The 12th Man Tradition at Texas A&M

The 12th Man at Kyle Field
Kyle Field is not shy about advertising itself as the true home of the "12th Man.". (Brian Bahr/Getty Images)

Legend has it that Texas A&M University might have been the first football team to popularize the term, "the 12th man," as a slang reference for "the fans" watching the game. While there is some debate who used the term first, the university was certainly the first to trademark it in 1990.

In college and professional football there are 11 players allowed on the field per team. When a commentator makes a reference to the 12th man, it is usually a reference to spectators in the stadium.

Fans that cheer, jeer and electrify the stadium with their rumbling and chants are said to influence the game like a 12th player.

Legend

In January 1922, Texas A&M in College Station, Texas, took to the field against mighty Centre College, the No. 1-ranked team in the country, in the Dixie Classic, now known as the Cotton Bowl. The Texas A&M Aggies fought hard and kept the game close, but as the game wore on, the strength and power of Centre took its toll. Aggies coach Dana X. Bible realized he was running short on players and recalled that a deep reserve by the name of E. King Gill had been sent to the press box before the game to help reporters identify players. Bible sent word to the press box that Gill was needed on the sideline.

Gill descended the grandstand, reported to the sideline and suited up, just in case he was needed. Gill never actually took the field that day, and the Aggies pulled off a stunning 22-14 upset.The grand symbolic gesture of Gill coming down from the stands to stand alongside the Aggies struck a chord with the Texas A&M faithful.

Giving birth to the "the 12th man" legend.

"I wish I could say that I went in and ran for the winning touchdown, but I did not,” Gill said afterward. “I simply stood by in case my team needed me."

A New Twist

When coach Jackie Sherrill arrived at Texas A&M in the mid-1980s, he seized on the 12th man legend by creating the 12th man kick-off team, which was a special teams unit consisting entirely of student walk-ons.

The kickoff is a method of starting a drive, where the kicking team kicks the ball to the opposing team, or receiving team.

Besides being extremely popular with Aggies fans, the 12th man kick-off team produced on-field results. Sherrill’s 12th man unit held opponents to one of the lowest kick-return averages in the Southwest Conference. After Sherrill’s departure, coach R.C. Slocum changed the tradition by allowing only one 12th man on the kickoff unit. Later, coach Dennis Franchione revived the 12th man unit, but only used it on rare occasions.

The Trademark

Texas A&M was granted a trademark for the term "12th man" in 1990. NFL franchises, the Chicago Bears, Indianapolis Colts, Seattle Seahawks and Buffalo Bills, have had legal disputes with Texas A&M for using the term in marketing. While the other teams ceased using the term or face legal consequences, the Seahawks did not and then settled out of court with Texas A&M. 

The Seahawks have since licensed the term from Texas A&M for marketing use, but are limited from using the term on social media or on merchandise.

Fans at Texas A&M

Aggies fans continue to take great pride in the "the 12 man" moniker. A large sign running along the upper deck of Texas A&M’s Kyle Field stadium proclaims the stadium as “Home of the 12th Man.” Aggies fans have been known to stand throughout the entirety of their home games and the noise generated by the fans has been categorized as deafening.

Kyle Field is recognized as one of the loudest stadiums in college football and one of the toughest venues for visiting teams to play.