Inside the close-knit inner circle of Russell Wilson
SEATTLE -- This is a story about four friends. One is famous. He moved across the country, to the West Coast, for the life most dream about, to become rich and meet models and own a mansion and star in commercials. His closest confidants call him Russ.
The other three came with him. Or for him. Bros, for life, they are. There’s the worrier and the funny guy and the dramatic one. Sort of. They don’t like to be typecast, and they all pursue their own endeavors. But for the moment, they remain most focused on the same thing, on the career that brought them out here and the spoils that came with it.
To be fair, this only sounds like Entourage, the hit HBO television show. It’s not that, not exactly. But it’s close.
This is a story about Russell Wilson, the Seattle Seahawks quarterback, and those closest to him and their plans. Wilson, obviously, won the Super Bowl last February, and that meant more commercials, more requests, more interviews, more engagements, more signatures, more book proposals, more football camps, more selfies. It meant more of everything -- except close friends. Wilson is done there. He surrounds himself with people who knew him before his world expanded, before he became a brand.
The MMQB tour lands in Renton, WA as Peter King checks out the reigning NFL champion Seattle Seahawks.
Away from the team facility, aside from family, Wilson can count his inner circle on one hand. There’s his agent, Mark Rodgers; his two best friends from childhood, Scott Pickett and Casey Wadkins; and his personal assistant, Mark’s son Matt, who Wilson introduces as his Chief of Staff. Because quarterbacks are like presidents. Of course.
As his opportunities ballooned, Wilson kept his crew this small on purpose. He followed roughly the LeBron James Model for World Domination Through Sports. Keep your friends close. Train them to do more. Remain wary of outsiders but utilize the best when necessary.
All young celebrity athletes that reach the highest levels of sports must confront how they want to handle what comes out of that. Some only hire outside experts, build teams to build a brand. Most turn to friends and family, in addition to outsiders, for the same reasons Wilson did, for familiarity and trust.
“It’s very rare for him to meet people and have them say anything other than, ‘Awesome, yes, great idea,’” Matt Rodgers said. “No one treats him like Russ. They all treat him like Russell Wilson.”
Pickett, Wadkins and Matt Rodgers all live together, in a house east of Seattle. Their abode is a storage unit and fraternity house and an office all at once. Boxes of T-shirts and memorabilia line every room throughout the summer. A black Labrador named Cooper scampers about. They last saw the floor of that living room, clean, not buried under boxes, months ago.
This arrangement didn’t exist last year, before Wilson won a championship and the demands on his time increased exponentially. This time last year, Wilson showed up to commercial shoots by himself, unaware that could seem unusual. Now, his Chief of Staff is always with him.
Matt Rodgers did not want to follow his father into the agent business. He always wanted to work in film, starting at Elon University in North Carolina. Then his dad needed someone to film Wilson, and so Matt did, for several months, and he sold four episodes to the NFL Network.
Entourage was the TV show that inspired Rodgers to become a filmmaker, but the act of putting something on TV was different. It was hard. It could be boring. Making TV was a whole lot of standing around. Rodgers found he liked life inside the circle more than he liked documenting it.
After the Super Bowl, Wilson needed help. He had 25 various commercial shoots and photo shoots and appearances scheduled between February and July. North Carolina State retired his jersey. The Seattle Children’s Hospital welcomed his weekly visits. His schedule fell to Rodgers, who, like Wilson, is 25. “He values youth and loyalty,” Rodgers said. “I’m probably underqualified at times to be doing what I’m doing.”
Pickett and Wadkins already helped Wilson run his football camps, but this offseason they also moved to Seattle to assist with more. That and put on eight camps in three states and two countries. They call them Passing Academies, and these academies have VIP tents with catered food and merchandise for sale and more sponsors than an Olympics.
Wadkins played baseball at Wake Forest. He grew up on the PGA Tour. His father, Bobby, was a professional golfer. So was his uncle, Lanny, who won the PGA Championship in 1977 and was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2009.
Wadkins is used to fame, then, to the way the public interacts with athletes. He is not awed by the attention Wilson receives, and Wilson respects that. He also saw golfers whose private lives did not match their public images, guys who seemed too good to be true -- and were. He knows people think the same thing about his buddy, Wilson. “Russell’s consistent,” he said. “It’s not a façade. He’s not hiding anything. You kind of fall into these patterns. Muscle memory and all that.”
Then there’s Pickett, Wilson’s oldest friend. They met in kindergarten, at recess. Pickett works for Wilson’s financial advisor, who is based in Seattle. He’ll shoot Wilson the straightest.
No one will cop to Johnny Drama tendencies, those of the brother of the show’s star, the one prone to antics. Rodgers is probably the closest. He’s a few months older than Wilson and calls him Baby Bro, just like Drama on the show. The others tease Rodgers about the amount of clothes in his closet, or the number of shoes he owns. “I’ll own some of the Drama,” he said. “I probably worry more like E.”
“He takes his wardrobe very seriously,” said Victor Wise, another friend of the group. “He’s definitely the pretty boy of the bunch. But you can tell they’re all close. They’re like a family, with Russell at the head.”
That’s the crew. That’s how they’re set up. “It’s a lot of good faith,” Wadkins said. “I don’t want to say unprofessional, but it lacks some professionalism. We’re friends. There’s not a lot of contracts. You’re going with the flow, learning as you go.”
Sports Illustrated's Don Banks previews the NFC West for the 2014 NFL season.
Wilson never sleeps. He spends the time he could be sleeping talking about how he never sleeps, or making T-shirts that say #NoTime2Sleep. That’s part of his persona, part of an image, but it’s also because he wanted to capitalize this offseason on the Super Bowl triumph. For a quarterback slated to earn $662,434 in base salary for 2014, the time for commercial pursuits is now. His star may never glow brighter than this offseason. That’s not the plan, but …
“He wants to do all of it,” said the older Rodgers, his agent. “The truth of the matter is, he’s not going to be a 25-year-old, Super Bowl-champion quarterback his whole life. There will be time to do other things, like learn three languages. We need to worry about what we can do now."
There was no shortage of options. What seemed like every Christian church group in America called. So did hundreds of companies who sought Wilson as a pitchman or wanted him to speak to their executives, and dozens of authors who wanted to pen his book. One random February morning, Mark Rodgers counted his Wilson-related inquiries. He stopped at 100. It was 11 a.m.
Wilson handpicked several of the companies he endorsed. His team went to Alaska Airlines and noted the similarities between Wilson and their company -- smaller than competitors, chasing more established counterparts, on the rise. He also didn’t like the Beats By Dre advertisements that featured the San Francisco 49ers being harassed by crowds of Seahawks fans, or seemed to, anyway, so his team went to Bose and sought a deal. Wilson turned down one major fast food franchise because he didn’t eat there. As with the crew and why he moved them here and what they do for him, every commercial was chosen for a purpose, as part of a larger strategy. Wilson is meticulous like that.
The Entourage helps with everything -- food, drapes, schedules, dogs, training, you name it. They keep autograph seekers away when Wilson requires privacy. They act as friends and bodyguards and deliverymen and errand boys and chefs. They say no so he does not have to. All that and one other thing that Wilson struggles with -- golf. Wadkins is trying to help with that.
“He’s abysmal,” Wadkins said. “But he can hit it a mile.”
Sports Illustrated's lead fantasy writer Michael Beller unveils the three players with the highest fantasy football ceilings going into the 2014 season.
Shortly after the Super Bowl, Wilson attended a Brooklyn Nets game, and when the cameras found him, he was courtside, next to Jay Z. Rodgers’ phone blew up with text messages, warnings, all. Colleagues urged him to run down to the court, lest he lose Wilson to Jay Z, who recently went into sports management. But Rodgers said he never worried.
“Frankly, I don’t think he needs a big-time guy,” Rodgers said. “The big-time guy is not going to do what we’re doing for him.”
Wilson selected his agent through a Google search. He wanted to play football and baseball, same as Jeff Samardzija, and so he typed Samardzija’s name and agent into the search engine. He then called Rodgers, who at that point knew Wilson as a quarterback but not a middle infielder. They’ve worked together ever since. Rodgers was there for Wilson when his father died. “No one can ever replace my dad,” Wilson said. “But if there’s another figure like that in my life, it’s Mark.”
That’s the way Wilson prefers to operate, his style heavy on loyalty and friendship, the Entourage undertones evident, if not entirely accurate. Sometimes, his friends will leave their house and all the boxes and head to his house and all the space. They will play video games or sit out by the lake, all the sorts of things that 25-year-olds do in between their plans to rule the world. How long that will last is anyone’s guess. But for Wilson, it works, for now.
“We’re here to help,” Wadkins said. “It’s not all dependent on Russell. He’s learning as he goes, too. It’s not like I see us being 30 and all still living in the same house.”
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It worked for Vincent Chase.