshawn Lynch (No. 24), whose replica jerseys are the ninth and 15th among top sellers.
The difference in Seattle, though, is the ubiquitous presence of jersey No. 12, a number that hasn’t been worn by a Seahawk player since 1981 and never will be again. (Only one man ever wore No. 12 for the Seahawks since they joined the NFL as an expansion franchise in 1976. And he, essentially was just another spectator: Sam Adkins played—briefly—in all of 11 games over a four-year career from 1977 to 1981 and threw a total of 39 passes (17 completions, two touchdowns, four interceptions), before he—not his jersey—was retired.
But in 1984, Seahawks head coach Chuck Knox began to refer to the support of Seattle’s home crowd as an extra player—a 12th man—and that December, team owner Mike McCormack officially retired that “player’s” number as a tribute to the fans.
So now, a visitor such as myself doesn’t walk the Seattle streets without passing countless citizens wearing No. 12, with “FAN” above the number where a surname normally goes. There are “12” banners in shop windows, “12” scarves and hats for sale, a giant “12” flag flying on game days atop the tower of the global Starbucks headquarters. (The Seahawks No. 12 shirt, by the way, is the 19th most popular NFL jersey sold.)
In November of 2005, that “extra player”—famously loud in a stadium constructed to amplify crowd noise to record-level decibles—conspired to rattle the New York Giants into committing 11 false-start penalties and missing three field goals, which led to an overtime Seahawks victory. The next day, Seattle coach Mike Holmgren awarded the game ball to old No. 12.
That fed the fans’ conceit that they in fact can influence the game’s result, not unlike the apparent belief of the fellow who pulls on a Ben Roethlisberger No. 7 shirt with the conviction that he is prepared to further steel the Pittsburgh Steelers against their opponents. (“Put me in, coach; I’m ready to play.”)
As if. But in Seattle, at least, the we-are-the-team make-believe mostly stops short of ticketholders envisioning themselves to actually be Russell Wilson. The No. 12 shirt says, “FAN.” Truth in advertising.