Since his mother’s death in 2009, the Seahawks linebacker has won a Super Bowl, made two Pro Bowls and signed a lucrative contract. But he has navigated these thrills knowing his mom wasn’t there to share them.

Share story

Bobby Wagner loves the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. He loves them so much that he owns a green turtle-shell backpack, which he carries on fancy team planes and in rugged locker rooms.

He loves the ninja turtles so much that when someone broke into his car in December 2014 and stole his belongings, he had only one request for the perpetrators. “All I want is the backpack,” he tweeted. He eventually got it back.

Wagner, the Seahawks’ starting middle linebacker and one of the best players at his position, is a self-diagnosed big kid. But that is not the reason for his obsession.

When he was younger, his mom always put the ninja turtles on TV. On his birthday, she gave him ninja-turtle gifts. So when Phenia Wagner died after a heart attack following Bobby’s freshman year of college in 2009, he didn’t want to surrender something they shared.

That’s why he has the backpack.

In the years since her death, he has won a Super Bowl, made two Pro Bowls and signed a lucrative contract. But he has navigated these thrills knowing his mom wasn’t there to share them. He has tried to reconcile his greatest loss with his desire to preserve his mom’s spirit, and that has not been easy.

He looks at a TV when he talks about her. Utah State, the college she pushed him to attend, is playing its bowl game at the moment. But he isn’t really watching. He just needs a distraction.

“If I looked at you, I don’t know … ” he said. “Part of having her live on and live through me is talking about it. I have to open up about it eventually.”

He keeps her close in subtler ways. Before every game, he runs to the far end zone and kneels. Then he prays and asks his mother to be with him. On July 7, her birthday, he tries to eat a scoop of butter pecan ice cream.

“And I hate butter pecan ice cream,” he said, smiling. “It’s so nasty. But I’ll have a scoop on her birthday, because she liked to eat it.”

There’s also the car. When he’s home in Ontario, Calif., he drives a 2008 Lexus, which he keeps in pristine condition. It’s his prized possession, and he plans to keep it forever.

She gave it to him during his freshman year at Utah State, after she had a stroke and lost most of her ability to talk or get around. Bobby and his sister shared a car at the time, but his parents had promised him his own car if he earned a scholarship. He was talking with his dad when his mom wanted the phone from her hospital bed.

“So she gets on the phone, and I just heard it in her voice,” Bobby said. “I don’t know how I figured it out, but she basically said, ‘Give him my car.’ ”

For 14 years she hauled her four kids around in a minivan. But then they grew up, and she traded in the van for the car of her dreams. No one could eat in her Lexus, and she kept it spotless.

That’s the car she gave Bobby.

The path to a scholarship

In the beginning she didn’t want Bobby playing football. She worried he would get hurt. He went out for the freshman team in high school and broke his arm in the first few weeks.

He always loved basketball but became a better football player. His mom went to all of his games, and it was obvious she was there.

“I felt like she had a way of waiting until the quietest moment to say something super loud,” he said, laughing.

In high school, he didn’t want to ask his parents for money. He got a job with the city but struggled to juggle everything. His mom told him to quit, that she would take care of him, and some day he promised to do the same for her.

By his senior year, he had only one scholarship offer. He visited that school, Utah State, and saw the snow and felt the cold. He thought he’d rather stay in California. His mom thought otherwise.

“She told me I couldn’t come back to California unless I signed that piece of paper,” he said. “I ended up signing that piece of paper.”

But just before winter finals, during his freshman year at Utah State, his phone rang. His mom had suffered a stroke. He overdrafted his checking account to pay for his flight home.

He walked into the hospital room and saw all the tubes and wires. She couldn’t really speak. It was like she was starting life over.

When she got out of the hospital she was weak, so Bobby carried her up and down the stairs. When she fell asleep on the couch, Bobby slept on the floor, so close that he was almost underneath her.

“There was nothing he wouldn’t do for her,” said Bobby’s older sister, Nakima Ward.

‘Instant loneliness’

Bobby returned to Utah State for his second semester. He considered transferring closer to home, but his mom told him to stay. She wasn’t very verbal then, but she was a prolific texter, and they communicated every day. He would pick up his phone after practice to streams of messages.

“We didn’t need to talk for me to understand what she was thinking or how she was feeling,” Bobby said. “It’s almost like we had similar brains.”

Then one day over the summer, he had a weird feeling in the morning. He looked at his mom and told her he was going to work out. He asked if she needed anything, if she wanted him to stay. He always could do push-ups in his room. She told him to go.

When he got back, she wasn’t there. His dad had taken her to the hospital. That wasn’t unusual. His family had just taken her a few days earlier. His dad told him not to come.

A friend suggested a movie, a distraction. They saw “Night at the Museum” with Ben Stiller, but Bobby’s phone kept vibrating. It was his family, telling him to head to the hospital. He drove in silence, and only when he got there did he learn that his mom had died. She was 47.

“It was like an instant loneliness,” his older sister said. “You could see it on his face. It was almost like he had an out-of-body experience right then and there.”

He remembers everything about that day, May 27, 2009. Who he was with, where he was, what he was doing. He warns people every year that he might be in a bad mood or avoid his phone on that day.

To this day he has never finished that movie. “And I don’t ever intend to,” he said.

Moving forward, but missing Mom

He wanted to quit football. It felt so insignificant, and his heart felt so heavy. His family had just discussed getting his mom a chair that would help her communicate, and Bobby had added it to his goals. He wanted to buy it for her.

“I felt like football wasn’t in me anymore,” he says.

Eventually he thought about his mom and what she would have wanted. He knew the answer.

He would pick up his phone after practices and miss having so many texts. He would call his home and hear his mom’s voice on the answering machine. When he lifted heavy weights in reps of three, he spelled M-O-M instead of counting. If he couldn’t do all three, he felt he had let her down.

“He just wanted to train and go to school and play football,” said Kevin Clune, Bobby’s position coach at Utah State. “Everything just became a clearer picture for him.”

Not long after his mom’s death, everything changed again when his daughter was born. Already, she reminds him of his mom.

“That was such a crucial time in my life,” he said. “I lost somebody, but I also gained somebody.”

‘You’re thinking just like your mom’

He thought he should have been a first-round draft pick in 2012, telling friends he didn’t want to be considered a steal. The Seahawks drafted him in the second round, and his friends and family wore shirts with a beautiful picture of his mom on the front.

He has experienced special moments that she would have loved. The contract extension this offseason, the Pro Bowls, raising the Super Bowl trophy in New York two years ago. He asks himself all the time what his mom would do, and the answers comfort him.

“I feel like her personality lives through me,” he said. “How she was and how she acted lives through me. I smile when people say, ‘Your mom used to do that; you’re thinking just like your mom.’ ”

It is hard for him to talk about this because there are some wounds that are just too raw to ever truly touch. But he wants to, because this is important to him. He has chosen to take the best of his mom, the things that he loved, and share them in his own small way.

Almost every day during the season, he walks through the locker room, passing reporters standing awkwardly, and smiles. It is such a small gesture, but it is not an empty one.

“Life is too short,” he finally explained. “That’s how my mom was. She did that. She went out of her way to say hi to people or to speak to people. She was a people person.

“I can’t say I’m a people person to that extent. But I feel like I’m at a point in my life where y’all have a job to do, and I have days where I’m like, ‘Man, I don’t feel like being here.’ But she would always say, ‘Make somebody smile today. Smile at somebody today.’ ”

Bobby Wagner file
Age: 25 Position: Linebacker College: Utah StateDrafted: By Seahawks in second round (47th pick overall) of 2012 NFL draft
Year Sacks INT Tackles
2012 2 3 85
2013 5 2 89
2014 2 0 83
2015 0.5 0 67