SEATTLE – “The crowd is silent now, as opposed to when the Saints have the ball,” NBC broadcaster Tom Hammond said, before more than 66,000 fans refuted that fact.
It was Jan. 8, 2011, and the 7-9 Seahawks led the 11-5 Saints, 34-30, with 3:40 left in the NFC wild-card game. At a supposedly silent Qwest Field in Seattle, Matt Hasselbeck took a snap at his own 33-yard line, turned and handed the ball to Marshawn Lynch.
Amid a morass of broken tackles, the “Beast Quake” was born.
Lynch – a 215-pound, 24-year-old torpedo – laid waste to New Orleans’ defensive line, burrowing through Scott Shanle and Will Smith’s feeble tackle attempts. At the second level, Darren Sharper and Remi Ayodele each latched onto a leg – and Lynch shook them off like Forrest Gump finally breaking free of his metal braces. Jabari Greer wrapped his arms around Lynch’s waist at the 49-yard line, and received a 4-yard ride before unceremoniously tumbling to the turf.
Which is when Tracy Porter ate the most iconic stiff-arm in NFL history. As the Qwest Field crowd came irreparably unglued, the 185-pound corner attempted to wrangle a loose lion by tugging on its fur. Instead, Lynch launched Porter five yards into the stratosphere, then skirted through defensive lineman Alex Brown’s diving arms along the sideline. He veered inside, evaded a helpless Roman Harper, and somersaulted backward – exalted – into the end zone.
After the 41-30 wild-card win, Seahawks linebacker Aaron Curry called it “the most unbelievable, unrealistic play I’ve ever seen in the history of football.”
Added first-year Seahawks coach Pete Carroll: “It was one of the greatest runs I ever saw.”
At the time, at least, John Vidale didn’t see it (or hear it, or feel it). The director of the Pacific Northwest Seismic Network at the University of Washington, Vidale was working in the lab an hour or two after the game when he was told there was a play he needed to see.
“So I went to YouTube and found videos of Marshawn’s run, and it was striking,” said Vidale, who currently works as a professor of earth sciences at USC. “Some of them were taken with phones in the stands. People were just cheering forever. It was deafening. It looked like everything was shaking. So I just figured I’d see if the seismometers recorded anything.”
Coincidentally, one of the PNSN’s permanent seismometers – instruments designed to gauge ground motions – was located directly across the street from the stadium. And, sure enough, it registered an unmistakable spike at precisely the moment “Beast Mode” broke free.
“We (typically) tracked things like boats in the Sound and exploding houses,” Vidale explained. “We looked at the noises the subway was making when they were building the light rail. It was actually making people uncomfortable and waking them up. We look at whatever will shake the seismometers. So it wasn’t completely out of the blue.
“But I was surprised to see it on the seismometer, because it’s just people jumping around and shouting. It doesn’t usually have the power of an earthquake.”
Usually it doesn’t. This time, it did. The sustained fervor inspired by Lynch’s 67-yard scamper reached a peak acceleration of roughly 1/20,000th of a G, and a peak motion of 1/100th of a millimeter – registering as a highly localized magnitude 1 or 2 earthquake. Vidale told The Times the week after Lynch’s run that “you probably would have felt it very easily if you were outside the stadium.”
Vidale emailed PNSN network manager Paul Bodin to verify the results, then asked public information specialist Bill Steele if he thought anyone else would be interested.
“I thought it was a cute thing that John would do on his Facebook page and we’d get a few comments and that would be it,” Bodin admitted. “I’m not much of a sport guy.”
Added Vidale: “(Steele) sent it over to The Seattle Times … and they liked it.”
Soon enough, so did everybody else.
“For big earthquakes, sometimes we’ll get contacted and be able to talk with folks from around the world,” said Steele, who has been at the PNSN since 1993. “But not that many people and not that level of response. We got calls from all over Europe and Asia, from Japan and China. Calls from everywhere were coming in. I guess a lot of reporters are interested in sporting events.
“There was quite a bit of attention, and it was highly unusual. The eruption of Mount St. Helens in 2004 also had a higher level of media interest over a long period of time. But again, that’s a volcano erupting, not a football player making a good run.”
With a chuckle, he added: “It’s a little challenging to coordinate interviews on German time and Asian time without wearing people out.”
Somewhere along the line, Lynch’s unnatural disaster earned another name. It became the “Beast Quake” (though Vidale and Steele can’t remember who coined it).
Regardless, Lynch liked it – so much so that he volunteered to spread earthquake awareness in the Pacific Northwest.
“Marshawn actually had his agent call and offer to do public service announcements for us, which we didn’t do because we didn’t have enough experience filming and scripting that kind of thing,” Vidale said. “He was very nice about it. We regretted that for years.”
Ten years later, the “Beast Quake” still resonates in Seattle – but it wasn’t the first athletic feat to shake the earth underneath. A 1992 free kick from José Perdomo of Argentine soccer club Gimnasia was famously dubbed “El Gol del Terremoto” (“The Earthquake Goal”). And Washington University in St. Louis scientists determined that simultaneous seismic spikes at stations across Cameroon were caused by fan celebrations during the national team’s soccer games in the African Cup of Nations in 2006.
And yet, in seismology circles, the “Beast Quake” was initially seen by some as a scientific stunt.
“The whole ‘Beast Quake’ experience started a trend where other seismic networks began monitoring sporting events and talking about it,” Bodin said. “We took a ton of (expletive) from our colleagues for doing something so frivolous. But we also got respect in that they started replicating what we’d done and doing it on their own.
“This is kind of inside baseball, but that’s one of the lessons I took home: That scientists can be pretty petty. But in the end I think they realized that what we had done was a help to the profession and didn’t trivialize it.”
It helped the profession in more ways than one. In the wake of “Beast Quake,” the Seahawks allowed the PNSN to install portable seismometers in the stadium before several playoff games. They used the accompanying data to study how the stadium structure responded to ground motions, educate the masses on basic seismology and experiment with their evolving “QuickShake” technology – which registered live seismic readings on their website (and served as a possible spoiler for Seahawks fans).
“I think we inadvertently created some new drinking games, because you were able to see the crowd reaction to the play before the play happened on TV,” Steele said. “Because FOX, of course, had a delay and our latencies (data delays) were much less. So it was really cool to watch the crowd go wild and then decide, is that an interception? Is it a fumble? Is it a touchdown? What happened?”
Added Bodin: “The first time we tried it, (the public) just brought down the website – which is not to say that it was a huge response. It’s to say that we had a crappy website. And frankly, that’s why we did it – to stress-test the idea of what we could do after an earthquake, during an aftershock sequence. How much information could we put out in real time?”
Now, similar technology is being utilized for much more than drinking games. Last October, California became the first state to launch an earthquake early warning system – which sends phone alerts in the seconds before an earthquake arrives in your area.
A similar system is expected to arrive in Washington and Oregon this spring.
“We’re working on this earthquake early warning stuff, where an earthquake happens and once it’s started and your sensors start to detect motion you forecast how strong it’s going to be and when the waves are going to hit places,” Bodin said. “In order to make that work in many instances you need really lightning-fast information coming through from a lot of sensors.
“So we were able to use the ‘Beast Quake’ and everything since to kind of x-ray the system and see where our latencies were big and devise ways to reduce them.”
So, in a sense, a 67-yard run spanning 15 seconds continues to send shock waves through a comparatively silent Seattle. Jan. 8 marked the 10-year anniversary of “Beast Quake” – and the Seahawks were unable to properly celebrate. A day later, they hosted an eerie playoff game in an empty Lumen Field – dropping a 30-20 decision to the division-rival Rams.
Had they won, the Seahawks would have met – who else? – the New Orleans Saints.
But they would have done so in a quieter world.
“Since COVID, seismic networks got besieged with the idea that the Earth has gotten quiet because of the lack of human activity,” Bodin said. “There’s not a lot of buses and trucks and all that stuff. So (the theory was that) it was going to be an improvement – a help for seismic monitoring – because we always complain about cultural noise. It hides little earthquakes and so forth.
“And in fact, we looked into it and there are ways that you can process the data that show that the Earth is a bit quieter. But the part of the Earth that’s quiet is exactly the ‘Beast Quake’ part. It’s that noisy part, because there’s fewer trucks. There’s no ‘Beast Quakes.’ There’s no big sporting events (with large crowds). Maybe there are in Texas, but not here.
“So that’s a point to consider, that right now we’re experiencing an inverse ‘Beast Quake’ phenomenon.”
The crowd is silent now, as Hammond once said.
But soon, Seattle’s stadiums will shake once again.
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