Stranger in a strange land: A Seahawks fan goes to FedEx Field

Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Matt Ufford should know better than to attend Seahawks games, but that didn't stop him from attending their game against the Redskins.

The snap hit Russell Wilson's hands without incident, but as he pulled the play fake to Marshawn Lynch back to his body, the ball tumbled free, and I watched from the 300 level of FedEx Field as Redskins safety Madieu Williams fell on the ball. As the burgundy sea around me rose to their feet in excitement, my head fell into my hands. After a disastrous first quarter that resulted in a 14-0 Redskins lead, this fumble would squelch the nascent Seattle comeback and give Washington commanding field position to improve on their 14-3 lead.

A friendly hand shook my shoulder. It was Jim Bankoff, CEO of Vox Media and the reason I was the asshole in blue at this stupid pointless disaster. "Didn't you see what happened?" he asked. "Lynch picked it up and ran for twenty yards!"

I rose at his words, a flower to light. Hope bloomed.

***

This all began last Thursday. Bankoff emailed me to see if I wanted to go to the game. I waffled. Hours earlier, I had acquiesced to a business trip to Atlanta early Monday morning; I'd either have to change my plane ticket or hustle back to the train station as soon as the game ended to catch the last Amtrak back to New York.

Even if it worked logistically, I struggled with psychological factors: did I really want to live and die with the 'Hawks while surrounded by hostile fans in FedEx Field, a stadium widely reviled as a lousy experience even to the most loyal 'Skins fans? During the division-clinching win over the Cowboys in Week 17, a 'Skins fan got sucker-punched for attending the game with Cowboys fans. Plus, as someone who agonizes for three hours even when the Seahawks win -- ten of Seattle's 16 regular-season games this year were decided in the final minute or overtime, including seven of their eight away games -- the prospect of suffering in private sounded comforting. I was hesitant to represent my team.

And yet.

Two years ago, I flew to Seattle on short notice to watch the 7-9 Seahawks -- NFC West winners at the division's lowest ebb -- get steamrolled by the reigning Super Bowl champion New Orleans Saints. Only that's not how the narrative played out. The 'Hawks shook off an early 10-0 deficit to win one of the most entertaining playoff games in recent history, capped off by Marshawn Lynch's famous "Beast Mode" run, a 67-yard wrecking ball that tore through the Saints and landed in the end zone in front of my seat. I was hoarse for three days, a reward for the unbending faith and hope and love that comprise the bedrock of sports fandom.

I had to go. I switched my flight to Atlanta, bought a train ticket to D.C., and emailed a friend in Bethesda with a guest bedroom. Anything less than faith is cowardice.

***

PACKING LIST

  • Laptop
  • iPhone
  • Kindle
  • Camera I'll barely use
  • Assorted cords and chargers
  • Dopp kit
  • Underwear (2)
  • Socks (2 pair)
  • Extra jeans in case I have beer thrown on me
  • Extra hoodie in case I have beer thrown on me
  • Fleece
  • Hat and gloves
  • Extra Seahawks t-shirt in case the Seahawks t-shirt I'm wearing has the wrong mojo SHUT UP IT CAN AFFECT THE GAME
  • Sense of foreboding
**********

The main concourse of New York City's Grand Central Terminal is one of the city's most regal spaces, a cavernous Beaux-Arts hall filled with long slabs of natural light where commuters and tourists alike stop to appreciate the celestial painting on the ceiling. Unfortunately for me, Amtrak runs out of New York's Penn Station, an abomination of a transportation hub that's as ugly and labyrinthine as Grand Central is simple and elegant. I stood in line at one of Penn's numerous food court hells, waiting for coffee and a croissanwich, when a man spoke to me.

"Bad luck to you today."

I looked up and saw his Robert Griffin III jersey. I wore my green Seahawks tee-shirt with the old logo and a not-quite-matching blue hoodie bearing the new one. "And to you as well," I said.

"I'm headed to the game today, so…" he trailed off.

"Me too." I could have filled the dead air with talk about the game: compliments for RGIII, my concern about Seattle's susceptibility to Washington's running attack, questions about FedEx Field. I didn't. Small talk with strangers is never my specialty; it suffers even more on early mornings before I'm fully caffeinated.

"Enjoy the game," he said, raising his coffee in goodbye as he walked out into Penn's chairless concourse.

Fat f**king chance of that, I thought. But what I said was: "You too."

***

Photo
If airline travel shows you the Earth as a bird sees it, taking the train gives you the hobo's view. Leaving New York, the frozen swamp of New Jersey gives way to a collection of broken scenes from broken cities. Harrison, Trenton, and Camden go by as a series of empty warehouses with broken windows, abandoned factories half-turned to rubble, chain-link fences and concertina losing battles to rust and and creeping vines, and blue-collar businesses whose last priority is replacing a letter in their ancient signage. The only thing fresh along these tracks in the winter is the graffiti.

Baltimore, from the train, looks every bit as ramshackle and depressing as "The Wire" made it. Somewhere beyond my field of vision, there are nice neighborhoods in Baltimore, and beyond them the hulk of M&T Bank Stadium, where Ray Lewis, at that moment, prepared to dance and drop interceptions. The conductor announced the stop and punctuated it with "GO COLTS!," drawing a collection of boos from the majority of the NFL fans on the train, a legion of Ravens jerseys and one unfortunate soul in purple camouflage pants. ("Yes, my purple and gray camouflage pants are the right call for the Acela," said a member of the bourgeoisie that morning.)

Baltimore's decay became Maryland's forest, the gunmetal sky gave way to patches of blue, and the dusting of snow surrendered to the warming earth. It was a beautiful day for football.

***

Assholes

Everything bad that has ever been said about FedEx Field is true. The parking lot is a dystopian nightmare. Inefficient and insufficient security guards at the entrance lead to logjams that dwarf any pro or college stadium I've visited. The bathrooms are poorly designed, too few, and too small. "Only took an hour for us to park and get to our seats," said one of the Redskins fans I'd ridden with. "Not bad."

The internet is fraught with horror stories of imperiled fans of the away team who dared set foot inside an unfriendly stadium, but I can't add anything to the genre. True, a drunk redneck shouted, "YOU SUCK! YOU SUCK! YOU SUCK! YOU SUCK! YOU SUCK! F**KING BITCH!" in my ear while we waited in the crush of people to enter the stadium, but technically he was addressing the Seahawks fans who had hung a blue "12" flag on the ramp above. But that's cherry-picking: we remember profane drunk assholes because they're the loudest. I interacted with several decent human beings in burgundy and gold, including but not limited to some of the writers for HogsHaven.com, SB Nation's Redskins blog (not to be confused with Hog Shaven, which is something else entirely).

If there's a defining trait of Redskins fans -- aside from demanding penalty flags for holding -- it's their proclivity for one chant: "R-G-THREE!" I saw two different men in green #10 Baylor jerseys before I even entered the stadium. The fans' singular devotion to their star quarterback seemed to trump their feelings for the team as a whole, something that could also be said of Mike Shanahan, who couldn't bring himself to take his hobbled star out of the game.

When Griffin fell, the air left the stadium, followed shortly by the fans. The Redskins turned the ball over on downs with more than four minutes remaining, and most of the crowd bolted for the exits, even though Washington had all three timeouts and the two-minute warning remaining. There should have been hope, but hope was on the sideline being examined by Dr. James Andrews. All that remained were the masochists and Seahawks fans (which is to say: masochists and other masochists).

12th-man

It was only then that I finally started to enjoy myself. The final four minutes of the game were GREAT. I transformed from a nervous, terrified wreck to a normal human capable of smiling. The most fun I had all day was walking in the concourse afterward, point to people in blue, and saying, "Go 'Hawks!" I flubbed a high-ten with a passing woman in a Marshawn Lynch jersey and didn't even care.

The best part of going to FedEx Field is leaving.

***

The story ends; the story goes on. I missed my flight to Atlanta the next morning. The Seahawks earned one of their own.

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