RENTON — Much like Andrew Luck, his old college teammate at Stanford, Doug Baldwin listened to his aching body and walked away from football in May.
Now it’s barely a week from the start of the NFL season, and Baldwin’s former Seahawks teammates are assembled at the Virginia Mason Athletic Center, fervently preparing for the opener. Baldwin, a still-vital 30, sits in street clothes a few miles down the road at Renton City Hall, explaining that it doesn’t feel weird at all to be absent from the game, and the process, that was his life for so long.
“I thought it would be, but I’ve got other things I’m focused on – like building a community center,” he said.
That’s Baldwin’s passion now — a project he helped galvanize and one that now has an end in sight. For Baldwin, the Family First Community Center is a way to give back to Renton for the welcoming spirit it provided him when he arrived in 2011, and to recreate the sort of nurturing facility that helped sustain him during his youth in Florida.
“I want people to feel like this is their second home,” he explained Wednesday. “This is a place they can come and feel safe and feel loved.”
The hope is for a groundbreaking at the site near Cascade Elementary School next February, and for the doors to open in the middle of 2021. The public-private project has already raised $10.5 million, including a $1 million contribution from Baldwin, $70,000 from the Seahawks, and $4 million authorized by the Renton City Council.
They are seeking to raise another $5 million, which is a big reason Baldwin is doing a series of interviews this week hoping to bring visibility to the project. It’s his first public statements since he essentially announced his retirement in mid-May with a tweet storm entitled, “A letter to my younger self.”
The 20-tweet thread was a retrospective on the ups and downs of his life and career, and a tribute to important people in it. It ended with a scene from “Game of Thrones” with the caption, “My watch has ended.”
Baldwin, a two-time Pro Bowl receiver during his eight-year Seattle career, said he wrestled over whether to make any sort of public statement.
“I didn’t want to make it seem like I’m special,” he said, but added that he did it with his children in mind. Baldwin and his wife have an infant daughter.
“If I could leave something for them to understand who their father was and where he was at in that process, that was really why I did it,” he said. “And I did it online so it could live in perpetuity. It was emotional, for sure.”
Baldwin suffered a series of injuries in 2018 and characterized the season as “hell.” When it ended, he had surgeries on his groin, shoulder and knee, forcing his decision to step away. When I asked him if it would have been physically possible to play this season, he gave a long pause.
“I mean, yeah, I could go out there and run around, but not in a capacity that would be beneficial to anybody,” he said finally. “I wouldn’t have been anything for the Seahawks, and it only would have been a detriment to my health even further.
“I’m not healthy now to play. I don’t know when I will be healthy to play again. So I can’t tell you that. I’m still doing rehab, I’m still recovering. I probably have one more surgery to do, if not two more, actually.
“I wish I could say yes, and I want to say yes, because that’s the egotistical football masculinity side of me, but in reality, last year was so difficult, it would be 10 times worse if I tried to play right now.”
In that light, Baldwin empathizes fully with Luck, whom he called “one of the most beloved players ever to play the game.” Their decisions to some extent were driven by the same reality – to minimize the debilitating effects of football on their long-term health.
“I was proud of him,” Baldwin said. “I was very happy for him to see him be able to leave the game with his body somewhat intact, and more importantly his mind somewhat intact.
“Obviously, I was frustrated and disappointed with the fans who booed him when he walked off the field. It’s an unfortunate part of the business. We live in an entertainment world, so the fans, the people who watch us entertain them, they to some degree feel entitled to that entertainment. And sometimes forget we are also human beings with minds, bodies and families that we want to spend with in quality when we get older.”
Baldwin never actually uttered the “r” word – retirement – and has yet to file retirement papers with the NFL (even after the Seahawks released him in early May with a failed-physical designation). But he shakes his head when asked if he would ever return as an active player.
“No, not at all,” he said, adding that he shied away from mentioning retirement “because I’m not retired. I’m just moving on to the next phase of my life.”
In that regard, Baldwin has said that he wants to “change the world” with his involvement in various positive causes, such as the community center in Renton. He understands that might sound naïve, even pretentious, but it’s what drives him these days.
“Deep down in my soul, I do believe I have a purpose on this Earth to not only impact the immediate location for my family and my children, but also impact the world on a grand scale,” he said. “I know it’s a very ambitious thing to say, but just like my passion in football and trying to accomplish my goals that nobody I said I could, it’s the same thing. It’s no different.”
Baldwin hasn’t ventured to the VMAC during training camp, but he stays in close contact with various teammates, especially the receivers.
“We communicate almost every day,” he said. “They come hang out every once in a while at my house. So I still have a connection. Which makes it easier of a transition, because most retired guys will tell you what they miss the most is the locker room. Of course, it’s no different for me. Because I have such a close relationship with those guys, it’s made the transition easier.”
Asked if he plans to watch Seahawks games this season, Baldwin replied, “It depends. I will obviously try to root for my guys and support them, but I have a lot of stuff going on. I’ll try to make time for the games.”
One person on his radar is rookie receiver John Ursua, who is wearing the same number, 15, that Baldwin wore as a rookie and then passed along to close friend Jermaine Kearse. Ursua has said he studies film of Baldwin and patterns his game after him.
“The only thing I would say to him, make that 15 his own,” Baldwin said. “Don’t worry about who Doug Baldwin is or was, or anybody else. Just make it about John, make it about what he wants to make it about. I think that’s so important for him right now, because unfortunately, just in the nature of the business, he has to be very selfish.
“He should keep that in mind when he’s trying to become his own person and his own player. Because it’s going to be a long process for him. I look forward to watching it because I know, from what the guys tell me, and what my previous teammates tell me about this young man, the sky’s the limit for him, and I can’t wait to watch him from afar and appreciate the legacy that is that 15 – myself, Jermaine Kearse. I’m looking forward to it.’’
Baldwin said last season was particularly tough because he was “coming to grips with my mortality, in a sense. But projects like the community center, they drive me in other ways. I stay focused.”
When he was a youngster in Gulf Breeze, Fla., Baldwin found fellowship and purpose in a community center run out of a Salvation Army. He wants to give kids here that same opportunity, but he envisions the Renton center being a hub for all ages and backgrounds.
“When I walked into that building as a kid, you knew everybody there, and they knew you,” he said. “It was just an environment where you felt safe, which on top of everything else was probably most important, because when you feel safe, you’re free to explore, you’re free to be curious, free to learn. You’re free to fail and still know that someone’s there to pick you up and to help you and support you moving forward.”
That’s the environment Baldwin wants to create in Renton, and the reason he’s attended governmental meetings, stumped for funding and partnerships and been at the forefront in the design and vision of the center.
“This is my project,” Baldwin said – and he can’t help but envision the day when the doors are thrown open for the first time.
“Once people walk through the door and I get to look them in the eye, shake their hands and say, ‘Welcome’ – I think that’s when it’s going to hit me,” he said. “But there’s so much work still to be done.”
It’s the work Baldwin is doing these days, in the shadows of the football facility where he became one of the best in the NFL.
“Projects like bringing something as beautiful as this to life in a community that has wanted it and needs it, that’s the driving force now,” he said.