SEATTLE — He cruises down a hallway with an upbeat stride, zipping past the oversized portraits of glory past that feels like forever ago. The Fail Mary. The Super Bowl demolition. The comeback against Green Bay. Russell Wilson doesn’t take any time to reminisce. He turns, right, onto the team’s indoor practice field, where more nostalgia awaits.
High above, in the opposite end zone, banners stare at him. One, in particular, should blind Wilson—the one that reads 2014 NFC Champions.
Glorious as that may appear, that banner signifies the beginning of the Legion of Boom’s messy end. Players who promised to punch you in the mouth, punched you in the mouth and then danced on your grave departed one by one. Now, these current Seahawks are in danger of missing the playoffs for a second straight season. So much has changed around here, but one constant remains: the brazen positivity of the quarterback who helped put up those banners.
The 29-year-old Wilson’s confidence borders on certainty. These Seahawks aren’t dead, no.
Teammates believe in him. He believes in himself. He knows how he’ll be remembered.
“I always want to be known as clutch,” Wilson says. “As a quarterback, you always want to be known as that. The hard work, the preparation, I think, is the thing I try to bring to the table every day. I want to be the best in the world in terms of preparing. When it’s all said and done, I want to be known as a winner. One of the greatest winners of all time.”
This is Russell Wilson’s team. There’s no debate about that now. Pick your ass-kicker from the best six-year run in team history, and odds are he is long gone: Marshawn Lynch, Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor, Cliff Avril, Michael Bennett, Bruce Irvin. What made the LOB horrifying—a blend of belligerence and violence unmatched in its era—has been virtually fumigated from the building. What’s left is a quarterback who ex-teammates blame for the team’s demise.
The supporting cast is green, and the defense, while solid, is a skeleton of its past.
If the Seahawks are going to contend, Wilson must play Superman. This team goes as far as he takes it.
When it’s all said and done, I want to be known as a winner. One of the greatest winners of all time.
— Russell Wilson
That’s a reality he embraces.
“You don’t back down from it,” Wilson says. “You look forward to those moments. You look forward to leading your team down the field and winning big games. … I don’t fear it. You can’t get to this point, this level, the National Football League playing quarterback, without looking forward to the big moments.”
John Cordes/Associated Press
Here’s what Wilson also believes: He’ll play until he’s 45 years old. He does not care what any ex-teammates said. He will not be outworked. He shows up at 5:30 a.m. and stays until 7:30 p.m. He believes in the youth around him because this 2018 team reminds him of the 2012 version, the inaugural boomers. He believes he’s truly blessed to be one of 32 men in the world with his job.
But things are different now. More treacherous than ever. The boom has been replaced by youth and inexperience. Those street fights of old that left opponents begging for mercy have blurred into mad scrambles to the final gun. Wilson nearly dug the Seahawks out of a late 25-10 hole against the Chargers…but a potential game-tying touchdown was dropped. He nearly dug the Seahawks out of a 36-24 hole against the Rams…but his final fourth-down pass sailed high. Time is running out on the 4-5 Seahawks as Aaron Rodgers and the equally desperate Packers come to town.
One more loss could sink the Seahawks for good.
But Russell Wilson—and everybody around Russell Wilson—also knows this.
If anybody can save this season, it’s him.
The utter lack of emotion is striking.
Four years ago, when Malcolm Butler effectively drove a knife through his heart with a Super Bowl-clinching interception at the 1-yard line, Wilson’s instant reaction was a soft, goshdarnit of a clap before he removed his helmet.
When receiver David Moore dropped a touchdown with no time remaining two weeks ago, Wilson briefly lifted his hands to his head and then hardly blinked through a blank stare. He consoled Moore one moment, prayed at midfield the next.
After Sunday’s final incompletion in a 36-31 loss to the Rams, he simply clapped his hands again.
It’s always a strange sight. In moments that should demoralize him, Wilson is stone cold. His reasoning is simple: He knows how much he works. He knows he’ll thrust himself right back into that moment. Again. Again. And again. Redemption, to him, is always around the corner.
Rick Scuteri/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press
“The tough moments build you up for the next good moment,” Wilson says. “And I think the same thing as a team. It’s not supposed to be easy. It’s supposed to be battle-tested. Those are the things that build you up as a team. And that’s the thing we’ve been able to do.
“I get to play with some of the best teammates in the world. These guys are amazing. Just to play with those guys every day and be able to work with them, it’s one of the biggest joys of my life.”
Through his smile, it’s impossible to tell if this lavish praise is a jab at the anonymous ex-teammates who’ve ripped him to shreds. In an explosive Sports Illustrated story, former coaches and players claimed Pete Carroll’s coddling of Wilson pissed players off and precipitated the team’s demise. Wilson, here, asserts that nothing in that story bothered him at all because he is 100 percent comfortable in the work he puts in.
He’s a dad, with kids, and promises to have a life outside of football. But Wilson is also the same workaholic who constantly beat Matt Flynn to the office his first offseason. Flynn inked the splashy new deal, Flynn was the presumptive starter, but Wilson did not care. He gave coaches no choice but to start him. Today, offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer sincerely is not sure when his quarterback sleeps. Wilson will text Schottenheimer random thoughts at all hours of the night. Midnight, 3 a.m., whenever something pops into his mind.
“If you really want to be great at something—especially at this level, the highest, highest, highest level in the world—I think that there has to be an ultimate sacrifice of time, of decisions and the things that you do,” Wilson says. “Where do you spend your time? For me, no matter where I go in the world and no matter what I’m doing, I’m thinking about working out. The schedule in my head is, ‘I’m going to work out in the morning and then everything else follows.’ This game can never leave you. And the moment that it does is when it gets to you.
“I’m looking forward to another 15 years of playing. How do I continue to prepare my mind, my body, my spirit? All that.”
Conversations with a dozen players in the Seattle locker room last week indicate whatever divisions may have existed before are gone. Several veterans say this 2018 team is closer than any Seahawks team they’ve ever been on, and a major reason is that Wilson isn’t taking a back seat to Sherman, to Bennett, to anyone else anymore. Suddenly, Wilson is the fourth-oldest player on the team…so he’s speaking up more than ever.
Before games, he’s injecting the energy. After the games, as one player said after that Chargers loss, he’s blaming himself out loud in the showers.
Leadership, to him, today, is a relentless desire to “serve.” To constantly pepper his younger teammates with nuggets of information throughout the day. To sit down with everyone he can, one-on-one, and have a genuine conversation about their life, their upbringing. He’s been trying to learn as much as possible about everyone he can, be it at a player’s locker, Bible study, at lunch, wherever.
He knows he can’t get to everyone.
“But,” he adds, “I do think you can get to the one person that you’re with.”
And he believes the culture here has “grown.”
Linebacker Shaquem Griffin wasn’t around last year, but his twin brother, Shaquill, was, and everyone has been talking about this transformation.
“It changed for the better,” Griffin says. “As in everybody’s together. As in everybody’s communicating with each other. It’s not an uptight thing anymore. I think that’s very important, to have guys coming to practice who enjoy being here.”
Gelling as one unit has been as simple as getting guys together for Ping-Pong or the wide receivers group going out for a game of laser tag. Or cooking together. Or playing video games. Or going go-karting together, as Griffin and others have discussed.
Wilson, Griffin adds, is at the heart of it all. And that has given him an insight into his team few players in the league possess.
Backup Brett Hundley noticed this immediately. Like the quarterback he used to back up in Green Bay, Wilson is uber-demanding. But like Aaron Rodgers, Wilson also has mastered the art of being demanding. He knows which players he can scream at mid-practice and which ones he must address behind the scenes. When people think of the mental side of the position, Hundley explains, they think of X’s and O’s. Not this.
The result is a Seahawks team that’s become a reflection of its quarterback.
After a fourth-quarter pick-six against the Chargers, Wilson stayed upbeat. He paced the sideline, up and down.
“Guys, we look at that. We’re feeling that,” linebacker K.J. Wright says. “It’s a real reflection. If he acts mad and pissed off, we’re going to be the same way. If he’s positive, we’ll be positive. … It’s like subconscious taking over. Because if he acts any kind of way, that energy is going to reflect on the team.”
As for the notion Wilson was handled with kid gloves, Wright chuckles and says all vets are coddled with the occasional rest day.
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One team source chalked up the criticism as “old heads” in the locker room looking for someone to blame. Jealousy. Simply, the team believed it needed to get younger, to plan ahead, and the source points out that Wilson forgot about those quotes as soon as he heard them. While admitting that leaning on Wilson’s heroics to this degree is a blessing and a curse, the Seahawks love the fact that Wilson puts everything behind him.
“I don’t know why there’s so much animosity,” the source said. “It’s the quarterback position. It’s always going to be under the limelight. The guy didn’t get special treatment at all.”
Griffin, meanwhile, has only seen Wilson feverishly take notes in every single meeting. “He’s Russ for a reason,” Griffin says. “There’s only one of him.” And as guard J.R. Sweezy deadpans, if feelings were hurt over any special treatment Wilson received, well, too bad. The team does not function without him.
“At the end of the day, man, he’s the guy,” Sweezy says. “He should get what he wants because every Sunday he goes out there and balls out.”
Seattle needs him to. All the time. The 1,967 passing yards, 21 touchdowns and five picks have been good for a career-best 110.2 passer rating through nine games. He’s paralyzing defenses with his arm, legs and mind better than he ever has, yet it’s not enough. Each game deteriorates into the same scene: Wilson zigzags in every direction by the fourth quarter with a cape attached to his pads..and falls one play short. All five of the Seahawks’ losses have been by eight points or fewer, and now they’re on the verge of free-falling into the NFC cellar.
Arguably no team in the NFL is this reliant on one player.
At the end of the day, man, he’s the guy. He should get what he wants because every Sunday he goes out there and balls out.
— J.R. Sweezy
Far too much, it appears, has been put on Wilson’s shoulders. Asked about this, Wright squints and thinks for a moment. He doesn’t like that phrasing. He knows veteran linebacker Bobby Wagner is dealing with the same burden on his side of the ball.
As he watches a Ping-Pong game in the locker room, sitting atop a table, Wright is blunt.
Rick Scuteri/Associated Press
“You just have to do it. He has the ball in his hand every play,” Wright says. “If he throws a good pass, I’m sure they’ll catch it. He has to run the offense. You’re the best quarterback…one of the best quarterbacks in the league, the quarterback of this team, there can’t be any pressure.
“That’s no excuse.”
There’s an extreme politeness to Russell Wilson that those around him know could be interpreted as poll-tested drivel. The citing of football as “a gift” from God, one he’ll use to change the world. The fawning praise of teammates that sounds more like a poetry than an answer. The gentle, warm eyes. The firm, sincere handshake.
It’s not normal because normal interactions with the press, from stars, typically range from indifference at best to outright banning you at worst.
Nothing seems to irritate Wilson. Nothing can deter his congeniality.
He should be incensed that any teammate would ever question his work ethic. It doesn’t. “I know what I put in. I know it’s all about the 52 guys in the locker room.”
He should make that mountain of a chip on Rodgers’ shoulder look more like a grain of sand. At least Rodgers was drafted in the first round. Wilson plummeted to 75th overall because he stood only 5’10 ⅝” tall. “Oh, I don’t worry about that. God made me this height for a reason.” And Wilson adds, sincerely, that he wants to give hope to other short quarterbacks in Richmond, Virginia, L.A., New York City, everywhere.
He should absolutely be driven, daily, by that Butler interception. Nope. “I’m never going to let one play define me.”
You’re waiting for him to ooze with basic human anger…at some point…and he never does. Not in this conversation, not in his weekly press conferences. Sweezy laughs when Wilson’s public persona is brought up. He confirms that, believe it or not, Wilson is not a robot. Not a wind-up doll. Sweezy has been around Wilson eight years in all, back to college, and assures this is the real deal.
That Wilson truly is one of the nicest human beings you’ll ever meet.
Christian Petersen/Getty Images
“I love the guy,” Sweezy says. “That’s Russell Wilson.”
But maybe he should have a mean streak. Maybe he should’ve drunk whatever it was the Legion of Boom drank. The Seahawks need hostility now—anger—not Ned Flanders. They need Wilson to fight back, to inspire a team beyond merely acting professionally. Smiling, Wilson assures he has it in in him, that he’s a totally different person between the white lines. That a fire burns inside him. Teammates are quick to agree and detail Wilson’s diabolical nature.
I’m never going to let one play define me.
— Russell Wilson
Locker to locker, everyone has a campfire story to share, a reason that Wilson is uniquely qualified to guide them out of the abyss.
C.J. Prosise grew up near Wilson and remembers being glued to the TV for his first game in college, when Wilson was knocked out cold. That night, Wilson lay motionless on the turf for several moments with a concussion. Teammates surrounded him, holding hands, as Wilson was eventually taken off on a stretcher. Two weeks later, he played. Into the pros, despite countless injuries, he hasn’t missed a game. Wilson’s run of 116 straight starts at quarterback is the fourth-longest active streak and 11th-longest all-time.
Jaron Brown points to an audible against the Bears. On a called run, Wilson noticed the Bears were trying to hide the fact that they were in Cover 0 and audibled for Brown to run a slant and Tyler Lockett to go long. He was right. The Bears had no safety deep. Wilson’s perfect throw dropped right into Lockett’s breadbasket in the corner of the end zone.
Hundley’s mind is blown at his spin moves. Shaquill Griffin cites the athletic feats “you’ve never seen,” calls himself a “witness” as if this were an advertisement for LeBron James, and repeats it’s easy to go to war with someone like this. Wright points to Wilson’s blocking for his running back 20 yards downfield and the time Richard Sherman picked him off in OTAs about four years ago. Sherman yapped. Sherman scored. The next drive, Wright remembers Wilson went right back at the corner.
“He can be cutthroat,” Wright says. “He ain’t scared. He’ll let you know by the way he plays. He’s one of the fiercest dudes out there on the field. He’s the ultimate competitor.”
It’s possible Wilson represents the greatest contrast between one’s rhetoric and one’s play in the NFL. Schottenheimer sees this cutthroat side to Wilson all the time. Odds be damned, he says, Wilson will find a way to always bet on himself.
“When his back’s against the wall,” Schottenheimer says, “or his team’s up against the wall, it … just feels like: ‘We will not be denied. We’re going to find a way to do this.’ I think there is something inside him that burns constantly. He’s an unbelievable worker. He’s always doing things even when he leaves the building. … There is no perfection. But he is a one-in-a-kind type of player.”
The Seahawks have tried to take a load off Wilson’s shoulders by drafting Rashaad Penny and recommitting to the run. Despite injuries, the Seahawks rank No. 1 in rush attempts per game (32.0) and No. 1 in rushing yards (152.2). And Penny is busting out as the playmaker they envisioned. There are echoes back to that 2012 season here. Schottenheimer views himself as more of a “checks and balances” system for Wilson, pointing out the right times to gamble, to hold on to the ball and to knife that throw into traffic, adding Wilson never bats an eye when he tells him to do something.
Still, Schottenheimer wants Wilson to be Wilson, because there’s no need to reinvent greatness.
And only greatness can resurrect Seattle’s season.
Seattle’s margin for error is shrinking, and shrinking, right into this 2014 NFC Championship Game rematch.
That rainy evening at CenturyLink Field nearly four years ago was Wilson’s football life in a nutshell.
The first 55 minutes were the worst 55 minutes of Wilson’s career. Wilson threw one…two…three…four interceptions, and the final pick bounced right off a receiver’s hands. With the score at 19-7, and only five minutes left, Seattle’s odds of winning were 0.7 percent on Pro Football Reference (via the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel).
Yet as the Packers broke into celebration, as the state of Wisconsin booked its Super Bowl tickets, Wilson ever so softly unbuckled his right chinstrap and trotted to the sideline. He didn’t shoot Jermaine Kearse a death stare. Didn’t sulk. Wilson got the ball back with three minutes and 52 seconds left—his team’s win probability falling to 0.1 percent during the drive—and he pioneered one of the greatest comebacks in NFL history. It was Wilson’s entire football life in a nutshell.
Now all that’s left of the 2014 season is that eyesore of a banner.
Not that Wilson even notices it. Part of him probably expects to get back to that 1-yard line in the Super Bowl again, to get his shot at rewriting history. And he does not hesitate. This team, this season, absolutely can go the distance.
“I believe so. For sure,” he says. “The games that we’ve lost have been close, close games. We barely lost. The sky’s the limit.”
His team has been knocked down. He’s been knocked down.
Aaron Rodgers is up next.
But Wilson knows this: He is not going anywhere anytime soon.
Tyler Dunne covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @TyDunne.