Russell Wilson Spreads His Football Gospel to the Broncos – The New York Times

  • September 10, 2022

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With a picture-perfect family, a Super Bowl-caliber team and Michael Jordan’s trainer at his side, the star quarterback is back to spreading football intensity — with a smile.
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ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — Russell Wilson does not believe in balance. That word suggests that he in any way conserves energy, parceling it out among football and family, his fans and his business ventures, instead of investing every neuron of his being into whatever he is doing in the moment.
His first training-camp practice as the starting quarterback of the Denver Broncos offered a sun-drenched affirmation of Wilson’s approach. Springing from the team’s headquarters and onto the practice field that July morning, he bounded, over the next two or so hours, from One Most Important Thing to the next.
Wilson high-fived legions of new admirers thronging behind the end zones. He approached first-day drills as if they were postseason plays, barking cadences to his new teammates, evading rushers, tossing touchdowns. When he was done, after snapping selfies and signing autographs, he hustled over to embrace his wife, the singer Ciara, and their three children at midfield. All five wore Wilson’s No. 3 Broncos jersey.
Wilson does believe in intentionality, in the power of deliberate language. No one in the N.F.L. peddles positivity quite like the 33-year-old Wilson, who amplifies the merry snapshots of his #blessed life on social media: football highlights, glimpses from his visits with sick children in hospitals, Christmas-card worthy photos of his family in coordinated outfits.
The Good Vibes Only aesthetic he conveys, all Bible verses and maxims, coupled with his arching deep passes and creative playmaking style, elevated him to football stardom in Seattle, where his charmed run over a decade included four division titles, two N.F.C. crowns and a Super Bowl victory.
But by last season, life in Seattle seemed less perfect, enough that Wilson’s polished messaging shifted in a media blitz before the 2021 season. He asked for more say in personnel. He sought better protection up front. He wanted more control.
But Wilson broke a finger midway through the season and missed the three games, the first in his N.F.L. career, leaving him with less direct control on the team’s success. He spent “19 or 20” hours a day rehabbing and rushed back to the field to win his final two starts, but he still wound up with the first losing season of his N.F.L. career.
Winning is central to the Wilson brand. The TVs in the weight area of his San Diego home blare just one word, without punctuation: win, which also happens to be the name of his youngest son.
To that end, Wilson employs a private performance team — personal trainers, physical therapists, masseuses, et al. — to optimize his physical and mental health. His longtime personal quarterbacks coach, Jake Heaps, even relocated to the Denver area from Seattle.
“It drives purpose, and our purpose is to win,” said Will O’Brien, Wilson’s former high-school strength trainer in Richmond, Va., and a member of the group for the past year and a half. “I think a lot of folks maybe are not brash about saying it openly. We are. Russ is.”
Wilson waived his no-trade clause to facilitate his arrival in Denver. The Broncos had presented the best opportunity for professional and personal satisfaction (offensive scheme, management, geography), as well as compensation that would appeal to the Seahawks.
“I wasn’t just going to go anywhere,” said Wilson, who was traded to the Broncos in March in a package that netted the Seahawks five draft picks and three additional players. “I felt like this team can be great.”
Soon after the deal, Wilson FaceTimed his new receivers and said he picked the Broncos — that he picked them — for a reason: He thought they could win the Super Bowl. Then Wilson added, that is what they are going to do.
The conditions for manifesting that outcome are favorable in Denver, where Wilson will finally play in a high-volume passing game helmed by an offense-minded head coach in Nathaniel Hackett. As they were early in his career in Seattle, Wilson’s efforts should be balanced by a strong defense. It’s all being financed by the Broncos’ new ownership group, the N.F.L.’s wealthiest, which earlier this month awarded him a five-year contract extension worth a guaranteed $165 million.
His quest renews Monday night when the Broncos open the season against, coincidence of coincidences, the Seahawks in Seattle.
Since the trade, Wilson has not elaborated on either the good or the bad in his time there — the games won and lost, the relationships fostered and frayed, the semantics cloaking his departure. Seahawks Coach Pete Carroll, known for preaching mindfulness and visualization techniques, would say only that the team hadn’t been “spurned” by Wilson.
“It wasn’t like it happened to us,” Carroll said in an interview after a mid-August practice. “We were prepared to make it happen.”
It seemed telling that two men known for expounding on the power of positivity ended a successful era with such terse, and nebulous, statements.
Athletes’ challenges — injuries, personal tragedies, professional slights — tend to connect with fans as much as their triumphs. Wilson’s penchant for platitudes can obscure exactly how much adversity has shaped him, with the challenge seemingly revealed in his tears after a big win. The death of his father, Harrison, from diabetic complications in 2010. N.F.L. teams having passed on him in the draft because of his height. His infamous interception in the Super Bowl in the 2014 season that ended Seattle’s bid for back-to-back titles.
The trade wasn’t the only upheaval to Wilson’s life. Trevor Moawad, Wilson’s close friend and the architect of his mental approach, died of cancer in September 2021. They’d met as Wilson prepared for the 2012 draft, and Moawad moved into Wilson’s San Diego place the day after that Super Bowl interception and stayed for a month. Throughout their friendship, Wilson could depend on Moawad to say two things: that he believed in Wilson and that the best was ahead.
It was Moawad who had instilled in Wilson the power of what he called neutral thinking, acknowledging negativity but then moving on from it at once, which he appeared to apply to his friend’s death.
“No, it wasn’t difficult,” Wilson said. “I’ve lost my dad. I lost a best friend, Trevor. You know they’re going to a better place. Those memories live in me forever.” He added, “Everybody can write what they want. I’m always having fun when I’m on the field, when I’m with my teammates.”
Maybe so, but Wilson was definitely not enjoying himself in February 2021, when he simmered in a suite at the Super Bowl watching Tampa Bay beat Kansas City instead of playing in the game. With a new team built around his talent, Tom Brady got championship vengeance after being discarded by the Patriots the season before.
Robert Turbin, Wilson’s close friend and a former N.F.L. running back, said Wilson reminded him of Michael Jordan and Stephen Curry, who funneled others’ doubt, real or perceived, into motivation — and championships.
“He’s all positive and love and Christ and all this kind of stuff,” Turbin said. “But he is listening. He’s watching. I can promise you that.”
Soon after returning to his off-season home in San Diego, Wilson stayed up late watching Jordan’s N.B.A. highlights before sending a middle-of-the-night Instagram message to Tim Grover, the trainer who worked with Jordan throughout his six championship runs and later, Kobe Bryant. Grover agreed to become a sort of efficiency expert for Wilson, organizing his daily training and adjusting Wilson’s regimen after the trade to account for Denver’s altitude.
“Everyone talks about the switch, how the greats know how to turn the switch on and off — the greats never turn the switch off,” Grover said. “It’s not. It’s a dimmer. They never turn it all the way off.”
Wilson has talked about studying legends in all sports, about wanting to be remembered, about what his legacy will be. Turbin speculated that the former Denver quarterbacks John Elway and Peyton Manning, two-time champions each, represented a standard for Wilson to match. But Wilson also opted to join a team in the A.F.C. West, in which two of the league’s brilliant young quarterbacks — Justin Herbert and Patrick Mahomes — will challenge him.
“He’s very calm, cool and collected, but you will never know what he’s truly thinking,” Tim Patrick, a Broncos receiver, said. “I’ve tried to get it out of him. I’ve pushed buttons every day — ‘you’re little, you can’t do this’ — just to see if I can get a reaction. Never. He just laughs at me. You can’t get him out of what his goal is for that day.”
Several people, including Turbin and the quarterbacks coach Klint Kubiak, have noted Wilson’s joy in Denver, equating his enthusiasm with that of a rookie striving to prove himself.
“When I first got around him, I was like, ‘This can’t be real. This is going to last for a day or two,’” Broncos General Manager George Paton said. “This is him.”
His happy intensity has spread urgency to a roster unacquainted with it. In huddles, Wilson asks to see his teammates’ eyes so he can look directly into them, and at his urging, they now carry water jugs and test their hydration levels before practice. Twice during the off-season, Wilson invited members of the offense to train at his property in San Diego.
“This dude wants us sweating,” the fourth-year offensive lineman Dalton Risner said. “He wants us taking the right steps. He wants us doing everything right. He lives out that championship lifestyle.”
Before Wilson came to Denver, Risner perceived walk-through practices as a respite, a time, he said, to put on a ball cap and chill. Not anymore.
“They ask me, ‘How many days off do you have?’ I just kind of laugh,” Wilson said after a mid-August practice. “How many days off do I get? I don’t take days off. Every day, 365 days, this is what I do, this is my lifestyle. Every day. For me, I get to play 20-plus years, that’s the vision, that’s the goal.” He added, “If you always worry about what’s ahead, you always pass up today. So you know what I stick to? I stick to joy. Just joy.”
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