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The poor guy hadn’t eaten cheese in weeks, so maybe the self-deprivation was starting to get to him.
“I played at Wisconsin,” Russell Wilson said on a recent afternoon, and before long the Seattle Seahawks quarterback was letting his mind wander. “The best fried cheese curds.”
But that was the old Russ, and at least for now, that Russ is gone. This new version, slimmed down and fired up, is talking about unusual things.
Things like going months and maybe years without eating gluten or dairy. And, to make matters more absurd, wanting – as he enters his sixth season in Seattle – to play 20 more years.
If Wilson thinks hard enough he can see cheap jerseys China it: A 48-year-old quarterback, probably with bad knees or ankles, shuffling off the field for the last time to great applause following the first 25-year career in football history.
“Hopefully I’ll have that hair like George Clooney and I’ll be able to dance out there on the football field still,” Wilson said in a recent interview. And loopy or not, it’s clear he hasn’t just thought about this. He believes it.
This is Wilson in a single conversation: Eye-rollingly optimistic, borderline corny and occasionally over the top, smiling and determined to prove this isn’t as strange as it sounds.
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And sure enough, through five seasons and 28 years, Wilson doesn’t seem to play by ordinary rules. He is the same player who’s both a sub-6-foot starting quarterback – one of the true outliers in modern professional sports – and a three-time Pro Bowler; the man who once claimed (without medical evidence) that a sports drink whose company he’d invested in could heal concussions; the young husband and father who, before all that, publicly claimed God told him to avoid premarital sex when he started dating the singer Ciara, who is now his second wife. This is the same teammate whose limitless belief in himself and those around him has led the Seahawks to two Super Bowls in Wilson’s five years and – as outlined in an ESPN article this offseason – rubbed certain teammates the wrong way.
Regardless, two things seem to follow Wilson: drama and success. The Seahawks, from the time Wilson was drafted by the team in the third round of the 2012 NFL draft, have come to accept that the things he says might not be rooted in reality – but that, however they might sound, he does believe them.
With that in mind, how else could Wilson look at the scoreboard during the 2015 NFC championship game, Seattle trailing by 12 points and a little more than five minutes to play (Green Bay had, at that moment, a 99.9 percent chance of winning, according to Pro Football Reference’s win probability chart), and lead a thrilling win in overtime? How, a season earlier, could a second-year quarterback sidestep the enormity of the Super Bowl – to say nothing of Peyton Manning – and lead a 43-8 beatdown of the Denver Broncos? And how, despite struggling last season with knee and ankle injuries, could Wilson keep lining up behind the NFL’s worst offensive line and reminding defenders that, injured or not, he is the league’s finest escape artist?
If Russ wills it, the Seahawks have learned after reaching the playoffs following each of Wilson’s five seasons, it is no dream.
“I believe,” he said, “that anything is possible.”
All this optimism pours out of him, even after the most challenging season – and offseason – of Wilson’s young career. He was, despite the footwork he perfected as a middle infielder for two seasons in the Colorado Rockies organization, sacked 41 times (tied for the second-most in 2016, behind only Buffalo’s Tyrod Taylor) and suffered the two worst injuries of his career. He found his team’s dirtiest laundry, details of emerging fissures in what had once been seen as a locker room rich with team chemistry, revealed publicly and in head-snapping detail.
“A lot of stuff happened in the offseason,” Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin said during a training camp news conference, “and we couldn’t wait to get back to the locker room and kind of formulate our family, our tribe again, if you will, and put our heads down and get to work.”
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When Wilson reported for training camp in this Seattle suburb, teammates found that he had not changed much about his attitude. He was still rosy and determined. His public remarks came off as well-rehearsed and safe and straight out of a motivational guidebook.
“You try to do as much as you can to allow yourself to be at the highest peak of being successful as possible,” he said after a morning practice in early August.
He became more vocal about his goal of playing deep into his 40s. Last season, he revealed to Coach Pete Carroll, following a ferocious hit by Miami’s Ndamukong Suh led to Wilson spraining his ankle, that this was how he’d be hobbling around during the 2034 season. By this past spring, he was sharing his plans with anyone who asked.
“I do have a vision,” he said.
And that vision led to one noticeable change. After the Seahawks’ season ended, Wilson watched New England’s Tom Brady – winner of five Super Bowls and eater of avocado ice cream – hoist yet another Vince Lombardi Trophy. Brady, Wilson noticed, was thinner and more flexible than he’d been a decade earlier; if a defender plowed the Patriots’ quarterback into the ground, Brady – who hasn’t missed a game due to injury since 2008, the year he was lost to a season-ending torn anterior cruciate ligament in the season’s first week – would pop back up.
If Brady could do it, Wilson wondered, why couldn’t he? And so, given that if Wilson does play 25 seasons, it won’t be because the Seahawks have given him so much help on offense early in his career, he willed it. Gone were dairy and gluten and extra sugar, as they had been jettisoned from Brady’s diet; into Wilson’s tank went chicken and fish and vegetables.
He ate nine meals per day, according to a separate ESPN profile of Wilson published earlier this summer, and consumed somewhere around 4,800 calories. Extra body fat disappeared, and so did the jabs from teammates who kept reminding him of how well-marbled he looked during a trip with his family to Disneyland in spring 2016.
“We always made fun of him: Sometimes he looks a little chubby,” Baldwin said. “Comes with old age.”
Wilson reported to Seahawks camp lighter and more nimble and, yes, with more belief than ever that nothing was out of his or the team’s reach.
“Listen,” he said, and when he’s this passionate, it’s hard not to see the world as Wilson does. “We’ve been [to the Super Bowl] twice in four years, been in the playoffs every year the past five years. I believe we’ll get there again. The ball will bounce our way.”
Somehow, yes, he can see himself jogging onto a field at 48, though his friends and teammates ask him why on earth he’d want that. Championships, he tells them, and accolades and comebacks and challenges and fame.
Is fried cheese, even from Wisconsin, better than that?
“I may not be able to move as quick,” he said, “but hopefully I’ll be able to do all the same things and make all the same throws.”
True or not, Wilson believes it, and though it’s impossible to know now where Wilson will be in 20 years, he envisions it in the most Russell Wilson way possible.
“I’m just focused on 28 right now,” he said, “and try to be the best that I can be today. . . . I’ll do that this year and the following year and the year after that. Then we’ll go from there.”