I’D LIKE HIM to say he harbors a secret fetish for vandalism. Instead, Russell Wilson says he loves graffiti for the only reason Russell Wilson could like graffiti: It’s sometimes pretty to look at.
This line of inquiry begins shortly after Wilson walks into the large meeting room at the Seahawks’ practice facility a few miles east of downtown Seattle. On top of the podium sits a pair of specially designed neon cleats for the league’s “My Cause My Cleats” initiative. Wilson designed the shoes with Jeff Jacobson, a Seattle-based graffiti artist known as Weirdo. They are emblazoned with familiar Wilsonian slogans in street mural style: Why not you. Dream big. Anything is possible.
“I love graffiti, ironically. You guys probably wouldn’t know that about me,” Wilson says, standing some few feet behind an aw-shucks deference he occasionally likes to deploy.
“What do you like about graffiti?” I ask.
“Just how it looks, how people think,” he says. Then he keeps going, quickly guarding against any notion that he might enjoy something naughty. “Sometimes, obviously, it’s people trying to mess up a location or whatever.”
I want to interrupt him and yell that beauty and disfigurement aren’t necessarily contradictory prerogatives! What about the recontextualization of public spaces?! What about the vandalism?!
I ask, knowing the answer, “Have you ever graffitied?”
“No,” he says, laughing lightly. “I’m not a good painter. That’s why I admire from a distance.”
Admittedly, it might seem I’m making more of this two-minute interaction than I should. But bear with me.
Russell Wilson is having a historic season. He seems to break a different record every game. In Week 12, he became the first quarterback to start his career with eight straight winning seasons. In Week 13, he joined Peyton Manning as the only quarterbacks to start their careers with eight straight 3,000-plus-yard and 20-plus-touchdown seasons. In Week 15, he became the winningest quarterback over his first eight seasons in league history and the quarterback with the most multiple-touchdown and no-pick games over his first eight seasons.
Oh, and he’s never missed a game. Oh, and in April he became the highest-paid player in football.
And yet … he’s not quite placed in the exalted company of this era’s other star quarterbacks. Part of the reason for that is the team he walked into as a rookie in 2012 — a squad filled with names like Marshawn Lynch, Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas, Kam Chancellor and Michael Bennett, players who would become some of the most dominant personalities of the decade.
And part of it is the graffiti thing. That’s why I’ve come to Seattle, to see for myself what it’s like to share a locker room with Saint Russ, to hear what his team mates have to say about him and the culture of capital O Optimism around the Seahawks — and to grapple with my own skepticism. I keep looking at Wilson’s relentless good-think and right-speech, the do-gooderism, and can’t suppress the suspicion that it’s phony.
It’s the alarming sensation of watching someone hold a smile so long its starts to look manic. The feeling, in short, that one is confronted by a cornball.
IN EARLY DECEMBER, Seattle plays the Vikings in a Week 13 game that is paradigmatic Seahawks 2019: Everything that can happen will happen — and will probably work out. Five turnovers. A bizarre sideline interception by Tre Flowers that comes out of, not off of, the hands of Stefon Diggs. A fake-punt fourth-down conversion; a pick-six for Vikings safety Anthony Harris that’s a result of Wilson trying to bat down his own deflected pass; a 60-yard bomb to David Moore answered later in the game by the Vikings’ own 58-yard touchdown to Laquon Treadwell.
Seattle wins 37-30, the ninth of its incredible 10 one-score wins this season. After the game, though, the result seems less interesting than any of the three subjects generating most of the online chatter: the viral Russell Wilson as Baby Yoda meme created by Seahawks Twitter personality @Cablethanos; the delightful New Edition dance by Moore and fellow receivers Tyler Lockett, DK Metcalf and Jaron Brown; and Wilson being miked up.
Positive reinforcement is one thing, but these sound bites sound nearly cultish.
“Great confidence! Great belief!” “Why not!” “Clear heart! Clear mind! Clear eyes!” “Unwavering language! Unwavering belief!”
It rings too precise, too practiced. It is exactly why people find Russell Wilson so hard to believe. And so I spend the next couple of days asking teammates and coaches if this is how Russell really talks.
“The stuff he said during the miked-up is stuff he be saying,” says Germain Ifedi, another offensive tackle. “People who thought it wasn’t genuine, that’s crazy. He’s the same dude every day, consistent as hell.”
I call Cliff Avril, a stalwart of those Seahawks defenses that dominated the first half of the decade when Wilson was a young quarterback.
“I’ve known him for seven years — it’s hard to fake the funk for seven years,” Avril says. “It’s hard to put on a show for seven years. So yes, how you see him on TV and how you see him on the field — he really lives that way, and he really is that way.”
No, Wilson’s teammates and coaches say, he doesn’t do temper tantrums. No, he doesn’t maintain standards through harsh criticism or yelling or cursing.
This is a key tenet of coach Pete Carroll’s philosophy, the oft-lauded and scrutinized “culture” around the Seahawks. (The once mandatory yoga has receded, as has the parade of gurus, motivators and TED talkers.) The emphases remain positive affirmation and self-expression.
“Coach Carroll created an environment for everybody to be themselves,” middle linebacker Bobby Wagner says. “So whoever you are, try to be the best version of that. If you’re a loud guy and talk trash [Sherman], then you be that. If you’re a quiet guy that hits a lot of people very hard [Chancellor], then you do that. If you’re a guy from Texas and you wear your emotion on your sleeve [Thomas], then you do that.”
Carroll, having spent years proselytizing for his particular vision (what linebacker K.J. Wright describes as “the good news”), now has a triumvirate of veterans — Wilson, Wagner and Wright, who were all key starters in the back-to-back Super Bowl runs of 2014 and 2015 — to whom he can entrust it.
Wagner embodies the Seahawks’ holistic ethos more than almost anyone. In a span of three weeks in December, the league’s leading tackler is named one of Forbes’ 30 under 30 for negotiating his own contract extension (he’s the highest-paid middle linebacker in the NFL) and for his interest in venture capital, and then named a finalist for the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year Award.
He is also a locker room butterfly who exerts a stoic and vaguely parental authority over this young team, gliding from one clutch of players to the next, adding to the laughter here, the common sense there, smoothing out all the rough edges.
On a recent Thursday, tight end Luke Willson, by far the most entertaining player in the Seahawks’ locker room — tall and crowned with a white bucket hat, all Summer of Love mustache and aspiring beach-bum locks (disheveled and yet expensively shampooed) — shouts throughout the room from a megaphone (its provenance a mystery): “Don’t trust [him]; he’s a locker room rat.”
“Congrats!” he yells at another reporter. “You’re sober today.” He’s kidding, and this isn’t unusual, so teammates not in his vicinity hardly pay attention, and the reporters and Seahawks staffers mostly smile and shake their heads.
Into these proceedings silently marches Wagner. He walks from the other side of the room directly to Willson, who hands him the megaphone with a playful wince and a “Sorry, Bobby.”
Wagner takes the megaphone and, impassive, stows it away in a locker adjacent to Willson’s. Without a word, playtime is over.
A few minutes later, I spy Wagner next to Wright, who is holding court in front of his locker with a group of journalists and teammates arguing about the suspension of a San Francisco radio host who made controversial comments about Ravens sensation Lamar Jackson.
At one point, Wagner, who has throughout been playing the role of a mediator who hones and amends everyone’s points in turn so as to achieve some common understanding, says to Wright, “You think when two people are talking someone has to be right or wrong, and I think two people can just have a conversation.”
Wagner then turns to look down at me, poised in a catcher’s squat just beyond the group of reporters and players, and extends one of his disproportionately large action-figure arms in explanation. “See, I’m the human interpreter.”
Wagner, Wilson and Wright have never played professional football anywhere but in Seattle for Pete Carroll. The “good news” belongs as much to them now as it does their coach.
“I think Bobby and I’s leadership style is leading with great language, leading with great positivity,” Wilson says.
After a couple of weeks, it is clear, to me at least, that for Wilson, this is fundamentally a world view. It’s a direct result of his religious devotion, about which he has long been vocal. He’s the same at practice as he is at meetings as he is miked up on game day as he is in the voluntary weekly prayer service he leads for teammates.
Asked a couple of weeks ago to look back on the past decade of his life, he answered at some length. He talked about being drafted, winning the Super Bowl, getting married — an unbroken run of attainment that virtually excluded the idea of setbacks or tragedy, or at least turned them instantly into more evidence of the greater good.
On the death of his father in 2010: “What a blessing it was to think about where he was going, going to heaven.”
On the last-second defeat in Super Bowl XLIX five years ago: “It didn’t go the way you want it to, but you realize that, you know, great things are in store.”
He concluded by falling back on the secure self-hypnosis of more of his mantras: “‘Don’t ever not believe, just always believe.’ I think that’s the first thing that I’d say to myself. Second thing I would say to myself is, ‘Why not?’ And then the last thing I would say to myself is, ‘Go for it.'”
WILSON WAS IN only his second professional season when the Seahawks won Super Bowl XLVIII. He was critical, but the leadership and identity of the team lay with other players. That has all changed. In the past two years, the Seahawks have shed Bennett, Chancellor, Sherman, Avril and Thomas — Seahawks who played more than 500 combined games for the franchise.
This is Russell Wilson’s team now.
“The younger the team gets, the louder his voice becomes and the more we start to embody some of his characteristics,” Seahawks QB coach Dave Canales says.
Luke Willson, who returned to Seattle this fall after being drafted by the Seahawks in 2013 before stints in Detroit and Oakland, told me the feel around this team is very different from the one he walked into in 2013. “You came into an environment that was a little bit hostile,” he says. “I don’t want to use ‘hostile’ in a negative way, but those guys knew they were going to be good and they had a lot of big personalities.”
Both Wagner and Wright laugh in assent when asked later whether they agree with Willson’s judgment.
“The rookies now wouldn’t have made it back then,” Wagner says. “You had guys like Mike B [Bennett], [Chris] Clemons, [Brandon] Mebane, all those guys. They tested you for sure.”
Wagner fondly tells a story about the first time he called a huddle as a rookie in 2012. Before he could get a word out, he heard Earl Thomas say, “Man, where’s your neck?”
“Right here,” Wagner said.
“No, we need a linebacker with a longer neck,” Thomas said.
Clemons joined in: “We’re not going to have nobody call a huddle with no neck.”
There is so much talk within the team of how close this year’s Seahawks are. Early in the season, Wilson, Wagner, Wright and a few others made the unusual decision that the team would travel to the stadium together on one bus for road games instead of the customary two that allows specialists to arrive early and veterans to sit alone. “It just feels good,” Wright explained to The Seattle Times.
“It’s a very competitive environment. I don’t want to make it sound like it’s a soft and lovey-dovey atmosphere, because that’s not really the vibe,” Willson says. “There’s just not very much negativity preached around here; it’s hard to articulate.”
At a news conference after the Vikings game, Carroll is asked what he thinks of the notion that his team is having more fun than any other team in the NFL.
“Is there a meter for that?” he asks.
“Not every coach in the NFL really cares how much fun players have,” the reporter returns.
“OK, well I do,” Carroll shoots back.
The subtext of the exchange is Bill Belichick, who replaced Carroll as the head coach of the Patriots in 2000 and whom Carroll might have gifted a Super Bowl victory with one of the most disputed playcalls of all time, an intercepted quick slant on second-and-goal at the 1-yard line with a timeout in hand.
When I speak to Wilson about how he leads, he brings up the Patriots, unprompted. “Bill Belichick and Coach Carroll, two different style of coaches, but they’re both great coaches, both Hall of Fame coaches,” he says. “I think the same thing with players. I may be a little bit different than Tom [Brady]. We share a lot of the same similarities, but at the same time, we’re different in how we go about things.”
Maybe it’s here, at a Seahawks practice facility crowded by evergreens and flush against Lake Washington, almost as far as the league gets geographically and spiritually from Belichick’s Foxborough, that the Patriots’ ideology is thrown into starkest relief. Part of what has marked the Belichick-Brady hegemony is its grotesque lack of a sense of proportion — the secretiveness, the Nixonian paranoia, the dirty tricks, the mystifying resentment in the face of unprecedented triumph, the grudging monosyllable answers to the most anodyne questions, the joyless frigid toil of their reign and its attendant self-regard.
The Patriots have won more football games and Super Bowls than any other team in the past decade. Their run of success in this young century makes them the best NFL team ever. None of that is of world historical import.
“You play football,” Carroll emphasizes at the news conference, coming down on the word “play.” “You don’t work football, you don’t drudgery football, you play it, and these guys love to play this game. … If we’re not having fun, I feel like I’m screwing up, to tell you the truth.”
That’s Pete Carroll’s paradoxical hope: that while the sport wreaks havoc on the body, it may yet somehow be good for the soul.
A FEW WEEKS later, Carroll is asked about another close getaway against the Panthers, a game in which Seattle led by 20 points only to escape 30-24. Incapable of seeing anything but the bright side, Carroll replies, “I love close games. I think they help you. They make you stronger.”
This is the relentless positivity about which his players talk, and by which this team lives. I half wonder if they’re all trying to collectively stave off seasonal affective disorder. My second week in Seattle, the sun does not appear once. All week it is raining or about to rain or has just finished raining. The dark clouds that hover over the city, a grim canopy, don’t even portend anything ominous. They’re just stolid, graying into gray, bored.
There is not enough vitamin D. I wake up in the morning to find depression, the old enemy, gaining new purchase. I consider acquiring a caffeine addiction. The Friday before the Cardinals game in Week 16, it rains so much that there are floods. It is the most rainfall to descend on Seattle in the decade that is nearing its end. The Saturday before the game is the winter solstice. It is the darkest day of the year. A place can be too much itself.
Sunday is a subdued disaster. After the offense opens the game with a precise and bruising nine-play, 89-yard, 4:37 drive that threatens to fold Arizona into an attitude of passive resistance, almost nothing good happens. Wilson throws for just 169 yards. The top two tailbacks, Chris Carson and C.J. Prosise, are lost to injury. The defense, which had injury concerns with Wagner during the week and is missing Jadeveon Clowney, is porous, listless. The team is booed off at halftime. The Seahawks lose 27-13, costing them almost any chance of a first-round bye in the playoffs.
It is fascinating, though, to see Arizona’s Kyler Murray dissect the Seahawks with his mobility and improvisation before going down with a hamstring injury. In 2012, Wilson wasn’t anyone’s idea of a prototypical quarterback. Of course, he has proved to be, in spirit and even in build — you can tell that when the Cardinals drafted Murray, it was Wilson they were fantasizing about.
The mood in the Seattle locker room afterward is unruffled. All questions about lack of preparation or their minds being on the next week are swatted away amiably.
What unfolds that next week — in a division-deciding game against the San Francisco 49ers — is an appalling half of offensive football from the Seahawks. They accumulate 77 total yards and are fortunate to be down only 13-0.
But in the second half, the offensive line finds its footing, and the recently unretired Marshawn Lynch and rookie Travis Homer break a few plays, and Wilson … well, Wilson plays the kind of football only a handful of quarterbacks are capable of playing. He ducks under rushers, invents split seconds where none exists, drags his big toe just to leave some bit of him behind the line of scrimmage before zipping a touchdown pass to Tyler Lockett. It’s galvanizing stuff. They can’t pay him enough, you find yourself thinking. He’s going to steal this game.
And he nearly does, maneuvering Seattle to San Francisco’s 1-yard line down 26-21. And now you think you can almost hear him saying it through the screen, coaxing his guys, chanting his mantras like a soothsayer. Unwavering language. Unwavering belief.
Then comes a delay-of-game penalty. Then a couple of loose throws under duress. Then a pass interference goes unnoticed. Then a completed slant to tight end Jacob Hollister on fourth-and-goal gets blown up on the 1-millimeter line. Then the ballgame.
Suddenly, this is a team heading into the playoffs having lost three of its last four, though you will search in vain for any evidence of concern.
The ineptitude of the first half? “How could you not be proud” of the rally, Carroll says at his news conference.
The missed pass interference? He shrugs it away.
The delay of game? His fault; won’t happen again.
The formula for the second half? “There was no wavering in our belief.”
WHICH LEADS US back to the question I’ve been wondering about since I arrived in Seattle: Is Russell Wilson corny?
Well, no, not exactly, not really. And it’s because he isn’t needy.
He doesn’t have any of the constitutive unctuousness of being corny. Corniness has to do in part with a need to please, with an inability to see yourself except through the eyes of other people. It’s easy to tell one is in the presence of a corny person because one feels irritated twice over — they’re continually solicitous and surreptitiously monitoring your reaction to their performance. You are being both flattered and surveilled at once.
Whatever Wilson is doing, it’s not for my benefit or anyone else’s. Yes, his head will occasionally play host to a Jheri curl. Yes, the mantras can make you wonder whom he’s trying to convince. Yes, he has spoken, in public, on the record, about being celibate with Ciara before they got married. This is not a man trying to impress you. His audience, as he sees it, is divine, his reward in heaven, our judgment irrelevant.
Perhaps I’m too cynical for him. Perhaps he’s too good to be true: America’s last Grown Man Boy Scout.
Nearing the end of my time in Seattle, I spend a few minutes huddled with Wilson on a bench after Seahawks practice, and as we wrap, I want to talk about why he thought it would strike us as ironic that he liked graffiti. I want to know more about what he thinks we think of him.
A question a loved one was recently asked at a medical school interview pops into my head, and I lob it at Wilson like a grenade as he’s ushered away.
“Somebody walks into a room and they don’t like you. What don’t they like about you?”
He stops. “Interesting question,” he says. He looks at me and then at his shoes and then somewhere over my shoulder and then back at me.
“I just try to please God. It’s not really about what I think other people think,” he says after a short while. “I just try to love all people. If they don’t like that, then I’m probably not the person for them.”
It was a direct answer in its own way, because surely that kind of statement is exactly what that hypothetical person in that hypothetical room wouldn’t like about Russell Wilson.