This is what gravity looks like.
Things with tremendous mass bend space-time. This pulls other objects in. I've always suspected that life works the same way. Some events are so massive that they bend and shape your life around them. It's not difficult to think of examples: the heaviness of departing for college turns your senior year upside down. The anticipation of freshman football tryouts makes the summer after 8th grade the shortest and the longest of your life. Popping the question. Losing a parent. Bringing home your first puppy. If your life is a timeline, these are the superplanets that sit along that line, their gravity pulling you in and casting you off again.
For me, the NFC Championship Game carried a similar gravity. The sheer mass of that event sent me careening all across the country this season: Carolina, Indianapolis, New Jersey, and Seattle and Seattle and Seattle and finally, beautifully, one more time to Seattle. I never had a choice.
I felt the inevitability of this matchup as soon as the Saints defeated the Eagles in the Wild Card Round. I was disappointed in the matchup. "These guys again?" I wanted the 49ers. How do you get all the way up for a game against a team that we had already beaten so, so soundly? I rooted against San Francisco when they faced Carolina, of course, but the gnawing feeling that the "right" matchup would be Seattle and Frisco never went away. And the right matchup is what we got.
So it was that I found myself on my fourth Seahawks-related transcontinental flight in as many months, squeezed into a middle seat on the Saturday before the game. Seahawks jerseys, caps and beanies dotted the rows of the 757. The Seattle-based Delta flight crew had action green Seahawks lanyards around their necks, and, upon landing, our captain ended his "welcome to Seattle" spiel with a crisp "Go hawks."
The rest of the day expired in a jetlagged blur. The feeling around Seattle was incomparable. Buildings lit up. Storefront painted with big blue 12s. Our town of loners and oddballs had finally united around something. Blue jerseys high-fived blue jerseys. Complete strangers, in Seattle, high-fiving in public. The brave 49ers fans who wandered the streets in red and gold (in distressingly large numbers) were shouted down instantly 1000-to-1. And at the center of it all: CenturyLink Field, sitting silent but distorting space-time with its terrible yawning mass, dragging us all to the inevitable tomorrow.
Waking up on Championship Gameday. One of the rare blessings. This Championship Gameday is also Rivalry Gameday, raising the stakes significantly. The nerves are so bad that you just choke down some food, suit up in your Seahawks colors and make your way to Sodo to find the likeminded. The pregame festivities were an electric, jittery mess. Many 12s chose to self-medicate to offset the nerves, and a noontime stroll down Occidental Avenue revealed a sloppy horde. Hot dogs and spilled beer. Blue Thunder played outside of Touchdown City, and something about the deep percussion cemented the realness of the moment as I walked by. A game we've been waiting nearly a decade to see was two hours from kickoff. The adrenaline soaked straight through to the marrow.
Safeco Field opening its doors for Seahawks pregame is, as of press time, the only cool thing about the Seattle Mariners. Beers are cheap, the burgers are unreasonably good and it gets you out of the rain. Also, it affords you the opportunity to meet a Seahawks mini horse.
Filing into CenturyLink, we stopped to collect our rally towels (disinterested volunteers throwing them out of a cardboard box, "flyers up" style) before locating our seats. 45 minutes before kickoff and the joint was PACKED. Harbaugh was getting Kaepernick warmed up on my end of the field, playing catch and working on footwork. One of the first throws slipped through Harbaugh's hands and hit him pretty hard in the nose, causing a huge sarcastic cheer to rise up from my section.
Pregame flies by. The 49ers get booed on, off, and back onto the field. Bittersweet Symphony kicks in and the 12s immediately drown it out. A quick video highlighting Paul Allen's career and accomplishments is punctuated by the small matter of him saving the Seahawks, and he raises the 12th man flag to appropriate adoration. A moment.
Of course, the Seahawks lost the coinflip and so all of that energy goes to waste as soon as Phil Dawson thumps the kickoff through the back of the endzone. There's a great deal of noise as Russell Wilson and friends take the field, despite everyone in the stadium shushing each other and making the international sign for "shut the hell up" with their arms. To my dismay, I realized it was the fans in red and gold across the way who were making all the noise. They filled in a good portion of the 100-level stands between the 30s. Credit to them, but it made my blood boil.
I was so close to the field that, frankly, I couldn't see the game very well. I had no depth perception for the first down marker and frequently had to rely on the in-stadium replay and overall crowd reaction to tell what was going on. A five yard gain and a one-yard loss looked exactly the same. Less ambiguous was Russell Wilson fumbling on the opening snap, and here is where I so appreciated being in the stadium. Rather than sitting helplessly on my couch at home, I had about 30 seconds to process what had happened before leaning in, cupping my hands, and screaming at the dickheads in the gold helmets 80 yards away. There is precious little time to feel sorry for yourself when you're lucky enough to be inside the Link on gameday.
The noise still sneaks up on me. I start shouting when the other team enters the huddle. My voice stands out at first. Others around me join in, and that feels loud. The opponent breaks the huddle and trots out to the line, and the stadium finds another gear. My voice disappears into the cacophony. Kaep tries to change the play at the LOS and the noise takes on a shape and texture. It is airborne, electrified essence of barbed wire and lead pipe. Your peripheral vision shakes and you're not sure if it's you jumping or the stadium jumping or both. Ball is snapped and the Seahawks make a stop and that's one play down out of 55. 10 seconds later, it starts again.
Down 10-0 after a failed goalline stand, the mood in the stadium remained upbeat but eager for a response to San Francisco's opening flurry. Doug Baldwin stood in the nearby endzone, leaning against the upright in his now-classic pose. He nodded to the crowd like he agreed with us, and brought the ball out to the 24 to set up what would become a nice "we've got a pulse" drive by Russell Wilson. A couple of rhythm throws to Doug and Golden got us out to the 35, then Wilson added to his highlight reel of home games against San Francisco, humiliating their pass rush for 8 full seconds before torching both safeties for a 51-yard gain to Doug Baldwin. A sack kills the drive, Hauschka knocks a field goal through, and I turn to the stranger to my left and mutter "points". He nods his head. "Points," he agrees.
Halftime. The stadium PA asks us to stay in our seats for a performance by Macklemore. Everyone obliges. The stadium remained PACKED throughout the entire break. Macklemore comes out to the 12th Man Flag Pavilion and plays Thrift Shop and Can't Hold Us. The acoustics are bad but the bass knocks and it doesn't really matter: everyone knows every word to both songs and raps along with him. He closes by leading the loudest "SEA! HAWKS!" chant in Clink history. The lights come down and he says "SEATTLE SPORTS HISTORY WILL BE MADE TONIGHT" and brings down the house. Just like that, halftime is over, the air raid siren goes off and Hauschka is booting to LaMichael James. The crowd is back and better than ever.
The defense clamps down and forces a 6-and-out thanks to a Kaepernick overthrow and Frank Gore losing 6 yards on 2nd and 10. Lynch gets loose and goes 40 yards to the endzone. Everyone is jumping up and down the minute he cuts to the outside. Somehow the game is tied at 10-10. The first half feels like a century ago. Strangers hugging strangers. Everything makes sense in moments like this one. All of it.
It's the end of the third quarter. Afternoon fades to evening and we're now playing under the lights. Wilson gets popped for intentional grounding and we have all commercial break to stand and think about it. We answered Kaepernick's stunning TD pass to Boldin with a field goal and my brain is actively rejecting the notion of settling for 3 points when we need 4 to tie. The teams switch sides and the 49ers fans on the Visitors side start up a "gotta admit that's pretty damn loud" DE-FENSE chant. Wilson finds Miller who picks up 15 tough yards. The effort was reminiscent of some his receptions in last year's playoffs. We needed 22 yards, however, setting up the most confusing 90 seconds of my career as a sports fan. Wilson ultimately takes the field and everyone in the stadium seems to understand the plan here. Everyone except Aldon Smith. Smith jumps on the double count, Wilson sets his sights on the endzone directly in front of me, and Kearse falls to the blue turf with a Super Bowl ticket clasped to his chest. 13 minutes left.
Ahead by three. The crowd noise goes Category 5 as we kick back to San Francisco. Kaep tests Byron Maxwell. Nope. It's so loud I can't think. It's so loud my eyes hurt. It's so loud my head is getting bruised. Kaep can't get the play off. Delay of game. Pandemonium. We get even louder still. Kaep rolls out to the far sideline and Avril tomahawks the ball loose.
The Clink is a house party. At no point was this more evident than after Wilson's fumbled exchange near the goalline. The 49ers get the ball back without surrendering any points, and the defense comes back onto the field to do their thing yet again. As we wait for the TV timeout to elapse, the stadium starts blasting the chorus of this Rick Ross song. The defensive line starts dancing. Sherman starts dancing. The whole defense is jumping around like they could play 10 more quarters. The crowd jumps around right there with them, bobbing heads to the thundering bassline. San Francisco stands around with hands on hips, wondering exactly where the hell they are. Kaep throws the ball to Kam. Rick Ross comes thundering back in. Won't hold me back.
You know what happens next. Colin Kaepernick takes the matchup. Richard Sherman takes the ballgame. Wilson takes a knee three times and the next 25 minutes are among the very best in my entire life. The Clink pops like a bottle of champagne. 8 years of disappointment and frustration and 60 minutes of unbelievable tension are defused in the same moment. The red jerseys on the far side of the field evaporate into the night. Entire rows of strangers have their arms around one another as the CenturyLink staff assemble the stage at midfield. Wilson speaks and reminds us of the "Why not us?" mantra that got us here. Carroll, with an arm around John Schneider and an arm around Paul Allen, speaks and thanks the 12s. Richard Sherman holds the Halas trophy like it's Simba.
Blue and green confetti.
For minutes, I stand with my arms raised over my head. Gravity can't hold us. We're headed to New York.
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