This story appears in the February 2 issue of Sports Illustrated.
Last season, while I was posing for magazine covers and calling out wide receivers in unconventional ways, I was also negotiating for an extension on my rookie contract. Seahawks general manager John Schneider asked me an important question: “Who are you going to be when you get paid?” As a fan, you’ve seen the scenario play out dozens of times — Player X gets a megadeal and never lives up to the paycheck; he stops playing hard and starts making business decisions with his body. I told John that I’m not playing football for the money, that I want to be the best to ever play. I said, “I’ll be the guy who has $50 million in the bank and plays like he has $5.”
My coach, Pete Carroll, says I’ve grown up since that breakout year, and to an extent, I agree. You see the world a little bit differently at 26 versus 25. Little slights don’t affect me as much as they did a year ago, and I don’t get overjoyed like I used to. It takes a little bit more to move the needle — winning a Super Bowl will do that. When you join a group of men and accomplish something so difficult and so rare, you no longer feel as though you have to prove things to people who haven’t proven anything to you. In most cases I have a better résumé than my detractors.
Before I had that, I was lucky to be drafted by Pete and John, who assembled around me one of the most talented and diverse defensive backfields in football. More than I want individual success, I want to be remembered as part of the Legion of Boom, which is why all of us are on the cover of Sports Illustrated magazine this week. In football, unlike various other sports, it takes a total team effort to be successful.
I can’t perform at this level without Kam Chancellor, the lion of the Legion, the guy who once picked off Peyton Manning by ducking to make it appear as though he couldn’t leap for the ball. He’s also the guy we go to with our problems, who doles out advice about a lot of issues that arise outside of football.
I can’t perform at this level without Earl Thomas — The Example — who can show you how to do the right thing better than he can explain it. When everybody else is joking, he’s locked in, a reminder of what we’re here for.
I can’t perform at this level without Byron Maxwell, our chill guy, oblivious to the pressure. I remember him joking around with Carroll in our rookie camp, saying that if he was allowed to play nickel he’d choke out the slot receiver. Carroll relented and Maxwell delivered, only to get injured in camp. Now he’s the corner on the other side, and his consistently high level of play makes QBs’ decisions very difficult.
I can’t perform at this level without Jeremy Lane, the scrappy guy from Tyler, Texas. Competition brings out the dog in him; just look at what he’s done to the Packers’ Randall Cobb.
Carroll requires certain things of all of us—we have to tackle with the best—but he’s allowed each of us to be ourselves. This organization let me develop a public persona through trial and error, and it let me be nonchalant in my technique, something I wasn’t allowed to do at Stanford. I don’t imagine that’s an option in New England.
When you grow up in this defense, it becomes difficult to judge receivers across the league by watching them on tape. Most cornerbacks don’t push receivers to their limits with effective press technique; only a handful of cornerbacks outside Seattle are capable of it—guys like the Patriots’ Darrelle Revis and Brandon Browner. Those are the players who give us the best indication of which receivers will be a challenge for our team.
With us, what you see is what you get: Press man and Cover Three — though the league continues to undermine our style of play, making things easier for the offense. Pass interference is a spot foul when called on the defense, but it’s a 10-yard penalty when called on the offense? We had the Packers facing third-and-13 in the NFC championship game, and the referees called hands to the face on one of our D-linemen who had no impact on the play. Five-yard penalty, first down. Those are the moments when you wonder, How can we win as a defense? People ask me how I’d compare this defense with the 1985 Bears, and I never have the answer they’re looking for. But I know this: In this era, with the rules we play by, we’re as dominant as any team can be.
But those are small issues. On a bigger level, I look at the NFL today and I’m as disappointed as ever in its management. Commissioner Roger Goodell operates at a high level, but he’s doing what 32 owners tell him to do. I once believed that having more retired players in the league office could remedy this, but the former player in the highest position, executive vice president of football operations Troy Vincent, continues to disappoint. When he told Adrian Peterson he’d receive a two-game suspension and the league failed to deliver, he became just another suit.
Under Goodell the league continues to put players like Marshawn Lynch in a position to be mocked by the media, which seems to get a kick out of seeing people struggle on camera. As teammates we’re angry because we know what certain people do well and we know what they struggle with. Marshawn’s talking to the press is the equivalent of putting a reporter on a football field and telling him to tackle Adrian Peterson.
Some of the same people slamming Marshawn for not talking are just as likely to condemn the Browns’ Andrew Hawkins and Johnson Bademosi for protesting police brutality with T-shirts. They want to hear us speak, but only if we’re saying something they want to hear. As athletes who spend most of our waking hours at the team facility, we learned about the events in Ferguson and the death of Eric Garner through a kind of osmosis—you see a video clip or read a story, but you never get the full picture. We understand, though, what it is to grow up as a black man in America. As a community, the best way for us to avoid becoming victims is for people to understand that we can avoid a great majority of these situations. Too often we look at a Ferguson and we say, That’s what’s wrong with my life, that’s why I’m in the situation I’m in.
I thought long and hard about joining in with players across the league and making a visual statement — a T-shirt or a hands-up gesture — but ultimately I decided against it. I asked myself, What message am I sending out? Am I going to end police violence? Racism? No, of course not. So how can I evoke change?
I got some news nine months ago that helped me reach a conclusion. My girlfriend, Ashley, and I are expecting our first child, a boy, any day now. I’ve realized in the last year that I can evoke change by being a great role model: a man who respects women and police officers, who graduated from college and does everything in his power to be successful within the rules.
Circumstances dictate where you start — a single mother raised Kam Chancellor to become the man he is today — but each individual determines his course. Where I came from, in Compton, kids were brainwashed into thinking that if they weren’t athletes or rappers or drug dealers they were nothing. My son will understand that he’s in control of his own destiny and that education, work ethic and discipline will guide him to an even better life than I’ve enjoyed. He’ll be the man who makes this world a better place through positive actions and influence.
Photo: Jonathan Ferrey for Sports Illustrated