Russell Wilson and Bobby Wagner leave Seattle not only with almost unprecedented reputations for what they accomplished on the field, but also having provided — if not perfected — the blueprint for how athletes can make an impact in the community.
During their Seahawks careers both won the team’s Man of the Year Award for their off-field contributions.
Wilson actually won it twice — in 2014 and 2020 — and Wagner in 2019.
Wilson in 2020 also went on to win the NFL’s Walter Payton Man of the Year Award (each individual team’s winner is a nominee for the NFL award). And in what turned out to be his last act as a Seahawk, last month he was named as the NFL’s Bart Starr Award winner honoring an NFL player “who best exemplifies outstanding character and leadership in the home, on the field and in the community.”
Wilson leaves Seattle as the only player to win the Man of the Year and Bart Starr awards as a Seahawk other than Steve Largent.
When Wilson won the Man of the Year Award, the team and league specifically cited his Why Not You Foundation, which in partnership with Safeway and Albertsons donated more than $9 million to Strong Against Cancer as well as helping to raise more than $1 million for Friends of the Children, a nationwide organization dedicated to breaking the cycle of generational poverty.
Wilson, who was joined in his philanthropic projects by his wife Ciara, also donated a million meals to Food Lifeline through Feeding America early during the COVID-19 pandemic, among other charitable acts.
But what Wilson may be remembered for most were his weekly visits each Tuesday during the season to Seattle Children’s Hospital, something Wilson began his rookie year and continued throughout his career.
Wilson explained during the 2021 season that the visits were motivated in part by the memory of the death of his father, Harrison, in 2010, from complications of diabetes, and was something he conceived on his initial flight to Seattle after being drafted by the Seahawks in 2012.
Wilson said he decided then, “I would make sure that every time, every week, I would try to do something that is connected to the Children’s hospital. I wanted to have some type of meaning there and try to impact someone’s life.
“Every time I go into a room I’m praying for a miracle. I’ve experienced it with my own life, I’ve experienced it with my dad who passed away, but him also being told that he had 12-18 hours to live, and he lived another three-and-a-half years. He got to see me get drafted in baseball. He got to see my brother get married, and he got to see a lot of special things that a lot of people said wasn’t going to happen — he couldn’t breathe again, he will never live again. What I pray for every time I go into the Seattle Children’s Hospital room is that, hopefully, I can give a little glimpse of hope, a glimpse of love, and a desire that life is worth living. Hopefully that inspires someone else.”
If Wilson — in part due to his huge national stature — tended to attract a lot of attention for his community service, Wagner always tried to keep it as behind-the-scenes as possible
“It’s from the heart,” Wagner once said of his charitable activities. “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 acknowledgment 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.”
Among Wagner’s activities cited when he won Man of the Year honors were a “Walk with Wagner” for stroke awareness in the Seattle community, hosting “numerous holiday shopping events around Thanksgiving and Christmas to support those in need with groceries or Christmas presents” and hosting a bowling event for 54 youth (his jersey number) from the Orlando community while he was in town for the Pro Bowl.
What he shared with Wilson — with whom he arrived in Seattle as part of the team’s famed 2012 draft — was a desire to honor a parent who had died while he was in college.
On the day he was nominated for the Man of the Year award, Wagner said he hoped it would have made his mother, Phenia, who died of a heart attack he was a freshman at Utah State, proud.
“I think I would say this would be something that kind of means something to me because I feel like if my mom was here that’s what she would be most proud of,” Wagner said. “She would be proud of the on-field stuff, too, but the lives you are affecting off the field would be something I feel like she would appreciate a lot more.”
Wagner said another goal was to show that football players are more than athletes. And with that in mind, he decided during the 2021 season to open each of his weekly news conferences talking about a non-football topic — a book he’d read or an activity such as yoga that he found helpful. Through the years he also often wore shirts with the names of historically Black colleges and universities, saying he wanted to use his platform to give them some needed attention.
But while Wagner often tried to keep many of his charitable works close to the vest, one spontaneous act in 2019 proved too good to ignore.
Wagner was at the Admiral Safeway in West Seattle that November to help box up Thanksgiving meals for some of the nine tiny house homeless villages run by the Low Income Housing Institute, an organization with which he had begun working that year.
While there, Wagner told the store that for the next half-hour or so he would pay all the bills for every customer in the place. About that same time, West Seattle High School let out and the store was flooded with students, who saw Wagner, who then told them “get whatever you want.’ ” Some of the students took to social media to tell the world.
“They weren’t supposed to know that I did that,” Wagner said a few days later. “But with cellphones it’s kind of hard.”
We can be glad now that those who were there shined a light on an act that characterized as well as any the community impact made by two of the Seahawks’ brightest stars and that will forever stand as a significant part of their legacies.