I have never been a fan of organized team sports, but in January of 2013 references to football were so omnipresent in the community that I believe it entirely possible that even the hibernating wildlife might noticed that something out of the ordinary. Sports are so far outside my ordinary frame of reference though that the first oblique celebrations confused me.
"What's with all the twelves?" I asked my husband one day as we passed the antique lighting museum. A gigantic example of the numeral was marked out in a display of blue and green lights covering nearly the whole facade of the large building. "I'd say it was a "Twelve days of Christmas" thing, but we're long passed that."
Gabriel frowned, perplexed. "Maybe it's their twelfth anniversary?" he ventured.
"But-" I pointed at a bumper sticker on a passing car which likewise bore the number "12," also in blue and green but without the slightest explanation. "They're everywhere!"
My husband shook his head. "I'm as puzzled as you," he shrugged.
My curiosity grew as the day, then the week, progressed and number twelves kept proliferating everywhere. Shop windows, car windows, front lawns - all these things seemed to be sprouting a variety of signs (some hand-made, others professionally printed) proudly declaring, "12!" Had I been of a more credulous personality I might have suspected the rise of a peculiarly numerate species of fungus.
A few of the signs bore the name of the region's football team and I started to suspect the number to be that of a particularly popular player. Then Gabriel overheard a customer at his bike shop explaining the mystery and relayed the information to me as we got ready for bed that night.
"I learned what the twelves are all about," he told me as he took off his shoes and lined them neatly by the bed. "They're a Seahawks reference."
The Seahawks are Seattle's professional football team. I had noted headlines of their upcoming Superbowl trip with slightly less interest than I had experienced when I heard that a new species of river dolphin had been discovered in Brazil.
"I thought they might be." I yawned, handing Gabriel a hot water bottle for his side of the bed and slipping another one under my side of the covers. I passed back around the foot of the bed and sat down in front of my vanity dresser.
"The idea is that the fans are the twelfth man of the team," Gabriel explained.
I lifted the glass chimney off of the oil lamp perched by my vanity's mirror. "Huh," I shrugged, surprised but still not terribly interested. "I thought it was a player's number."
"Nope - I guess not," Gabriel explained.
I struck a match to light my lamp, then a thought occured to me. "Wait a minute-" I touched the spark to the oil soaked wick then blew out the match in one fluid gesture. After settling the lamp's chimney back into place I looked over at my husband. I cocked one eyebrow in surprise. "You're telling me there are only eleven players on a football team?"
"I guess so," Gabriel nodded.
"Huh!" I shook my head. "I would have thought there were a lot more."
I'm sure that the any readers who (unlike my book-cloistered self) do follow american football will fall on the floor in paroxysms of laughter-induced abdominal cramps upon reading of my surprise. I honestly hadn't known football teams were that small though. In my own defense, what little reading I had done on the sport up until that point had concentrated on the nineteenth-century era of a game which was still an unregulated mashup of rugby, football and nearly all-out brawling. When I had read the Victorian boys' novel Tom Brown's Schooldays the previous summer, I had taken away the distinct impression from it that football teams in those days had consisted of however many players could be pressed into service:
"And now that the two sides have fairly sundered, and each occupies its own ground, and we get a good look at them, what absurdity is this? You don't mean to say that those fifty or sixty boys... many of them quite small, are going to play that huge mass opposite? Indeed I do, gentleman [sic]; they're going to try at any rate, and won't make such a bad fight of it either..."
An 1895 photo of Port Townsend's football team shows eighteen players, plus their coach Dr. Cobb. The original of the picture is housed in the Jefferson County historical archive, but I have a Xeroxed enlargement of its lower right-hand corner, carefully filed in a binder in our museum room. What little interest I have in football (Victorian or otherwise) owes its existence entirely to this picture — or, more accurately, to the strikingly handsome man who sits at the far right of the group, one row up from the bottom. He is a powerfully built athlete with a strong jaw and dark eyes setting off an olive complexion and raven-black hair. (I've told Gabriel that he should be glad the man in the picture has been dead nearly a hundred years, because if we really were living in the 1890s — contemporary with that swoon-worthy figure — my husband might have cause for concern.) However, I don't keep the photo filed away simply to drool over the man's remarkable good looks. If that were the case Gabriel might have a few words to say to me about the matter (and I wouldn't blame him.) But I keep the picture - with my husband's full approval - because this man lived in our house in the 1890s. It's even possible that his bedroom was the room where I now keep his picture along with a great many other of our antique artifacts.
The eternally frustrating conundrum about studying the lives of everyday history is that ordinary people rarely get documented. Archives and history books are filled with carefully labelled photos connected with the great names of history, and of anonymous faces whose names will never be known because mundane lives seldom make news. Once in a while though, even an ordinary person will do something extraordinary. Such was the case with Daniel Bracken.
We don't know much about the other Bracken siblings, just the little we've been able to glean by scouring archive records to find a tiny mention of one of them out of every thousand pages of searching. We know from their house charge accounts at the local drugstore that Mathilda (the sister - called Mattie or Tillie, depending on the record) bought soap-making ingredients and first-aid supplies; and that Charles (the eldest) bought schoolbooks for little Tom Jr., their kid brother who — intriguingly — was living at our house with his grown siblings instead of with their father. We know from census records what their occupations were: Charles was a butcher, Tillie kept house of course, and Ed and Dan (the two middle brothers) were laborers - teamsters mostly, but they seem to have taken any sort of manual labor that was available to help put pay the bills during the stark depression grinding down the nation in the 1890s. And we know from sports articles that Dan played football.
When Dan died in a mining accident in the twentieth-century, his obituary included a note about his Port Townsend athletic days: He had been on the Port Townsend "steam-roller football team, made famous by Dr. Cobb, of the marine hospital, this outfit being rated as the class of the Northwest for two seasons. Bracken was a powerful line plunger and regarded as one of the best back field men in this part of the country in that early day of the denatured sport." He was a smashing fullback on the Port Townsend team when they had their biggest game ever: October, 1895.
There was a tremendous amount at stake. That one game would decide where all the others of that season would be held - and where the accompanying money would go. If the home team won, the games would be held here throughout the rest of the season. The men of the other teams would come here, and pay for their board, meals, and anything else they would require during their stay - and more importantly, their fans would as well. In 1895, America was in the middle of one of the worst economic depressions the country had ever seen. Every penny counted. Teams coming in to play football, with all of their fans in tow, added up to a lot of pennies. If we lost, the rest of the games of the season would go elsewhere and money would be going away from town instead of coming into it. People's interest in the match was so intense that a number of businesses closed for the day, putting notices in the paper that they were doing it in the interest of civic duty, so that their employees could attend the game.
It was by no means a sure thing. The Port Townsend team was good, but they had known defeat in the past - and community members had not taken kindly to this. In the last season, players had returned from a brutal defeat at the hands of a Portland team to find, not sympathic arms welcoming them home, but snowballs pelting them at the dock when they disembarked the small boat that had brought them home. (A reader might claim that throwing snowballs is a childish sport of affection, but it should be remembered that the Boston massacre was instigated when American colonials started throwing snowballs at British troops just prior to the Revolution.) This was rather unjust of the townspeople, to say the least. The game had been played in conditions that would make any game accomplished there worthy of a hero's welcome regardless of an outcome. Freezing temperatures followed by a sharp thaw had turned the field into a deep mud pit studded with chunks of ice and overlaying frozen hardpan.The coach reported that "The grounds were in the most singular condition of any... I ever played football on." The players soon found themselves completely gummed with this muck, pounds of it weighing down every movement they tried to make. The Portlanders had the home-team advantage of changing into fresh clothes - clean and dry - at half-time, but the poor Port Townsend players had to continue on in a shivering, muck-covered condition. Still, they didn't quail, but continued on valiantly - despite the fact that by the end of the game only four players would remain uninjured. One Port Townsender suffered a badly sprained ankle, while another was knocked unconcious and had to be carried from the field. If one can give out prizes for sheer effort in such a situation, the highest award must go to a Port Townsend player by the family name of Walther. He refused to sit on the sidelines even when injury made both his arms completely useless, and instead of admitting defeat he spent the rest of the game running around head-butting players on the opposing team. The dirtiest trick played by the Portland team was when a Portlander knocked a Port Townsend player sprawling with his arm laying over a ditch - then brought down his weight on the bridging arm, wrenching it so badly as to effectively break it. After all that, to return home broken and bleeding to find themselves pelted by snowballs was surely an awful ignominy.
That had been after an away game, with nothing greater on the line than pride. This time, the entire economy of the town had a vested interest in a win. The thought of what they might throw if the hometown boys might failed to give them that win didn't bear consideration.
The team colors were black and old gold, and I like to think that Pussy Butler's dress shop must have had a run on ribbons in those colors in the week preceding the sale. (There's no way to verify this fancy since no sales ledgers remain from the business, but it's a charming idea.) Notices came out in the newspaper that all women could attend the game free of charge, and were encouraged to do so in the interest of civic boosterism. The crowds of spectators must have represented quite a mixture of motivations.
There were the sports enthusiasts, of course, and the business owners who would be on the edge of their seats to see which way the town's money would be directed by this game's outcome. With ladies being given free admission and the country in a major economic depression, doubtless there were more than a few women there who came simply because it was a social event that wouldn't tax the family finances. Correspondingly, there were surely some men there who had as much interest in eyeing the crowds of lady audience members as they had in watching the players on the field.
Personally, if I had been around I would have gone to watch Dan Bracken's bulging muscles. I'm sure that modern safety equipment does wonderful work in preventing injuries, but I think that a lot of the fun disappeared for spectators when the most interesting bits of the game started getting covered. Nineteenth-century football players didn't even wear helmets. (Primitive versions of football helmets were starting to be invented, but they were far from Port Townsend. In 1893 Admiral Joseph Mason Reeves had an Annapolis shoemaker make him a leather helmet after receiving a warning from a navy doctor about head injuries, and in 1896 a college player had special headgear made to protect his ears. These men were definitely the exception, however, rather than the rule of their time.) If my husband had objected to me spending the day drooling over the gladitorial combat of a bunch of sweaty young men grappling in the mud, I could have always claimed the excuse that it was all in the interest of civic spirit. After all, if our boys won the day the town would reap the benefits of money coming to Port Townsend for the entire rest of the season as visitors came here to see the subsequent games played.
Port Townsend did win the day - and it was quite the victory. The local newspaper reported it in gripping detail the next day:
THE OLD GOLD AND BLACK VICTORIOUS
Yesterday's Contest on the Gridiron
FIRST BLOOD FOR TOWNSEND
The Local Team Was Not Given a Chance Yesterday on the Defensive and Premises to Be a "Stingaree" for the Up-Sound People.
The roosters crowed in victory and the horns bellowed melodiously last evening when the black and old gold came off victorious in the last game of Rugby of the season. Although the contest was decidedly one sided it was greatly enjoyed by the hundreds of people who turned out to see the sport. On all sides of the roped-iu grid-iron could be seen the faces of many of Port Townsend's ladies, who were out to cheer their home boys.
Instead of marching to the usual defeat Captain Smith's brave eleven went to victory on the double quick, in fact touch-downs were so frequent that they became monotonous. The fact, however, does not speak ill of the visitors, but simply shows what a powerful combination the local fellows are capable of putting up.
On the arrival of the Vashon College boys at 2 o'clock on the little steamer Sampede they were taken to quarter and from there after lunch escorted to the grounds. Captain Frank Perrot was chosen umpire, Mr. Clemens of Snohomish referee and F. Ross and M. Philips linesmen. The officials decided that the play should consist of two 25-minute halves and at 3:15 the game began, Vashon taking the ball on the tossing.
Capatin [sic] Gibbs kicked the ball far out to the right where old bon homme Thompson was eagerly waiting for it. That very lively gentleman let out his unique style of locomotion and did not stop until he had covered fourty yards toward the opponent's goal. The interference was very well done and the pluck of the Visiting team at once shown. The ball was then rushed by end plays down the field and just two minutes after the game had been called the first touch-down was made, and the horns played Annie Rooney. Leighton, Townsend's daisy fullback, hadn't fully unfolded his petals, so int he kick for goal he failed to add two points to the score.
The university boys lined up again for another kick and Jack Lawrence captured the ball, carying it a few yards before some little fellow succeeded in getting him down. In an instan t the boys were again in line and Tom Wyckoff made five yards, reaching the center of the field. Bracken then increased the distance and in the next play Thompson scooted for the goal. He was knocked over by one of hte "Varsity boys," however, and lost the ball. In a trice Brewere of Vashon had the ball but didn't get more than six feet before Dan Bracken brought him down. Vashon attempted to get the ball in the desired direction but lost it in the first play by a fumble that cost them five yards. Dan Bracken then made fifteen yards and by interference, which was exceptionally good. In the next line up Waycott crashed through the line and was downed within a foot of the goal. The same play was repeated and the genial hospital attendant pushed his way to a touch-down. Again Ole Leighton failed to kick goal.
Vashon took another kick at the ball but it only reached the Townsend's massive center. Smith didn't wait for interference. He simply started toward the rush headed for him. Two or three bounced up againsted him and several more were clinging to his legs, shoulders and neck, but he meandered on ofor about twenty yards before he got fatigued and sat down. In the next line up the famous left end had the ball and succeeded in reaching within ten yards of the goal line. Tom was then thrown heavily and was hurt slightly. Vashon next got the ball on a foul which cost Townsend many yards that in a closely contested game would have beaten the home team. The visitors lost the advantagehowever in a bad kick. Ed Wyckoff then waltzed across the line and scored another touch-down. Waycott then tried for goal but his kick went wild.
Again Vashon kicked off and charged after the ball. Little Ole Leighton was there, however, and by good head work and good interference succeeded in bringing it back one-half the distance. Thompson was on hand the next pop and made fifteen yards when he was downed by a splended tackle by Davis. Ed Wyckoff, behind the great Chief Willoughby next made twenty yards and a touch-down immediately when Tom Wyckoff smashed through everything oand over the line. Waycott again failed to kick goal, at which he kicked himself remorsefully. McDonald got the ball when Vashon kicked off next but was sotpped by Davis' pretty tackle. Thompson and Bracken then made ten yards each and looked happy. Bracken placed fifteen yards to his credit and the visiting boys began to think they had struck an avalanche. They had their grit with them, however, and showed up plucklily every time. Tom Wyckoff started with the ball, dropped it and on the run picked it up again like a flash, and before he was caught had covered twenty yards. The the rooters howled for the dynamiter. In the next lay Bracken went across the line scoring another touch-down.
Leighton then kicked the first goal of the day.
Vashon kicked off, Lawrence caught the ball and was downed by Brewer. Lawrence again took the ball through the line ten yards. WAycott surged through the line immediately after and in the next play Tom Wycokff (sic) lost the ball. Vashon lined up and hte ligh't (sic) weights made an effort at the formidable line in front of them. Twice they were unsuccessful and in the third trial kicked for several yards. Townsend got hte ball. Bracken and Lawrence made several yards and Tom Wyckoff ran almost the whole distance of the field, scoring a touch-down. Leighton kicked goal.
In the next play Davis was hurt and Travers was substituted. Thompson caught the kicked ball but was stopped by a pretty tackle by Greer. Thompson made ten yards through the center and on the following play lost the ball. Three trials by Vashon failed to make the necessary distance and the ball passed over. Bracken made twenty yards. Vashon was fired fore being off side; Thompson went through center and was tackled by Travers, who during the remainder of hte game was the star for the visitors. He did practically all fo the tackling bringing down big and little with surprising ease. Lawrence next made a touch-down and Leighton kicked goal. On the kick-off BRacken got the ball but was stopped handsomely by Fields. Ed Wyckoff gained fifteen yards and was tackled hard by Brewer. Tom Wyckoff then made one of his flying plays around right end and like a race horse crossed the goal and Ole did his little kick act nobly.
For the first half the score stood 40 to 0 in favor of Townsend, and in the next half Captain Smith put in Walther in place of Leighton, Weymouth in place of Bracken and Ed Hickman in place of Thompson. This was a lively fifteen minute half, and ended in a total score of 68 to 0 in favor of the Townsends.
The visiting plavers stated after the game was over, that they had been intermed by Seattle and Tacoma people that hte Townsend boys were a lot of sluggers and so they had come prepared to get knocked about. "We found instead gentlemen pure and simple," said one last night, "and are ready to give the lie to anyone who tells us such tales again."
The Vashon boys represent an institution that is making a name for itself not only as a seat of learning but because it believes in fostering athletics and sends out such gentlemen as were here yesterday. Such was the opinion expressed by many last night.
The home combination is a good one, and from now on, every night the boys will be seen on the practice grounds, hard at work preparing to meet hte big teams that are eaten up with conceit over records of the past. Seattle will tumble on November 2.
All this kept coming back to my mind, time and again, with every mention I heard of the upcoming Superbowl in late January and early February of 2013. Every time I saw the Seahawks' blue and green on stickers or signs, I wondered how much of the town had been painted in black and old gold back in October of 1895. When I started to see notices in shop windows that various businesses planned to close on the day of the big game, the historical parallel warmed my heart greatly - despite my not caring a jot for football.
Not everyone was geared up for the game, but lack of passion for pigskin did not necessarily mean lack of participation in the general goings-on. When I saw a notice that my favorite tea shop would be closed for game day, I was quite surprised by the announcement. "I didn't know you were that interested in football," I told the shop's owner, with some curiosity.
"Oh, we're not." She answered casually in her lovely Australian accent, then waved a hand towards her young employees. "But the girls are. It'll be dead slow anyways, with everyone at home watching the game. Besides," She flashed me a clever smile. "My husband and I have wanted some time together." Now, as always, many different motivations lead to the same unified effect.
For several days leading up to the Superbowl - and naturally on game day itself - the wardrobe's of everyone in the region seemed inundated with team colors. There were enormous quantities of official NHL fan gear on display of course, but even people who didn't choose to invest in such items got into the spirit of the time by choosing to wear items of clothing which - while not bearing official logos - corresponded to the local team's colors of blue and green. As I've said, I couldn't really see these regional tones without thinking of the older, local tints of black and old gold. Seeing a woman pass me on the street in a modern green and blue tee-shirt, I contemplated how that same lady would look in an 1890's black dress (an absolute staple of the Victorian wardrobe - nearly every woman would have had one in her closet or trunk as a matter of course) with old gold ribbons in her hair, or basted on to the ruffles of her dress with quick stitches. I always smiled as I thought of it, and as I considered how absolutely unchanged the fans' excited, hopeful expressions doubtless were from era to era.
On the morning of the Superbowl, Gabriel dallied casually over breakfast. At the time when he would usually rush out the door to head off to work at the bike shop, he casually inspected the clock without overmuch concern. "I really don't think it'll be busy today," he commented.
"Probably not." I laughed and handed him his lunch sandwich, wrapped in waxed paper. "I'm not really into football, but I have to admit I am a little curious as to how the game will turn out."
Gabriel flipped open his antique canvas knapsack — a British relic I had found in the back of an american Army & Navy Surplus store. He tucked his sandwich into his bag and grinned. "I think you'll be able to tell."
I laughed. Even though we don't own a television and I had no intention of seeking one out to watch the game, I had no doubt whatsoever that my husband's surmise was correct. "If we hear screams, and hysterical cheering—" I started to say.
"—Then it's pretty safe to assume that we won." Gabriel and I completed the statement together in unison.
We were low on milk and cheese, so after Gabriel left for work I put on my warm winter coat and headed out to the grocery store. My walk there was the most solitary stroll I can recall ever taking in the middle of the morning on a clear weekend day. When I arrived at the store it was correspondingly deserted. If there had been any doubt whatsoever in my mind as to where everyone was, the store's very targeted sales would have provided me with the information: Relish trays and pizzas were piled high and deeply discounted, and the weight of the combined avocadoes might have equalled the scale readings of a few NFL linebackers. (In 2013 - the year this was happening - Americans consumed 79 million pounds of avocados, almost exclusively in guacamole, on Superbowl Sunday.) Looking at the massive displays of bumpy green drupes, I dreamily found myself wondering what would have filled the picnic hampers which fans brought to the big game back in Dan Bracken's day.
The American Girl's Handy Book, published in the year of the game, included a chapter on picnics. For a cold picnic to be eaten quickly the authors recommended "sandwiches, cake, pickles, hard-boiled eggs, etc." The August, 1895 edition of the magazine Table Talk ran a full piece on picnics and recommended: "Cold roast fowls, meat pies, potted meats, sardines, jams, pickles, olives, and marmalades... Sandwiches should be included the bread and butter wrapped in paraffine paper to keep moist, until the filling is placed between them, just before they are eaten. In addition to the universal ham, tongue and chicken, crisp leaves and blossoms of the nasturtium, small lettuce leaves, and thin slices of cucumber make delicious varieties. Cheese and hard-boiled eggs are also used, with spreading of French mustard between." The author went on to recommend cake, ice cream (doubtless easier to bring on a picnic in the days when extra-cold hard ice was a common kitchen necessity), and a particularly elaborate lemonade. This last included the juice and rind of fresh lemons, and just before serving, cracked ice, bits of pineapple and fresh strawberry were added. Artificially carbonated soft drinks had been available since the eighteenth-century, but if I had been a gamegoer on that extra special day, I might have opted for the lemonade!
Later in the day, I did indeed hear my neighbors cheering as the Seahawks won the game. I closed my eyes and imagined how the town would have sounded when Dan Bracken's team trounced their opponents in their own big game. History is never really all that far away — particularly when it is still being made.
 Tom Brown's School Days page 123 Thomas Hughes Chicago and New York; Belford, Clarke & Co. 1885
 N.D. Hill Ledger BC-56, page 513
 Obituary of Daniel Bracken, Port Townsend Leader, February 26, 1926
 PT Leader, January 4, 1895
 PT Leader, October 11, 1956
 There is some controversy on this point. In 2012 former Steelers receiver Hines Ward went on the record stating that modern helmets actually increase concussions by encouraging harder hitting and play where athletes use their safety gear as offensive weapons. Smith, Michael David. “Hines Ward: 'If you want to prevent concussions, take the helmet off'” <http://profootballtalk.nbcsports.com/2012/12/04/hines-ward-if-you-want-to-prevent-concussions-take-the-helmet-off/>
 http://www.pasttimesports.biz/history.html "History of the Football Helmet."
 Port Townsend Leader. October 13, 1895. Transcribed from microfilm at the Jefferson County Archive.
 Beard, Lina and Adelia B. Beard. The American Girl's Handy Book: How To Amuse Yourself and Others. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. 1895 (original copyright 1887), p. 132.
 Korab, Harry Edward. "Soft Drink - History of Soft Drinks" The Encyclopedia Brittanica. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/552397/soft-drink>