Fans love to hate rivals, especially when the stakes are high.
But throw those fans into enemy territory, and that’s a recipe for some serious trash talking.
The rivalry between the Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers has reached a new level heading into Sunday’s NFC Championship. The highly anticipated rubber match will decide who secures a Super Bowl berth.
With the overall regular-season series tied at 15-15, both teams have a lot to prove in their first postseason matchup.
And so do their fans.
The division rivalry, one of the hottest in the NFL, started in 2002 when the Seahawks returned to the NFC West for the first time since their inaugural season in 1976.
Still, geography and the so-called glory days — when San Francisco won five Super Bowl titles from 1981 to 1994 — have kept the 49ers wagon full of Pacific Northwest residents, some who followed the team before the birth of the Seattle franchise.
Those fans seemed to go unnoticed until tension started rising the past several years.
Now, some local Niners fans say, wearing red and gold invites dirty looks and even dirtier words.
Hawks fans in the Bay Area say their 12th Man flag is treated with similar disdain.
Despite the increasingly competitive spirit, both Niners faithful around the Puget Sound and the 12th Man near San Francisco say they aren’t intimidated by the majority fan base.
Instead, they have a little fun with it.
NORTHWEST NINERS FAITHFUL
If the old cliche is true, PJ Pedroni’s heart and home have always been at Candlestick Park.
The 42-year-old Bay Area native has 49ers season tickets that have been in the family since 1946.
“We only go to about two games a year,” said Pedroni, who moved to Fircrest 20 years ago. “It is still worth it to me for the tradition.”
Pedroni’s close friends understand his family ties to the 49ers, and he said most Seattle fans are respectful and offer friendly banter. However, run-ins with hostile “bandwagon fans” led him to avoid home games when the 49ers visit.
Despite the occasional animosity, Pedroni embraces the Niners-Hawks rivalry.
But, like other 49ers faithful in the South Sound, he’s stuck in a sea of blue and green.
“Ninety percent of my friends are Hawks fans,” he said.
One opposing fan lives across the street, and the two men constantly prank each other. Pedroni once tagged his neighbor’s house with spray paint the night before a crew was set to repaint the exterior; Pedroni’s message read “Go Niners,” of course.
Fellow misplaced Niners fan Ruben Cortez has fun with the competition, too.
He works at DJ Taber’s, a barbershop in Tacoma that shaves Seahawks logos into customers’ hair.
Cortez is the only 49ers fan in the shop and does more Hawks haircuts than anyone else. He wears Niners gear while he works to show his allegiance, but he swears he won’t intentionally tamper with a hairstyle.
“This week it’s going to be tough doing them,” he said laughing.
Cortez grew up in Stockton, Calif., and 49ers pride is a family tradition. He’s going to the game Sunday with the shop’s owner, a season-ticket holder, wearing head-to-toe red and gold.
“Everybody always says to take my gear off,” Cortez said, adding that he’s had the Niners logo tattooed on his body for four years.
As a fan of football, Cortez has attended many Hawks games and never misses a home game against his team. He said Seattle is a worthy foe.
“I am definitely excited about playing the Hawks (on Sunday),” he said. “They are a great team and I respect them.”
Pedroni agreed, saying he wouldn’t want any other opponent standing between his team and a chance at a sixth Lombardi Trophy.
“I want to beat the best to be the best,” he said. “That’s what makes sports fun, right?”
12TH MAN IN NINERS COUNTRY
Kelli Soyring says she was part of the 12th Man before birth.
The Tacoma native comes from a long line of fans that date back to the beginning of the franchise.
“I grew up always rooting for the Seahawks,” she said, “even when they were terrible.”
That dedication has only strengthened since moving to Bakersfield, Calif., where she’s surrounded by red and gold.
The only non-Niners fan she knows roots for the Oakland Raiders.
“I’m pretty much all alone here,” she said. “Everyone has this animosity toward Seahawks’ fans.”
Soyring said the most challenging part about rooting for the area’s most hated team is the lack of camaraderie. She said her fellow residents are good people, but celebrating a Hawks victory hasn’t been the same since leaving the Pacific Northwest two years ago.
“Everyone else is upset when you win,” she said. At home, “If you lose, you lose together. If you win, you win together.”
She has a personal interest in a Seahawks win Sunday.
“My mom has sworn to (fly) me home if the Seahawks go to the Super Bowl” to party with the family, she said.
Mo Padilla is another lone 12th Man soldier in California. He tries to avoid watching games in public because it’s easier on his nerves.
The 26-year-old airman is a lifelong Seahawks fan who grew up in Marysville. He’s stationed at Travis Air Force Base about an hour from San Francisco.
Padilla said all of his supervisors are Niners fans, and he’s excited and nervous about the matchup.
“If (the Hawks) lose, I’ll hear about it forever,” he said.
Although the vocal opposition makes Padilla think twice before watching a Hawks-Niners game at a bar, it doesn’t keep him from flying his 12th Man flag outside his house.
“People see it and probably want to tear it down,” he said.
Fellow Hawks fan Mike Ruddell got away from hostile territory before the rivalry really heated up.
After living all over Western Washington, Ruddell moved to the Bay Area in 1975. Despite his new address, he celebrated when an expansion team came to Seattle. He decked out his work van with Seahawks bumper stickers and proudly wore his blue and green jerseys to Candlestick Park when his team came to town.
“I took a lot of flack from friends of the Bay Area as long as I lived down there,” he said. “You have to have thick skin.”
As someone who lived for many years in both regions, Ruddell said the rivalry is harmless fun.
He moved back to Seattle in 2002 but fondly remembers going to games in San Francisco with opposing fans, proving that keeping your enemies close has its perks.
“I set myself up for a lot of ribbing,” Ruddell said. “It was all in good spirits.”