Friday, February 14, 2014

Destiny fulfilled, Dynasty awaits

I've tried to think of the right words to say for days now.  The haze that was the last three weeks (make that six months) hasn't even begun to wear off, and I'm okay with that.  In fact, I want things to stay like this forever.  It all just feels like a giant dream sequence, and I know for a fact that I'm not the only person who feels this way.  Maybe that's just what happens when the universe steps in to help create something amazing.  When people believe in something to their core and never stop believing.  Make no mistake, this past 2013-2014 season was one of those magical, fairy tale stories in sports that we've always heard about as Seahawks fans; but never gotten to experience for ourselves.  A year where everything seemed to break just right.  Even the dreaded high ankle sprains of the past that ended many a season didn't seem to take as long to heal from.  This year was all about fulfilling our destiny.

Coaches, players, and fans alike knew that this year was destined to be special.  You could feel it in the Renton air during Training Camp on August 4th.  Expectations were high and practices were efficient and precise.  The scheduled team-autograph session turned out to be a dud for the legion of parents who brought their children to camp for a chance to snag some autographs.  Instead of the likes of Russell Wilson or Marshawn Lynch greeting the fans, it was instead Darren Fells, Benson Mayowa, and Ryan Seymour who stole the show.  Nothing against any of those guys, but many a child (and parent.  More so the parents, actually now that I think of it...) went home disappointed that day.  Aside from Doug Baldwin making a cameo, the rest of the team was too busy hitting the weights.  This was a team on a mission.  It certainly paid off big time.

Even my bus driver from Seattle to Renton was telling me about the electricity in the air in the city with regards to the Seahawks.  It's as if it just took over the entire state.  A clan of blue and green zombies who believed to the very bottom of their souls that the Seahawks were going to win the Super Bowl in 2013.  That feeling that was in the air helped lay the foundation to a Championship season.  It can not be overstated.  Neither can the legendary work ethic and relentless preparation of the staff and players.  The two, in unison, have proven to be an absolutely beautiful dynamic.  What viewers from afar might consider a cheesy slogan like "we all we got, we all need", just the typical stuff you'd expect from a Pete Carroll coached team, has transformed a community.  We actually believe these things.  It's not just rhetoric or mumbo jumbo.  That's what makes us special and unique as a fanbase.  

Fast forward 6 calendar months and 18 games later and the Seahawks, much like I had a week earlier, were flying to New Jersey.  My lady thought it would be cool if we went to Jersey City to the Westin where the team was staying to help greet them as they arrived.  As we headed out there, the reality started to sink in that this was really happening.  The Seahawks were going to be playing in New Jersey, in the Super Bowl!  This is a moment that I had imagined when Matt Bryant's field goal split the uprights in Atlanta last January.  What started as a simple idea, a thought, had now manifested itself into one of the greatest season's in team history and the chance for it not only to happen, but for me to witness it all unfold up close and in person.  I wouldn't have it any other way.

I can hardly believe my eyes.  There's a hotel, in New Jersey, covered in all things Seahawks.  Talk about surreal.  The thought of me ever seeing a Seahawks team hotel in Jersey never crossed my mind ever before.  Now, here it was.  That wasn't the only unbelievable sight though.  Perhaps even more incredible was the crowd of Seahawks fans that seemed to form in a mere matter of minutes just around the hotel's front driveway.  I've known all season that I live a charmed existence and that the god's of good fortune have smiled favorably upon me, but this was further proof.  Immediately to the side of my girlfriend and I were old friends from Carlow East that I hadn't seen all season long.  Despite the fact that we hadn't seen each other in months, there were hugs and high-fives all around as we all were overwhelmed by the most amazing happiness we'd probably ever felt in our entire lives.

You hardly realized you were standing in the cold when the buses pulled up and the team started to empty out.  I looked around as everyone was losing their minds, amazed by what I saw.  The 12th Man was being heard in Jersey City, and this was just for the team arriving at the hotel!  Mostly everyone who was flying in for the Super Bowl hadn't made the trip out East yet.  Still, the team felt the 12th Man once again as they made their way straight for the hotel lobby.  Fans screamed and called out players' names, but this team remained laser-focused like they have been since the clock's struck zero on January 13th, 2013, in Atlanta.  They went straight for the hotel doors and just like that, they were gone.  I didn't have the greatest view in the world, so I didn't couldn't quite make out all the players coming off the bus, but it was cool.  Just being there was enough.  Hearing one kid walk away saying, "that was a life-changing experience, I was this close to Earl Thomas just now" was enough for me to know that this meant a lot to a lot of different people.

After a drink with friends, both old and new, we turn the page to Media Day.  A lifelong friend of mine, Joe, bought the tickets weeks in advance.  Prior to that, I never thought I'd have any interest in attending Media Day.  It's an absolute circus and demonstrates how far sports journalism has fallen, but I figured this was the only time I'd ever go in my life, so why not.  Predictably, it's about what you'd expect.  You're sitting in a seat at the Prudential Center, watching these guys answer tons of questions, while you yourself are wearing headsets and cycling between the channels to catch different interviews.  I feel bad for my friend as we arrive slightly late and he only gets to see a few minutes of Bronco interviews.  It was a sign of things to come for him.  After Marshawn let's the world know that he's just 'bout that action boss, we head for the Turnpike to start the trip home.

It's Friday before the game now and this is where things start to feel surreal again.  I wake at around 6am and head for the subway to eventually get on the PATH train to New Jersey.  I'm meeting with Mike Flood, the Seahawks VP of Community Outreach, and he's selling me a ticket for face value.  $1,000 for one seat.  Where?  Section 340, Row 7, Seat 18.  Just as amazing was the fact that my co-workers took up a collection for me at work.  I was committed to earning my trip to the Super Bowl, to keep the same "earn everything" mindset that I had kept all season as to not do anything differently than I had been.  

However, my family, friends, and loved ones were equally as committed except they were committed to sending me to the Super Bowl.  And they did, as they raised over the $1,000 needed for the ticket.  All I could do was shake my head in disbelief and just think of the fact of how blessed I truly was all season long.  From Mike Flood looking out for me, to my loved ones hooking it up for me, I was almost sure of the fact that this was all really just one giant dream sequence.  I was bound to wake up back on that bus to Renton, with the bus driver waking me up and telling me that I had to leave.  I keep waiting for that to happen, but it still hasn't yet.  As torturous as that would be, I wouldn't even be mad.  I couldn't be.  This past year would make one hell of a dream!

To make the day even better, a few of my friends were making the trek out to New York City to help take in the festivities.  Jordan and Leif would be crashing at the "Seahawks Hotel" in Brooklyn, which was fitting because they did the same for the Seahawks/Giants game back in December.  The picture at the top is of all of us who went out for that game.  We were on our way back home, feeling all victorious and what not, when we saw the poster.  We all tried visualizing being back in February and finding that same poster and taking a picture in front of it after the Super Bowl as well.  In fact, a large part of the experience of the Giants game was conceptualizing the team using the game as a "dress rehearsal."  Much in the same, we wanted to learn from what we could have done differently, and perhaps better, back in December.  It's the type of mentality we figured the team would have, so why not us?  Why shouldn't we do the same?

With the stage set for the most memorable weekend of our lives, we hit the town on Friday night, first stop being Carlow East of course!  The place is an absolute madhouse, with everyone packing in like sardines to join the party.  It gets even more insane and even more crowded when Blue Thunder decides to crash the party!  Just like they do at Temple Billiards before every game, they rocked the roof off of the place!  My mind can't wrap around the fact that Blue Thunder are actually inside Carlow East, along with hundreds of other 12's.  You couldn't have scripted this any better in my mind.  After we somehow make our way out of Carlow, we hit up Old Prague in Astoria, Queens to wrap up the night and show New York how the 12th Man gets down and to show the 12th Man how Queens gets down!

The next day, we awake in Brooklyn with the phrase "do things better than you've ever done them before" fresh in our minds.  After the Giants game, our group had wanted to check out Di Fara Pizza, a legendary pizzeria in Midwood, Brooklyn.  I guess you could say the old man who still tends shop here is like the Chuck Knox of Pizza.  Just an old school dude with a fundamental approach and a time-honored way of doing things.  Sadly, Di Fara last time.  This time, we were going to make sure we had some of this pizza.  No doubt about it, it's worth the trek and it's worth the wait.  I simply refuse to believe that you can do pizza any better than Di Fara's in Brooklyn.  With our stomachs filled with goodness, we head to Broadway to finally check out the Super Bowl Boulevard.

Unfortunately, apparently so did everyone else in the city of New York.  When our group of 5 arrived at 34th and Broadway, we were engulfed in a sea of humanity.  Absolute pandemonium ensues as we attempt to navigate through the awful crowd.  Forget about getting to see the Lombardi Trophy, the line to get in was seemingly hours deep and impossible to tell where it began.  We finally bowed out, fed up with the fiasco and ready to get to more laid-back surroundings for a change of pace.  That came in the form of a few beers with Eli, another 12 who had made the trip from out west for the big game.  Eli was actually cool enough to gift me his extra ticket to the Rams game in Week 17.  Not only that, but he was selling his extra ticket to the Super Bowl to my friend Greg and not gouging him in the process.  As they'd say in the mob, he's a stand up guy.  

After a few brews we part ways and our group heads down to Gramercy to check out McSwiggans.  With Carlow East acting as "Hawks Nest East", McSwiggans was "Hawks Nest South."  We figured we wouldn't even be able to get in to Carlow the night before the game.  It was a good call as there was some room to maneuver at our new watering hole.  Drew, who I met at Temple Billiards before the 'Niners game in September, was also in attendance.  Old buddies Norbert, Ben, and Kevin would also come down to prefunk.  There were good vibrations all around and all anyone wanted was a good time   It was truly astonishing to see the number of people who put down everything to come to New York City and New Jersey to take this all in.

The night of partying would end at the Double Down Saloon after one too many shots.  After a pitstop at the legendary Katz Deli, we made the trip back to Brooklyn to somehow attempt to get some sleep the night before the Super Bowl.  We'd done an excellent job of distracting ourselves and keeping ourselves busy over the past 2 days, but now it was real.  The whole reason why we were all even brought together in the first place was just a few short hours away.  I felt an odd sense of calm, mixed with nerves that absolutely would not let me go to sleep.  As my friend, a Merchant Marine, heads back to port, I hand him a green and blue, Seahawks version of the flag of the United States of America.  One of his shipmates is also a huge Seahawks fan, so I know that the flag is going where it's supposed to.  He folds the flag up as small as possible, leaving only the 'Hawks eye symbolically visible.  It's an amazing coincidence, and one that fills us all with hope as he sets out on his journey.

I wake up and realize that I was actually able to get some quality sleep.  Not much of it, but it was pretty good in quality, especially for the eve of the Super Bowl.  Not everyone was so lucky, however, as Jordan was forced to sleep in our bathtub due to the incessant snoring and loud-breathing of some of his fellow 12th Man.  Judging by the result of the game, it appears Jordan's new Super Bowl eve tradition must be to sleep in the bathtub.  Sorry bud.  We can't mess with what works.  As the morning coffee brewed, there was no more avoiding the giant elephant in the room.  The day of reckoning was upon us and it was either going to be one of the greatest or one of the worst days of our lives.

Once we arrived at Penn Station, we started to see how crazy this crowd was going to be.  The lines to buy tickets for the NJ Transit were deep, and picking people out of a crowd was almost impossible unless you were of the taller persuasion.  Still, we made it to Secaucus-Junction in a breeze.  This is where things started to get a little crazy as there were thousands of people trying to make their way down one hallway, with two doors at the end of it.  To make matters worse, the trains to the Meadowlands were delayed.  Chants of "Jersey sucks" and "Christie sucks" rang through the corridor, with the crowd getting sweatier and angrier by the second.  One guys nearly gets his head beaten in when he decides to smoke his e-cig.  The people around him, thinking it was an actual cigarette, were ready to take care of business.  Finally, the trains arrived and the crowd started to move before things got too crazy, but it was definitely a botched job by the NFL and the state of New Jersey.  I could care less as all I cared about was watching the Seahawks beat the Broncos in the Super Bowl at MetLife.

Security was similar to airport security but it was actually a pretty quick process.  Once we breezed through, we made our way to the area behind where the NFL Network was stationed.  The giant XLVIII right nearby greets all as if to say "you're at the Super Bowl now!"  After some pictures and some more pregame predictions, the group heads separate ways.  Jonathan and Ryan, two life-long Seahawks fans from New Jersey, head off as they get set to witness history right in their own backyard.  The pregame vibe is confident, as we all feel that we've got more than a fighting chance against the "Greatest Offense of All-Time."  Everyone respects the Broncos, but none of us fear them.  One Broncos fan wearing a #18 tells me "I've got two words for ya, Peyton Manning", to which I responded with "He's just one man.  One man can be beaten.  The Seahawks are a team, and a damn good one at that!"  As we make our way to the escalators to head in to the stadium, we all realize that "damn, we're at the Super Bowl!"  Most of us hadn't known anyone that's ever been to one before.  I have a friend, Will, who has but that's about the only person I know of.  I never even really planned to ever attend one, to be quite honest.  It kind of just happened for all of us that night.

We walk around some until it's time to get down to the nitty-gritty.  Leif, Greg, Eli, and I part ways and I make my way to Section 340.  We agree to meet there at halftime.  Not to watch Bruno Mars and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, but instead to discuss the first half.  I don't even think the halftime show was on any of our minds.  We just wanted to witness something amazing for the Seahawks.  As I head to my seat, my eye trains on my seats from the game against the Giants in December.  On this day, I would be sitting right off the 50 yard line.  Thanks again, Seahawks, and especially you Mike.  I'm still oddly calm and holding it together at this point.  That is until the military flyover after the awesome rendition of the National Anthem by Renee Fleming.  That's when I started to think back about the entire season and how important this game truly was.  That's when the magnitude of the moment washed over me.

Section 340 is packed to the gills with 'Hawks fans.  As Steven Hauschka gets set to kick off the proceedings, I look around and can spot only 2 Broncos fans in our entire section.  They appear to be a couple and they seem to be nice people, but you can tell that they were regretting their seat selection for the evening.  Regardless though, they were there to witness one of the greatest beat downs in recorded history.  I stand in sheer amazement as the game's opening snap sails over Peyton's head and starts rolling towards and eventually into the end zone.  My mind can't process what's happening, but I think I'm happy when Knowshon Moreno dives on the ball and the referee signals safety.  Seahawks fans all across the world lose their collective minds as the game gets off to an absolute dream start.  At that moment in time, MetLife Stadium feels like CenturyLink East, as 12's make sure to be heard loud and clear.

And thus marked the beginning of one of the greatest performances I have ever seen on a football field in my entire life.  It's apparent from the early going that nearly everyone suited up for the Seattle Seahawks is locked in and ready to perform on the game's grandest stage.  Kudos to Pete Carroll for being the model of consistency when it comes to preparation in the NFL.  His team took on his personality when it truly mattered most.  Pete does always say, "it's not how you start, but how you finish."  He must have felt like a proud father watching his team achieve greatness the way they did.

The defense, led by criminally underrated safety Kam Chancellor, was out for blood.  They are flying around the field at all-time high levels.  As they make play after play, it starts to become apparent that Peyton Manning might not have an answer for this tough riddle, at least not in a 60 minute contest.  Conversely, Russell Wilson has no trouble moving the ball on the Broncos defense, which admittedly did a great job of stopping Marshawn Lynch.  That was about it though.  The Seahawks not only seized the lead after only 12 seconds, but they seized the game's momentum early on and the Broncos were unable to recover.  To make matters worse for Denver, Russell Wilson is absolutely unconscious on third downs and the Broncos can't get the Seahawks offense off of the field.  Malcolm Smith's 69 yard interception return for a touchdown follows a Beast Mode 1 yard touchdown run and somehow, against all odds, the Seahawks lead the Greatest Offense of All-Time by a score of 22-0 in the Super Bowl.

After failing to convert on a crucial 4th down attempt, the Seahawks are content with walking to the locker rooms up 22.  I run to the concourse and soon the pregame crew is back together, trying to make sense of what we just witnessed.  Once we concluded that we weren't dreaming thanks to the loudest fireworks we've ever heard going off right near us, we tried to stay focused on the task at hand.  A Super Bowl championship was just 30 minutes away and it was well within reach.  This wasn't the time to gloat or to stop working.  No, this instead was the time to fulfill our destiny!  We confidently head back to our seats, knowing that nothing can stop us now.  Not even the Greek Gods themselves.

And that's exactly what happened.  Almost immediately upon returning to my seat, Percy Harvin brings everyone to their feet and grabs everyone's attention with an opening kickoff return for a touchdown to start the half!  Bedlam ensues as random strangers high-five and hug one another.  I am convinced at that moment that this is the greatest thing I've ever seen in my life.  Much like the Seahawks on the field though, we still did not lose our focus in the stands.  Even up 29-0 and then 36-0, everyone remained focused on the task at hand.  Which was making as much noise as we possibly could, every time the Broncos had the ball or when the Seahawks scored or had big plays, and watching the Seahawks hoist the Lombardi Trophy.  With every bone-jarring hit, the crowd grows more and more ravenous.  The couple standing a few rows behind me wearing Broncos gear head for the exits early, although truth be told they were good sports about everything.

As fate would have it, also in attendance on this fine evening were Dale and Frenchie.  Fittingly enough, they were also at the season opener in Charlotte.  So we got to open the season together and we got to end it together.  You couldn't ask for it any other way.  I couldn't have even scripted this better if I tried.

Soon, as the clock continues to haunt the Broncos, the realization sets in that the Seattle Seahawks are about to be crowned Super Bowl Champions.  And they deserved it and earned it.  There's an elderly gentleman a row in front of me wearing an old school Seahawks Starter jacket.  He tells me that he's been a fan since the team came into the league in 1976.  I congratulate him on finally getting to witness this moment.  He's giddy as a child and is the first person to give a high-five after any of the plethora of Seahawks big plays from this one.  With the game no longer in any doubt after a masterful performance from one of the greatest defenses of all-time, I meet up with Greg and Eli and we head down to the lower level to check out the postgame ceremony.  After some typical hassling from stadium security, who wouldn't even let Richard Sherman's father down on to the field at one point instead forcing him to go to Guest Services, we found a spot to watch the confetti rain and the Seahawks celebrate.  The energy is fantastic and I think back to when I was at MetLife Stadium for Wrestlemania not too long ago.  I thought of Russell Wilson being out on that field and hoisting the trophy as he looked to his father above in the heavens.  It felt right.  Now, here I was, witnessing it from only a few feet away.  

Afterwards, the entire pregame crew gathered outside by the same Super Bowl XLVIII sign.  Hysteria had definitely set in.  You've never seen a happier group of people.  The wait was finally over.  This is what winning a Super Bowl felt like.  I could get used to this, that's all I remember feeling.  This felt like the way it should feel.  As we rehashed every little minutia from the game the realization set in that this could never be taken away from us.  These memories were ours forever.  The Seahawks were champions.

Once again, the NJ Transit was a disaster heading back to the City.  No way it was going to dampen our spirits though.  A few hours later, we finally arrive at Carlow East to celebrate the biggest win of our lives.  The place looks like the lovechild of New Years Eve and St. Patrick's Day at an Irish Pub.  There isn't a care in the air, as beers flow all night to help commemorate the occasion.  It's 4am and time to head home but I'm convinced that I don't ever want to sleep again.   I guess that's something I have in common with Russell Wilson.  After watching the Seahawks win it all at MetLife, I'm sure of the fact that it's activated a part of my brain that I'd never used before.  Yeah, probably not, but it sure feels that way.

The next day, Leif and I rewatch the game with my roommates.  The replay confirms what we had already suspected.  The Broncos got absolutely dismantled.  It was an exhibition in it's purest form, a clinic on how to play defense in the game of American Football.  The tape of this game should be saved in a time capsule so that we can be sure to teach how to properly play NFL defense in the future.  Back in NYC, a snowstorm was about to hit so Leif made it out to Las Vegas just in time.  Now, I began to wonder if I would be able to make it out to Seattle for the parade.  I had always told everyone all season that the season doesn't end in Jersey on February 2nd.  It ends in Seattle at the parade!

It wasn't until Tuesday at 1PM that I decided to get on a 5PM plane headed first to San Francisco, and then to Portland.  I would then take a bus from Portland to Seattle at 6AM and arrive in Seattle at 9 for the 11:00 parade.  My flight, leaving out of Gate 12, was perfect but bus tickets had now sold out!  When I arrived in San Francisco, ironically enough at Gate 66 (Welcome to Hell!), I was able to secure a flight from San Francisco to Seattle instead, so danger was averted.  It meant spending the night in San Francisco dressed in all Seahawks gear, but nobody could take this moment from me.  When I woke up, I hopped on my flight and arrived in Seattle at around 9.  This, my 12th trip to Seattle on the season, would also be my last.  It was a sort of slightly bitter, mostly sweet symphony considering the circumstances.  I thought I'd breeze it downtown by way of the Light Rail but it turns out there was about a 2 hour line just to get from the Airport on to the Light Rail!  This parade was going to be insane!  Hell, it already was!

I wasn't about to fly out to Seattle for nothing though, so I jumped in a cab and paid the $45 to drive downtown instead.  I'm glad I did.  We got there quickly and I was right by CenturyLink.  I headed to Temple Billiards and met some awesome people before I was set to meet up with my old friend Steve to get in to the Stadium for the stadium celebration.  Unfortunately, due to all of the people, none of my calls or texts were going out or coming in, so I was in no man's land.  Content with the fact that I was still amongst the masses for the parade, I was resigned to the fact that I probably wasn't going to be able to get in.  Until I heard "David!" and turned around to see Eli standing a few feet away from me!  Not only that, but he had an extra ticket for the celebration as well.  Once again, Eli came through in the clutch phenomenally.

As we waited in the stadium for the players to arrive, we watched as Marshawn Lynch threw Skittles at fans and banged on a drum.  We saw unbelievable shots of downtown Seattle that looked more like something you would have seen at Woodstock instead.  This city was ready for a champion, this team delivered, and the city and the team's fans responded.  Truly inspiring to be able to witness and be a part of something so great.  After an amazing video that detailed every game on the season, the players began to enter on to the field for one last curtain call.  As Russell Wilson walked on to the field, carrying the Lombardi Trophy, being sprayed with champagne by Marshawn Lynch, the place lost it's mind.  What an awesome sight and I still had to rub my eyes to make sure this was still all really happening.  

Steve, Jordan, Dom, and I had some beers at Temple afterwards as the city continued to party.  We all spoke of how proud we were of the team, the coaches, Paul Allen, and the fans.  We also spoke of the future and how this doesn't have to be the only Super Bowl that this team wins in the near future.  If expectations were at an all-time high before this past season, what about next?  Sure there are some question marks as far as free agency is concerned, but the core of the team remains under team control.  The 2014/2015 season could end up being a bigger season than 2013/2014, if the team continues it's outstanding progression.  Undefeated anyone?  All I know is that if I were a gambling man, I'd put my money on a rePETE, that's for damn sure!

Finally though, all good things must come to an end, and it was time to call it a night and in affect, call it a season.  As I walked near King Street Station headed for the Light Rail, I caught one last peak at CenturyLink Field.  I had been pretty well kept together throughout the season, and especially after the Super Bowl, but it was here that I almost lost it.  All the memories, great friends, and amazing games and experiences started to rush back to me.  Rather than get down about it though, I dug deep, stayed strong, and kept going towards the airport and to my flight home.  I eagerly asked myself one key question before my final journey back home from my home away from home.

What's Next?!

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

No time to sleepless in Seattle

The moment the clock struck zero's and the Seahawks had defeated the New Orleans Saints to set up an NFC Championship Game with the Niners at CenturyLink, life became one really long dream sequence.  After being grounded by reality the entire season, my mind slowly began to slip away to another place.  The matchup that everyone had dreamed of had now come true.  We were all set to witness history.

Making things even more surreal was the fact that members of Seahawks.Net had banded together to raise funds not only for me, but for my buddy Greg as well.  A whopping $913.24 was raised in a little over a day in what was one of the most amazing displays of generosity we had ever seen.  Such kindness is practically unheard of these days, but it's been a way of life for Seahawks fans who have taken the term "hawking it forward" to entirely new levels this season.

After luckily snagging the last deal in town on Stubhub, Greg and I hit the road armed with two tickets in Section 300 to the biggest game of the season.   My girlfriend hooks it up with a ride to JFK Airport and on our way we get stuck at a traffic light.  Nothing out of the ordinary, except as I look up, I see that the street sign reads "Hendrix St."  We smile at the coincidence, and I think of Jimi for a second and what he'd think of this Seahawks team.  He'd absolutely love them.  Not only would he love their unique style, but he'd love their soul that shines through so bright.

With Hendrix now in the rearview mirror, I navigate my way through the airport to the gate which the plane was set to depart from.  Once there, I see someone wearing a red jacket and a blue hat.  As I get closer, I realize that the jacket is just that, a red jacket, while the blue hat is actually a Seahawks hat!  I strike up a conversation with the guy and it turns out that he's Jack Thompson, son of the legendary WSU Quarterback of the same name, or better known as "The Throwin' Samoan."  His brother Tony also played for the Cougars, and the Jack who stood before me had worked for the 'Cougs as well.  He tells me that he's headed to Hawai'i the following week to see his father get inducted into the Polynesian Hall of Fame, after first watching the NFC Championship of course.  I congratulate him and let him know that it's an honor to be amongst Cougar royalty.  To cap it off, he busts a 12th Man Flag out of his bag and wraps it around himself proudly.  You couldn't ask for a better omen as you're about to board a cross-country flight.

As we board the plane, we realize that Greg is sitting in Row 12.  I was in Row 23 (Marcus Trufant!), but thought it would be incredibly fitting if we both sat in Row 12.  Despite clearly having the leverage in the situation, my window seat was not enough to convince the man to leave his middle seat.  My request to trade seats had been denied but we couldn't let it phase us, so we just kept it moving and moved on.  It was nice getting some sleep on the plane for a change, so maybe it was meant to be and I really was supposed to have that window seat.

We hit the ground in Seattle recharged from our slumber and made our way to the Mayflower Park Hotel to meet up with old friends Jordan and Jonathan.  On our way there though, we passed a gift shop with a familiar name.  Astoria, not only the name of the town made famous in the Goonies, but also a local neighborhood back home in Queens.  This wouldn't be the only similar coincidence on this trip.  Far from it.  As we neared the hotel, you couldn't help but feel like the stars were beginning to align like they seemingly had in weeks prior.

Back to business, Jordan has been one of the major reasons this quest has succeeded to this point and Jonathan is a fellow east coaster who deserves this magical run from the Seahawks more than pretty much anybody.  He too, has been instrumental in the amazing journey that has been the 2013-2014 season for yours truly.  He had purchased his plane tickets for this weekend weeks in advance, long before it was even assured that the Seahawks would be playing in the NFC Championship Game.  His faith had been rewarded.  The stage was now set for one of the greatest, or one of the worst, weekends of our lives.  A few drinks to take the edge off after a long flight and to catch up, and it was time to call it a night and try and attempt to get any sort of sleep that was humanly possible the night before such a big game.

I tried, honestly, I did.  But I failed, miserably.  I got two hours, maybe three at the most, of sleep before I woke up at around 4:30am and decided to stay awake.  Who was I kidding?  I can barely keep it together before a Texans/Seahawks game in September, how the hell could I keep it together now the night before the NFC Championship Game against the Niners?  It just wasn't gonna happen.

So I sat there in the hotel room and just watched highlight video after highlight video.  Everything from the season's most important moments, to all of the team's touchdowns, to 29-3, and of course, 42-13.  I watched whatever I could to help pass the time and to also help myself visualize the greatness that we were all about to witness.  Luckily, ESPN2 was there to enable as well, as they had hours of programming dedicated to Russell Wilson lined up for the early part of the day. 

There wasn't time for the TV though, not today.  We hit the city streets, I'd say bright and early but that wouldn't be Seattle.  No, we hit the city streets grey and early, and there's no better way if you ask me.  San Francisco can have their sunshine, I'll take grey all day.  We tried taking our minds off of what lay ahead of us with some coffee and of course, Top Pot donuts, but even a Maple Bar was no match for the sense of anticipation that was eating away at everyone's stomachs.  The group of 4 becomes 5, as old friend Lon joins the party at Pike Place Market.  You can spot Lon's Seahawks cowboy hat from a mile away, so he wasn't tough to find.  As we make our way towards the stadium, we pass by another shop that makes me stop and pause, it is appropriately named "The Brooklyn."

Once we get down by the stadium, we head for Massachusetts St for some early tailgating.  You can tell that there are nerves in the air, but for the most part everyone still remains confident.  You've got to respect the 'Niners and what they're capable of and anyone who said they weren't the slightest bit nervous is probably lying.  You must respect your enemy in a Heavyweight fight because at any point they can knock you out with just one punch.  And to steal a line from the immortal Ric Flair, to be the man ya gotta beat the man!  Woooooooooo!!!!!  The Seahawks would have to beat the man.

Did the sense of anticipation, nervousness, and excitement dampen the pregame festivities?  Fat chance of that ever happening.  Seahawks fans were in rare pregame form, as witnesses claim to have seen one unnamed New Yorker doing a beer bong of Rainier and Jagermeister out of a shrunken head.  Validity of the claims have been questioned, but multiple people corroborated the claims.

With added pep in our step, we stuck to the theme of "doing things better than we've ever done them before" and tried to cram as much pregame action in as possible without getting too carried away.  It was on to Temple Billiards but before that our group decided to stop in front of our friend Leif's mural on the side of the WaMu Theater at CenturyLink.  We all posed and then asked a stranger passing by to please take our picture.  He obliged and as he handed back the camera and said "GO Hawks!", we couldn't help but notice the massive New England Patriots Super Bowl ring on his finger.  Jordan tells the stunned bunch, "you know who that is, don't you?"  We all look puzzled, to which he replies, "that's Lawyer Milloy."  He then says "Go Dawgs" and Milloy responds with a "Woof woof!"  Jordan points out to Lawyer that he's going to get to watch his legacy continued in the form of Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor.  Lawyer happily mentions that he's proud of being able to be a part of their learning process and that he's glad he could give that to the team.  We part ways as Lawyer and his buddy disappear into the crowd.

One of the greatest highlights, out of the many, of this entire trip and this entire season as a matter of fact, was finally getting to Temple and meeting up with the rest of our crew.  Many a familiar face lined the walls and you couldn't help but reflect upon what an amazing journey it's been.  No matter what was to happen in today's game, we all had each other, and Greg and I were especially blessed to be around such amazing people.  $913 is no joke, and we were now standing with the people who made it all possible.  I can't even begin to describe the feeling. 

The beer and bloody mary's were flowing and soon my buddy Todd showed up with a gift in hand.  Something very dear to him that he wanted me to have.  All week I wondered what it could be, and now I was about to see it.  Turns out it was a beautiful Seahawks.Net poster from back in the day that had signatures from Paul Allen, Seagal Amber, and Big Lo just to name a few.  Not only that, but old friend Bart has a Marshawn Lynch jersey for me that he wants me to have.  The feeling in the room was so great, there was absolutely no way the 49ers could win.  Not today.

I stash the poster behind the bar with the bartender Steve and we all make our way to CenturyLink for the last time this season.  What were once nerves have now turned to confidence, and the 12th Man is fired up and ready to go to the Super Bowl!  That dream that we all had at the end of last season and at the beginning of this season was now, finally, within reach.  Everything that everyone had worked so hard for, players, fans, and coaches alike, was now just one win away.  After a traditional hotdog at Joe's with Steve and his son Zack, we hit Touchdown City to eventually make our way to our seats.  We say our goodbyes, possibly our final ones depending on how the game goes, and with a half hour still to go before kickoff, we make our way to Section 300.

As luck would have it, we're sitting around a decent sized pocket of Niners fans.  The row in front of us is almost entirely Niners fans, and the right side of the row in particular is 'Niner heavy.  Everything seems civil before we realize that a few of the Niners fans are absolutely wasted.  As the game draws closer, the Niners fans become louder and louder, in typical San Francisco fashion.  Regardless of whether they won or lost, these fans came in to Seattle with a mission of talking the most trash as possible.  "Who's got it better than us?!" is thrown about a few times and kids that were probably younger than me start spewing propaganda about how many rings they've got.  Something inside me tells me not even to bother with them because we were going to get the last laugh.

After an amazing rendition of the Star Spangled Banner by Ann Wilson in which the 63-year-old leaves it all out there on the field, the crowd is whipped into even more of a frenzy when the video board behind the 12th Man Flag starts flashing clues and images of today's flag raiser.  After all the questions about who would be fit to raise the flag for such a big game, it was a pretty easy choice in the end.  The man himself, Paul Allen, the man who had once Saved our Seahawks, was now going to raise the flag just like he'd done 8 years prior before the NFC Championship Game against Carolina.  Would we witness a similar result?

Not so much.  It didn't take long to realize that today's game was going to be vastly different from that one eight years prior.  As a matter of fact, it only took one play before the Niners' Aldon Smith sacked Russell Wilson and forced a fumble by stripping Russell of the ball.  What in years past would have been a devastating blow was simply now a warning shot.  The Seahawks D, and the 12th Man, rose to the occasion and help San Francisco to a field goal.  It wasn't the ideal start by any means, but it could have been worse.  The Seahawks are one of the toughest teams in the league.  They had been through worse, and they would bounce back from this.

Still, it would take some more stressful situations and a 10-0 Niners lead before the home side would show signs of life.  We remained confident in Section 300 as the Niner fans in front of us began to gloat about the early lead.  As the Seahawks fate started to turn for the better on the field, the same happened in the stands.  One of the drunker members of the contingency in front of us was so wasted that he was taken away by stadium security.  The Seahawks followed with a Steven Hauschka knuckleball field goal to get on the board.  Other people seated in our section stated that they saw the poor Niner fan being stretched from the concession area.  Our luck was beginning to turn.

It wasn't until halftime that things really took a turn for the better.  Macklemore and Ryan Lewis might have been impossible to hear from our section, but you got the sense that his performance and his hypejob on the mic afterwards got the crowd back into it.  As the second half began, there was a noticeable difference in the atmosphere at CenturyLink.  The 12th Man was ready to witness history.  They were ready to witness the Seahawks fulfill their destiny and punch their ticket to New Jersey for a chance to take home the Lombardi Trophy.

Despite all of the positive energy, the stadium needed a jolt.  Some play that would kick things into hyperdrive.  It came in the form of Marshawn Lynch blasting through the middle of the Niners defense, before shifting gears and bouncing it outside with amazing lateral quickness and into the endzone for a monstrous, game-tying run.  The crowd went absolutely ballistic, as fans toppled over one another in the stands, the scene looking more like a mosh-pit in some sections (319 in particular) than a football game.  Hugs, high-fives, and punches to the throat were abound as we had all just witnessed another legendary Marshawn Lynch touchdown run in the playoffs.  How could you not love that man?

The joy would be short-lived however, as Colin Kaepernick took back momentum momentarily for the red and gold with a flick of the wrist and a laser touchdown pass to Anquan Boldin.  Colin Kaepernick must have been hoping that that was the dagger through the heart of the Seattle Seahawks.  If the game had ended there, he'd be remembered as a hero who finally overcame the big, bad Seahawks in their scary stadium with their savage fans.  Luckily, they play four quarters.  And it was in the fourth quarter that the Seahawks would truly leave no doubt about who was the better team.

As the fourth quarter got underway, a beautiful thing happened.  The loud and obnoxious San Francisco fans in front of us began to get ejected one by one.  One guy poured his beer on a Seahawks fan in front of him.  The security guard made the right call and gave him the boot.  Soon, the two guys to his right were also gone.  Now, only one Niners fan remained.  As the Seahawks moved the ball down the field setting up for a long field goal, you could see a bit of relief rush over the stranger.  Everything was gonna be alright, he thought to himself.  Then, the Seahawks called a timeout after Steven Hauschka stood motionless over the field goal.

What happened next was a moment that I'll never forget for the rest of my life.  The Seahawks offense came back on to the field and Russell Wilson was in Shotgun formation.  Foolishly, the Niners take the bait and jump offsides.  Even more foolishly, two members of their defense stop and stare rather than seeing the play out.  Russell Wilson doesn't need anything else, he's already got a free play.  He looks upfield and fires quickly, lofting an arching pass towards the endzone.  Two Seahawks receivers and a slew of Niners defenders are in the general area of the pass.  Doug Baldwin gives way, as Jermaine Kearse leaps among the crowd and secures the pass before landing on the ground and giving the crowd a bow.  Absolute bedlam erupts in the stands and the Seahawks are now up, 20-17, against all odds.

There was no time to enjoy this though, as the Niners were back on the field.  Colin Kaepernick would now try to finally defeat his demons and get the 12th Man out of his head.  At about this time, Seahawks enforcer Kam Chancellor decided, no, not in my house.  Vernon Davis has to hate the man, as he once again tasted the wrath of attempting to cross the middle against the Seahawks defense.  Another bone-crunching hit was on the menu for Vernon, and you could tell after that that he wanted nothing more to do with #31's area of the field.  The Seahawks finally got to Kaepernick and forced a fumble, but the ensuing drive starting from inside the 10 yielded no points after a gruesome injury to NaVorro Bowman.  The ball never lies though, as justice was served when the Seahawks fumbled the ball away at the 1 yard line.  Make no mistake, the Niners defense is outstanding and especially stingy inside the 5.  This game was a pleasure to watch.

There was that man again though, Kam Chancellor, this time reading the play perfectly and making a nice play on a pass from Kaepernick intended for Boldin.  I told Kam's brother Cornel before the game that I hoped his brother would have the game of his life.  I was happy for his entire family when he came down with that pass and set the stadium off one more time.  Kam deserves it and they do too.  Good things happen to good people.

This time Seattle could only muster up a field goal, but still, it was something.  Now, the stage was set.  Just like in Atlanta the season prior, when this whole journey truly began, the Seahawks defense was in charge of preserving the lead and saving the game.  If you've followed this team closely this season, you wouldn't have it any other way, and neither would they.  However, the Niners weren't going to go down without a fight, and fight they did.  The nerves began to reappear as the Niners moved the ball down the field seemingly at will.  Harbaugh wasn't stopping the clock either, seemingly content with this being the last drive of the game.  We remained confident in Section 300 that the Seahawks defense would no doubt come through, but as the Niners moved the ball to the 18 yard line, you couldn't help but feel like an absolute basket case.  

And then it happened.  History was made.  As Colin Kaepernick lofted a pass to the endzone for Michael Crabtree, Richard Sherman cemented his legacy as a flat-out baller and made the play of his young career.  I could care less about what happened next, all that matters is that he turned, located, and swatted that pass and left it up for Malcolm Smith to throw down the alley!  As Smith fell to the floor, elation set in as the crowd of over 68,000 people realized that it had really happened.  The Seahawks were going to the Super Bowl!

As the confetti rained down, and "New York, New York" blared from the speakers, I took a look around and couldn't believe reality.  This was all real.  If Greg weren't there beside me to witness it, I probably still wouldn't believe it to this day.  We sat and watched the NFC Championship trophy presentation, and it felt damn good to see the boys in blue and green wearing all of that championship gear.  After all they had been through this season, they truly deserved to enjoy that moment, if only for a moment.  After a while, the stadium emptied out and the blue and green confetti on the field was all that remained.

We rushed to Temple to celebrate, as Blue Thunder worked the crowd in the streets into a frenzy.  People danced in the streets, car horns beeping in the background as their soundtrack.  The scene inside the bar was straight up jubilation.  Hugs, cheers, beers, and stories from inside the game and everyone's reactions to the game's big plays.  After everything everyone had been through all season, our wildest dreams had just come true!  From training camp to glitter bombs and the NFC Championship, this team had finally embraced their potential.  It all came together in such amazing fashion.

The party lasted well into the night, as Jordan, Leif, Brandon, Greg, and I celebrated what was one of the greatest days of our lives.  Still, we all knew that the qwest wasn't over.  The journey doesn't just end right here.  It has to end with a Super Bowl victory over the Broncos at MetLife.  Destiny must be fulfilled!  As fate would have it, the crew that went to MetLife in December to watch the Seahawks beat the Giants will be reunited for the Super Bowl.  The force was strong with that group in December, we shall see if the same holds true this time against the other Manning.

This trip also had a very fitting end.  My connector flight home from Chicago to Laguardia last Tuesday had been canceled, as well as all other flights to NYC due to a blizzard that was rolling in to town.  Luckily for me, all this flying finally paid off as I was put in the last seat, on the last flight back home before Thursday morning.  The only catch?  The flight was landing in Newark, New Jersey instead.  I was thankful for my incredible luck that kept my string of no canceled flights in tact for the season.  The fact that I was now flying in to New Jersey, much like the Seahawks would in a few weeks, just made too much sense.  I headed home, and even got a day off, as work was canceled due to the awful weather.

Watch, now my flight to Seattle for the Super Bowl Champions parade will be delayed or canceled.  Nah, just playin', I'll see you all there!

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Oh when the Saints go marching home

I won't lie.  I damn near lost my mind in the week leading up to this past week's playoff game with the Saints.  As I toiled away at the grind, my mind couldn't help but keep thinking of all the scenarios that could possibly unfold.  You know you've damn near snapped when you start thinking about the possibilities of a 2-0 Seahawks victory in the playoffs against one of the most prolific offenses in NFL history.

Finally though, the useless week that was, was done and it was time to head back across the country to my home away from home.  My tenth trip of the season to Seattle.  A trip to Training Camp at the VMAC in August, 8 regular season home games, and now this.  My first ever NFL playoff game.  What better place than at the CLink, of course.  The dream, of course, is to make 12 trips to Seattle for the 2013-2014 season.  The NFC Championship being the 11th, and the parade for the Super Bowl Champion Seahawks being the 12th.  There goes that number again.  Coincidence?  I think not.  However, I can't allow myself to think ahead.  Just like the team preaches, it's one game at a time.  It's the mentality I've had all season long, and I'm not about to change that now at this point in the year.

Joining me for this epic day of life would be my buddy Greg.  Greg and I pretty much grew up together in Queens back in the late 90's and early 2000's.  I remember summers spent playing football, where Greg and I would play for hours with our friends, climbing over a giant (at the time) black fence, and through a hole in another fence to play on a cement field at a local junior high school, IS 145.  Now we were 26 and about to check out a playoff game at CenturyLink Field.  A long-time Jets fan, Greg has always had a soft-spot for the Seahawks, much as I've always felt the same way about the Jets.  For years, Greg and a few other friends would come over to my place to watch the slate of games on Sunday Ticket.  As our circle of football loving friends grew older, we took our show on the road to bars across NYC.  Still, all the while, we road the wave of emotion that goes with being a diehard fan.

If you've been keeping up with me so far this season, thanks, and you'd also know that this wouldn't be Greg's first rodeo.  Nope, this would be his 5th trip to a Seahawks game this season.  That's pretty damn impressive in my book.  Houston, Indianapolis, Atlanta, and New York (errr, Jersey) were the other spots he hit on the 2013 schedule.  However, none in Seattle.  What better way than a playoff game, his first as well, and a rematch with the #6 seed New Orleans Saints.

As fate would have it, despite taking different flights into SeaTac, we both arrived in Seattle at the same time, roughly 9pm on Friday night.  Greg flew direct from JFK to SeaTac, while I took a more convoluted route (as usual) to save some cash, going from Newark to Charlotte, laying over for 3 hours, then finishing the trip going from Charlotte to Seattle.  It's a weird thing telling someone, "I'll see you on the left coast", and then meeting up with them over 3,000 miles away.  It's pretty damn cool actually.

The highlight of the travel out west actually happened back east.  At Penn Station, I stopped at a convenience store and picked up a copy of the NY Daily News.  Inside, there was an excellent article by Hank Gola about the noise and atmosphere at CenturyLink Field.  What made this article even better was that it featured quotes from my friend Leif, the Godfather of all things ROADHAWK.  Leif was one of the people who inspired me to commit to this journey the most, so I'm eternally grateful for him and it was great to see him get some much deserved ink.

After reading the paper twice from front to back, I finally arrived in Seattle.  I headed towards Greg's arrival gate and waited for him to get off the plane.  It really was great seeing someone I knew from back home in a far away place.  Greg's had my back all season long, and has been extremely supportive throughout.  Another person who's done the same is Jordan.  If I've ever needed a place to crash, ride to the Light Rail or even the Airport, or just someone to celebrate Seahawks victories in Seattle with, it's been Jordan.  The saying "do things better than they've ever been done before" has taken off around these parts.  Well, Jordan definitely accomplished that when he scooped up Greg and I from the airport promptly after our flight landed at around 9PM.

With a huge playoff game just hours away, the three of us decided to head on down to the Sloop for a beer before calling it an early night.  I've got to say, I was impressed with the amount of people who told me that they had a relaxing Friday night to keep themselves in tip-top shape for the big game.  That's pretty heads up from the 12th Man right there.  Good job all around.  And for those of you that continued to rage, much respect for holding it down for the rest of us.  I know it's not easy sometimes.

To make things even more surreal, the New York Daily News had informed me before the game that if the Seahawks won, they would want to meet up with me for an interview about the Seahawks.  Hank Gola called me to inform me that pending a Seahawks victory, Filip Bondy would be contacting me about a story.  I tried to stay focused on the task at hand, beating the Saints, and winning the Super Bowl.  Russell would've been proud.  None of this wouldn't have been possible without Leif or Seahawks.Net, and I am very grateful for both. 

Finally gameday was here, and it couldn't come any sooner.  I probably slept about three hours, if that, and was ready to go at around 7AM.  You all know how it is, especially the day before a playoff game.  Sleep, while a noble idea, is basically impossible to achieve.  As we rose, the nerves were apparent.  We all tried to play it cool, but deep down we all knew that this was going to be one anxiety-fueled day.  Still, we remained confident that the Seahawks would ultimately set themselves up for a shot at the NFC Championship at the CLink just one week later.

Much like the Cardinals and Rams games before it, I played a game of Madden on Jordan's PS4.  For some reason, I've always loved playing the upcoming Seahawks matchup in Madden, even if I haven't always been the biggest fan of the game.  As luck would have it, both times Jordan and I played the upcoming game, the results from the video game ended up matching the results in real life, to some extent.  We couldn't believe the whoopin' the Cardinals put on us and we were excited for the prospects of a Division Championship after spanking Kellen Clemens and the Rams.  After some fooshnickens (pronounced foo-shnickens, a word created by my friend Darryl from back home, meaning nonsense) the Saints absolutely pasted the Hawks.  Drew Brees couldn't be stopped.  Before leaving the next morning however, I picked up the sticks again, and this time was able to manhandle the Saints.  Balance was restored to the universe. 

Greg and I would be sitting in Section 315 free of charge courtesy of James, aka "The Doc."  James had previously given his tickets to his son, but unfortunately his son could not attend due to being on his honeymoon.  Congratulations are definitely in order, as is a giant thank you to James.  Free tickets to a playoff game?  That's practically unheard of in this "Stubhub" day and age, where fans can sell tickets they aren't using and make a pretty penny to help finance their season tickets.  Such a kind gesture doesn't go unnoticed and will never be forgotten.

Before it was time to get to our seats though, it was time to calm some of those nerves with a little tailgating!  The guys from Nintendo on Massachusetts know how to throw down!  Popcorn shrimp, black beans, and the kegs were definitely flowing.  However, you could tell that everyone had their eye to the immediate future.  As the rain and wind began to pick up after the skies had been looking a bit too pleasant earlier in the morning, the reality of the situation was starting to set in.  This could be the last game the Seattle Seahawks play this season.  For this reason, not many were taking the Saints lightly.  In fact, quite a few people I ran into were very nervous about the Saints revenge mission.  Not us though, that's just not what we do.  That's not how we were programmed.

After dispatching some shrimp and talking about all the possible scenarios, and even getting to cop a feel of the Lombardi Trophy, the three of us headed towards Temple Billiards.  It's not often that you can feel like a regular at a place clear across the country, but that's how I feel at Temple.  There's nowhere else I'd rather go before a 'Hawks game.  The combination of great people, hardcore Seahawks fans, and awesome Bloody Mary's make it the place to go before a game, in my opinion.  When I walk in, my friend who works the bar, Steve, is swamped.  As are all of the rest of the bartenders.  As you could imagine, the crowd is more like a mob.  The place is packed and people are rushing to the bar.  Anything to calm the nerves.

Meeting us near the door are old friends Steve and his son Zack.  Zack hands me a hoodie that his dad had been holding for me, I left it at his place when staying there for Christmas with his family.  I guess you could say I'm a forgetful guy, as that's not even close to the only thing that I've lost or misplaced throughout this journey.  My friends and loved ones would attest as well.  Still, Steve and his family had my back.  We make our way downstairs, where it's a little less crowded.  The intense, playoff atmosphere lingers through the air, and you can tell that everyone is ready for kickoff.  Ready to watch the battle that's about to ensue.  Steve hands me a Bloody Mary, and for a split second, it's the only thing that keeps my mind off of the game.  I never knew how much I loved pickled asparagus.  Thank you, Temple Billiards.

Conversations intertwine like chords of the spine.  Throughout the room you can hear various stories of Seahawks glory (and doom) past and present.  The memories are like tattoos, forever etched in the hearts of Seahawks fans forever.  Whether upbeat, or downtrodden, they are still games that remind us of various different times in our lives.  Like many Seahawks fans, I can associate some of the big events in my life with who the Seahawks were playing that day or that week.  I am not the only one, of course.  We all wear these memories like badges of honor, and speak of them with pride.  Even if it's a tale about Clipboard Jesus or David Greene, it still usually ends with a smile or a laugh now.  It wasn't always that way.  We couldn't always smile after those stories because they were usually still reality.  Not anymore.  Times have changed.

Once the clock strikes 12:30, everyone finishes their drinks and begins the trek to the CLink.  Like soldiers being deployed, we say our goodbyes all while wondering if this could be the last time we do so.  Nothing is guaranteed, especially against a great team like the Saints.  Everything must be earned.  Luckily, the Seattle Seahawks and their 12th Man are ready, willing, and able to earn everything at all times, at all costs.  We rush up the stairs, nervous with excitement, and Greg and I join Steve and Zack for a pregame hot dog at Joe's outside of the stadium.  On the way, a man stops me and asks if I post on Seahawks.Net.  "Yes", I reply, and he begins to tell me that he lurks and has seen that I have been attempting to go to every game.  I ask him for his name, and I think he says that his name is Matt.  Then, he gives me a giant hug and tells me that he's proud of me for what I'm doing.  That was pretty damn cool, I must say.  

We pull up to Joe's and grab some dogs.  Zack and Greg go with the Sherman Dog, Steve goes with the classic Largent Dog, and I decide to honor the Beast with a Lynch Dog with Cream Cheese.  I'm addicted to hot dogs with cream cheese now.  Thank you, Joe's.  It's fitting that New Orleans is in town, because Steve is a saint and pays for the grub.  There can't be many more giving and caring people in the world than my friend Steve.  It's impossible.

After scarfing down our pregame meal, we head to Touchdown City to begin the voyage to our seats.  Just as we enter, 3 security guards surround a man.  Steve says "Hey, that's Jim Zorn!"  Low and behold, it is Jimmy Z!  He's giving us high fives and is extremely fired up.  The security guards try to keep him focused and try to pull him back on track.  As he's being pulled away, Jim looks at Zack and says "you better yell!"  The whole encounter gives everyone chills.  Don't worry Jim, I'm sure Zack made you proud.  We then put two and two together and realize that those security guards are probably taking Jim to the 12th Man Flag, and that he's been given the honor of raising the flag.  Just an amazing scene that leaves us stunned as head towards the giant "I'm In" sign that everyone is signing in Touchdown City.

Once there, I bump into the family who I sat behind for a few games when I sat in the North End Zone.  Great people and great fans, with some family in Long Island so who knows, maybe we'll see them again in February?  We shall see.  For now, it was approaching game time and it the festivities were about to get under way.  We go to the turnstiles and the kind lady who scans my ticket (if only they were hard copies!  Oh well) looks in to my eyes and yells "GO Hawks!"  I'm in love with the support for this team from everyone.  From the buildings downtown with their lights forming the #12, to the people checking tickets, everyone is all in and I love it!

To the seats we go as the rain and wind steadies.  We get there just in time, as that chilling music begins to play and the video board begins to flash clues and clips to let everyone know who the 12th Man Flag Raiser is.  There he is, our boy, Jim Zorn!  Zorn is still fired up and raises the flag in what has to be record time.  I don't know if it was the wind or if Zorn was just that damn pumped and jacked, but whatever it was, it was incredible.  The crowd is going nuts as Steven Hauschka tees the ball up for the opening kickoff.  To show it's might and what had in store for both teams, the wind knocks the ball off of the tee.  That doesn't stop the screaming and the yelling and the cheering.  Hauschka places the ball back on the tee and gives it a thunderous boot.  The game starts with a touchback and with that, yhe first playoff game of my life was underway.  

The game was every bit as heated and contested as you would expect it to be.  The Saints wanted to show the world that the Seahawks and CenturyLink Field do not own acres of property in their heads, and the Seahawks wanted to prove to everyone that they were not going to follow recent years trends and bow out early as #1 seeds recently have been prone to do.  Whether it be Jimmy Graham jawing with Bruce Irvin, which led to Graham's now infamous "I'm Jimmy" quote (newsflash Mr. Graham, it's Jimi, and you are definitely not him), or Saints defenders pretty clearly going after Percy Harvin's domepiece, there was no love lost between the two sides.

It might not have seemed so bad on television, but let me assure you that the weather played it's part in this game.  I won't excuse away all of Drew Brees and Russell Wilson's struggles as being weather related, but the conditions definitely didn't help matters.  Just ask Thomas Morestead and Jon Ryan what they thought of the swirling winds and driving rains.  Both punters looked like they were back in Pee Wee football with punts that couldn't even span 25 yards.  Despite it all, I liked the Seahawks apparent approach.  Play amazing, smothering defense, jump ahead early, and grind it out with Marshawn Lynch all day.  It might not be the prettiest style of play, but since when did the city of Seattle worry about being pretty?  Isn't it that elusive ring that we're all after that matters most?

Another thing your TV probably downplays is how loud it is at CenturyLink Field during a playoff game.  I thought I knew what loud was when the 'Hawks hosted the Rams with it all on the line, or when we set the noise record against the Saints on Monday Night Football, or even when we set the noise record the first time against the 'Niners.  That was raucous, and that was crazy, but this was savage.  A primal, guttural sound that emanates from within when your going crazy over something you're really passionate about.  In this case, it just so happens that these screaming bunch of lunatics all love the Seattle Seahawks.  What better place to be on a Saturday?  I look around, take in the moment, and realize that there's nowhere else I'd rather be in this moment.

By the way, that flash of lightning you saw in Saturday's game has a name, and it's Percy Harvin.  Not only was it good to have him back, but Percy showed his toughness by absorbing some huge hits from the Saints DB's.  Still, what everyone will remember from #11 in this one was his knack for not giving a damn about his body's well being, and that he's fast as all hell!  When he took that end-around for a first down and was looking for contact, I thought that I've never seen a Seahawk so fast.  Charlie Rogers?  No chance.  Joey Galloway?  Perhaps.  Daryl Turner?  I don't think I'm qualified to say.  The end result was a little more grim however, as Percy had to be taken out of the game due to a concussion.  Something tells me we'll be seeing him this Sunday.

As the game wore on, the Saints just wouldn't give up.  You had to expect that with Drew Brees at the helm.  The Saints continued to struggle with the wind, as Shayne Graham misses another opportunity to bring the Saints closer yet.  After another miraculous catch from Doug Baldwin along the sidelines, it appeared that Marshawn put things to bed with his mini-Quake that gave Seattle a 23-8 lead.  Drew Brees wasn't dead yet however, and the Seahawks defense appeared allergic to catching the football.  As always seems to be the case, the Saints made the 'Hawks pay for their miscues and just like that, we had a game on our hands.

I was never worried though.  There was no way the Saints were beating the Seahawks on this day.  Even if some fans weren't impressed with the performance, it got the job done, and that's all that matters this time of year.  The absolute greatest moment of the game had to be Marshawn Lynch bustin' it for a TD to pretty much seal the deal.  I'm not going to take all the credit for Beast's performance because I went with the Lynch Dog before the game, actually, I will.  Lynch Dog's for everyone!

As the clock struck all zero's, relief rushed over the masses.  To the 12th Man's credit, everyone still seemed focused on the task at hand after the game.  People were happy, and the celebrations at Temple afterwards were great, but no one will be satisfied with anything less than a Super Bowl.  It's been an amazing run, but it can't just be a run.  It's gotta' go down in history as one of the greatest, most resilient bunch of people that play the game of football winning the game's biggest prize and the legendary fanbase who cheered them on every step of the way.

After leaving Temple, our now larger group headed to J&M.  Joining Jordan, Greg, and I were Walt and Leif.  Walt's a New York City Firefighter and one hell of a guy.  He helped inspire me to embark on this quest.  We met years ago and I was blown away by the fact that a guy from New York had season tickets and traveled across the country for Seahawks home games.  When we first met, we agreed that the Tarvaris Jackson signing was okay and that we didn't mind him being the QB for the Seahawks who bridged the gap as we searched diligently for our franchise QB and savior.  We all know how that went.

As we stood talking, with the band absolutely destroying it in the background, a familiar hand patted me on the shoulder.  It was Kam Chancellor's brother Cornel's father in law.  We had met in St. Louis and Atlanta previously at pregame and postgame celebrations.  Cornel is one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet.  Our flight to St. Louis was delayed in DC and he bought me a drink after hearing about my travels this season.  Come to think of it, that was the closest I've come to missing a game this season.  I would have been a wreck if it weren't for Cornel being there to chill while we waited during the delay.  It was completely out of our hands, so we didn't stress it.

Cornel's father-in-law tells me about how upset Cornel would be because he's not around at the moment.  He had just left.  He takes me over to his table and tells me that he wants me to meet someone.  I wonder who it could be until we reach the table in the corner and he introduces me to Kam Chancellor's mother.  I was honored, and humbled, to meet the mother of such a great Seahawk and more importantly such a great person.  As vicious as Kam is on the field, his mother makes up for it by being the sweetest lady in the world off the field.  We all talk as the band continues to set the soundtrack for the night with Suze Sims belting out tunes while nailing the drums like Kam does receivers.

Everything was perfect, and we finally headed home to call it a night.  The Seahawks had won, our first playoff game was a success, and we got to hang out with some great people.  You couldn't ask for anything more.

Again, I won't lie, it sucked waking up to watch the 49ers eventually beat the Panthers in a game where the referees snuffed out any chance Carolina had early and often.  Our collective blood boiled as we watched Jim Harbaugh whine and complain to the officials, while Anquan Boldin headbutts defenders with no repercussions.  However, we all agreed that the best case scenario for this massive NFC Championship will be allowing the 49ers to implode.  Let them play the same way they did against Carolina, I'd be surprised if the refs let them get away with half of what they got away with last week.  Better yet, how 'bout the 'Hawks just destroy them so we don't even have to worry about the zebras?

As Greg and I set sails on our trip back home, we couldn't believe that this was actually reality.  An NFC Championship matchup with our most hated rivals, the San Francisco 49ers, looming in the not so distant future.  After weeks of preparation, the moment was finally here.  It was reality.  I drop off Greg at his JetBlue gate and walk towards mine.  With a 4 hour layover approaching in Charlotte, I thought for sure that meant that the Panthers would pull their game out.  After all, it was the first city I had a layover in all season, when I stopped there on my way to Seattle in August for Training Camp.  Banners and posters of Cam Newton are all over the place, and there's even an EA Sports store in the airport where you can play video games.  No one is wearing any Panthers gear though, and I bump into a family of 49ers fans before I see anything even remotely associated with the Panthers.  

Good luck trying to sleep this week.  Everyone might want to take a page out of my friend Leif's book and start drinking tea with a side of aspirin.  He says it gets him into game mode, and with his history of traveling to Seahawks games to cheer them on, I won't argue with him.  For a game of this magnitude, whatever it takes.  Don't worry Seahawks fans, we got this!  We all we got, we all we need!