Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

"The Twelfth Man": A Football Phrase with Disputed Roots

After the Seattle Seahawks shellacked the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl last night, the Seahawks players, coaches, and owners all made sure to thank "the twelfth man," as the team's boisterous fans have come to be collectively known. But the Seahawks only have the right to use that phrase because of a licensing agreement worked out with Texas A&M University, the trademark holders. Texas A&M claims the expression goes back to a legendary 1922 game, but its true history is far more complex.

As I explain in my latest column for the Wall Street Journal, the Seahawks were taken to court by Texas A&M in 2006 (the last time they were in the Super Bowl) for infringing on the "twelfth man" trademark. As a result, the Seahawks agreed to pay A&M a lump sum of $100,000 and $5,000 every year for limited use of "the twelfth man." Any other American team at the college or professional level that refers to its fans as "the twelfth man" can expect a cease-and-desist letter from A&M's lawyers.

A&M obviously takes this all very seriously — in fact, "the twelfth man" is built into the school's mythology. As every Aggie knows, in a January 1922 bowl game against Centre College in Dallas, A&M coach Dana X. Bible was running out of players due to injuries, and called upon a student in the stands, E. King Gill, to suit up in case he was needed as a substitute. Gill stood by, though he never had to go in the game, and his loyalty to the team is commemorated by Aggies in "twelfth man" rituals, such as standing for the entirety of games.

When A&M secured the trademark for "the twelfth man" in 1990, the school claimed that the phrase had been in continued use at the school ever since that 1922 game. But some new historical evidence undercuts the idea that "the twelfth man" was born when E. King Gill stood on the sidelines, ready to take the field. Much of the research has been conducted by a University of Texas alumnus writing on the website Horn Sports under the pseudonym Randolph Duke. While his exhaustive post last October questions much of the lore surrounding the 1922 game, here I'd like to take a broader view of how "the twelfth man" developed as a phrase.

The earliest uses of "the twelfth man" date back to the nineteenth century, in writings about various sports with eleven players on a team: cricket, association football (a.k.a. soccer), and American football. A "twelfth man" originally referred to a second-string player who could come in to replace one of the starting eleven, and it is still used that way in cricket. (Compare "the sixth man" in basketball.) In American football, however, various other potential "twelfth men" have offered support to teams on the field.

In the early years of the twentieth century, reporters covering football games sometimes jokingly suggested that a referee favoring a team with a bad call against the opposing side was enough to merit consideration as a "twelfth man." Here are two examples that I found in newspaper databases:

Two years ago, chiefly through the assistance of the twelfth man, the umpire, Grinnell got the credit of winning a game with Simpson by the bare score of 5 to 0.
Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Republican, Nov. 7, 1901

The referee...penalized the Coshoctons twice for five yards each time for offside playing which was only in his imagination. This help from the twelfth man, however, put the pigskin up close enough to the goal so as it could be forced over for the first touchdown.
Coshocton (Ohio) Age, Oct. 9, 1905

Over the next couple of decades, some other humorous "twelfth men" were suggested by sports reporters, depending on how the game in question turned out: I've come across "Old Man Luck," "the weather man," "Old Man Inferiority Complex," and "Old Boreas" (referring to the Greek god of the north wind).

But by far the most common referent for "the twelfth man" was the ever-loyal fan, or the "rooter" as he was typically known. Thanks to Google Books, we now have these early examples referring to fans of the University of Minnesota and State University of Iowa (now the University of Iowa):

The mysterious influence of the twelfth man on the team, the rooter, should be as great as any of the rest.
Minnesota Magazine, Sept. 1900

The eleven men had done their best; but the twelfth man on the team (the loyal spirited Iowa rooter) had won the game for old S.U.I.
The Iowa Alumnus, Nov. 1912

Sometimes it was not the cheering section but the team's cheerleaders who were singled out for "twelfth man" status. Here is another example referring to the University of Minnesota:

"The school cheerleader," says Bud Bohnen, "Rooter King" of the University of Minnesota, who is ranked as one of the two or three greatest cheerleaders in the country, "is the twelfth man on the football team."
Los Angeles Times, Oct. 22, 1922

(Interestingly enough, as word sleuth Barry Popik notes on his excellent website, the University of Minnesota also used a precursor of the University of Texas Longhorns' slogan, "Hook 'em Horns." Despite the Minnesota mascot being a golden gopher, the slogan used there was "Hook 'em Cows.")

It's not surprising that this use of "the twelfth man" would make its way to Texas, where football fandom is famously exuberant. Starting in the 1920s, it shows up for various high school and college teams. That includes A&M, though no contemporaneous accounts of that legendary January 1922 bowl game have surfaced referring to "the twelfth man." The phrase was, however, already in use earlier that season, as illustrated by a Nov. 25, 1921 article in the Aggie newspaper The Battalion: "The old yelling army — the physological [sic] factor — the twelfth man." (Presumably the writer meant "the psychological factor.")

Elsewhere in Texas, "the twelfth man" was used similarly, but with no connection to A&M. Here are a few examples in coverage of high school football from the town of Port Arthur:

Coaches of this day and time realize the value of the "twelfth man" in a football game. This "twelfth man" is the rooting section.
Port Arthur News, Oct. 3, 1926

The "twelfth man" — the Port Arthur rooting section — must carry out his assignment in a perfect manner.
Port Arthur News, Nov. 7, 1926

T.H. Ridout and Henry Bell expressed their opinions of the football game, stating that the rooters were the twelfth man on the team.
Port Arthur News, Nov 13, 1927

But it would take until the mid-1930s before A&M and its Aggie Corps of Cadets became closely linked to the phrase "the twelfth man," if the archives of The Dallas Morning News are any judge:

Then, last week there was that old T.C.U. jinx to face in Fort Worth with the famous twelfth man, the Aggie Cadet Corps, in the stands looking on.
Dallas Morning News, Oct. 24, 1935

The famous twelfth man of the Aggie eleven will be there to give the Farmers all of the moral support they may need.
Dallas Morning News, Nov. 7, 1936

Texas Aggies Will Take Famed "Twelfth Man" to Houston for Rice Grid Clash.
The Aggies will have that twelfth man in the stand at Rice Field Saturday. Texas A & M faculty members said at College Station Monday the Cadets' corps could make the trip to Houston Saturday for the annual Rice-Aggie football game.
Dallas Morning News, Nov. 9, 1937

While A&M's twelfth man, in the form of the Cadet Corps, was already "famous" by then, there's no mention of the origin of that fame. The story of E. King Gill coming out of the stands only began circulating in 1939, when a dramatization of the fabled 1922 game was performed as a radio play at the school — this according to a speech later given by Gill himself.

Meanwhile, another fan-turned-player had gained notoriety as a "twelfth man." In a game between Princeton and Dartmouth in the fall of 1935, a fan jumped out of the stands and ended up playing briefly in the game. The sports pages were full of articles trying to identify who Dartmouth's "twelfth man" really was. According to a 1962 Sports Illustrated article, it was never determined who among several Dartmouth fans had been the one to rush the field. Nonetheless, the story of that game lived on. In a 1967 book on football lingo, the entry for "twelfth man" recalls how the Dartmouth fan "immortalized himself as the twelfth man on the team," but no mention is made of Gill or A&M.

All of this history fell by the wayside as A&M sought to establish itself as the one and only "home of the twelfth man." The arrangement that the Seahawks made in 2006 tacitly accepts the Aggies' version of events. But now that so much generic usage of "the twelfth man" has been found both before and after 1922, the notion that A&M should be considered the sole owner of the phrase would seem to be on shaky ground. For now, at least, the Seahawks will keep paying to use it.

Update, Feb. 4: An article from the Jan. 3, 1922 edition of the Fort Worth Star Telegram has been found confirming that Gill was called in as a possible substitute in the game against Centre College. As can be seen in the second column of the page image here, the reporter on the game wrote, "The heat of battle began to tell and Coach Bible called Gill from the press box to respond to emergency." But it's still an open question whether Gill was given the "twelfth man" sobriquet before the 1939 radio play dramatized the game.

Update, Feb. 5: Since my Wall Street Journal column appeared, Aggie alums have been diligently scouring old newspapers for early examples of A&M's "twelfth man." Here's a snippet of an article from the Oct. 22, 1924 issue of the student newspaper The Battalion:

And here are examples from the Galveston Daily News from Dec. 3, 1933 and Nov. 8, 1937:

Meanwhile, Michael Williams draws my attention to an Oct. 4, 1924 article from The Simmons Brand of Abilene, Texas, which states, "The expression the twelfth man, which is becoming common in colleges throughout the state as designating the support of the student body." (The quote refers to the "twelfth men" of Simmons College and Baylor College.) So at that point, "the twelfth man" was evidently in common collegiate usage throughout Texas, not just at A&M.

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Tuesday February 4th 2014, 7:51 PM
Comment by: Johnny T. (GA)
I appreciate you Mr. Zimmer. Your brilliance is making me brighter.

Johnny T.
Wednesday February 12th 2014, 5:49 PM
Comment by: Bob H.
Pretty cool. Good bit of research done.

I'm not sure why you through the Dartmouth thing in here though. That's kind of like referring to an old reference where the team was penalized for having 12 men on the the field, and calling him the "twelfth man". It was a drunk fan who ran on the field, and he was literally the 12th guy out there.
Saturday October 4th 2014, 4:53 PM
Comment by: Terry (WI)
Mr. Zimmer
Well, at least you got it right. A& M, of course, did not coin the term “12th Man.” We just ran with it. I spent my time in College Station when the Aggies were truly lousy. I think we only beat t.u. once in that decade.
For all I know, the Romans may had a “Twelfth Cohort.”
Be that as it may, it is worthy to note that A &M doesn’t infringe on other schools’ tradition. It would be like the Seahawks’ adopting that magnificent stallion that USC parades around during the game.
Anyway, I started this whole mess when I sent a letter to Don Shelton at the Seattle Times. You wouldn’t believe the number of somewhat hostile comments that have been popping up on my e-mail address.
There’s also another A & M tradition that is hardly mentioned outside of Aggie-land. That would be the bonfire. For a long time it was the largest bonfire in college sports. The tradition is that, if the bonfire is still burning when A & M played t.u. (the game used to be played on Thanksgiving, another tradition) A & M would win.
Unfortunately that was a lot of wishful thinking.

Terrance Quinlan
Friday February 27th 2015, 8:24 PM
Comment by: Chris K. (PA)
A&M's trademark registration will not prevent commercial use by commercial interests who do not compete with A&M. Maybe the deal between the Hawks and the Aggies is to protect the former on a dark, sultry night in east Texas when the moon is full and the two teams are ever playing on their respective levels in the same primetime. Otherwise the 12th Man is a well known affectation generally self awarded wherever and whenever some publicist is dry on other subjects about which to write. For my money, the real 12th Man played for Dartmouth, and no one I know dares challenge this historical fact.

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