Saint Russell Wilson and his PR Machine

The making of the Seahawks' (and the NFL's) squeakiest-clean quarterback.
Crosscut archive image.

Wilson in the pocket

The making of the Seahawks' (and the NFL's) squeakiest-clean quarterback.

Mark Rodgers has met a lot of young men, talented men, coddled men, men with egos, and he is confident on this point, that Russell Wilson, of all the athletes he has seen come along, is special.

Rodgers has stood at Wilson’s side for four years. He has been in his home, with his family and at his wedding. Rodgers knew Wilson when he attended college, when he played minor-league baseball for teams called the Dust Devils and the Tourists and when he was picked by the Seahawks in the third round of the 2012 NFL Draft, underestimated and discounted because he was only 5-foot-11 instead of 6-foot-5.

Rodgers tells coaches, reporters and sponsors the same thing he tells his wife; the same thing he tells his kids, his friends if they ask, that yes, Russell Wilson really is the unbelievably nice, earnest guy he seems to be.

“He’s not overly impressed by who he is,” Rodgers said. “I don’t think he believes what he’s doing is particularly extraordinary.”

Rodgers is Wilson’s agent, attorney, advisor and business manager, a constant in his sports career. With the exception of Wilson, Rodgers' agency, Frontline Athlete Management, of which he is a partner, represents only baseball players, including Cubs pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Travis Wood, Phillies pitcher Cliff Lee, Pirates pitcher A.J. Burnett and Rockies pitcher Jeff Francis among dozens of others. 

Cynicism comes with his profession, the way a salty smell comes with being a fisherman. To describe his client, Rodgers uses variations of words like transparent, sincere, organic. The two met in Raleigh, N.C., when Wilson attended North Carolina State and was contemplating playing both football and baseball.

“He blew me away,” the Florida-based Rodgers said. “I’ve been doing this since 1987 and this was the only time a player called me. I’ve had referrals, but I’ve never had a player call me up directly and say, ‘I found you.’ As I drove up to the baseball stadium to meet him, I saw him sitting there waiting for me. Waiting for me. I knew immediately, he’s different.”

Which is to say, Rodgers does not lose a wink of sleep worrying about whether Wilson is going to fail a drug test or get arrested for driving under the influence or cause a Twitter controversy with an untoward, impulsive remark.

Wilson, now the Seattle Seahawks’ starting quarterback, is Seattle’s accidental hero, a would-be backup who joined a perennial loser and, in a year’s time, helped turn it into one of the NFL’s best teams. Last Sunday night, he led the Seahawks to a bumpy victory over defending conference champions the San Francisco 49ers on national television in his team’s first home game of the season. It was not his most impressive performance, but left no question of his meaning to Seattle.

Wilson, who is 24, is this town’s No. 1 sports star and unlike others who have preceded him in recent history. Ichiro Suzuki, Gary Payton, Billy Joe Hobert have all led winning teams, but none, it can be argued, achieved Wilson’s combination of warmth, perceived integrity and likeability. In a short time, he has parlayed those qualities into a brand identity that is unique in the NFL, and among professional athletes.

“The general public has become skeptical of athletes,” Rodgers conceded. “Truthfully, the athletes, the owners, the administrators, can only blame themselves. Trust is no longer unconditional. Unfortunately there has been so much bad news off the field. So many players get in trouble with the law. I’m embarrassed at times. You can’t turn your back on it and say, ‘It’s not my client.’ It affects us all.”

“Russell Wilson is someone who can make people believe again that professional athletes can truly be heroes. As a parent [Rodgers has five children], sometimes you cringe when your children’s heroes do things that are unsavory… I’ve represented hundreds of players in my life, and Russell truly embodies the best qualities of all of them.”

For every famous athlete who has admitted to doping, who has been arrested for domestic violence, substance abuse or drunk driving, who has been caught cheating on a spouse in some spectacular way, there are also probably somewhere in the past more than a few glowing profiles written about him, his life or accomplishments cast in heroic proportions.

The nature of sports journalism is partly to blame. Sports exist to be stories we want to hear, and stories we want to tell. So, writers tend to write stories we want to read, about athletes we want to believe we know. Sports journalists are, also, part of the sports-industrial-entertainment complex in a way other reporters who cover other topics are not. The relationship is less adversarial, less skeptical and more conspiratorial. The interests of observer and subject are aligned in the world of sports. Both benefit from attention paid to the game, and to any imagination captured by it.

The fan is also partly responsible. As an audience, we relate to athletes in a way we do not relate to actors, musicians or other entertainers, perhaps because many of us, at one time, have caught a football, hit a baseball, shot a basketball or struck a golf ball, run a race. As such, we unreasonably hope or want athletes to be reflections of our best selves.

The truth about those who write profiles of athletes (or perhaps all public figures) is that we know very little. So no one should be surprised if a professional football player were to suddenly behave in a manner that counters the public reports given about him. (So far, Wilson has done nothing to contradict his unblemished, public persona.)

The view the media gets of athletes is small and getting smaller.

Seahawks headquarters, along the southern shore of Lake Washington, is a monolithic building resembling an airplane hangar, with all the charm of the Pentagon or the Death Star. Reporters are obliged to camp out in a windowless work room, sequestered from the daily activities of coaches and players. Access to players is very limited and granted with efficiency and control in mind.

To communicate with Wilson, reporters take a seat in a dimly lit auditorium every Thursday at 12:15 and wait for Wilson to take the stage. And, for 15 minutes, Wilson fields questions from behind a podium many feet away and above. That difference in altitude seems to subliminally enforce the hierarchy and encourage innocuous questions, which are mind-numbingly generic and unimaginative coming from career observers.

They are summarily about Wilson’s thoughts while scrambling, about the skills of his receivers and those of his opposing quarterback, or about the significance of the upcoming game. They are the kind of questions that get asked when the mob is rendered chaste and inert, and is fed stale bread once a week. If the balance of power was ever in doubt, it no longer is. The franchise all but runs the media that covers it.

Wilson being Wilson, he answers the questions graciously and meaningfully. If he does not care about the subject, he does not let on. He comes across as modest, thankful, self-effacing and confident. 

“My dad used to always tell me,” he says, “big-time players make big-time plays in big situations. I’m waiting for that moment. I’m relaxed in those moments. I try to be the calm in the storm for all the guys in the huddle… I trust in the ability the Lord gave me. I trust in my teammates, I trust in myself, I trust in the decision-making, I trust that I’m never going to give up on a play no matter what the score is.”

He ends the press conference the way he usually does: "Thank you, guys…go Hawks.”

Wilson manages his Twitter feed on his own, Rodgers said, tweeting several times a day about his team, about products he endorses, his charitable efforts, support for the Seattle Sounders, once a photo of his young niece and each day a verse from the Bible.

He has endorsement deals with Alaska Airlines and American Family Insurance, for which he has filmed a national television commercial. The ad plays up his earnestness and his wholesome, regular-guy appeal.

As an unheralded rookie, Wilson negotiated a modest, three-year contract that makes him among the lowest-paid starting quarterbacks in the league. He will make a little more than $500,000 this year. Most starters in the league make ten times that amount. He’ll earn a little more next season and a little more in 2015, when he can renegotiate his contract.

As a result, Rodgers said, Wilson and his wife Ashton Meem — they were high-school sweethearts of course — still rent.

“This past offseason they looked for a house,” Rodgers said, “but they couldn’t qualify for a mortgage.”

That, if nothing else, makes Russell Wilson a lot like you and me.