Story by John Boyle Seahawks.com Reporter
LONDON—When Gordon Wright was growing up in Dunblane, Scotland, he didn’t know much of anything about American football, but when his father went on a work trip to Oregon, he returned with Seattle Seahawks and Oregon Ducks pennants.
Around the same time in the mid-1980s, NFL games became available in the United Kingdom, and thanks to that Seahawks pennant, Wright didn’t have to think very hard about which team he would support.
Nearly two decades later in Coventry, England, Stuart Court was watching one of those NFL games being broadcast in the UK when his Seahawks fandom was borne out of a particularly memorable performance, Shaun Alexander’s four-touchdown first half in a 2002 victory over the Minnesota Vikings.
On Saturday morning, Wright and Court, who in all likelihood would have gone through their lives as strangers if not for stumbling upon Seahawks fandom, shared a table at the Barrowboy & Banker as members of the UK Sea Hawkers and German Sea Hawkers, along with some Sea Hawkers who made the trip from Seattle, and had brunch the day before the Seahawks play the Oakland Raiders at Wembley Stadium.
“It was difficult to watch back then,” said Wright, whose favorite player as a kid was Brian Bosworth. “You didn’t get much coverage. You got like the highlights show on Channel 4. You’d get one live game if you were lucky, and it was at like 2 a.m.… I fell in love with the Boz. Being 12, 13 years old, you loved the arrogance, the bravado.”
At a table nearby, Maximilian Lange, who helped launch the German Sea Hawkers chapter, sat with a handful of German fans who made the trip for the game. Lange estimates that 200-300 German fans made the trip, most of whom are going to the game.
Lange became a Seahawks fan after visiting Oregon on a family vacation 10 years ago, then his passion for the team was strengthened by a sixth-month study abroad program he did at the University of Oregon. The German chapter is now up to 1,058 dues-paying members, making the Seahawks one of the most popular teams in Germany.
While some like Lange have specific ties to the Pacific Northwest, there is a simpler explanation for the Seahawks’ popularity with most German fans—they were good when NFL football came to German television. In 2015, ProSiebenMAXX started showing NFL games, and because the Seahawks were coming off of consecutive Super Bowl seasons, they found their way to the German airways quite a bit, as did the New England Patriots, who Lange said are the other popular team among German fans.
From fans greeting the team at Heathrow Airport to the size of the international media contingent that has been at Seahawks practices this week, the team has started to get a bit of a feel for how big there international following has become, but they know they’ll really experience it during Sunday’s game, which is technically a Raiders home game, but will likely include a lot of Seahawks fans in the stands.
“We heard about that coming over and I’ve known about it back home,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said of Seattle’s popularity in the UK. “I would think that those that were at the airport waiting for us getting in going through customs were local people and just representing with a great flare, just like we’re used to at home. I understand there’s a great number of them. We should have a large constituent of Seahawks fans and 12s and like we said yesterday, we were made aware of the German group that’s coming in here too and they’re all fired up about it—like 300 of them or something like that going to be wearing the colors and all. There seems to be a real flare in the spirit about it so we’re kind of used to that at home and excited that it’s traveling with us.”
For the thousands of Seahawks fans living in the UK, Germany and elsewhere, Sunday’s game is one they have been clamoring for for as long as the NFL has been playing games in London. Many fans make once-a-year trips to Seattle or other U.S. cities to catch Seahawks games, but their first game in London is a very special occasion for these fans, which explains why you can’t walk around London this week without seeing Seahawks gear or hearing an occasional “Sea-Hawks!” chant break out in a bar or on the street.
“It’s incredible,” said Sean Wilson, who is president of the UK Sea Hawkers. “I can remember the day it was announced, it was unbelievable.”
“If there was a heartbeat of what this group is, that was Ian.”
As much as the UK and German Sea Hawkers are thrilled to see their team finally play in London, Sunday isn’t just about a football game, but also about celebrating a friend they lost too soon.
Ian Robert Smith, served as president of the UK Sea Hawkers and also had a hand in the founding of the German chapter, passed away in 2016 following a stroke. Were he still here today, Smith “would have been absolutely in heaven” knowing the Seahawks were playing in London, Wilson said. “Ian was one of those guys, he was larger than life. It was his infectious enthusiasm for everything having to do with the Seahawks.”
Wilson told a story about the trip Smith organized to Seattle with about 40 UK Sea Hawkers coming for a game.
“There were literally tears in his eyes when we gathered before the game,” Wilson said, adding that Smith went to Sea Tac to greet each person when they arrived to see if they needed help with transportation into Seattle.
Added Andy Robinson, who is from Manchester and has been a fan since the early 80s, “He became president of the UK Sea Hawkers, and he just threw his heart and soul into it. He recruited everyone, he got more members than anybody. He’s responsible for a lot of the success we’ve had. He’s full of life, everyone loved him.”
While attending an NFL game in London in 2012, Smith saw Lange wearing a Marshawn Lynch jersey, and eventually convinced Lange to start the German Sea Hawkers.
Because Smith meant so much to so many, the UK Sea Hawkers came up with a plan to honor him during the game. At the end of the first quarter, everyone who has a Seajack flag (a union jack, but in Seahawks colors with the logo in the middle) will hold them up in hopes of creating a sea of green and blue to honor Smith.
“He was hesitant to become president, but when he did, it was all about trying to get people together, and we’ve tried to carry that on,” Wilson said. “If there was a heartbeat of what this group is, that was Ian.”