First-class treatment: Team plane perks help Seahawks become road warriors

Editor's Note: This story originally ran on Dec. 2, 2019

RENTON, Wash. -- With an ear-to-ear smile on his face and a spring in his step, defensive end Jadeveon Clowney strolled through the visitors locker room at Mercedes-Benz Stadium like a man who couldn't wait to get where he was going.

The Seattle Seahawks had just hung on for a seven-point victory over the Atlanta Falcons to improve to 6-2. Clowney's strip sack at the end of the first half was one of the highlights, and what awaited him on the other end of a bus ride to the airport was another reason for his upbeat mood.

"First claaasss," Clowney shouted to teammates on his way out.

Here's the deal for coach Pete Carroll's Seahawks: Win on the road and veteran players get to supplant coaches and team executives in first class on the flight home. It's an incentive that dates to the middle of Carroll's tenure in Seattle. His players have cashed in more than ever of late with a franchise-best seven road victories during the regular season and another one last week in Philadelphia. They'll go for road win No. 9 when they face the Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field in the divisional playoff round (Sunday, 6:40 p.m. ET).

Not that Carroll minds taking a back seat.

"I don't know what I like more: the good part of the players getting moved up or how much the coaches are pissed about having to move back," Carroll said. "That's a good tradition. I love sitting in the second class."

'Night and freakin' day'

No one seems to know exactly when it started, but linebacker Bobby Wagner remembers how. It was either the 2015 or 2016 season when Michael Bennett, ever the squeaky wheel, raised a stink during a team meeting.

"I remember Mike B complaining about how the coaches were flying first class," Wagner recalled. "But he was like, 'We put all the work in.' Pete was like, 'All right, well, if you wanna fly first class, you win on the road, you can fly first class.' So then we won the game, we got first class, and then from that point forward, it was like, all right, we can't go backwards from this."

The deal came about as the Seahawks were getting ready to play on the East Coast, Wagner recalled. Thus they were dreading the five-plus-hour flight back.

With 25 of the NFL's 32 teams located east of the Rockies and Seattle tucked away in the Pacific Northwest, long flights are common for the Seahawks. According to the team's media guide, the 33,216 miles they traveled during the regular season are the third most in the league behind the Oakland Raiders (40,188) and Los Angeles Rams (36,186), both of whom had a game in London. Including preseason and the wild-card round, seven of the Seahawks' 11 return flights lasted at least three hours, six of them at least four hours and three of them five-plus hours.

No wonder "guys went crazy," in quarterback Russell Wilson's words, when Carroll first presented the deal.

"Sitting in first class definitely means a lot to us throughout the season when we're traveling and playing," Wilson said. "Our flights are long. Our flights aren't two hours. ... We usually get back at 12, 1 in the morning. Then we've got to get up and go back to work starting at 8 in the morning. We've got to get our bodies ready to roll again. I think that it's definitely one of the most popular [Seahawks traditions], for sure."

The Airbus A330 the team charters has 18 first-class seats, so the 18 players with the most years in the league get first dibs after road wins.

"It's night and freakin' day," K.J. Wright said of the lay-flat seats in first class compared to those in the main cabin, which recline only a few inches.

Because the plane typically carries vacationers across the Pacific Ocean, they're not equipped with Wi-Fi. That's a sore spot among players, but it means more interaction with one another.

The flights out of Sea-Tac Airport begin with a cash raffle in the main cabin. Any player who wants to participate will write his jersey number on a $20 bill and put it in a bag. The pots can reach several hundred dollars depending on the number of players. After takeoff, a flight attendant will reach into the bag and draw a bill. Tight end Luke Willson had the hot hand, with three wins after re-joining the team in Week 4.

Before his suspension, Al Woods sat next to fellow defensive tackle Jarran Reed in one of the middle rows of the 2-2-2 configuration in first class after road wins. Wagner and Wright are to their left.

"So a lot of times me and K.J. are talking about the game, what we did, what we should have did, that was a good play, that's bad play, 'OK, I need to work on that this week so I don't have a tell' or whatever the case may be," Woods said. "And then we just talk about life, talk about kids and the next step on the other side of football, what we're going to be doing. After that, we sleep. We may sleep for two, three hours and by that time we're getting ready to land."

It's more lively in the back of the plane, where veterans such as fullback Nick Bellore, cornerback Neiko Thorpe and receiver Jaron Brown choose to sit among the younger players even though they're tenured enough for a first-class seat.

"You try to sleep usually, but it's always hard after a game," Bellore said. "Usually there's enough guys yelling and carrying on nonsense that it's hard to sleep. Guys play all sorts of games. We play cards. Some were playing like a movie quote game and they did that for like six hours when we were coming back from Pittsburgh. I don't know how they did that."

Long-snapper Tyler Ott's most memorable experience didn't happen in first class. He was sitting up front after a road win last season when former kicker Sebastian Janikowski told him they were going to sit in the cockpit for takeoff. Janikowski knew the flight crew from his years with the Raiders, who also chartered this type of plane. So Ott and SeaBass strapped into their jump seats, then watched the captain and his co-pilot go to work.

"It was cool," Ott said. "It was at night, so we didn't get to see a whole bunch, but it's crazy all the stuff that's going on up there. We just sat there and tried to be as quiet as possible."

'What am I doing sitting back here?!'

Which assistant coaches gripe the most about getting displaced from first class?

"I'm not going to throw them under the bus like that," Carroll said. "Use your imagination."

Except Carroll had already outed his defensive coordinator as one of them, evoking a visual of Ken Norton Jr.'s screaming voice cutting through the din of both cabins the same way it cuts through the music that blares during training camp practices.

"Kenny Norton's unbearable," Carroll said on his 710 ESPN Seattle radio show. "He just won't let them hear the end of it. 'What am I doing sitting back here?!' He's yelling at 'em the whole time."

The plane policy wasn't in place during Norton's first stint with the Seahawks, which ended in 2015 when the Raiders hired him as their defensive coordinator.

"I told Coach if I had not left, that rule would not be in place," Norton said. "But I understand, and the players really look forward to that. If winning gives them the seats, I'll take it, I'll take it every time. They like it, they played, they need to be comfortable. I'm all for it. Sometimes it's a little bit uncomfortable, but I'll manage."

If the Seahawks have their way, Norton will have to suck it up a few more times in coach. A win in Green Bay on Sunday and a San Francisco win over Minnesota would send the Seahawks back to Levi's Stadium for Round 3 against the 49ers. If the Seahawks and Vikings win, they'd meet in the NFC Championship Game at CenturyLink Field.

"I'm OK with it," Norton said of giving up his seat. "I'm OK with winning."