The 12th Man and the 10th Man

Last Sunday I headed down to LA to take part in a spiritual retreat, a wonderfully intense week full of song and silence, meditation and prayer, movement and stillness. It was an experience on which I am still reflecting.

But before the retreat began, there was a moment of despair when I realized that I would be out of town for the NFC Championship game between the Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers. I knew I would miss the excitement and intensity of being in Washington, with the excitement around the Seahawks and their stellar season growing to a fever pitch.

But I dutifully made my way to Seatac airport, but not before purchasing and donning a Seahawks shirt. The Alaska Airlines terminal was fully decorated, including arches of Seahawks balloons lining the path to my gate. Airline personnel were dressed in team colors as well, and upon boarding it was confirmed what I first heard as a rumor–priority boarding is not only given to families with small children, those needing assistance and military personnel, but also to anyone wearing a Russell Wilson jersey.

As I arrived in LA and made my way to the retreat center, a new reality set in: I was not going to be able to see the game at all. I had thought that maybe I would have access to a TV–kickoff was a few hours before the retreat started–but none was available, phone reception was spotty, and I was not going to be able to watch.

While we were supposed to maintain radio silence during the retreat I was able to find out the score. I knew the Seahawks won but no details were forthcoming. It was not until I got home that I was able to watch recaps and highlights, including the spectacular game ending play, followed by the whole Richard Sherman brou-ha-ha. On to the Superbowl. But I still had this lingering disappointment of not having been able to watch the game.

So why the disappointment? I’m not even a huge football fan; my football watching has generally been relegated to the Superbowl and the occasional playoff game. I’ve been to one professional football game, and my affection for the Giants growing up was more of a nod to the local team and did not compare to my genetic devotion to the Yankees. (And I also preferred baseball.)

But I’ve easily adopted the Seahawks as the local team, happy to be counted among the 12th Man.

And it’s this idea that I find so compelling. The 12th Man is the term used by the Seahawks to describe the fan base. Originally used by Texas A&M University, the term refers to the fact that 11 players are on the field at one time for a team, and the fans collectively make up the 12th. What I like about this idea is that the implication is that the fans are not just there to support the team and root them on, but are seen as an integral part of the team. Thus the fans are not just connected to the team, they are a part of it.

On one level this is manifested practically with the tremendous noise and even minor earthquakes generated by the spectators at Centurylink Field, which is said to unnerve opposing teams. But beyond that, it is manifested in a general sense of camaraderie, communal connection and, dare I say, spirit of meaning generated by feeling a part of something greater.

The 12th Man reminds me of another idea, from our Jewish tradition: the 10th Man, or to be more correct, the 10th Person. The number needed for minyan, a Jewish prayer quorum, is 10. Ten adult Jews are required to recite certain prayers, and therefore the number is the minimum required for a group of people to be considered a community. [And those prayers are some of the most vital to the community, including the Mourner’s Kaddish and the public reading of the Torah.] Some consider it a special honor to be the 10th person, to arrive at the synagogue to be the one to “make the minyan.” The 10th person is not a bystander or a supporter, the 10th person is what defines that community. To be a part of a minyan is to be a part of something larger, to transcend oneself. And because the presence of a 10th transforms the entire group, it allows others to transcend as well.

The feeling of excitement and attachment to the Seahawks is palpable. Seahawks gear is everywhere, flags and signs are in many windows, local stores and state offices encourage dressing in Seahawks gear before game day. The other day Ozi, in remarking on the preponderance of Seahawks imagery everywhere, asked, “Is it like this in other cities as well?” The answer I gave is that in a smaller sports market like Seattle and Washington State, with fewer professional sports–and especially with a recently decamped basketball team and a moribund baseball team–the effect is magnified, and the connection felt that much stronger. There is more of a recognition, perhaps, that each individual is a vital member of the community.

As with football, so with spiritual community. Each individual is a vital member. Show up and wear your colors.

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