For some time now, the so-called football experts have said the road to the Super Bowl goes through Seattle.
Google Maps respectfully disagrees.
The road to Super Bowl 49 in Glendale, Arizona, goes through places such as Yakima, Boise and Beaver, Utah.
At least, that’s the route I planned to go as I pulled out of my driveway in a rented SUV at 4:41 a.m. on Jan. 22. I was on the road less than three hours when I received a message asking why I was going the long way.
“It’s the fastest way,” I replied. “If you’re going through Vegas.”
Sunday marks the third Super Bowl for the Seahawks, but the first that’s not in the Eastern Time Zone and the first with sub-$2-per-gallon gasoline ($1.69 at one station in Phoenix).
In other words, conditions are perfect for a road trip.
Armed with books on tape, snacks and caffeine, I allowed for four days to cover the 1,655 miles. Sure, a flight to Phoenix takes less than three hours, but it skips the best parts.
I arrived in the “Palm Springs of Washington,” as Yakima’s iconic and misleading sign says, just in time for an appointment with the valley’s most famous doctor.
Dr. Dan Doornink is an internist at Cornerstone Medical Clinic and sometimes asked to sign more than prescriptions by patients who are longtime Seahawks fans. He took seven years to finish medical school because he was busy with his day job, playing running back for the Seahawks from 1979-85.
On one occasion he correctly diagnosed teammate Robert Pratt with giardia before team doctors figured out why the offensive lineman was sick. The team started calling Doornink “Dr. Dan,” a nickname his patients still use.
Before his first patients of the day arrived, we met in a conference room and talked about the Seahawks’ early years. Doornink was one of Seattle’s first playoff heroes. He recovered a key fumble on special teams in a playoff game against Miami in 1983. He uses a black-and-white picture of the play for the background image on his phone.
In 1984, Doornink, who grew up in nearby Wapato and played at Washington State University, rushed for 126 yards in a wild-card playoff game, a 13-7 win over the defending-champion Los Angeles Raiders.
But like every other Seahawks fan, Doornink mostly wanted to talk about this year’s team and quarterback Russell Wilson. “He’s the only one that can do some of the things he does,” Doornink said.
Before Wilson was named the starter as a rookie in 2012, a Seahawks front-office official let Doornink in on the secret. Doornink said he’d write a letter to Wilson and offer some tips on leadership and cultivating a team.
But he was busy with work, and it would take several weeks before he could write the letter.
“Then I watched and him in one of his first games and heard him being interviewed afterward and I thought, ‘He doesn’t need a letter from me,’ ” Doornink said. “He could write the letter.”
It was quite cold as I zipped along Interstate 82, so I waited to refuel until I was in Oregon. That way I wouldn’t have to get out of the car.
The attendant wore a bright green Seahawks stocking cap.
“Seahawks fan?” I asked.
“No. Bills,” he said. “I lost a bet to my wife. I thought for sure (New Orleans quarterback) Drew Brees would pick them apart last season. Now I have to wear this hat for two years.”
I’d hoped to meet with Green Bay Packers legend Jerry Kramer when I passed through the Boise area, but he was heading to California, then the Super Bowl.
Toward the end of his career he played in the first two Super Bowls and helped the Packers win them both. But, really, I wanted to know what he thought of this year’s NFC Championship game.
I settled for talking to him on the phone.
“I was in a snit after the game,” Kramer said of the Seahawks’ come-from-behind overtime win against Green Bay. “I couldn’t talk about it.”
He watched a replay of the game and said he was most impressed by the Seahawks’ defense. “How do you keep a team in the game when you have 4-5 turnovers,” Kramer said. “That’s damn near impossible.”
He said the game reminded him of the legendary 1967 Ice Bowl, in which he made the block on the game-winning touchdown with 16 seconds remaining. The Packers had played poorly against Dallas the entire second half before driving 68 yards for the winning touchdown on their final possession.
“Great teams do that,” Kramer said.
My second day started with a trip to Boise State University.
I’d been there before but wanted to stop again for several reasons. First, this is where Seahawks reserve safety Jeron Johnson honed his craft. Second, this is where New England Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount, then playing for Oregon, melted down in 2009 and punched a Boise State player after a loss.
And third, it’s a blue field. Never pass up a chance to get a picture standing on the Smurf Turf.
BSU sports information director and lifelong Seahawks fan Joe Nickell gave me a tour of the football facilities and its rapidly growing trophy collection.
Next to a sledgehammer, given after each game to the player with the biggest special teams hit, is a picture of Johnson wielding the hammer as he leads the Broncos on the field.
It was a big recruiting weekend for BSU, so coaches weren’t available to talk. And graduate assistant coach, Byron Hout, recipient of Blount’s sucker punch, doesn’t talk publicly about the incident.
“We prefer to focus on the positive,” said BSU defensive coordinator Marcel Yates when I reached him by phone. “Like the fact that he (Hout) is a really good coach.”
And the fact that one of his former players is about to play in the Super Bowl.
“It doesn’t surprise me that he’s playing in the NFL,” Yates said of the undrafted player. “He’s one of those guys that always plays best in games. Scouts who watched him in practice probably had a different opinion than the ones who saw him in the games, but I always knew he was good enough.”
Zipping down Interstate 84 at a legal 80 mph, not far from the Oregon Trail, I couldn’t help but think how much things have changed over the last 200 years.
Then I couldn’t believe my eyes. I pulled over to the side of the road and pulled out my phone to snap a picture.
A man on a horse was driving a herd of cattle across the overpass.
And some things, I guess, haven’t changed much at all.
Only a few paces into the football offices at Romney Stadium on the Utah State University campus, it’s evident the program is quite proud of its alums on the Seahawks roster: running back Robert Turbin and linebacker Bobby Wagner.
In the trophy room, a picture of Turbin hangs not far from a display showing the old leather football boots worn by NFL Hall of Famer and alum Merlin Olsen. Their pictures and names can be found many other places in the building too.
Autographed pictures from both players sit outside the office of second-year coach Matt Wells. But that’s not where the Seahawks influence ends.
Inside the door of Wells’ office is a framed motto: “ACT MEDIUM.”
“Never too high, never too low,” Wells said, reading the rest of the motto. “We say it every day because that’s how we want our players to be. And we got that motto from Jim Zorn.”
Zorn, the Seahawks’ first quarterback, was the Aggies’ offensive coordinator 1992-94.
On my way out of town, I stopped at Buffalo Wild Wings, the closest thing resembling a sports bar, I was told, near a campus that is heavily populated with members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
There I met USU students and Tacoma natives Nathaniel and Kendahl Schott. Nathaniel wore a Wagner Seahawks jersey, and the couple shared stories about their passion for the Hawks. Including the time Nathaniel suggested they name their first kid after Marshawn Lynch.
But even their dedication to their team pales in comparison to their dedication to their faith.
On his two-year mission in San Antonio, Nathaniel vowed to spend his spare time studying scripture and praying. This meant communicating with his fiancée only by letters and email and essentially ignoring two Seahawks seasons.
It may have seemed as if the whole world was talking about Lynch’s famous Beast Quake run against New Orleans in 2011, but it was more than a year later when Nathaniel finally saw a replay on YouTube.
“I was really excited when he had that run like it against Arizona this year,” he said, “because this time I got to see it.”
I had to stop when I saw the huge billboard on I-15 proclaiming Beaver had the best water in America.
Sure enough, at the gas station two people were at the soda fountain filling 44-ounce cups with water.
“Is the water really that good,” I asked one of the men.
“Best in Utah,” he said.
“Sign says best in America,” I said.
“That too,” he said, gesturing to the cups. “Try it.”
I took a drink.
“What do you think,” he said before I finished.
“Yeah, that’s good water,” I said. And it was. But the best? I couldn’t say for sure.
The combo of Northern Utah’s Wasatch Mountains and Southern Utah’s red rock made me regret not giving myself more time for this trip. Like an extra week or two.
Finally, I couldn’t take it anymore so I pulled off at a section of Zion National Park called Kolob Canyons. A few hours, a few gigabytes of photos and 7.5 miles of hiking and I felt a little less guilty about my hurried pace through such beautiful terrain.
I wasn’t a big winner in Sin City, but at least I wasn’t a big loser.
I managed to get in and out of town spending only $15.
I fumbled through placing two $5 bets (the minimum) on the Super Bowl and I bought a small gift for my wife from the Coca-Cola store.
And I got a great deal on a hotel by staying off The Strip. Way off The Strip. I stayed in Henderson.
The thing about a road trip to Phoenix, especially without a partner to share the driving duties, is if you don’t budget in an extra day you’ll likely have to make a choice between the Grand Canyon or Las Vegas.
For me, it was a no-brainer: Grand Canyon.
But as my editors pointed out, you can’t do a road trip to the Super Bowl without stopping in Vegas.
So when I woke up on the final day, starting to drag a bit and hardly game for a 200-mile side trip, I had a void to fill.
I swapped a natural marvel for a man-made marvel and spent about an hour exploring the Hoover Dam.
The 175-mile desert drive between Kingman and Glendale is notoriously boring, but if you’re a visitor from lush green Western Washington it’s an enjoyable change of pace. At least for 50 miles or so.
I set the cruise control and stopped only long enough to take a selfie with cactus.
Tired and ready to rest, I was quite excited when the University of Phoenix Stadium appeared on the horizon like a silver, grounded UFO.
I pulled off near the stadium for a photo, then headed off in pursuit of my hotel room bed. Not eager to do another drive this long anytime soon.
Luckily, Super Bowl 50 is in Santa Clara, Calif.