SEATTLE — From all corners they came, infants and senior citizens alike, a solid wall of people festooned in Seahawks gear, painted in Seahawks colors, crowded onto balconies and hanging from trees.
They came en masse, some abandoning their cars on the freeway to hoof it downtown, many draped in 12th Man flags, weathered men on Harleys wearing Seahawks mufflers and young girls with blue and green hair, students playing hooky from school, all seeking to connect with a football team.
“Gosh, there’s not enough words to describe the emotion and the exchange that was given from the fans to our players, from our players to the fans,’’ Pete Carroll said after the team had worked its way through the streets. “The consistency of the intensity of the fans through the parade was amazing.”
And in the midst of the culminating celebration at CenturyLink Field was the one person alive who has been there with the Seahawks organization every step of the way. Sandy Gregory, director of community outreach, is the only original Seahawks employee left from the organization’s fledgling days in 1976.
Gregory was there in the Kingdome when the expansion team won two games that inaugural season, and dreams of a Super Bowl were as far-fetched as imagining a state-of-the-art outdoor stadium on the exact spot where they exulted Wednesday.
And she was there on Sunday, sitting in MetLife Stadium in New Jersey, watching Percy Harvin return the second-half kickoff for a touchdown and realizing that this really was going to happen.
Remembering the last Super Bowl in Detroit, when all their dreams fell apart, “I was scared to get excited,’’ Gregory said. “At halftime, I was maybe not quite there yet. But when Percy returned the kick, I just started bawling. Everyone in the stands was hugging me, and I was literally bawling. That was the point you knew, we’ve got it. We’ve sealed it now. It was just very emotional.”
Gregory had been working public relations in Southern California for the World Football League in the 1970s when the league went belly-up. Her boss, Don Andersen, was wooed by both NFL expansion teams, Tampa Bay and Seattle. Andersen was won over by the Nordstrom ownership group, opted for the Seahawks, and asked Gregory to join him.
“When I came, I was nervous,’’ she said. “All I knew about Seattle was that it rained all the time. Don told me, if you don’t like it, you can always go back. I decided to take the adventure. It’s worked out well.”
It was a small operation in the early days. In addition to PR, Sandy did marketing, booked the anthem singers, color guards and halftime entertainment, even ordered the boots and pom-poms for the cheerleaders. Now there’s a separate department for each of those activities, and Gregory has settled into community outreach, where she sees firsthand the unprecedented connection between this team and this town.
“I think it’s Pete Carroll, and the way he’s embraced the city, and now the players embrace it, and the fans are so important,’’ she said. “It’s that ‘12.’ Tod Leiweke (former Seahawks CEO) really brought that to life again, if you think about it, with the 12th Man flag and all that. I think it really revitalized our connection with the fans.”
Over the years, Gregory’s early colleagues have slowly departed. Longtime PR man Gary Wright retired in 2008, director of video Thom Fermstad in 2011, leaving just her as a link to Day One, a beloved figure in the organization.
And she’s seen it all, starting with the Seahawks’ first coach, Jack Patera, a stern man who intimidated her, she admitted.
“I was scared to death of him,’’ Gregory said with a laugh. “He walked down the hall and he wouldn’t look at you, he wouldn’t talk to you. He looked mean. Now I see him at golf tournaments and such, and he’s so much fun to be around. A whole different person.”
She was there in 1983 on New Year’s Eve when the Seahawks flew the entire office staff to Miami for their biggest playoff win to date over the Dolphins, putting them in the AFC title game. She remembers the celebration on the charter home as they toasted the win and the new year with champagne, while Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long” blared.
She was there in the mid-1990s when the Behring family was trying to move the team to Los Angeles and they were all displaced from the Seahawks’ Kirkland offices.
“For a week or so, we worked out of a hotel until the league told us we weren’t moving,’’ she recalled. “We parked in the back and snuck in the back door so people wouldn’t know we were working. I brought my little white picnic table from home to work off of.”
And now she’s there, happily, with the group of current players she calls “so amazing. They’re so enthused about helping the community and being part of what’s going on here. They do so much on their own we don’t even know about. I’m kind of looking at their Twitter accounts to see where they’re going and what they’re doing.”
Carroll, she says, “is different than any other coach I’ve been around. I see it in the community. I have a lot of sick kids that come to practices. The first time I had a sick kid at practice, I turned around and Pete’s out there on the field playing catch with him. I had never seen anything like that before. He’s so engaging. It’s really special. I think he’s just energized this whole city.’’
The energy was palpable on Wednesday, and Sandy Gregory soaked it all in, 38 years of memories coalescing into the greatest moment of them all.
“This is bigger than anything I could imagine,’’ she said.