12-12-12 is ultimate day for A&M, 12th Man

Texas A&M's 12th Man at Kyle Field is made up of the largest student section in the country. Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Until recently, the hottest-selling football jersey at Texas A&M was No. 12.

Year after year, No. 12 has been No. 1.

“Hands down,” says Jason Cook, the school’s vice president of marketing and communications.

No. 12 is a magic number at A&M, representative not of a superstar but of the 12th Man – a term that represents every Aggies student who’s willing to give his or her all for the university, the football team, Texas and the U.S. of A.

The 12th Man is embedded in A&M tradition, dating to 1922, when student E. King Gill, a former football player, was called out of the stands to suit up for a game in which the Aggies had just 11 players.

Though Gill didn’t play, he later said, “I wish I could say that I went in and ran for the winning touchdown, but I did not. I simply stood by in case my team needed me.”

Today, the A&M students have embraced that mentality. In the nation's largest student section, more than 30,000 stand throughout A&M football games to show their support amidst a huge sign at Kyle Field that declares it is “The Home of the 12th Man.” A statue of Gill at the ready stands outside the stadium.

Yet the concept of the 12th Man didn’t begin at Texas A&M and isn’t confined to College Station, Texas.

For decades, college and pro football teams have been crediting their noisy, supportive fans as akin to a 12th man on the field. From the University of Iowa to the Bills, Packers and Seahawks of the NFL, players, coaches and marketing departments have embraced the 12th Man. Just last season, a parachutist at a Denver Broncos playoff game dropped into Sports Authority Field with a “12th Man” flag.

However, when it comes to the 12th Man, only two teams can officially wave that flag.

The first is Texas A&M, which through tradition and trademark owns the rights to the phrase; the second is the NFL's Seahawks, who have an agreement with A&M to use it.

This season, the 12th Man in Aggieland has been riding high through A&M’s fine first season in the SEC, its upset of No. 1 Alabama and the exploits of Heisman Trophy quarterback Johnny Manziel.

Which brings us back to those A&M jerseys. In recent weeks, since the school made Manziel’s No. 2 available, it has been outselling No. 12.

Yet, consider it an aberration.

As beloved as Johnny Football is, to many Aggies the whole is greater than any one part.

“A&M will always be more about 12 than 2,” commented one anonymous Aggie on a story about Manziel’s jersey sales last week. “Other numbers come and go. I’ll always go with 12. I won’t change even if he wins the Heisman. … Twelve is just ‘it.’”

Wednesday isn’t just any day at A&M. It’s 12-12-12, the most symbolic of dates for the Aggies. And fittingly, it’s when they welcome their Heisman winner home.

• • •

Ten years before E. King Gill became the 12th Man, former Iowa football captain E.A. McGowan wrote about fans lifting the State University of Iowa (as Iowa was then known) to a victory in 1903.

Wrote McGowan, in the 1912 Iowa Alumnus magazine: “As the Iowa team ran out on the field on that memorable day and looked at the thousands of valiant rooters waving their streamers and yelling, ‘Hold them, Iowa,’ there came a feeling into the hearts of those men who were wearing the Old Gold jerseys, and who were to uphold the honor of their university that, ‘We must win.’

“When the evening dusk began to gather over the field and the whistle had blown for the last down, the game was over with the score Iowa 12, Illinois 0.

“The eleven men had done their best; the twelfth man on the team (the loyal, spirited Iowa rooter) had won the game for old S.U.I.”

In the decades since, references to a 12th man have been both specific (to certain venues) and generic (any loud home field).

The NFL’s Buffalo Bills recognized their “12th Man” on the team’s Wall of Fame for “loyal support during the team’s early '90s Super Bowl runs.” And the Seattle Seahawks, who came into the league in 1976, developed a loud, loyal fan base that created what one writer called a “concrete cavern of noise” inside the old Kingdome. By 1984, the Seahawks had retired the No. 12 in honor of their fans.

In 1989, however, Texas A&M filed to register the term 12th Man as a trademark. Since it was approved a year later, the school has fought others from using the term (including taking action against the Broncos for the flag-wielding parachutist).

“We have aggressively pursued them,” says A&M’s Cook.

He says the entire 12th Man concept “speaks to our DNA here at Texas A&M,” and goes far beyond the football program.

“It really embodies everything we are here,” says Cook.

The Seahawks came to agreement with A&M to use the term in 2005 for what has been reported as an initial payment of $100,000 and $7,500 per year afterward. According to Cook, the deal can be renewed every five years.

Texas A&M says the agreement was never about the money, but instead about defending the trademark itself. If it's not utilized, or is allowed to be used freely by others, the school could lose its right to the mark.

"One thing that we've done as part of our move to the SEC is we've amplified our use of the 12th Man even more," Cook said. "It got to the point where I was tired of paying legal bills in defense of the mark, so we have to be more offensive in our use of the 12th Man trademark, because it is central to the Texas A&M brand."

In Seattle, fans take their 12th Man role seriously.

Though the Hawks have moved from the Kingdome to CenturyLink Field, the stadium is considered the loudest in the NFL and fan noise leads to numerous false-start penalties by opponents. (An up-to-date total is flashed on the scoreboard after each one.)

In the Seahawks’ 2005 Super Bowl season, Seattle went undefeated at home and, in a Nov. 27 overtime victory over the Giants, the fans’ roar contributed to 11 false-start penalties by New York – and a game ball awarded to the 12th Man.

Bruce Bright, 51, who began going to Seahawks games in 1977, has a No. 12 jersey and is president of the Seattle Seahawkers fan club.

“After the game we talk, and if your voice isn’t hoarse for a couple of days, you didn’t yell hard enough,” he says.

Part of the ritual before every Seahawks game is the raising of the 12th Man flag, which helps get the crowd ready for the opening kickoff. For each flag-raising, a former player, Seattle athlete or celebrity is present.

The first flag-raising occurred on Oct. 12, 2003, when former Seahawks (and Texas A&M) defensive end Jacob Green did the honors with 12 original season-ticket holders.

Today, Green’s son-in-law, defensive end Red Bryant – also an A&M grad – plays for the Seahawks and considers himself lucky to have gone from one 12th Man culture to another and to play for the NFL’s loudest fans.

“For my opinion, there’s only one 12th Man, me going to A&M,” he says. “Basically the atmosphere that I was blessed to play in was amazing and the student body was unbelievable. We could be down in a game, we could be losing, but the fans, they would still be cheering us on and we could draw from it.

“And then to be coming to the National Football League and being able to play with another crowd that considers themselves the 12th Man has just been a privilege.”

• • •

Yet there’s one aspect of the 12th Man experience at Texas A&M that makes it unique: Students come out of the stands to play.

Each season, students are invited to try out for a roster spot, wear the No. 12 jersey and play on the kickoff team. A few are selected each season and share the honor.

Thomas Little wore No. 12 and played on the kickoff teams in 1993, ’94 and ’95. He says the tradition links the student body and the team like no other.

“They kind of see the 12th Man as one of them,” Little says. “Everybody in the student body is really aware of the tradition. They’re aware that it’s a walk-on, particularly somebody that showed up to college at A&M, and is just a regular student like everyone else in the stands.”

Little had played high school football in Kilgore, Texas, but at about 5-foot-10 and 190 pounds hadn’t really thought about playing college ball until he decided to try out for the 12th Man.

Being on the team was like being the student body’s eyes and ears.

“They had all kinds of questions,” he says of his classmates. “What’s it like? What do you do during practice? They see all the guys on the field and they want to know what’s this guy really like, what’s with that person. It’s funny, it’s almost like you’re the regular person on the message board, except you actually get to go through practice every day.”

At no time has that connection between the team and the student body been stronger than when Jackie Sherrill was head coach from 1982 to '88.

Sherrill - inspired by the zeal of the Corps of Cadets and the A&M students (the "Red Pots," named for the color of their helmets, or "pots") who built and tended the huge bonfires - decided to field an entire 12th Man kickoff team.

Sherrill says he made a habit of stopping by to watch the activities of the "Red Pots" late at night on his way home, which included ritual punishment with whacks by ax handles. Students, says Sherrill, never flinched.

“I knew that I could find, out of 40-some-odd thousand students, 11 guys that would cover kickoffs but have no regard for their body and be tough as nails,” says Sherrill. “I just knew it would work. I would find some kids. You don’t take that kind of hits with no expression without being extremely tough. And I’m talking about mentally tough.”

So Sherrill invited students to try out, and says 252 showed up. That number was whittled down to 40 for spring practice and then to 17 for the original 12th Man group in the fall.

Sherrill’s theory was correct. The walk-ons may not have been as athletically gifted as the scholarship players, but they had an unrivaled passion. In 1983 the 12th Man unit gave up just 13.1 yards per kickoff.

As Sherrill recalls, “For five years they were never out of the top five and they were No. 1 in the country for two out of the five years [of the 12th Man group],” he says of their kickoff coverage. “Their average was 12.5 [yards]. If you look at NCAA kickoff coverage, if you have 25 yards average, you’re good.”

Practice made them perfect. They put in a half hour of kickoff and tackling practice before and after daily practices, while also serving on the scout team.

“It’s kind of like picking kids in the service for special ops, because you train them to do certain things and they’re good at what you train them to do,” he says.

Having the entire unit made of up 12th Men, says Sherrill, created a special bond between the team and student body because, “That kid was just like they were, normal students.”

Sherrill knew the walk-ons had earned the respect of the scholarship players when one day, angry over the way things were going in practice, he ordered full-speed kickoff coverage practice.

Sherrill says running back Keith Woodside approached him to say, “Coach, you don’t want to do that. Somebody’s going to get hurt, and I can promise you it won’t be those crazy guys out there. It will be one of us [scholarship players].”

Dennis Mudd was a part of those early all-12th Man squads, which were later the subject of a book, “No Experience Required.”

Mudd, from Yoakum, Texas, grew up in an A&M family, tried to walk on in 1983 and then successfully made the kickoff team in 1984 and ’85.

“Coach always told us, you won’t realize how big it is, what you’ve been part of,” says Mudd. “You will in 20, 25 years. And he was right. We thought, ‘Hey, we’re just going down and tackling somebody on the kickoff coverage.’ A lot of us had played football and it was exciting for us to play at Texas A&M.

“For most of us, it was a dream come true. It was something you wanted to do your whole life.”

• • •

Today, Little still has his No. 12 jersey hanging in his closet and memories too numerous to count.

But one stands above the rest. In a game against Oklahoma in 1994, Little – a designated wedge buster – had an ultimate 12th Man moment.

While covering a kickoff, he charged down the field, locked up with all-Big 12 safety John Anderson and wound up making the play of his life.

“Somehow I started falling down and I flipped him over me,” says Little, laughing. “All of a sudden I’m on the ground … and all I could think was, ‘Oh, hell, I’m going to be the guy that gives up a touchdown.’

“So I saw the returner breaking toward the sideline and I took an angle toward him and somehow, I think it was just luck or whatever, I caught him right in the chest, my face mask right in the chest, and I just knocked the hell out of the guy. Broke my face mask, bent it in.”

The celebratory beating he took from his teammates a moment later was worse.

“They just started pounding on my head,” he says.

And the crowd?

“It’s pretty loud,” he recalls. “The crowd at A&M loves the 12th Man. They really do. So if a normal player makes a tackle on the kickoff, people are just kind of, ‘Ho hum, whatever.’ But as soon as the 12th Man makes a tackle, everyone goes crazy. And that’s what I remember.

“I remember the crowd being so loud, I tell you, my head was just ringing until the next day. From the hit, the crowd, everyone on the sideline knocking the crap out of me.”

It was a play that would have made E. King Gill proud.