The Seahawks 12th Man: Africa

In the Ken Burns Documentary, Jazz, the saxophonist Branford Marsalis recalls a meeting between several young musicians and Elvin Jones who was the drummer for the transcendent John Coltrane quintets of the mid-1960s.


“How do you play with that kind of intensity?” Marsalis recalls one of the younger musicians asking the older Jones. “And Elvin looks at him and says, “You gotta be willing to die with the mothafucka.” In Marsalis’ retelling, the room initially erupted in laughter but quickly “realized he was serious. How many people do you know that are willing to die — period? Die with anybody! And when you listen to those records, that’s exactly what they sound like. I mean, that they would die for each other.”


Jazz, of course, is widely recognized as the first—some say the only—art form born in the US. But it’s seminal influence is the West African music that survived the Middle Passage: the primacy of the drumbeat; the call-and-response of the slaves working tediously in the sprawling fields; the exaltation of community, collaboration and improvisation, and the conjuring of the rawest truths—sorrow, love, hate, joy, jealousy, and faith—as if a séance of ancestral spirits.


If Coltrane’s quintet doubled down on this African ethos to create their transcendent sound, was Africa also the 12th man in the Seattle Seahawks’ Super Bowl drubbing of the favored Denver Broncos?


There’s no question that the Seahawks were the most physically gifted team on the field Sunday night and that’s the principal reason they won the game. To the layman’s eye, it appeared that virtually every Seahawk who took the field Sunday was quicker, faster and more aggressive than his Bronco counterpart on the other side of the ball. But can talent alone account for a five touchdown margin of victory in the biggest game of the year?


In the massacre’s aftermath, the sports punditry widely credited the Seahawks’ camaraderie,—unusual even by locker-room standards—their almost tribal reliance on each other, and the ritualistic role that music played in their practices.


In a Super Bowl postmortem, longtime NFL beat writer Peter King described the Seahawks final Super Bowl practice as fast, loose, and accompanied by a mostly funk and hip-hop—a descendant of the West African Blues–soundtrack, played at deafening decibels:  


 “Fast Lane,” by Bad Meets Evil, “More Bounce to the Ounce,” by Zapp, “We Own It,” by 2 Chainz, “Last of a Dying Breed,” by Ludacris, “We Ready,” by Archie Eversole, “Ambitionz Az a Ridah,” by Tupac, and “Hold Me Back,” by Rick Ross. When “Hold Me Back” came on, the team was practicing red zone plays. Important tuneup for the biggest game of their lives, and the last time they’d go full speed before the game. Between snaps, the entire defensive line was dancing on the field. Quarterback coach Carl Smith, 65 and with a bum hip, was even swaying. Carroll saw that, and smiled. Then the ball was snapped, and backup running back Christine Michael pivoted left out of the backfield and went down. A couple of defenders, Clinton McDonald and Bobby Wagner, hustled over to Michael, who was slow getting up, and each took a hand as all three laughed about something. This is what I saw during the week: a team having fun at practice, like it was some dance party, and a team that really gets along. And works at a fast pace.


“I’m glad you saw that,” Carroll said. “That’s real. That’s who we are.”


For those who think music is counterproductive, that you need to have teaching moments at a football practice without having to shout over music, and that players switching jerseys for no good reason (Marshawn Lynch was swimming in tackle Breno Giacomini’s shirt on Friday) is a distraction, I have one score to point out:


Seattle 43, Denver 8.


At presumably the same time that the Seahawks were holding their jam session in shoulder pads, Denver Broncos executive Vice President of Football Operations was explaining to Fox News his support for the GOP, and its emphasis on individual initiative rather than collective action.


“I don’t believe in safety nets,” he said bluntly.  “Obviously, we’ve got to have some kind of safety nets. But I think my philosophy is when given the opportunity to go take advantage of that, I think that’s when you get the best out of people.”


The former NFL quarterback went on to espouse an entrepreneurial approach to government.


Central to the historic conflict between indigenous people and European settlers has always been the question of private property, pitting what’s in the best interest of the individual against what’s best for the community as a whole. As blacks have increasingly begun to join the ranks of professional coaches and executive in the US, African values and even language has begun to remake the American locker room, and impact the scoreboard as well.


Former Boston Celtics coach Doc Rivers introduced the Bantu word Ubuntu to his team at the first practice for the 2008 season. The word, which was popularized by black South Africans during their long struggle against white-minority rule, is difficult to translate, but Rivers explanation to his team that autumn morning is consistent with most translations: “I can’t be all I can be unless you’re all you can be.”


With a defense as vaunted as the Seahawks, the Celtics went on to win the NBA championship that season. Their Eastern Conference rivals, the Miami Heat would win it four years later. In an ESPN interview following the Heat’s 2011 loss to the Dallas Mavericks in the NBA finals, guard Dwyane Wade said he told his teammate and friend LeBron James that they’d lost because their primary motivation was their hatred of the many critics who excoriated James for leaving the Cleveland Cavaliers. If they were to win the title, he said he told James, they would have to play for love, not hate. 


“For us what it was about was the Miami community,” he said in another ESPN interview. “A lot of people think of palm trees and South Beach but Miami is a very poor community. It was about uplifting our community. If us coming together can help our community, then we’re going to do it.”


In an interview after the Super Bowl, cornerback Richard Sherman attributed the Seahawks victory to his teammates and the denizens of Seattle, one of the more left-leaning cities in the US, in large part because of the radical politics of the longshoreman’s union, which played a pivotal role in integrating organized labor during the New Deal, and went on to become an avid supporter of the global campaign against South African apartheid.  


In his article, King described the scene in the Seahawks locker room following their Super Bowl triumph, and it made me think of Elvin Jones, John Coltrane’s quintet, and the call-and-response that has seen the African through so very much:   



“We all we got!”


“We all we need.”





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