The adoration of Russell Wilson

What does a star athlete really mean to the city where he plays?

Updated: January 31, 2014, 1:27 PM ET
By Kevin Van Valkenburg | ESPN.com

SEATTLE -- If you want to understand why Russell Wilson might go down as the most important player in the history of the Seattle Seahawks, maybe even the most important athlete to ever ply his trade in the Pacific Northwest, you can't begin with football.

It's better to start with a story of a beautiful five-pound boy, and his imperfect, broken heart.

In the months leading up to the birth of his twin sons, Seattle salesman Dave Quick daydreamed about sports the way so many young, first-time fathers do. When he closed his eyes, he could see the three of them, years from now, laughing and roughhousing in the yard. He imagined teaching the boys how to catch footballs, how to turn double plays, how to shrug it off when you skinned your knee. His parental anxieties were overwhelmed by the dual joys of anticipation and excitement.

[+] EnlargeRussell Wilson
Courtesy Dave QuickThe jersey Russell Wilson signed for Franklin Quick, a patient at Seattle Children's Hospital.

Reality, however, is almost always more complicated than daydreams. In a series of sonograms late in his wife Kristina's pregnancy, doctors spotted a few abnormalities they said "concerned them." One of the boys -- the Quicks would name them Harrison and Franklin -- had a heart that wasn't developing properly. Sonograms, they warned the Quicks, can be part science, part guesswork, so it was difficult to say what it might mean when they were born. Doctors urged Dave and Kristina to focus on the positive, not the unknown.

But when the boys were born at Evergreen Hospital in the early morning hours of Oct. 30, the truth was obvious: Harrison was healthy, but Franklin needed to be moved, right away, to the ICU of Seattle Children's Hospital. His condition was worse than doctors initially feared. In addition to problems with his heart, his intestines hadn't properly developed. There was a chance the condition could be fatal.

The next week unfolded for the Quicks as a stress-induced, semi-sleepless blur. Surgeons went to work fixing Franklin's intestines, and sketched out a plan for how to fix his heart. Dave Quick learned to sleep, rarely for more than 10 minutes at a time, sitting in a chair next to Franklin's bed. Nurses would shuffle in and out of the room at all hours, and soon Quick lost track of where days began and nights ended. At one point, one of the nurses noticed Franklin wasn't breathing, and an army of medical personnel swarmed into the room to snake a tube down his tiny throat and bring him back to life. "I basically lost my mind," Quick says. "I went into the hallway and I more or less crumbled."

Franklin survived, and he survived a 10-hour open-heart surgery several days later, but he wasn't out of danger. The weeks and months to come would be critical. A few days later, Quick was half asleep next to his son when a stranger walked into the room. For a moment, Quick wasn't sure if he was dreaming or imagining things. But then the stranger, Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson, did something the Quicks will never forget.

He hugged them.

He told the Quicks he and his wife, Ashton, had heard about Franklin, and they'd been thinking about him a lot. They'd been praying for him every day. They just wanted to stop by and let the Quicks know they were pulling for Franklin.

"I think I probably experienced about 10 different emotions," Quick says. "Shock, disbelief, but most of all, pure genuine joy. For someone of his stature to do that is just amazing. For 20 minutes, he enabled us to not think about everything we were going through. He greeted us like we were family. I'd heard about these visits, that it was something he liked to do, but you see him walk through that door and you know he's the real deal. He is truth."

Russell WilsonCourtesy of Mark MalijanWilson visits with Dave Quick at Seattle Children's Hospital.

What does a star athlete really mean to the city where he plays?

It's a complicated question, and the truth is, the answer varies depending on the market and the athlete. In certain cities -- perhaps even in a majority of cities -- it means little. There is no larger bond formed with fans, no deeper resonance. And there's nothing wrong with viewing it as a business relationship, to be frank. It's just sports, after all. Some athletes you simply cheer for on Sundays, and don't think about much beyond the white lines.

But as the Seahawks prepare to play in the Super Bowl for the second time in team history this Sunday, as the franchise tries to capture the city's first major sports title since 1979, much of Seattle would like you to understand the feelings people have for their 25-year-old quarterback, Russell Carrington Wilson, are a little different.

It goes beyond his escapability, his humility or his accuracy with a football. It's what he's done with his time in just two short years, and what he represents.

"I think we've all fallen in love with the guy," says James Paxton, a Seahawks fan who dyed his goatee bright green and his mustache dark blue for the team's playoff run. "He gave us hope back."

As a sports town, Seattle can't quite match the tortured history of cities like Cleveland or Buffalo. But that doesn't mean the city hasn't experienced its share of disappointment and anguish in recent decades. If you talk to Seattleites in bars, restaurants, coffee shops and office buildings this week, they're obviously giddy about the Super Bowl. In virtually every downtown window, you can spot green and blue banners celebrating the Seahawks' "12th Man." Seahawks jerseys are flying off the shelves of sporting goods stores, and thousands of fans lined the streets as part of a celebratory sendoff when the team departed for New York City.

But in conversations, people aren't ashamed to admit this game is about more than just the Lombardi Trophy. It's also a chance to wash away a lot of recent sports heartache. The feeling may not be unanimous -- nothing is when talking about an entire fan base -- but it definitely exists.

You can still feel the sting of the Sonics' 2008 departure here in the Emerald City, and with Kevin Durant arguably unseating LeBron James as the NBA's best player this season, it's just more salt in the wound. There is still a mixture of frustration and regret, too, that the Mariners of the mid-1990s had four of the best baseball players of this era on the same team -- Ken Griffey Jr., Randy Johnson, Alex Rodriguez and Edgar Martinez -- and have no trophies to show for it. There is still a hint of bitterness that the officiating was so sketchy the last time the Seahawks made the Super Bowl that one of the referees later felt compelled to issue an apology to Seahawks players.

"I think the whole Northwest has a bit of an inferiority complex," says Brian Nemhauser, who owns and runs Hawkblogger.com, one of the most popular independent sports blogs dedicated to all things Seahawks. "Matt Hasselbeck used to joke about the area being Southern Alaska, but that sentiment really does permeate the culture here. In general everyone out here feels like anything that's done is immediately forgotten nationally, sports or otherwise. It's almost a reaffirmation for their inferiority. This whole area is just starving for that moment of validation where they matter."

That's the environment Wilson stepped into when the team selected him with the 75th pick in the 2012 NFL draft. At the time, no one saw a savior. Some of that was his own physical shortcomings -- at the NFL combine, he barely hit 5-foot-11 when scouts broke out the tape measure, meaning he'd be the league's shortest starting quarterback if he ever cracked the lineup -- but some of the skepticism was intertwined with the Seahawks' long history of quarterback prospects never quite living up to their lofty promise.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the franchise burned three first-round picks on quarterbacks (Kelly Stouffer, Dan McGwire, Rick Mirer) who never amounted to much. After shuffling through a series of journeymen and aging veterans, Hasselbeck, acquired in a trade with Green Bay, seemed to break the curse, making it to three Pro Bowls and leading the Seahawks to their first Super Bowl appearance in 2006. But injuries and a string of playoff disappointments ultimately left him with a bit of a mixed legacy.

When the team let Hasselbeck leave as a free agent and signed Matt Flynn in 2012, it seemed like a logical transition. Flynn, after all, had made headlines by throwing for 480 yards and six touchdowns during his only NFL start for the Green Bay Packers. But by the end of training camp, it was clear Seahawks coach Pete Carroll was enthralled with Wilson. Fans were divided on whether it was a stroke of genius or madness. All most Seahawks fans knew of Wilson at that point was that he was short and soft-spoken.

"Carroll had to reiterate multiple times during training camp that it was real," Nemhauser says. "He was priding himself on taking an unconventional path forward. I thought it was an unnecessary risk. It had more downside than potential upside. Unlike Andrew Luck or [Robert Griffin III], Russell didn't even get a majority of the starter reps in camp. He was getting about a third, maybe even less, then all the sudden you decide he's the starter? I thought it was reckless."

It might very well have been reckless. Wilson struggled early, and nearly lost his job four games into the season. But Carroll trusted his intuition, and Wilson's ultimate ability to handle the pressure that came with the decision might make it the best gamble in franchise history.

One thing helped Seahawks fans get behind him early, despite his initial struggles: his personality. He seemed likeable. He seemed humble. He was gracious in interviews, confident he was learning from his mistakes, but not overly cocky.

"I think people here, almost more than anyplace else, care about who they're cheering for," Nemhauser said. "I don't know if that's the case in other places. I don't think people would be thrilled to have an a--h--- who was also really good. They want to believe the person they're cheering for is a good person, that he's someone they'd invite to dinner."

WilsonRonald Martinez/Getty ImagesRussell Wilson signs autographs for fans before the NFC Championship Game in Seattle.

Eve Kopp was skeptical when she first heard about the Seahawks rookie who called Seattle Children's Hospital, unsolicited, asking if there was anything he could do to help. Could he and his wife come by and spend some time with patients? Kopp felt she'd done this dance with professional athletes before, and it frequently resulted in a few awkward, superficial photo ops and eventual disappointment. Most of the staff had never even heard of Russell Wilson. At the time, he was just a third-string quarterback, fresh out of the University of Wisconsin.

"We didn't believe it at first," says Kopp, the director of corporate annual giving for the hospital's foundation. "Some athletes have it written into their contracts to do charity appearances, and so it's easy for them to select Seattle Children. It might even be part of a requirement from the team. Typically, we see them once and that's about it. We figured with Russell, we'd see him once or twice, and then never again."

Wilson, however, kept showing up, every Tuesday. He enjoyed what the hospital initially set up for him, goofing around with a big group of kids in a playroom. But what he really wanted, he admitted, was to spend time with families in one-on-one settings. Something that would allow him to have real conversations with them, if only for 30 minutes. Kopp was stunned. And thrilled.

"It's really rare for an athlete to feel comfortable going room to room, seeing sick kids with bandages all over and IVs in their arms," Kopp said. "But he felt like it grounded him. It took him away from the regular chaos of his life."

Wilson explained that he'd lost his father, Harrison, to complications from diabetes in 2010, and seeing his dad struggle with the disease for several years meant he wasn't uncomfortable in hospitals. As long as it was OK, he'd like to keep coming back, keep meeting families and spending time with even the sickest kids, week after week. Even as his football responsibilities grew, he kept coming back for what the hospital soon dubbed as Blue Tuesdays, a play off the team colors.

He didn't want publicity, he preferred to keep it relatively quiet, but once he got permission from the families, he started posting pictures on Twitter of himself and his wife together with kids they visited. He wanted to show the world there was nothing to be afraid of.

"A lot of people hear about the visits and they start speculating what the real motive really is," Kopp says. "It's almost too good to be true. But it's really this simple: He was raised right, and he has amazing morals and ethics. He's an avid Christian, and he wants to walk the talk. I think his dad is in his heart every time he goes room to room. I think it's something that would have made his dad very proud."


Seattle's love affair with Wilson, which began almost by accident, has intensified with every victory over the past two seasons. Wilson is 27-9 as starter (including playoffs), tying Ben Roethlisberger for most wins by a quarterback in his first two seasons in the Super Bowl era. It's hard to imagine what level it will reach if he leads them to a win against the Broncos. Seahawks fans already hang on his every word, even though he rarely says anything even remotely controversial. They obsess over his clothes, his haircut, his Twitter account, his favorite food and favorite places to eat.

There are other Seahawks players -- like Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas and Marshawn Lynch -- who are just as responsible for the team's success, but none of them have captivated the fan base the way Wilson has. Seattle Magazine recently joked that if Wilson ran for mayor, he'd win the election on write-in votes alone. "Men and women want to have him over for a cookout. Kids want him to be their dad. Dogs want to fetch his cleats," the magazine quipped.

For a few Seahawks fans, the quasi-deification of the quarterback has almost reached uncomfortable levels. Wilson has been very outspoken about his Christian faith, and a few eyebrows have been raised over his apparent friendship with controversial Seattle pastor Mark Driscoll of the Mars Hill megachurch. Driscoll, among other contentious opinions, recently tweeted his belief that all non-Christians are going to hell.

"I'm a pretty cynical media observer, and with he and Sherman, there have almost been these pro wrestling style narratives created around them," says Seahawks fan Chris Hong. "Russell Wilson is the face, and Richard Sherman is the heel, and every story spins out from those two places. I think Russell Wilson is fine, but I find it very problematic that he hangs out with guys like Mark Driscoll. That just skeeves me out. It's a little too far to the evangelical right than I, as a liberal Seattleite, feel comfortable with. I think people are so happy about the Seahawks they're choosing to pretend he's not hanging out with the Mars Hill folks."

But Hong knows his opinion is a minority one. Even Seattle-born celebrities from outside the realm of sports have started holding him up as a symbol of pride, a worthy ambassador who embodies the best qualities of their hometown.

"Wilson's the total package," says actor Chris Pratt, a Seattle native who is one of the stars on the NBC sitcom "Parks and Recreation." "He's an absolute playmaker, but he's humble. He's at the top of his class in a whole new generation of exciting, multidimensional QBs that can kill you in the air or on the ground, and on top of that he's a good person. Instead of Instagramming pictures of his shoe collection, he's visiting kids at Seattle Children's Hospital. He's got all the best leadership traits but doesn't define himself by any of them. He can be religious without going full Tebow. He's multidimensional and flashy without kissing his biceps. I hope he stays healthy long enough to get the giant payday he deserves. I hope he remains a Seahawk for his entire career. I'm just proud as hell that Russell Wilson is my quarterback."

Grammy-winning rap artist Macklemore, a Seattle native and devoted Seahawks fan, even started visiting sick kids at Seattle Children this year after Wilson befriended him and encouraged him to tag along on his weekly Tuesday visits.

"So happy for this guy," Macklemore wrote on Instagram after the NFC Championship Game, captioning a picture he took with Wilson in the Seahawks' locker room. "No one deserves it more. I've learned a lot from him this year on a human level. He's the definition of a stand-up guy."


[+] EnlargeAbi Sayers
Courtesy of The Sayers familyWilson visited little Abi Sayers, a patient at Seattle Children's Hospital.

What does a star athlete really mean to the city where he plays?

Maybe the answer isn't complicated after all. At least not in this case. Seahawks fan Chris Sayers certainly doesn't think so.

Earlier this year, his daughter Abi was born 16 weeks premature. She had bilateral brain bleeds, severe strokes and respiratory troubles, and she needed a pacemaker. In the first seven months of her life, she needed five different brain surgeries. Her heart has stopped eight separate times, including once for 35 minutes. "We were told over a dozen times she wasn't going to make it through the night," Sayers says. "After the 35 minutes of CPR, they told us she wouldn't have any quality of life, even if she did make it. But the next morning, I started kissing her and she smiled right back at me. She had full recognition and comprehension skills. She's fought through a lot, and we've just been extremely blessed."

[+] EnlargeRussell Wilson, Abi Sayers
Courtesy of Sayers family"He never wanted to talk about himself," says Chris Sayers. "He just wanted to give us a hug and ask how Abi was doing."

Sayers and his wife had heard about Blue Tuesdays, but didn't want to get their hopes up. After all, there were 270 kids at Seattle Children's, and Wilson had time to visit only a handful each trip. But just on the off chance they might bump into him, Sayers decided to bring his Russell Wilson jersey to the hospital the first week Abi was there. Sure enough, his wife Mindie spotted Wilson in the hallway that day, and he stopped to sign the jersey, pose for pictures, and get to know the Sayers.

"I was so awestruck, I could barely speak to the man," Sayers says. "But after that, he kept coming back to visit us. He never wanted to talk about himself, he just wanted to give us a hug and ask how Abi was doing. He asked me if we could pray over Abi one day, and after that, it just felt like the lines of communication were open and we could talk about anything.

"I've never been particularly into fanfare. My whole life, I've tried not to put people on a pedestal. But I can get behind Russell. I believe in my heart that he's genuine. I hope other people do, too. Because everywhere you go right now, people want to talk about Russell and talk about the Hawks. You can instantly bond with them. And that's the kind of thing that builds a city of happiness."

Kevin Van Valkenburg | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine

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