RENTON — One of the most vital on-field jobs for Seahawks middle linebacker Bobby Wagner is to call and set the defense before every play. Often, that requires a spur-of-the-moment decision to change things up based on what he sees out of the offense, something that he obviously does well, given the success of the Seattle defense since he arrived in 2012.
Tuesday, Wagner put that ability to call an audible to use in a different capacity — deciding on the fly to pay the grocery bills for customers at the Admiral Safeway in West Seattle.
Wagner was there to help box up Thanksgiving meals for some of the nine tiny house homeless villages run by the Low Income Housing Institute, an organization he has been working with since last summer.
As he did, Wagner saw an increasingly full house of shoppers buying own food and supplies for Thanksgiving and had a sudden change of thought.
“It was spur of the moment,’’ said La Shanda Hurst, a community engagement coordinator with Microsoft who is part of the team helping Wagner with some of his philanthropic efforts. “He was like ‘I’m doing this for these people in this one community, why don’t I do something for the people living in this community right now and make their holiday a little brighter?’’’
Wagner tried to keep it relatively quiet, letting the store know that he’d pay for everyone’s bills for about the next half-hour or so that he planned to be there finishing preparing and packaging meals for the tiny house villages.
But things changed a little when West Seattle High School let out and suddenly Safeway was full of dozens of kids who regularly visit.
“They saw Bobby and they went crazy and he said ‘get whatever you want,’’’ Hurst said. “ And they are like ‘what?’ — because they are all excited. And Bobby’s like ‘get healthy stuff. Get water.’’’
Wagner hoped to keep it all a secret, but many of the shoppers and students took to social media to let the world know, one noting at least one bill topped $200.
“They weren’t supposed to know that I did that,’’ Wagner said. “But with cellphones it’s kind of hard.”
In fact, while Wagner is one of the Seahawks’ most high-profile players, he has earned a reputation around the team for trying to keep his off-field good works as quiet as possible.
“It’s from the heart,’’ Wagner said. “I don’t really care if people see that I do it or notice that I do it or even recognize that it’s me doing it. I just do it because I feel like there’s a lot of people out there that need a hand, and I try to lend a hand. I don’t really want acknowledgement or want people to pat me on the back or whatever. I just want to help the people I feel like I can help and if there’s an opportunity where I feel like I can help, I do it.’’
His involvement with the Low Income Housing Institute arose out of that same curiosity. He said it was seeing some of the children as he was visiting one of the sites (which are located in Northlake, Interbay, Othello, Camp Second Chance, Tiny House, Georgetown, Whittier Heights, True Hope and Lake Union Villages) that convinced him it was a truly worthy project.
The sites offer bathing, cooking and supportive services for hundreds of families who experience homelessness.
“Bobby was able to see some of the kids who were there who were really just playing because they didn’t know anything different,’’ Hurst said.
Said Wagner: “When you go and walk the street and you see a mother with her kids sitting on the side of the road because they don’t have a home, you just sit and think, ‘What if that was me? What if that was my family, my sister, or whatever?’ I think it’s those experiences, you just walk in living life, and being grateful for the position that you’re in, and try to help people when you can.”
So last summer, Wagner and his team asked the residents of each site for a wish list of supplies — which included items as substantial as a refrigerator — and then Wagner visited each one to help deliver them.
Wagner has also agreed to purchase nine tiny houses to aid in the development of more village sites.
Hurst said Tuesday’s event arose out of Wagner deciding he wanted to do more than just what he had last summer.
“He said, ‘Let’s do a Thanksgiving edition and let’s not just think about them one time,’’’ Hurst said.
The result was making sure any of the sites that didn’t have plans for Thanksgiving were able to supply meals to residents for the holiday.
Wagner might have preferred to keep that private, too, but said he understands part of his role is also using his name and visibility to bring attention to the project. “I think it’s more my (philanthropic) team who says I need to talk about it more,’’ Wagner said.
The real reward, he said, is the reaction of those he helps, like the West Seattle students who entered the store Tuesday and left with not only an early holiday gift but a story to tell for the rest of their life.
“The kids came up after they got a bunch of junk,’’ Wagner said. “They came up and said, ‘thank you.’ So that was pretty cool.”