Tomorrow is a day of nostalgia at Qwest Field.
Almost five years ago, the NFC-leading Seattle Seahawks hosted the Carolina Panthers for the conference championship game. Despite being the home team, the odds were stacked against the Seahawks, with the seemingly-unstoppable Steve Smith and Jake Delhomme leading a high-flying offense into the NFL's most hostile environment. (And yes, the fact that I just typed "unstoppable" and "Jake Delhomme" in the same sentence is indescribably strange. I think I need a beer.)
But tomorrow, the Panthers return to Seattle for the first time since that memorable day. Because of this, I'm feeling especially nostalgic tonight. I'll be attending the game tomorrow, and though I wasn't there for the original installment of the matchup, I have a feeling the energy in the stands will be no less palpable. This division is the weakest in the league, and easily winnable by the team that wants it the most. The Seahawks simply have to rise to the occasion, but that will depend on much, even though the Panthers are entering this game at a league-worst 1-12 record.
This got me thinking: In January of 2006 for the NFC title, I was in Vegas, sitting at Harrah's on the strip, decked out in Seahawks gear and among one of about eight fans that was in the area at the time. Everywhere I turned, I was surrounded by Steelers, Cowboys and even Panther fans. The favorites. They had all come out to roost that day; some even going so far as to pre-emptively celebrate victories because they were "a sure thing."
"There's no way in hell Carolina's gonna lose this thing," an overweight drunk in a Steve Smith jersey sneered at me from across the bar. "Just you wait, Seachicken Man."
I said nothing, giving him a casual glance of acknowledgement. The game was about to start, and I could give less than a crap in hell about what some morbidly obese degenerate had to say about my beloved team before one snap was played.
When the Seahawks quickly ascended to a 14-0 lead early in the game, I began to order more beer for myself and my accomplice at that game, loudly chanting and toasting a near-perfect start.
By the time Lofa Tatupu came out of nowhere to intercept a horribly-thrown Delhomme pass to even further the momentum the Seahawks already had rolling, I was the happiest football fan in the building. Scratch that; the happiest person in the building. (Along with the small group of people sitting across from me in Darrell Jackson and Matt Hasselbeck jerseys.) It was a glorious moment in time that I'll never forget. And the huge Steve Smith hulk had long since disappeared, hanging his head on his way out the door.
I asked Steve Middleton and Chris Sullivan what they were doing on that fateful day in Seahawks history, and they chimed in with their stories that I'll post below. (Hell, if you're gonna be this nostalgic, why not make a full production out of it?)
There was about 15 of my family and friends all together in a converted garage/theater room. We all brought food, drinks, and our jerseys. The whole game we were all yelling and cheering on our team. It was the best game of my life. The Hawks were going to Superbowl 40. I really thought this was the year. Even though Pittsburgh won, I was really proud of that 2005/06 team.
I lived in Seattle for the 2005 Season of Destiny, but moved to Chicago right in the midst of the playoffs (January 14, to be exact). I was livid to be moving away from the best team I'd ever witnessed, and a bit depressed to be parting with this hot chick I'd just met the week before (who would eventually become my wife). I arrived in Chicago in the morning and had barely said a word to my new roommate by the time the Seahawks kicked off against the Redskins. We won handily and life was delightful.
The Panthers won too, knocking off the #2 seeded Bears after shutting out the Giants during wildcard week. Steve Smith had looked unstoppable and Delhomme was still the guy who could throw it to guys in the same color uniform, not to be confused with the Jake Delhomme we know and love today. With the Seahawks destined to face the Panthers in the raucus Qwest atmosphere, I was excited but mildly terrified. I felt like this was the kind of game that Seattle teams lose. When everything is on the line, something comes in to screw it all up -- an injury, an arrest, a referee. I was wrong (it must have been the Super Bowl I was thinking of).
I was sitting alone in my dorm room with a bag of doritos and some cafeteria-grade pizza. I was wearing my Darrell Jackson jersey -- thanks again for that, Tim and Tom -- and had a box of tissues at the ready just in case. On gameday I didn't really know how to feel (other than anxious), but I was waiting for an in-game sign that we would be okay. That came on a trick play, a 28-yard reception to Seneca Wallace that made me jump to my feet and yell -- much to the chagrin of my roommate. Holy crap, that was it! A trick play, Holmgren meant business. We finished the drive off with a Shaun Alexander touchdown, then quickly turned Jack Delhomme of the past into Jake Delhomme of 2009 -- interceptions galore. We jumped out to a 17-0 lead and I knew we had the game wrapped up.
It was a special game and will always be among my top few Seahawks memories. I was 2000 miles away and surrounded by nothing but junk food and loneliness, but I was completely and utterly connected to the 12th Men and Women in Qwest that day. I'd never been more proud to be a Seahawks fan. The ensuing Super Bowl is an afterthought now. We were screwed, and that's that. But for those three hours -- the the 300-some that followed -- there had never been a better football team in all the world. The feeling of being overwhelmed with joy and pride is all too difficult to come about nowadays, but that game gave it to us all in spades. I remember it much better than I do the actual Super Bowl, and I'm very thankful that I do. Go Seahawks!
Though not with the same magnitude as back then, tomorrow's game shares one thing in common with January of 2006: This is a must-win game for the Seahawks. The rebuilding process may well be in full effect, but rebuild or not, there is no reason the Seahawks cannot absolutely manhandle a hobbling, inept 1-12 team coming into their own turf. To have any hopes of capturing the division, the Seahawks need to also re-capture at least a small glimpse of what they had back then. Don't think Matt Hasselbeck will be yelling all about that in the pre-game moments tomorrow afternoon.
As an ending to this, dear readers: Share your story from the NFC Champsionship game.
Where were you? What were you doing? How crazy did things get? How did you celebrate?