Pete Carroll is on pause, it seems. He’s not thinking about five other things. The words coming from his mouth are slow and thoughtful, not the usual stampede of insight and wit. He’s actually in the moment.
“There’s no bull(bleep) here,” Carroll says. “There’s no bull(bleep). This is the real deal. We’re talking about life and death.”
The spry Seahawks coach surely has coffee beans for blood cells, but on this March day, he’s leaning forward on a couch in his office and making sure I match his eye contact. During the busy football season, he can come across as a preoccupied public figure. Not now. He’s talking about something even more important to him than winning forever.
“Listen to me,” he says. “This is amazing stuff.”
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Carroll came to Seattle four years ago as a rock star with an awkward charisma. He won two college national championships at USC, and the story was that he returned to the NFL, where he had been fired twice before, to diminish the red ink on his career and complete his legacy. But with Carroll, there’s always more.
At USC, Carroll learned he had the power to “convene people for a purpose.” First, he won on the field, and then he tried to effect change off it. Tired of hearing about gang-related deaths on the radio during his drive to work, Carroll founded a nonprofit organization called A Better LA 10 years ago. His efforts to apply his team-building philosophy and restore peace in inner-city Los Angeles gained national attention as he walked the crime-infested streets and spoke with gang leaders.
Two years ago, he tweaked the campaign’s model and started A Better Seattle. He knocked on the door of his neighbor, retiring Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, to solicit the first major benefactor.
If you had to boil the multifaceted Carroll’s passion down to a single concept, it’s clearly that he wants to inspire people to be their best. As a coach, he is doing that with the Seahawks. They have the NFL’s best record at 10-1, and they have a roster full of young players who are performing better in his system than they ever did before.
As a civic leader, Carroll wishes to do the same, only with higher stakes.
The mission of both “A Better” organizations is to reduce gang and youth violence and provide better opportunities for the impoverished to succeed. A Better Seattle collaborates with law enforcement, policy makers, elected officials, program partners and community volunteers to enact a strategic approach to effect change in six local communities: Seattle, Auburn, Kent, SeaTac, Renton and Tukwila.
So far, Carroll has been encouraged by A Better Seattle’s progress. He says it has been easier to get started here. Los Angeles is too vast, and he found the politics in California to be problematic. He considers Seattle a tighter community, which made for a smoother setup. In Seattle, the organization partners with other groups, such as the YMCA’s Alive and Free program, to share in the mission.
The Seahawks have been helpful, too. The managing director of A Better Seattle is a Seahawks employee. The Seahawks pay the salary and provide the office space, and with the director working in the same building, it’s easier for Carroll to wear two hats daily. When Seahawks owner Paul Allen lured Carroll away from USC with a five-year, $33 million contract in 2009, he was aware of the coach’s hesitance because it meant leaving behind his community work in L.A.
Carroll is still involved with A Better LA, but it’s a more difficult task now that he’s away. He didn’t plan on extending the program to Seattle, but he’s glad it happened.
“Everywhere the work goes, lives are saved,” Carroll says. “So, we had to do it.”
Even during the season, Carroll is an active participant in the nonprofit.
“He’s like the head coach here, too,” says Kelly Creeden, the managing director of A Better Seattle. “I’ve been a fan of Pete Carroll and his approach and the way he engages young people for 15 years now. He’s absolutely committed to making sure the young people in their community know they are valued. That’s on the very top of his mind every day.”
For all the intrigue about Carroll’s many quirks, he appears to be a simple man. He believes he has a gift in being able to communicate with people, and he coaches in every facet of his life. He can’t sit on any sideline and say nothing. That’s not in him. He’s always teaching, always working with someone to find a solution.
Last March, Carroll and Connie Ballmer, wife of the Microsoft CEO, helped bring We Day — an international extravaganza to celebrate 15,000 service-oriented students from across the state — to KeyArena for its United States debut. The event will return in March 2014.
Ask Carroll about his motivations. He leans in again, rests his elbows on his thighs and wipes at his face.
“Because kids are dying,” Carroll says. “Getting killed, you know. And that’s not the way it’s supposed to go. They’re supposed to have a shot at life and become all they can become. I always think of the mom sitting at home, waiting for her kid to come home, and he doesn’t show. That works its way through that family and through that community where they live, and it just influences so many.”
A Better Seattle is about intervention and prevention. It provides funding to hire professionally trained outreach workers to take to the streets and create change. Those outreach workers are often former troublemakers, supposed bad guys turned good. Much like the way Carroll focuses on rebuilding a team, he wants to rebuild communities by making the most influential figures believe in a new plan.
This is Carroll turning his inner sunshine into results. You would consider him naive until you listen to him. He trusts the power of one person transforming another, and in a sense, that’s how the organization works. The outreach workers are called MVPs, and their charge is to stop the violence one conversation at a time.
Think the world is too jaded and cruel to change like that? Not Carroll.
“The thing that always strikes me is how much power one person has,” Carroll says, “Everybody has so much power to help and to change if they just exercise it and get after it.”
Carroll leans forward again.
“It’s the truth: People can change through vision, just by altering their vision of what can come back,” Carroll said. “Day after day after day, you stay with the same message. And if you don’t waiver and stick to it, you create something right before your eyes.
“What could we do? Yeah, we could change the world.”
Carroll is just one man who got tired of listening to reports of murder on the radio. He doesn’t seek praise for his off-the-field work, just attention to benefit the organization. There are more lives to save. And he knows how to put people together who can help.
“I can’t do much, but I’ve been able to at least crank it up,” Carroll says, turning up the volume on a song playing on his computer.
He laughs as the music blares and says, “That’s one of the best things I do.”