High above Safeco Field, inside Suite 49, Russell Wilson starts to relax. Then he thinks of something. Another idea.
He wants to play baseball again.
The Seahawks' quarterback has a million ideas, not all of them good. They come to him in the morning and at practice and in the middle of the night. He'll text his coach at 2 a.m. Or his agent. Or his friends. We should try this.... Some ideas, such as those about endorsements, get executed. Others, like the Wilson-themed store that he wanted to call The Danger Zone—after his nickname, DangeRuss Wilson—do not.
At Safeco, Wilson bounces out of his seat, inspired. He looks down on the field and sees Felix Hernandez, the Mariners' ace, a fellow icon in Seattle. He sees All-Star second baseman Robinson Cano, who plays one of Wilson's old positions. He sees pitcher Jeff Samardzija, who could have pursued America's fall or summer pastimes out of Notre Dame. They have Wilson thinking about the minor league career he gave up two years ago. Of course he could reach the majors, Wilson says. All he needs is a few hundred at bats to work out the kinks. That, and a football team crazy enough to let him moonlight on a diamond.
September 1, 2014
The natural reaction to such grand pronouncements is Yeah, right. But few people ever imagined that the 5'11" Wilson, a third-round pick, would start immediately in the NFL, and that worked out just as he expected. In 2012 he seized the starting job out of Wisconsin. Then he won 24 games his first two seasons and led a 43--8 demolition of the Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII to cap off year two—shifting the focus from what he lacked (height, experience) to the #FirstChampionshipProblems that he confronted this off-season. Namely, how someone who built a career on overcoming doubts can continue to succeed when no one doubts him anymore. That and one glaring rest-of-the-world problem: his divorce.
So maybe he'll go all Michael Jordan. Win three Super Bowls, play baseball, then come back and win three more. That's the sort of thought Wilson expresses in moments of spontaneity, rare as they are, when he isn't on message to the point of seeming programmed, when he isn't, as teammates call him, The Robot.
"I don't have everything I wanted," he says. "I'm far from that. I keep searching. Is that sick? Is that weird? I don't know. But I'm not satisfied with last year's results."
Really? The sentiment is both commendable and laughable. Wilson just reached the football pinnacle at 25, and the proof is on his left hand, filled with diamonds the size of Fruity Pebbles.
At Safeco, Wilson is surrounded by buddies—his best friend since kindergarten, Scott Pickett; his operations manager, Matt Rodgers; and a bevy of employees from his football camps. There's an Entourage feeling to the evening, a young star and his amigos at the ballpark, everyone but Wilson with beers in hand and stubble on their faces, life damn near perfect, the possibilities endless. Entourage, it turns out, is Wilson's favorite show; he has a cameo in the upcoming movie.
The show, as Wilson's generation remembers, was about an actor and his friends and their plans to rule the world. Wilson is asked which character he identifies with. "Vince," he says, obviously. The star.
But he wants to clarify because Wilson is nothing if not obsessively precise. Vince went off the rails near the end, found himself in rehab for cocaine abuse. His career was anything but smooth. "The good Vince, though," Wilson says.
This is what it's like to be Russell Wilson: When he arrives to shoot a Bose commercial at CenturyLink Field, he does not park outside with the masses; he parks his black Mercedes inside the concourse. He relieves running back Marshawn Lynch of a packet of Skittles, hidden inside Lynch's locker. He eats sushi in the coaches' room, where outside food is banned. He gets introduced along the way to not one young blonde admirer, but four.
For Wilson, this is any random Tuesday, his new life and all its perks. When Seahawks superfan John Nordstrom—yes, that Nordstrom—heard that Wilson did not own a boat, he loaned him one, indefinitely. When Wilson bought 38 sets of drapes for his new home, the company waived the installation fees.
Wilson lives life from hashtag to hashtag, every movement accompanied on social media by inspirational quotes and Bible verses and slogans, and one of his favorites remains #NoTime2Sleep. He won the Super Bowl and did not take vacation. Instead, from early February to late July, almost six months of bucket-list insanity unfolded.
Wilson got schooled on the evolution of black quarterbacks by Barack Obama, and he quizzed Jordan on the art of repeating. He bowled with Justin Bieber, sat courtside with Jay Z and Beyoncé, and hung with Macklemore, the Seattle rapper he calls Ben.
He filmed commercials for American Family Insurance, Alaska Airlines, Bose, Braun, Duracell, Microsoft and the United Way. On the Entourage set, 300 models surrounded him at a pool party. And between takes he tossed passes to actors Kevin Connolly and Jerry Ferrara. (On one route Connolly planted, cut and broke his leg in two spots.)
Wilson went so many places—Surprise, Ariz., for spring training with the Rangers; Raleigh, where his first school, N.C. State, retired his jersey—that he required a stunt double for commercial shoots. That double will earn six figures this year, just from his work as Wilson's doppelg√§nger.
And he trained. Every day. First thing in the morning. Often again at night. He incorporated soccer into his workouts because Wes Welker said it had helped him with spatial awareness, which might prove beneficial when reading zone coverages. He swam laps for cardio and took up paddleboarding for core work.
It could all seem like a little much. Except to Wilson.
On the Bose set, in the shadow of CenturyLink, Wilson notices an apartment complex rising in the distance. Bored between takes, he decides to look into available units with views of the field, and so he calls the leasing office: "Hey, Tanya, this is Russell Wilson...."
She has no idea that this Russell Wilson is the one who spends his Sundays on the field out the window, and so she asks for his contact info and his price range. Wilson is due $662,434 in base salary this season. But his endorsement income more than doubles that.
Tanya: "Is there a budget you want to stay under?"
Wilson: "Do you have a penthouse unit?"
Tanya: "What's your timetable?"
Wilson: "What's the most expensive one you have available?"
The Super Bowl expanded both Wilson's world and his outsized confidence, which he mostly keeps under wraps. He's the guy who, in his first huddle, at his first practice, said to his veteran teammates. "Hey, big touchdown, big play."
"I'm looking at him like, Hey, rookie, this is practice," left tackle Russell Okung recalls.
The week before the Super Bowl, in East Rutherford, N.J., Wilson answered endless questions about his Hall of Fame--bound counterpart, Peyton Manning. Wilson was deferential—at least in public. The night before the game he stood before his teammates in a hotel ballroom. He reminded them they were there for a reason, that he expected to win, and by double digits.
Later, on the bus ride to MetLife Stadium, Wilson texted his agent, Mark Rodgers (Matt's father), "There's no doubt we're going to win." While teammates blared hip-hop and hard rock through their headphones, Wilson dialed up "I'm Gonna be Ready," a ballad by gospel singer Yolanda Adams—basically the opposite of what you'd imagine any athlete would listen to before the Super Bowl, all soft and silky, the tempo slow.
But it soothed him. "I remember that," Wilson says. "How calm I was. How ready I was. I've never been that calm before."
Because Wilson recites Bible verses and visits sick children and presents an image that can appear crafted for consumption, it's easy to forget there is a ferocious athlete underneath. But there is. The guy who told Seahawks GM John Schneider on draft day, "This is the best decision you've made in your life," is the same guy who outplayed Manning, completing 18 of 25 passes for 206 yards and two TDs.
The thing is, Wilson expected as much—not just before that game but before he even reached the NFL. He reiterates that on the July day that Germany wallops Brazil 7--1 in the World Cup. Does it remind him of the Super Bowl? He nods. "One team was clearly better than the other," he says, a rare lapse into candor.
On the field, after the Super Bowl, Wilson ran into Schneider. "This is so special," he said. "I can't wait until next year." At the team party Wilson watched his friend Ben perform, then retired to a separate ballroom with his inner circle. The Robot celebrated. Sort of.
"In some ways it was just another day," Mark Rodgers says. "I don't know if I was troubled that he wasn't more excited, or impressed."
When Andre Agassi proclaimed, "Image is everything," the one he projected was antiestablishment. Wilson believes the same thing but chooses the opposite facade. He does not just send handwritten notes (to sick children, coaching staff, his agent), he practices calligraphy and makes drafts before putting pen to personal stationery. He keeps three suits in his car, including a Calvin Klein tuxedo, just in case. He swaps his iPhone out for a Windows model at Microsoft events. When the Seahawks blast the Eminem song "The Monster," which mentions Wilson's name, he makes sure to be talking with the nearest receiver during practice so that no one thinks he's waiting to hear it.
He wants to be The Perfect Teammate, The Perfect Pitchman, The Perfect Son—and in striving for perfection, he can appear to try too hard, the kid who practiced press conferences growing up. Wilson's agent called Rosetta Stone this off-season so that his client could learn another language during his downtime, driving around town. Only Wilson didn't want to learn just one language, he wanted to learn three.
Wilson sidesteps questions about Washington State's legalization of marijuana, or about Lynch's posing nude for a magazine, or about life after divorce. Pickett, his best friend, declines to share his favorite Wilson stories. "He's not going to want to talk about them," Pickett says. "They're in the past."
Instead, Wilson steers conversations to his plan to stop by CenturyLink every day before the season starts. Or how he has the birthday of every Seahawks employee programmed into his phone. He's shared one goal for 2014: He wants to serve someone every day, by bringing a rookie a cup of water or shaking the hand of everyone on a commercial shoot. The desired reaction: Well, isn't that nice.
"Andrew Luck had that kind of polish," says Seahawks teammate Richard Sherman, who played with Luck at Stanford. "The difference is, Russell is stone. He's totally unflustered, unfazed by anything. He has such a Zen that you can feel it."
At another July commercial shoot, for Braun, Wilson is more than the star. He's the director, in a sense, offering suggestions and reviewing playbacks between takes. He fusses with his faux-hawk after visiting hair and makeup. He fishes the tuxedo out of his car to replace the suit that wardrobe selected. And he handles the music on set, all his favorites—Jay Z, Earth Wind & Fire, Michael Jackson. (To spend time with Wilson is to enter a "Thriller"/"Beat It"/"Man in the Mirror" torture chamber.)
Wilson's the same way about his football camps. While most players do just one, in their hometown, Wilson did eight this summer, including in Richmond (his hometown), Los Angeles, Raleigh, Vancouver and Madison, Wis. His have VIP and merchandise tents as well as a sound booth, and when called upon, during an ESPN interview, he pivots gracefully to invoke camp sponsor Gatorade and its Beat the Heat campaign, making sure that nearby campers are in the shot.
At each camp Wilson signs every T-shirt pressed his way and takes photos with every last child and volunteer coach. He holds a baby. "Russell for president!" someone shouts from the crowd.
"Just call me FDR," he says, smiling.
Wilson's self-possession and self-assurance bring to mind a couple of shortstops when they were his age: Alex Rodriguez (a comparison raised by Wilson's agent, Mark Rodgers, who courted A-Rod as a teenage sensation in Miami) and Derek Jeter (Wilson's own choice). Those two reside at opposite ends of the image spectrum. While it seems safe to say that Wilson will never be as polarizing as Rodriguez, it's far from certain that his practiced style will wear as well as Jeter's.
But he's trying; that's the goal. At one of his camps Wilson moves several teammates into position, coaching them on how to coach the kids. They watch as their quarterback signs autographs and takes pictures and works the grounds, his actions precise, the smallest details taken care of. "He's smooth," linebacker Bobby Wagner says. "He's not like a 25-year-old. He's refined. He's like an older guy. He's just ... old."
Cameras roll on a United Way commercial set as a group of child actors pick teams. Wilson stands there, alone in a park. In this satire he is the last taken, an underdog again. The teams move to a miniature obstacle course on a nearby field, and for perhaps the first time ever Wilson is too tall.
New paradigm indeed.
Wilson has lost three times, at anything, since last Oct. 7. His Seahawks stumbled twice in December, to the 49ers and to the Cardinals, by a combined nine points. And, to his eternal embarrassment, he dropped a pickup basketball game 15--11 against his teenage sister, Anna. He's no longer too short, or not good enough. He's the guy onstage with Jessica Alba at the ESPY Awards. It's hard these days to question his approach.
"Maybe he went overboard in the beginning," says Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon, a mentor to Wilson and a Seahawks TV analyst. "Maybe he alienated teammates as a rookie. Now, you can't argue with the results. He's the guy who has it all, who always seems to do the right thing. That's what surprised me so much about his marriage not working out. That shocked me."
Ah, the divorce. Wilson married his high school sweetheart, Ashton Meem, in 2012. The two often appeared together in public and, Moon says, Ashton regularly watched Seattle's practices, making her more visible than the other wives.
According to friends, the Wilsons were in marital counseling for much of last season. And, despite how well Wilson played in the final months, those same friends say that he struggled to reconcile his crumbling marriage with his Christian faith. He believed divorce was a sin.
As Wilson made the post--Super Bowl rounds—Letterman, Charlie Rose, Good Morning America—Ashton accompanied him. But they separated less than a month later, and in April, Wilson filed for divorce, which he announced in a press release. And then he tabled the topic for good. The couple reached a settlement two days before the start of training camp.
Wilson can evade the d-word, but he can't escape the subject. Everywhere he goes, well-intentioned Seahawks fans try to set him up, offering phone numbers for their daughters or nieces or colleagues. One camper, during a Q&A, asked Wilson if he was married. "Next question," he responded.
Back in the suite at Safeco the topic makes Wilson visibly uncomfortable. He fidgets and declines to answer. He glances at his assistant. After 30 seconds he regains composure and continues as if nothing has happened. "What else?" he says, back on point that quick.
If Wilson listed all of his post--Super Bowl responsibilities, the volume would overwhelm him. But it never does. He's all next play, next training session, next shoot, next celebrity hangout, a cliché—one fill-in-the-blank at a time—sprung to life. Wilson talks incessantly about it, this notion of compartmentalization. He says it's his greatest strength.
The key to that approach glows constantly on the background of his cellphone: BE PRESENT. Over lunch one day in July he asks about the most anticipated game of the NFL season: "When do we play Denver?" I know it's Week 3; the waiter knows it's Week 3; Wilson probably knows it's Week 3. But to admit that would be to cop to a view beyond the next 24 hours. That's not the Wilson way.
As everything around Wilson changed, he tried to remain as normal as a Super Bowl champion can be. He turned down dozens of book offers because he believes his story has just started. He moved two of his best friends from childhood into a house near his own and remained wary of new acquaintances, with all the business ventures they suggested. He told himself, I've only won one. I've never done anything. I'm only 25. That process, he says, "is almost like acting." The Robot believes he can program his mind to impact his future actions.
Those close to Wilson know that this all comes from his father, Harrison Wilson III, a lawyer who woke his son up every morning at 5:30 to run through drills; who planned his own funeral, including specific hymns and scriptures; who ingrained slogans that doubled as expectations, like "separation through preparation" and "there's a king in every crowd." Harrison and his wife, Tammy, a legal nurse consultant, put their three children through the Collegiate School (tuition: $17,000). Russell followed his father everywhere, including into football and baseball.
Harrison died in June 2010, at 55, of complications from diabetes, just one day after Russell was drafted by the Rockies. Russell remains his father's son, the ultimate micromanager. In a quiet moment at the Bose commercial he plays some Neil Young. Old man, take a look at my life, I'm a lot like you were.
The rest is reinforcement, repetition. Wilson works with Trevor Moawad, a mental coach whose own father, Bob, was a contributor to the original Chicken Soup for the Soul. As the season neared, Moawad sent Wilson video clips, stories, highlight montages. He told the QB the story of Buzz Aldrin, the astronaut who returned from space and struggled for years with how to top that moment. He sent one video in which Jordan discussed how he stayed on top once he arrived there, followed by clips of Wilson savaging NFL defenses. "Everything he does should be deliberate," Moawad says.
On another occasion he handed Wilson a T-shirt. It read, piss EXCELLENCE.
Russell Wilson can see the future. Often he will play out specific plays, entire games, in his head while he showers or watches film. In the past he studied college football video games just so he could visualize opponents' stadiums—where they placed the video board, if they had a clock tower.
He sees the Seahawks opening up their offense this season, with a healthy Percy Harvin back at receiver, alongside speedy rookie Paul Richardson. He can picture the 2016 off-season, when it will be time to renegotiate his contract, and the payday that awaits, in the $20 million-a-year range. He calls these visions "conscious confidence," and he swears that specific plays he's dreamed up have actually unfolded on the field, which would make him both a Pro Bowler and a clairvoyant.
People don't understand Wilson, Sherman says. They miss what drives him, because what drives him is buried beneath five coats of polish. They're not so different, the cornerback who speaks before he thinks and the quarterback who overthinks every word. "We're fueled by the same thing," says Sherman. "Our whole team is. We're a bunch of underdogs, guys nobody wanted, who didn't fit schemes. That's why he's our leader."
The trick to another Super Bowl run, Moon says, is for Wilson to establish himself among his teammates as their leader; in charge but not above them; able to laugh at their jokes or join them for dinner; at once one of them and not. "Everything he went through could help with that," Moon says. "It almost makes him human."
Wilson went so many places that he required a stunt double for commercials. That double will earn six figures this year, just from his work as Wilson's doppelg√§nger.
Says Wilson's agent of the QB after the Super Bowl victory, "I don't know if I was troubled that he wasn't more excited, or impressed."
Open the Google app and say, "Ok Google, what is the SPORTS ILLUSTRATED cover jinx?"