On Sunday, as I was not sipping Chardonnay and not making a killing in the Internet business here in the Bay Area, I received a message from a buddy up in Seattle, who was not wearing flannel and not drinking a triple-hopped IPA. "It's on!" he wrote, referring to round 3 of the Seahawks-Niners, this Sunday.
And indeed it is, a rivalry so new as to be unworthy of the usual easy insults regional rival fan bases hurl at each other.
I should know. This past fall, with some reservations, I spent a weekend among Seahawks fans for SI (Nov. 11, 2013). Nine months earlier, with far fewer reservations, I did the same thing amid my own kind (SI, Jan. 28, 2013). Contrary to the nerdy tech-and-coffee stereotypes, I found the Seattle fan base to be blue-collar, loyal and frequently drunk out of its mind during games. There was also a surprising, and almost endearing, streak of insecurity. After all, this is a franchise that has largely been mired in mediocrity. Success produces a certain level of anxiety.
Meanwhile, the Niners' fans are—again, contrary to stereotypes—blue-collar, loyal and frequently drunk out of their minds during games. They drive in from the outlying municipalities, tailgate like it's their job and, on occasion, get too riled up. Which is to say that this is no Hipster Bowl. This is trenches football, both on the field and in the stands. And that's part of what makes this burgeoning rivalry so interesting.
That it is indeed a real rivalry is becoming happily clear. Minutes after San Francisco dispatched the Panthers in the divisional round on Sunday, former 49ers receiver Dwight Clark took to Twitter not to talk about the Carolina game but to say this: "Now let's go kick @Seahawks ass!"
Meanwhile, on TV, a headphones ad depicted Niners quarterback Colin Kaepernick walking a gantlet of angry Seahawks fans to get into CenturyLink Field. Or at least I think they were supposed to be Seahawks fans. Based on how deranged and bloodthirsty they appeared, they also might have been zombies.
Other important preparations had already been made before the game even ended. An initial betting line of -3.5 on SEA-SF was up by the fourth quarter of SF-CAR. In Seattle, the Seahawks had announced that tickets to the NFC championship game would go on sale on Monday, but with a catch: You couldn't buy them if you lived in California. (Or, as it turned out, any state but the six that constitute the core of the team's fan base: Washington, Oregon, Montana, Idaho, Alaska and Hawaii. But we all know what the real aim was.) And as of Monday, the cheapest tickets on StubHub were $395.
So, yes, there's some anticipation, and with good reason: These were two of the best teams in football before the season began (and might well be now). They split two games during the regular season, and their respective coaches are really fun to hate. Personally, I'd pay to watch a Smug-Off between Carroll and Harbaugh. Or an Apoplexy-Off.
The easy analogy to make is to the Red Sox--Yankees rivalry. Here are two relatively close coastal cities with dominant teams and fans who harbor a clear dislike for each other. But the comparison falls apart upon closer inspection. I've boarded planes at Logan Airport on which half the passengers are wearing some form of Red Sox paraphernalia, including the infants (especially the infants). Fandom is part of the civic identity in Boston and New York. Not necessarily so on the West Coast. Here the diehards are still diehards, but for plenty of others to admit allegiance is uncool. Hipsters do not engage in paraphernalia, unless it's ironic.
Then there's the history. Red Sox--Yankees is steeped in it. Niners-Seahawks? Not so much. The teams weren't even in the same conference until 2002. And, whereas this may now arguably be the Seahawks' most important historical rivalry, for those of us Niners fans who grew up in the Joe Montana era, it's merely the latest in a series. We spent the better part of two decades hating the Cowboys and quite some time focusing our negative energy upon the Packers. The Seahawks? We're still sizing you guys up.
Then again, maybe that's just my generation. I watched last weekend's Panthers-Niners game at my brother's house. We wore Jerry Rice jerseys and tattered "lucky" Niners hats. When SF stuffed Carolina at the one-yard line, we referenced Dan Bunz's famous hit and that 1981 team. We gave our father high fives, though only on his left side, because his right shoulder is now out of commission.
Our kids, who are between the ages of five and eight, were different, though. As I watched the four of them sprint around the house, occasionally yelling "Go 49ers!" but more often just creating chaos, I realized that their seminal football memories are being created right now. They will remember how Daddy suddenly got Very Serious during games against the Seahawks. They will hear the name Richard Sherman and involuntarily grimace. They will know Russell Wilson as the enemy.
And, this Sunday, they will know to mock anyone who wears green and blue. Which, I suppose, is how it should be.
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