Finding Something We Can Believe In

Blame It on the Al-koe-hol

What would you put on your bucket list if you found out you only had a few months left to live? It’s a question people love to speculate about, but I don’t think you could possibly know the answer until you are actually faced with your own mortality.

When my grandfather, Konstantinos “Gus” Ilvanakis, was told that he had anywhere between two and 12 months left to live last July, his answer was simple and not at all surprising to anyone who knew him:

“Doc,” he said, “I want to see the Seahawks win the Super Bowl and watch my grandson graduate from Harvard, can you do that for me?”

That these were the two ambitions for a man who was born on the other side of the world 53 years before the Seahawks existed and whose formal education ceased after middle school is pretty remarkable, and yet Grandpa believed.

Unfortunately, cancer caught up to Grandpa Gus before he could tick off either wish; in October, his incredible life of 90 years came to an end. I’ve never been one to trust in fate or the supernatural, but as the Seahawks marched to their first Super Bowl in franchise history, I couldn’t help but think that he had something to do with it. When Russell Wilson, the Legion of Boom, and Co. went “Beast Mode” on the Denver Broncos at the MetLife Stadium, I was overcome by emotion. Three months later, the feeling hasn’t gone away—I recently told a friend that I haven’t had a bad day since Feb. 4. Somehow, 53 men I’ve never met removed a massive weight from my shoulders that I didn’t even know existed. The Seahawks are Super Bowl champions; I only wish Grandpa had been alive to see it happen.

Grandpa Gus was born in Kavala, Greece in 1923. In his 40-plus years before settling down in Bellingham, Wash., he lived through World War II and the following Greek Civil War, during which he learned the skills to be an electrician for the rest of his life. He came out of it all with an incredible joy for life and a deep belief in the singular power of an education—a belief he and my Grandma Maria passed on to their daughters, who passed it on to my brother and me. Neither of them had seen the fruits of an education in their own lives, but they chose to believe, and I’ll never be able to thank them enough for that.

If the greatest thing about America for Grandpa Gus was the access to an education, then professional sports were definitely somewhere in the top five. Unluckily for him—and, until recently, for me and generations of Koenigs far and near—for all the wonderful things about the Pacific Northwest, it was far from the ideal place for someone who loves sports to settle. The Sonics were the first Big Four professional team to come to Seattle in 1967; they won a championship in 1979 and were pretty good in the 90’s, but otherwise were largely irrelevant. The biggest moments in Mariners history are a double in 1995 and a really good regular season in 2001. The Seahawks have mostly been competitive, but before Pete Carroll showed up in 2010, my two most vivid memories of the team are of Matt Hasselbeck throwing a pick-six and the refs deciding Super Bowl XL. Long story short, it was a lofty goal Grandpa set for the Seahawks this year.

But he believed, and so did I, and so will millions of fans of dozens of teams next year and every year into the future until finally that belief is rewarded. Because that’s all you can do when you care a great deal about the outcome of something you have no control over: believe. Grandpa’s annual belief was contagious. Surely, if it was ever going to happen for my Hawks it had to be this year, with this team. Being taken along for the ride to the title was an incredible experience, made all the better by the thought of how happy it would make Grandpa to see our dreams coming true. “I can’t help but say it,” my Dad wrote after the game, “This one was for Gus. The 12th Man is everywhere.”

No matter the time of day or the thousands of miles between us, when the Seahawks are on I know that the 12th men of the Koenig-Ilvanakis clan are watching and believing. And when I walk across that stage to get my diploma, I know that they’ll be watching too, wherever they may be.

—Staff writer Alex Koenig can be reached at akoenig@college.harvard.edu.

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