DETROIT – As the NFC championship game wound down two Sundays ago, a security guard stood beneath a television at Qwest Field and watched as the Seattle Seahawks paraded around with the game's trophy. When the gleaming piece of chrome had been passed around, and it was time to go to the team's owner, the guard gave a quizzical look to some reporters nearby.
"Which one is Paul Allen?" he asked.
"He's the one on the left, behind Matt Hasselbeck," a reporter said. "I think."
Maybe that was the moment that best painted Allen's place among the NFL's elite. He's the big man on the block with no cliques. He's not one of the NFL's founding patriarchs. He's not the ever-present sideline stroller like Dallas' Jerry Jones or Atlanta's Arthur Blank, and he's not a league rebel like Al Davis. And despite his vast wealth, he rarely uses his checkbook as a soap box, unlike Washington's Daniel Snyder.
In fact, until this season, when it came to the Seahawks, Allen's control of the franchise was akin to the fancy jet he uses to shuttle his team around – he may have owned it, but he wasn't the one flying it.
"Paul Allen has a lot of interests," Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren said when asked to describe his relationship with his owner. "The football team is one of them. Over the first few years – up until this year, actually – most of my communication with Paul was through email or over the telephone. When his schedule permitted, he came over to facility when he could. … He's got a lot of other things going."
There might not be a more massive understatement. Allen has major stock shares in over two dozen companies in various industries. Forbes boasts him as the seventh richest man in the world – $21 billion heavy, give or take the gross national product of France. He's reputed to date supermodels and plays a mean guitar. He's the co-founder of the biggest software company in the world and one of the most generous philanthropists on Earth, and he owns a yacht that would stretch from one end of Qwest Field to the other. And in his spare time, he's been patient enough to allow Holmgren to stick around through the franchise's struggles.
Yet, Allen's stature on the NFL landscape has been transparent. Many of the league's other owners have met him less than half a dozen times, even though Allen has owned the Seahawks since 1997. That was the year he rescued the team from a certain move to Anaheim when then-owner Ken Behring packed the franchise up and left town because of squabbles over the Kingdome lease. The relocation seemed permanent, until NFL pressure and a threatened lawsuit eventually facilitated a return and eventual deal to sell Seattle to Allen.
But until this season, the franchise was largely seen in league circles as another Allen toy, along with his Portland Trail Blazers – both grossly mismanaged for long periods by Allen confidant Bob Whitsitt. With the Seahawks being one of Allen's peripheral concerns, it was believed Whitsitt was running the franchise into the ground with impunity. That was an opinion shared by Holmgren right up until the end of last season, when he visited Allen's home, told him he could no longer co-exist with Whitsitt and informed Allen that he was thinking of leaving the team.
"In years past, there was a conduit to deal with (Allen) instead of talking to him directly," Holmgren said in a veiled reference to Whitsitt. "And (in those times) you're not always sure if the message was getting across because of the communication thing."
That "thing" was the lack of a direct line to Allen, and no real way to outline the erosion of the Seahawks' administration under Whitsitt. Holmgren confidants said he spent much of last season feeling isolated from Allen and frustrated with Whitsitt. Allen promptly fired Whitsitt and took a more active dialogue with Holmgren through general manager Tim Ruskell and CEO Tod Leiweke.
"This year, I know this: (Allen) was a very happy man in the locker room," Holmgren said. "He has taken a more active role in the football team in my opinion. And the lines of communication to him have been opened up, honestly. Tod Leiweke (and) Tim Ruskell have done a marvelous job. When I've been with Mr. Allen, we've always had marvelous conversations – I just never was with him very much."
That's changed in recent months. While Allen is still described in reclusive terms – and apparently still not recognized by some of the security guards who roam Qwest Field – his football visibility is losing its translucence.
Before the NFC title game, many were shocked to see Allen raise Seattle's "12th Man" flag. Then he went a step further, spending a generous amount of time with reporters in the locker room, reminiscing about early football memories and showing unbridled joy over Seattle's Super Bowl berth.
"I've been to a few Super Bowls and I was at the game last year just hoping that one day we'd be able to get there," Allen said. "I may seem like a mild-mannered guy, but my gut was churning inside: 'Let's win this game. Just win this game. We've got to win this game.' "
"If you're a fan of NFL football, how great is it to be able to root on your team to win the Super Bowl? It's incredible."
In a way, seeing Allen in such an excitable state showed a charm that's lost on this game's opposing owner – Dan Rooney. Not that Rooney doesn't love it just the same. It's just that we've seen the Rooney family wear this hat before. We know their contribution to the NFL. But for Allen – for an owner who still seems more of a fan than a pigskin mogul – this looks like the introduction of an owner who has been absent from football royalty from the start.
"He doesn't get too involved in the football stuff, which I think is a really smart way to be," Hasselbeck said. "Let the football people deal with football."
Now more than ever, Allen is part of that equation.