Castles in the Sand

When the waters rise, will our castles remain?

Since I’m sure you haven’t read enough people’s thoughts on Super Bowl XLVIII, here are mine (and yes, the title to this post is a horrible pun about the awesome band “Journey” and one of their best songs):

I remember eight years ago sitting down and writing some sort of reflection after Super Bowl XL. The focus was the simple question of what now? It had been a crazy year, full of exceeded expectations and a tremendous buildup of hopes leading only to an inevitable heartbreak.

Well after 26 years of experiencing Seattle sports, that was all I knew. Actually that’s not entirely accurate; mostly I knew little other than having no hope of cheering for a successful team in any sport.

That was why 2005 was so exciting. Kind of like the 2001 Mariners, the 2005 Seahawks opened the season with some promise but little actual expectations beyond the Pacific Northwest. Those 2001 Mariners had lost three of the top 50 players in Major League Baseball history in successive years (Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey, Jr., and Alex Rodriguez), and after a 90-win season the year before they were expected to compete for a playoff spot but little more.

The 2005 Seahawks were coming off an NFC West title (their first of what would become four straight) and back-to-back playoff appearances. The 2003 season had ended in Green Bay in the Wild Card round in overtime; most everyone who remembers it only does so for Matt Hasselbeck’s infamous “We want the ball and we’re gonna score” declaration after winning the overtime coin toss before promptly throwing a game-clinching pick-six. The 2004 season ended with a home loss to Saint Louis in the Wild Card round – the Rams’ third win over the Hawks that season.

Until this year, those two years were two of the most successful seasons in recent Seattle sports history. There was that Stanley Cup title back in 1917 when the Seattle Metropolitans became the first United States team to win hockey’s ultimate crown. We’ll be celebrating the centennial of that title in a few years with a ceremony attended by absolutely no one. There was the 1979 NBA Championship won by the Sonics, but even that memory has become bittersweet to those old enough to remember as the Sonics left town after 40-plus years in Seattle.

Hence the “recent” sports history clarifier. We can include one of the Sonics teams from the mid-1990s, with the two best options being either the 1993-94 team (best record in the NBA before becoming the first ever top seed to lose to the eighth seed in the first round of the playoffs) or the 1995-96 team (probably the best in team history – posted the best record in franchise history – but just happened to coincide with Michael Jordan’s 72-win Bulls season), really either is sufficiently exciting and heartbreaking.

Growing up in this culture I’ve just come to expect this annual experience. My teams are almost always bad (and ignored by the rest of the country because they are both bad and play in Southeast Alaska), and the rare times they are good are semi-fluky years where they build legitimate hope before the collapse becomes even more heartbreaking.

This year was different. Almost all year the Seahawks were considered one of the two or three best teams in the NFL. Last year was our overachieving year, when the team surpassed all reasonable expectations and gave us hope late that they might just win three straight road playoff games and advance to the Super Bowl. Of course, the 20-point comeback in Atlanta was for naught, as the defense allowed the Falcons to drive for a game-winning field goal in the final 30 seconds of play.

So, last year fit perfectly in the annals of previous Seattle sports hopes and disappointments. Except this time the team improved in the offseason and did so dramatically. A Seattle team was acknowledged by the national media, and not just acknowledged but really talked up. Somehow this season became Super Bowl-or-bust, which is really something that has never applied to a Seattle team before.

And this made the experience so different. While I absolutely got caught up in everything throughout the season, I still had that feeling of dread dwelling deep within me, expecting it to go wrong. Even after the Richard Sherman tip set up the Malcolm Smith interception and sent the Hawks to the Super Bowl, it seemed like I would wake up and find none of it had been real.

Of course, the Hawks had to go against my all-time favorite player (Peyton Manning) in the Super Bowl, the player I’d love to see win one more title before riding off into the sunset as the Greatest Quarterback of All Time (until 15 years from now when Russell Wilson claims that mantle, at least). I didn’t know what to expect on Super Bowl Sunday, and honestly I wasn’t even sure what I would feel.

I’m sure I’m not the only lifelong Seattle fan to have experienced this run differently from how I expected. I know everyone experiences sports and fandom differently, but the way this city bonded with its team was absolutely unique to anything I can remember. The Sonics and Mariners of the mid-and-late-90s took the city by storm, but somehow we had a confidence (that at times crossed the line to arrogance…) this year and with this team. I cringe a little with just how over-the-top the media coverage of the “12th Man” has been the past couple years, but there really is something to it, something that somehow seems to surpass the fan experience in a lot of other cities.

To say Sunday was not at all what I expected is to state the obvious. That game was 35 years of pent-up Seattle frustration (a 35-point win for the 35 years since our last major professional sports title) establishing that for once we were going to get the respect we have longed for in these decades of pain and loss. Somehow it felt like it wasn’t just about the Seahawks and the Broncos, one of the best offenses of all time against one of the best defenses of all time; it was a casting off all the years of inferiority and falling short, a release of the burden that has haunted Seattle sports.

We were only underdogs by a few points in the Vegas line, but it seemed like so many people were picking against us, or at the very least actively rooting against us. It seemed like once again we were being relegated to the supporting part in the same narrative that saw Dikembe Mutombo’s Denver Nuggets claim the first eight-seed upset in 1994, Derek Jeter and the Yankees topple the 116-win Mariners one month after 9/11 (probably the only time in history that the nation collectively rooted for the Yankees) and Jerome Bettis go out on top in his hometown in February 2006. This was supposed to be Peyton Manning’s coronation. But unlike 1994 it wasn’t Denver celebrating at Seattle’s expense; 20 years later we returned the favor.

Looking back, part of me is thankful that the Seahawks did not win Super Bowl XL. I think I would have been more emotional over that win than I was on Sunday, but I don’t think I would have appreciated it as much. I would’ve become cocky and arrogant and not understood the pain and heartbreak nearly as much. As legendary Pacific Lutheran football coach Frosty Westering would say, I would not have adequately enjoyed the journey; I would have been too caught up in the destination.

One of my favorite sports movies – and I know I’ve written about this before – is “Cool Runnings,” the story of the first Jamaican bobsled team competing at the 1988 Olympics in Calgary, Canada. While it’s based on a true story it is quite fictionalized, and part of that fictionalization is the American coach of the Jamaican team who has a bit of a sordid past that includes being banned from his team after cheating to win a gold medal many years earlier. The story was that he’d already won two gold medals, but then he cheated by adding weights to the sled to win a third, which he and his team later forfeited in disgrace when he was caught.

The movie’s main character, Derice, is a world-class sprinter who is desperate to win Olympic gold. In one of the key moments of the movie, he talks to his coach and asks why he would cheat, essentially saying, “You already had everything,” in reference to his previous medals. Coach Irv (as played by the late John Candy) turns to his star athlete and says, “Derice, a gold medal is a wonderful thing, but if you’re not enough without it, you’ll never be enough with it.”

That quote has stuck with me in so many moments, particularly with sports. For so much of my life, my sports fandom has desperately longed for a title. It sounds ridiculous to write, since I do not play the sports and can’t even delude myself into thinking I have an impact on the outcome of the games, but I watched my teams in a pained realization that they were doomed. And that was miserable.

I think spending even just a brief time around Frosty and his coaching philosophy sparked the change in my mindset, but it also came through the most painful sporting year in American history. People from other cities can try to challenge it, but I don’t believe there has ever been a more devastating sporting year for a US city than 2008 in Seattle. Let us recount:

The SuperSonics finished with their worst record in franchise history (20-62), gave us a brief glimpse at the brilliance of Kevin Durant and then left town for Oklahoma City in a contentious battle that still has left scars on the city and its fans. That season gave way to the 2008 Mariners, who had put together the highest payroll in team history in hopes of grabbing their first playoff spot since the historic 2001 team. Instead they fell apart, becoming the first team in MLB history to lose 100 games with a payroll exceeding $100 million (going 61-101), leading to countless firings within the organization and an extremist fiscally conservative approach that has not seen the team approach $100 million in payroll since.

Just as that season was wrapping up, the Seahawks collapsed in their final year under potential hall of fame coach Mike Holmgren. They saw their string of four consecutive NFC West titles end with a 4-12 season. Meanwhile, the University of Washington Huskies, the longest-tenured Seattle sports team, posted the first winless season in team and Pac-10 history at 0-12.

If ever there was a year to make you give up on sports fandom, that was the year. If you’re truly not enough as a fan without a title, that 12-month stretch quite possibly might be the final straw that makes you seek that affirmation elsewhere. If all you care about is the destination, you might choose to take a different trip.

I’ll be honest, that year changed me in how I root for my teams. For awhile I thought it hardened me, made me less susceptible to the emotional attachment that leads to such heartache. But that wasn’t quite it. It helped open my eyes to see the value of the journey over the destination.

That year sparked some new beginnings, and we are seeing some of the benefits right now. The Mariners fired a general manager who, while by all accounts a very good guy, had essentially destroyed the talent pipeline in the organization. While they’re still trying to make it to the next step, the young talent on the team makes it intriguing and gives us hope that perhaps soon we could have another good team to support.

The Seahawks took another year of falling, but that prompted wholesale changes within the organization that led to the hiring of Pete Carroll and John Schneider, the coach and architects of the franchise’s first Super Bowl victory.

The Sonics are still gone, but I’ll cherish those memories of watching Kevin Durant live in KeyArena, even as he struggled through his rookie season. And now that David Stern is no longer commissioner (coincidence that happened the same week as the Seahawks winning the Super Bowl? Most likely. But…), hope can be restored that perhaps we will see an expansion team sometime in the future in a new arena that might even bring about our own NHL hockey team.

The Huskies brought in Steve Sarkisian after that season, who led UW through the difficult transition and back into the Top-25. His success helped create the opportunity for massive facility upgrades and the recent hiring of Chris Petersen, a coach sought by teams including USC and University of Oregon, among numerous other top programs.

With the Seahawks’ title coming for a team whose players essentially average my age (which simultaneously makes me feel young, old and unaccomplished), there is already talk and hope of a repeat next year and maybe even a dynasty. I don’t want to get into that.

I don’t want to become the fan that can’t appreciate a team if it doesn’t win a championship. While I would love another Super Bowl title next year, the Seahawks will not be a failure if they fall short. Because it’s about more than just that final win.

I never imagined thinking or writing these things right after my team won a title. They seem like the type of things you’d try to convince yourself to believe after your team fell short. But it’s absolutely true. Winning teams are absolutely more exciting and often more rewarding to watch, but it goes beyond the scoreboard.

Frosty used to talk about the double-win, where the emphasis is playing to your potential, and the win on the scoreboard comes as a result. After Coach Irv answered Derice’s question, Derice had a follow-up: “How will I know if I’m enough.” Irv responds simply, “When you cross that finish line, you’ll know.”

If you’ve seen the movie (and if you haven’t, seriously? Go see it), you know that Derice and his team cross the finish line as champions, carrying a crippled sled on their shoulders. When a crash nearly maims and potentially devastates them, all Derice can think about is finishing the race. It’s not about winning; it’s about finishing.

My reflections on Super Bowl XL were a reflection of a fan desperate to taste the thrill of victory after only knowing the agony of defeat. But without one, the other is meaningless. My Seahawks are Super Bowl champions and just established a legacy as one of the most dominant defenses in the history of the league.

Don’t get me wrong, I am thrilled beyond belief. I still have to remind myself of this periodically just to prove that it wasn’t a Bill Murray Groundhog Day experience that won’t hold true when I wake up in the morning. My team is the world champion. But to be honest, aside from planning to go to a championship parade on Wednesday and maybe buying some memorabilia, my life will not be tangibly different going forward. This win does not define me as a fan any more than it should define any of the athletes on the field.

I think it’s a question every fan, athlete and human being has to face at some point in almost every aspect of life: how will I know if I’m enough. Well, when you cross that finish line, you’ll know.

Oh, and go Hawks.

One thought on “Journey vs. Destination: Don’t stop believin’

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