Throned and dethroned Super Bowl quarterback Russell Wilson is working the artificial turf at the University of Southern California. Nearly 300 kids are screaming his name at a session of the Russell Wilson Passing Academy when he says something that cuts to the core of his being. Wilson is wearing a T-shirt and shorts with a Gatorade towel draped from his waist when he grabs a cup of purple liquid and downs it in a single gulp. He locks me in his gaze and smiles.
"Isn't Gatorade the best? Just the best."
Did I mention that Gatorade is one of the event's sponsors? The thing is, Russell Wilson really, really believes Gatorade is tasty. He believes in things with a zealot's certainty — God, corporations, his talent, Michael Jackson's "Man in the Mirror," etc. The interception he threw a yard short of his second Super Bowl championship? Before he got to the sideline, God told him that it was part of His plan. The public announcement that he was practicing abstinence with slinky pop singer Ciara? Russell Wilson was put here to guide her to a better place.
After three years in the NFL, Wilson has 36 regular-season wins, the most by a three-year quarterback in history. And despite the unpleasantness in last February's Super Bowl, he already owns a championship ring. He was a standout at a prestigious Richmond, Virginia, prep school, All-ACC at North Carolina State and, after a disagreement with his coach about missing spring practice to play baseball, transferred to Wisconsin and promptly led the Badgers to the Rose Bowl. He knows all things come through Scripture, discipline and time management. Unlike many camps run by pros, Wilson isn't a figurehead putting down the bong and popping in for a few minutes. He lines the kids up with Prussian efficiency for a grip-and-grin photo and an autograph. (Wilson signed at least 1,500 autographs during the week I followed him.)
"I've never seen anyone able to adapt to different situations and groups so quickly," says Mark Rodgers, his agent, who is guiding Wilson through a difficult contract renegotiation with the Seattle Seahawks. "He's like a great politician."
A benevolent dictator, to be more precise. The California sun is scorching the children when Wilson, 26, brings together his brain trust, an all-white group of friends, including Rodgers' son Matthew, who have been equated to Entourage (Wilson has a cameo in the movie). But Entourage was a quasi-democracy. Wilson runs the show here.
"You could tell him the sky is blue and he would be like, 'No, man, the sky is green,' " says his older brother, Harry. (There's also a younger sister, Anna.) "He's probably the most confident person I've ever known — and a tough guy to figure out."
Wilson huddles with his boys and tells them they're falling behind schedule. "We have to be on to the next drill at 11:20," he says. The guys nod solemnly.
He turns to me and smiles. "Time management is leadership. I got that from my dad."
The camp churns on with the occasional hiccup. Wilson's music tastes run to mostly Seventies and Eighties soul, and the PA system blasts Sly Stone's "Everyday People" when a brash nine- or 10-year-old tugs at his towel and makes reference to last season's Super Bowl. With the season on the line, the Seahawks chose a quick slant pass from the one-yard line instead of giving the ball to all-world running back Marshawn Lynch. The result was gridiron apocalypse, with Patriots defensive back Malcolm Butler stepping in front of Wilson's throw. The boy asks, "Why didn't you just give it to Marshawn?" He makes a Hulk-like move and shouts Lynch's nickname: "Beast Mode!"
Wilson grimaces but doesn't say anything until someone tugs at the rope bands around his wrist. One of them is in memory of his father, Harrison, Russell's North Star, who died in 2010 from complications of diabetes.
"Hey, don't pull on those," says Wilson, his voice rising for a moment. "They're very important to me. That's not cool."
Harrison Wilson III, a Dartmouth football star and a UVA law graduate, is central to his son's creation myth. Harrison waited until after law school to try out for the San Diego Chargers and still almost made the team. He played catch with his son on mornings before school and made it to nearly every one of his games. "Harrison Wilson could do no wrong" has always been the narrative. His son's image is just as carefully burnished, with only a hint of imperfection: Russell admits to being an asshole as a kid. "I was a bully," he tells me later. "I used to beat up people, throw people against the wall and knock their teeth out." (Brother Harry suggests this is a slight exaggeration on little brother's part. He says that Russell had a temper, but the idea that he terrorized kids? "No.")
Whatever anger Russell had was bled out when he was 14 and found God one night at his football camp. A dream conveyed to him that his father wouldn't be with him forever and he needed to get right with Jesus. Wilson replaced tantrums with focus. Even as a seven-year-old in T-ball, he'd reposition players, and if the ball was hit to him, he'd run it to first base, lest anyone else screw up his play.
"There's some OCD," says Harry. "Hyperfocused, detail-oriented — whatever it is, he's got a crazy amount of it."
Wilson doesn't talk about where the anger came from, but it's clear the drive comes from his father's example. Harrison moved back to Virginia to be closer to family and to try to live up to his own dad, Harrison II, who was the president of Norfolk State University. But III's law career suffered as he shifted from a corporate firm to private practice. "If my dad was here, he'd say he left a lot on the table," says Harry.
What he instilled in his youngest son was the idea that someone was always watching. He began coaching Russell through fake press conferences when the boy was seven. The end result is Wilson is often snarked at for never saying the wrong thing and always being on message. That's Harrison's work.
"My brother's known for his clichés," says Harry. "But that's who my dad was too. My dad was like an old sitcom: There's always a lesson at the end of it, you know? Like a Fresh Prince episode."
Wilson was married to his high school sweetheart in 2012, but they divorced shortly after the Seahawks' Super Bowl victory in 2014. He played his cards so close that his only brother had no idea that he was having problems until the marriage was over. "I can't understand how he does it, how he compartmentalizes," says Harry, who played football and baseball at the University of Richmond.
Last season, there were unsubstantiated rumors that Wilson's goody-two-shoes routine was wearing thin with his teammates; whispers leaked with the loaded line that he wasn't black enough. The divorce is off-limits as a topic, and the race question makes Wilson's back stiffen. He answers questions carefully and generically like, well, a kid who's been practicing press conferences his entire life.
Wilson lets his faceplate slip only once at camp; it's when Ciara's tiny son, Future, shows up with his nanny. Wilson trots to the sideline and takes 10 minutes to roll the kid a ball, play patty-cake and exchange high-fives. It's a rare unscripted — or seemingly unscripted — moment for Wilson, whose greatest trait as a quarterback is his escapability on the field with defenders and off the field with the media.
With Future (his father is the rapper of the same name), Wilson seems to uncoil, but he quickly snaps back into game mode. There are awards to be proffered and a dance-off among five kids to judge. Afterward, kids and parents get to ask questions. Wilson is most comfortable answering queries about his "Morning in America" work ethic, detailing how he graduated from college in three years while playing football and baseball. Then someone asks about the interception. He is polite, but curt. "This is the sixth location I've been at in this wonderful, beautiful country, and I seem to get that question everywhere I go," says Wilson. "The play that was called didn't work out for us. This is what I do know: Next time we're gonna win the game. I'll be there. I won't let you down."
Wilson mentions that he's been planning to do camps like this since he was in 11th grade (many of the kids are on scholarship). He tells his coaches that if they can positively impact one kid, it's all worth it. The camp winds down, but Wilson sees one more kid and a final teachable moment. A camper is walking off with a football. Wilson shouts at him across the field.
"Hey, that ball isn't yours. It stays here."
The boy answers in a small voice. "But I brought the ball with me."
Wilson flashes that politician smile and quickly changes gear.
"OK, bro. Hope you had a good time."
Russell Wilson stands about five feet 11, which is a nice height unless you're an NFL quarterback. In that case, you've grown up with a chip the size of an exurban deck on your shoulder. Naysayers used to get their words of doubt scribbled on Post-it notes that went on Wilson's wall. When he was a freshman at NC State, a coach suggested Wilson should switch to defensive back. Instead, Wilson went into the head coach's office and proclaimed he would be named the starting quarterback, become All-ACC and be drafted into the NFL. All those things came true. Even when Wilson slipped to the third round — the height thing again — he told a friend he knew he was going to become the starter.
It all happened just like Russell Wilson believed. Now he is consolidating his gains. Wilson's role model is Derek Jeter. Wilson was looking forward to having breakfast with him the morning after his camp. They share a passion to keep things with the public cheerful and vanilla. "Whether you're the Yankees' shortstop or an NFL quarterback, eyes are always on you," says Wilson. "You have to handle things the right way."
Alas, Jeter calls an audible and postpones their breakfast. It is just as well. Wilson is hosting the Nickelodeon Kids' Choice Sports awards, and he spends the morning working with his motivation coach, Trevor Moawad. This is Wilson's first hosting assignment; he wants to get it just right. "We were just going through lines, and Russell was talking about nonverbal, para-verbal, extra-verbal and voice tone," says Moawad, who has worked with Olympic legend Michael Johnson and national champion football teams at the University of Alabama and Florida State.
"The thing about Russell is he's real." —Ciara
We are on the floor of UCLA's Pauley Pavilion during the Nickelodeon rehearsals, and Moawad gazes up lovingly at Wilson, who is onstage talking about getting "slimed." "You don't usually see a 26-year-old with this kind of forethought," says Moawad. "He can anticipate things before they happen. He doesn't need trauma to prepare."
Wilson and Moawad didn't spend the offseason rehashing the interception; instead, they spent hours watching video medleys of Wilson's best plays. "A lot of people catastrophize things and fall off the mountaintop," Moawad says. "Russell doesn't."
Wilson asks for only one favor all day: a break around 5:00 so he can watch his girlfriend sing the national anthem at the baseball All-Star Game in Cincinnati. Just as the players are being announced, Wilson jogs through the catacombs of the pavilion to a room with a television. He whips out his phone and starts filming his girlfriend. She sounds beautiful, but Wilson notices a microdetail: "She's pulling at her earpiece. She can't hear herself."
It turns out to be true. Wilson Facetimes Ciara a few minutes later. "Baby, you did great, but I could tell you couldn't hear yourself."
Ciara's smile and voice crackle back. "I know, it went dead right before we went on. Did it sound OK?"
"You were great. Love you. See you tomorrow. Can't wait."
Back in his dressing room, Wilson flips through a rack of his wardrobe for the show and settles on an ugly blazer with a hundred safety pins. Wilson's style has evolved from dressing like a prosperous 45-year-old, but Rodgers, his agent, thinks the jacket is too much and threatens to burn it. Wilson sighs, settles in a chair and eats some fruit as he talks with Rodgers about various business projects, including the Good Man Brand clothing line, which will be edgy contemporary (purchases will include a card thanking the recipient for being a good man and noting that a $3 donation has been made to Wilson's charity in the recipient's name). "It's something I'd give my dad on Father's Day if he was still alive," says Wilson. "Just thanking him for setting a good example for me."
Another venture is slightly less altruistic. Wilson is an investor in Reliant Recovery Water, a $3-per-bottle concoction with nanobubbles and electrolytes that purportedly helps people recover quickly from workouts and, according to Wilson, injury. He mentions a teammate whose knee healed miraculously, and then he shares his own testimonial.
"I banged my head during the Packers game in the playoffs, and the next day I was fine," says Wilson. "It was the water."
Rodgers offers a hasty interjection. "Well, we're not saying we have real medical proof."
But Wilson shakes his head, energized by the subject. He speaks with an evangelist's zeal.
"I know it works." His eyes brighten. "Soon you're going to be able to order it straight from Amazon."
Wilson's überconfidence served him well in an eventful offseason. There were the camps and a slew of buck-raking raids, ranging from ads for Bose and Microsoft to corporate speaking gigs. In the background, Rodgers was battling with the Seahawks over a new contract. Wilson was characteristically silent on the negotiations, except for a night I saw him at an Alaska Airlines soiree in Seattle (he's a brand ambassador). When the well-heeled crowd asked about the contract, Wilson answered jauntily, "[Seahawks owner] Paul Allen has to write the check."
At the time, Wilson was the NFL's greatest bargain, averaging $735,000 a year, less than most punters. Rodgers had already taken care of Wilson's long-term future, buying disability insurance for his client last year in case he suffered a career-ending injury. But the worry was for nothing. Allen ended up writing a check that will pay Wilson $87.6 million over the next four years, making him the NFL's second-highest-paid quarterback.
But, somehow, that wasn't the highlight of the summer. That would be Wilson's July 5th appearance at the Rock Church, a megachurch in San Diego. It was there that he dropped two bombs exponentially more interesting than anything he has ever said in an interview. First, he mentioned that his Super Bowl interception was all part of God's plan: "The play happens, I take three steps, and God says to me, 'I'm using you.' My sixth step, God says to me, 'I want to see how you respond, but more importantly I want [the world] to see how you respond.' "
The fact that Wilson's theological rationalization for the most infamous play in Super Bowl history got lost in the wash only speaks to the jaw-dropper he launched earlier in the conversation. Wilson met Ciara through a mutual friend in L.A. about six months earlier — and even that was preordained. Wilson had already told his friends before they met that he was going to end up with her. At the church, Wilson told the congregation and minister Miles McPherson, a former NFL defensive back, that he and Ciara were not doing the deed. God had speed-dialed Wilson again, this time backstage at his girlfriend's show.
"She was on tour," Wilson said, "and I was looking at her in the mirror 15 minutes before she went onstage. God said, 'I need you to lead her.' " Wilson smiled. "I was like, 'Really? Right now?' " Right away, Wilson asked her if she would be OK with taking all "that extra stuff off the table." She agreed.
"I knew God had brought me into her life to bless her and for her to bless me and to bless so many people with the impact that she has and I have," said Wilson. "He has anointed both of us — he's calling for us to do something miraculous and special." Wilson then quoted the book of Romans: "For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace."
The announcement came as a surprise to Ciara, who was in London for a concert and had to parse out what had happened from the mentions on her Twitter feed. Soon after, she talked with Wilson and they got on the same page.
"The thing about Russell is he's real," Ciara tells me. "And that was a moment that got real real." She tells me he had no problem with her saucy video for "Dance Like We're Making Love," where she writhes in a see-through outfit. "We share similar views on pretty much everything. It's just superorganic."
Backstage at Pauley Pavilion is a happy mess an hour before the 5 p.m. show. Ciara is here, and despite the fact that she's making a 30-second appearance, her entourage matches Wilson's. The two are going to be dancing the Whip and Nae Nae with some kids. Wilson has decided he wants a costume change for every segment and is constantly in his boxer briefs, displaying a slight belly. He models a leather cap for Ciara. He tries it straight-ahead, backward and turned to the side. Ciara laughs and tsk-tsks. "You are not wearing it sideways," she says. "Not a good look for you."
Wilson has been practicing his dance moves for three days, having a choreographer tape him from various angles so he could see what he needed to work on. Ciara watches and nods approvingly.
"I told him that he and President Obama have a similar dancing style," Ciara tells me later. "I'm not sure what that means, but he's got a cute groove."
A TV blares Scarface, inexplicably one of Wilson's favorites — "The acting is phenomenal" — while an iPod shouts gospel music, Wilson's pregame sound of choice. Someone yells, "Twelve minutes!" but Wilson remains unruffled for the live broadcast. He insists that his hairstylist bring his kids backstage for a picture and then gathers everyone by the toilets for a prayer circle. They grasp hands.
"Lord, thank you for this day and your grace and mercy and love," he says. "Thank you for the opportunity you continue to give us. It's all about you, God. Tonight with all the stars and all the athletes and all the hoopla through all the energy, through all the icons, Father, guide me. The crowd, 10,000 kids here tonight, all the celebrities, all the people, all the parents, all the kids watching at home, just see me through. I am so grateful for your love and mercy."
Actually, that's a mere snippet. It's time for Wilson to take his first position. He reluctantly concludes, leaving just a few seconds for Ciara to lead the crew in a chant of "teamwork makes the dream work."
The broadcast goes live. Russell Wilson crushes it, as the bros like to say. He's strapped to a giant target and gets slimed. He throws footballs and slimes the kids. Wilson wears his cap backward and is only half a step behind Ciara's dance moves. The lone misstep of the show is a cautionary tale for Wilson on the responsibilities of fame. New York Knicks star and media mismanager Carmelo Anthony is here to try to set the Guinness record for high-fives in 30 seconds. The kids are lined up and the fix is in, but Anthony insists on running in a fedora and loafs through the line. After a commercial break, it is announced that Anthony, in fact, did not break the record.
"This is rigged," he moans.
After the show, everyone heads to the afterparty, which includes a VIP section where waiters bring you all the burgers and fries you can eat. On the way over, Wilson runs into Anthony, who is still carping about not setting the record, and Jeter, who was given a Legend award before getting slimed. Wilson and Jeter exchange a hug.
"You did great," says Jeter as cameras appear and flashes go off. "Keep doing what you're doing."
A hundred kids high on ketchup and fructose speed by. Russell Wilson looks the happiest.
Wilson and I meet the next week at the Seahawks facility in a Seattle suburb. The trip to the Northwest allowed me to catch a little of the Wilsonmania sweeping the town — every third kid seemed to be wearing his jersey. He did another camp out near Seattle-Tacoma Airport, but this one had 1,200 kids and three or four thousand parents and groupies in the bleachers at a sports complex. A man tried to scalp a spare pass as a kid cried tears of joy when Wilson brushed by him. Fifty-year-old men clapped along to Wilson leading jumping jacks.
Wilson is on such a high that he's reluctant to let me harsh his vibe. On the Seahawks, the only star who shines as brightly as Wilson is Lynch, a dreadlocked running back who refuses to talk with the media. (At the Kids' Choice Sports awards, I introduced myself to Lynch, who had appeared in a skit, and he smiled and said, "OK!" Then he walked away.) Wilson is doing national commercials — he has turned down soda and fast-food ads because of their health issues — but Lynch is best known for local plumbing ads, such as a classic "Stop freakin', call Beacon" spot.
Last year, the Seahawks started 3-3. There were rumors of discord in the locker room largely surrounding troubled wide receiver Percy Harvin, whose relationship with Wilson was reportedly frosty at best. Harvin was eventually released, and Lynch tweeted, "Damn, they got my nigga." The subtext was that players thought Wilson was closer to management and head coach Pete Carroll than to his African-American teammates.
"Coach Carroll and I, we're both very similar in the sense of the positive mindset, and just believing things are going to work out if you continue to remain consistent," says Wilson. "I would rather be in a positive-flow state, and believe that things are going to work out, than linger in the negative and worry."
Wilson's closeness to Carroll and the front office — he has every staff member's birthday in his phone, according to Sports Illustrated — culminated in rumors that his teammates didn't think Wilson was black enough (a claim that star defensive back Richard Sherman vociferously denied).
"What does that even mean?" says Wilson, squirming in his chair at the Seahawks facility. "How are you defining 'black' or 'black enough'? I'm an African-American male with Native American blood. I didn't grow up with much. I've overcome a lot. I'm very, very proud of that history, but I'm also not going to just be defined by the history. I want to be defined by my present — and what's coming next."
Wilson then tells me that his childhood wasn't as gilded as some people think. He was on scholarship at Collegiate, a Richmond prep school; both his parents worked long hours, his mom as an ER nurse. "My family didn't have much, you know?" Later, he told me, "I went to a high-end school where kids would make fun of you." Wilson pauses. "Or not make fun of you — more so 'My family has this, my family has that,' and they just had it. I had to realize I had to earn my keep where a lot of guys I knew inherited money."
His brother elaborates. "The West End of Richmond was doctors, lawyers and business owners, old money. I don't know if we were on the bottom of the totem pole from a financial standpoint, but that's what it felt like."
Earlier, Wilson had told me a funny story about his dad coming to his games in mismatched shoes and socks. The creative outfits didn't seem to quite jibe with Wilson's other beatific stories about his button-down father, and suggested a man not entirely at home as a cog in the old-boy network. He eventually left corporate law to open a private practice.
"He moved to open his own firm, and there's challenges with that, 'cause it takes being a great attorney but also a great businessman," Harry told me, adding that his dad even stopped practicing law for a while.
Eventually, Harrison Wilson III's law license was suspended in 2002 for mistakes including missing deadlines and failing to pursue claims in a timely manner. For two years of Russell's teens, his father couldn't practice law, taking jobs at a gas station and a car dealership to help the family make ends meet.
"It's one of those things where you just move forward," Russell tells me during Seahawks training camp. "My dad was a hardworking guy. At one point he was working multiple jobs. He would do whatever it takes to help us go to school and help us survive. I'm grateful for my dad. I miss him every day."
It's a tiny real-life dent never mentioned in any of the other messianic stories written about Wilson by the football press. But the information provides a window into Wilson; he is trying to have the perfect life his father almost had. And that quest for perfection allows for no moments of weakness or doubt.
Wilson is a guy who visits hospitals more than any athlete I've known, and there is goodness in him rarely seen in twentysomething jocks. But he seems unable to admit vulnerability away from church. Even his story that God spoke to him after the Super Bowl interception and that he's never looked back strikes me as slightly off. In an essay for The Players' Tribune, Seahawks receiver Ricardo Lockette, Wilson's intended target, recently admitted to sleepless nights, and mentioned them to Wilson when they met in the offseason. Wilson said he had them too, something that not only makes him human but deviates from the superhero script.
"You can't get that Super Bowl back," says Wilson in a low monotone. "But when you get to the next one, what will you do because of that one? I've learned how to use the good and the bad from wins and losses, and use them for the next situation. It's a constant progression."
Wilson glances down at his phone. I can see Ciara is calling. "We connect so well, and we have the same vision," he says. I wonder if the hip-hop world is a bit of a stretch for the buttoned-up Wilson. He laughs. "No, it's a perfect fit, you know? Is it weird? No. It feels right."
It's time for Wilson to go. There's a flight to catch and financial investors waiting to hear his wisdom tomorrow in Colorado Springs. He begins to walk away and stops abruptly.
"Hey. Thanks for everything. You're the best, the absolute best."