11:05 PM CST, January 17, 2014
SEATTLE — Strangers in a strange land, Torrey O'Brien and girlfriend Allie Richard window shopped in the Pioneer Square area of downtown Friday, turning the heads of everyone they passed.
"Everyone here is pretty nice," said O'Brien, visiting from Los Angeles. "But we're getting a lot of who-the-heck-are-you looks. It's like we're aliens."
Theirs was a faux pas of fandom. O'Brien had the temerity to wear a San Francisco 49ers sweatshirt. Richard wore a 49ers wool cap.
This is unmistakably Seattle Seahawks country, and the 49ers — who play here Sunday in the NFC championship game — are the despised enemy. This goes deeper than the typical my-team-is-better-than-yours chest puffery. These teams, coaches and fans have cultivated a rivalry so bitter, the Seahawks refused this week to sell tickets to people with California addresses.
The Seahawks and 49ers are both in the NFC West, so that's part of the rivalry. There's also the chasm that separates the coaches, Seattle's Pete Carroll and San Francisco's Jim Harbaugh, who are strikingly similar in their competitiveness, ability to motivate, and football know-how, yet seem as if they can't stand to be in the same room. That dates to their college coaching days, when Carroll was at USC and Harbaugh was at Stanford, and a civil handshake was a lot to ask.
The first question of Harbaugh this week was whether there was lingering animosity between him and Carroll.
"Animosity. No. Erroneous. Erroneous," said Harbaugh, robotically refusing to accept the premise. "It's football. It's competition. It's winning."
Asked the same question, Carroll was more expansive, but not much more revealing.
"We have not been friends over the years because we don't know each other very well," he said. "Just know each other through the game, when we used to coach against him back when he was playing and since we've coached against each other. So it's a very confined relationship in that regard."
Their games have been some of the NFL's most emotionally charged and hardest-hitting, showdowns between two teams with similar styles — productive power running games, dynamic young quarterbacks who make first downs with their feet as well as their arms, and sledgehammer defenses.
The Seahawks have clobbered the 49ers in their last two meetings in Seattle, and the 49ers have beaten the Seahawks in consecutive slugfests in San Francisco.
"There's no love lost, there's no love found; that's how I'd characterize it," Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman said. "It's going to be intense. It's going to be physical. I don't know if there are going to be handshakes after this one."
But there have been plenty of high-fives on the streets of Seattle this week. Seahawks fans — nicknamed the 12th Man for the way their stadium noise helps the home team — have painted this town blue and fluorescent lime green, and are thoroughly convinced this is the year their team finally wins a Super Bowl.
Everywhere you turn in downtown, there is a 12th Man flag, banner, window placard, jersey, hat, bouquet of balloons. People in business towers have arranged colored paper to form giant 12s in their office windows. Local Starbucks charged 12 cents for a cup of coffee Friday — provided the customer was wearing Seahawks colors.
Even non-fans are fans. The professorial John Siscoe owns the Globe Bookstore in Pioneer Square, two blocks north of the Seahawks' stadium, and his store walls are lined with books that have nothing to do with sports. He has a 12 placard in his window, but only because a Seahawks employee came by and gave him a stack of them.
"I always want them to win, because you don't want 65,000 sullen people," said Siscoe, who attended Stanford and has lived in Seattle for 30 years. He thinks he has a pretty good grasp on the cultural friction between the cities — or at least why many people in Seattle bristle at the mention of San Francisco.
"Seattle is the kid sister to San Francisco," he said. "They get the dancing girls and the sunshine. We get the rain and the seagulls. That's not fair."
Seattle Times columnist Danny Westneat caused a stir this week when he wrote Seattle has an inferiority complex about San Francisco.
"In boomtown Seattle of today, where we're smug that we're ranked No. 1 for this or that, face it, we remain deep-down envious of only one other," Westneat wrote. "Her hipness. Her wealth. Her arts, architecture, high-tech, wine, culture, politics, you name it — we still peek insecurely south to check: What Would San Francisco Do?"
That's certainly true when it comes to Lombardi Trophies. San Francisco has five. Seattle is among the 14 teams that have yet to raise one.
Maybe this is the year that changes. Maybe this is the year the Seahawks take full advantage of being the NFC's No. 1 seed.
"My heart says Seahawks by 10, but my head says San Francisco by 3," the bookish Siscoe said. "It's in the lap of the gods, as Homer used to say. Nobody knows."
But hard-core Seahawks fans have hope and trust.
In a window of one downtown skyscraper, a large handmade sign reads: "12 > 49" . . .
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