If the name “Seattle” in “Seattle Seahawks” were strictly interpreted, the team that starts its NFL playoff run against the New Orleans Saints Saturday would represent just a small hourglass-shaped piece of land, 17 miles long and 8 miles wide.
There would be no need for fans to travel crowded highways, icy mountain passes or floating bridges from Kirkland, Bellevue, Olympia, Tacoma, the Tri-Cities and Spokane.
Vern and Debi Hall wouldn’t need to fly down from Kodiak, Alaska, for the games. Amber and Brandon Ferguson wouldn’t need to drive up from Albany, Ore.
And Andy Lindenaar certainly wouldn’t need to drive 15 to 18 hours — sometimes through blizzards — to CenturyLink Field from his home in Edmonton, Alberta, 300 miles north of the Montana border.
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“The Seahawks have been my team since I was a young boy,” said Lindenaar. “This is like my second family down here.”
Lindenaar, who watched the early Seahawks with his dad on a Spokane TV channel, is now a season-ticket holder and president of the Canadian chapter of the Sea Hawkers Booster Club.
Drawing a boundary around Seahawks territory is a complicated matter. No other team is so geographically isolated.
At any given home game, more than half the fans come from outside King County, and up to 10 percent come from Canada.
Mike Flood, the team’s community-relations vice president, said the team’s target audience stretches from Western Montana to the Pacific Coast, and from Oregon up through British Columbia to Alaska.
But there are pockets of support even beyond those boundaries.
A London fan is born
Ian Smith, a truck driver in London (yes, London, England) attends about a game a year and watches more at a favorite pub. The highlight of his year was bringing four “home-game virgins” to see the Seahawks defeat the Tennessee Titans in October.
Smith remembers the exact moment when he became a Seahawks fan.
It came in 1982, in the first full NFL game he watched on TV. The Oakland Raiders, reputed tough guys of the league, were visiting Seattle, and Smith took an immediate dislike to their swagger.
So when Seahawks safety Kenny Easley hit an Oakland receiver so hard he “bounced off the (Kingdome) turf,” a Hawks fan was born.
One measure of the team’s growing support is the expanse of the Sea Hawkers Booster Club. The team-sanctioned club has 16 chapters in Washington and 9 in other states, plus the one in Canada, and one each in the United Kingdom and the U.S. military.
Total membership, Flood said, has grown from 2,000 in 2010 to 5,000 this season.
Gene Hushak, of Auburn, president of the Sea Hawkers Central Council, said the club signed up 600 new members during training camp this year, when the public is allowed a brief look into the VMAC (Virginia Mason Athletic Center), the team’s Renton campus.
Club members, whether they’re from Seattle or elsewhere, host get-togethers, share stories, tailgate together at games, attend events with Seahawks staff and players, and help on a variety of charitable projects, often with Seahawks personnel.
“Our philosophy is that this ‘12th Man’ relationship is a two-way street,” said Flood, who helps arrange player participation in Sea Hawkers events.
The fan clubs, Flood notes, not only boost the volume at CenturyLink Field, they helped create it. Their support was crucial to the narrow passage of the 1997 ballot measure that authorized the stadium as a replacement for the Kingdome.
Alaska going ‘bananas’
Alaska, now home to three Sea Hawkers chapters, has always had strong ties to Seattle.
“Everybody is pretty bananas up here” over the Seahawks’ success, said Jay Page, president of the Midnight Sun Sea Hawkers, based in Anchorage. The club had to switch its TV-watching venue this year after the hotel restaurant where they gathered complained about the noise.
Many Alaskans fly down to home Seahawks games, or to farther destinations for away games.
Hall, a second-generation crab fisherman, is a longtime Seahawks fan who gets to a handful of games each year. And he appreciates that the Seahawks have helped with fundraising efforts in Alaska, including one that built a new athletic field for a high school in Kodiak.
While Alaskans and Canadians stream down from the north to Seahawks games, Pat Kelley and his friends caravan up from the south.
Kelley lives in Vancouver, Wash., and drives to Seattle in a group that includes fans from as far south as Eugene. Many of them play cards at his house the night before a Seahawks game, then head north by 7 a.m. on game day to nail down a prime tailgating spot.
One member of the group, Amber Ferguson, of Albany, said she lives in the border territory between two powerful fan bases, with the Seahawks to the north and the San Francisco 49ers to the south.
Oregon itself has no official Sea Hawkers chapter. In fact, the Seahawks finished second to the Green Bay Packers in a July 2012 poll in which nearly 700 Oregon residents were asked to name their favorite NFL team.
But there are plenty of places where Seahawks faithful gather to watch the games, including NEPO 42, a pub in Northeast Portland.
“We get a lot of 12th Man jerseys in here,” said owner Matthew Firosz. “It’s the tie that binds, and it’s pretty cool to see.”
He said the Seahawks focus started a couple of years ago at the suggestion of a regular customer and has mushroomed this year with the team’s success.
California has two Sea Hawkers chapters — one based in the San Francisco area, the other in Southern California. Both include former Washington state residents, and members who travel to Seahawks games.
In Las Vegas, Seahawks fever shines at Scooter’s Pub, where a 12th Man flag is raised before every Seahawks game.
Ron Pendergrass, president of the Vegas Sea Hawkers, is a former Seattle resident who joined the group in 2007. His wife keeps the chapter’s books.
Las Vegas, with its transitory population, has fans of every NFL team, Pendergrass said. But the Sea Hawkers have had a huge boost with the team’s success this year, more than doubling the group’s size to about 350 members.
“We’re hopeful, and we’re thinking Super Bowl,” Pendergrass said. “But we’ve got to take it one game at a time.”
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