His obsession has made him better than could have ever been expected. But all these years later, he’s left grappling with the loneliness of such a singular pursuit.
As Doug Baldwin sees it, therapy wouldn’t do much good. “I feel like they’re just going to tell me stuff that I already know,” he says, laughing. “I know I’m (messed) up.”
No, Baldwin’s problem isn’t awareness but conflicting objectives. He is ruthless and uncompromising professionally, and because of that he is a 26-year-old receiver for a Seahawks team that has played in two consecutive Super Bowls. But success obscures a vulnerability that Baldwin wears openly.
By his admission, he can be cold and slow to trust. His best friend at Stanford told him long ago that he could be a better friend, and Baldwin didn’t disagree. He sometimes asks himself why he is this way, but the answer never changes.
“I have to sacrifice personal relationships,” he says.
His obsession has made him better than could have ever been expected and fulfilled emptiness in his childhood. But all these years later, he’s left grappling with the loneliness of such a singular pursuit. He calls this his internal and eternal conflict, and it is rare to hear a player talk so openly about the cost of success.
“I’m not the fastest, the strongest, the most athletic, the tallest,” he says. “But in order for me to be good at what I do, I have to focus on my craft so much that it alleviates those other things. I can’t have personal relationships like other people do. I can’t spend time on that.”
After games or in heated moments, Baldwin’s eyes and tenor radiate intensity — a struck match. This is the way it has to be. But away from the action, his words are somber and contemplative, like the last embers of a great fire.
“It’s weird,” he says. “I would like to have better relationships. I would like to care more. But at the same time, I really don’t care to do so. Part of my competitive nature thinks I can do both, but it’s impossible to do both. I think that I can do both, so I’m working towards it. But working towards it just makes me see how bad it really is.”
A lonely feeling
A bridge. Three miles long, four lanes wide, rising 50 feet above the shimmering waters of the Pensacola Bay off the Florida coast. Locals call it the Three-Mile Bridge.
On one side is the community of Gulf Breeze and its stunning beaches: tourists, 95 percent white, a median household income of $80,000. That’s where Baldwin lived and went to high school. On the other side is Pensacola: more diverse, a median household income of $44,000, a city with a rough part of town. That’s where Baldwin spent his free time, where he still calls home.
“It’s only three miles,” says Nick Arnold, a childhood friend, “but it’s like being on Earth and then being on Mars.”
Right away Baldwin understood that he was different, just by looking around. He and Arnold were two of the only black students at Gulf Breeze High School. He played football and basketball with other black kids in Pensacola but felt like an outsider, even there, because he lived across the bridge.
“I truly felt like I was alone,” he says.
He was 12, maybe 13 years old, standing in the back of a room at an end-of-season football banquet when he realized sports could give him validation. His former youth football coach, Raymond Palmer, was at the front of the room talking about another team when he mentioned Baldwin. One of the best players he’s coached, Palmer told the room.
It was as if Palmer’s words started a great engine inside of Baldwin. Validation.
By high school, Baldwin had become one of the area’s better players, but he was just as isolated.
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Some parents complained to coaches that Baldwin was getting the ball too much, and some classmates thought he was arrogant. Baldwin heard racial slurs and got in fights, and he drove by the Confederate flag every time he crossed the bridge.
“If he was seen talking to a white female, she took a lot of crap,” says Chris Nemith, Baldwin’s football coach at Gulf Breeze.
The effect was chilling. “You never knew where you stood with people or how they felt about you,” Arnold says. “To your face they were one way, and behind your back they were another. And then after a while you began to not really know who your friends were.”
After a game his junior season, in 2006, he sat in the back of the bus looking out the window at the dark water below. His Gulf Breeze team had lost to Pensacola High in a game with playoff implications. He cried when it was over. The bus carried him and his teammates across the bridge to Gulf Breeze.
He heard some teammates on the bus laughing, others talking. They were the guys who went to parties on the weekends, who had lots of friends. Baldwin brooded.
“I wasn’t mad at my teammates,” he says. “I wasn’t mad at myself. It was just a sense of loneliness. I remember having such a cold heart because I felt like they weren’t on my level. They didn’t want it as bad as I did.”
The bus rolled along the Three-Mile Bridge, crossing from one world into the other. Baldwin sat in silence, caught somewhere in between. His shell hardened, but so did his resolve. He would create his own place in the world with football.
“That bridge?” he says. “That’s who I am.”
A passionate rant
The tirade started on the field. It was right after the Seahawks beat the Packers in overtime last season in the NFC Championship Game. An NFL Network reporter had asked Baldwin a cotton-candy question about returning to the Super Bowl, but Baldwin ignored the question.
He lashed out at Hall of Fame cornerback and NFL Network analyst Deion Sanders, who had called the Seahawks “all right” leading up to the game.
“I talk (expletive) to (Hall of Famer receiver and ESPN analyst) Cris Carter and to Deion, and part of it is fun to me,” Baldwin says. “But deep down inside, there’s an insecurity that’s like, ‘Damn, am I good enough?’ ”
He wasn’t done. He stormed into a hallway crowded with reporters outside the locker room a few minutes later. His eyes crackled. His words bit. He called out anyone who had doubted the Seahawks at any time.
In hindsight, he regrets only the packaging of the message, the fact that he cussed. But he would do it again.
“There aren’t enough people who are passionate with what they do,” he says. “They’re content just going through life being mediocre, being average. They don’t want to thrive. They don’t want to strive for greater. They’re happy being where they are.
“I go back home to Pensacola, and I see that. Even some of my good friends growing up in high school, they’re still doing some of the same (expletive). I went to lunch with a dude back home, and he’s still working at the local restaurant as a bartender. I’m like, ‘Dog, you’re about to be 28 years old, and you’ve got a job with no benefits, you’re getting minimum wage, you’ve got a daughter. What are you doing with your life?’ And when I see the rant (after the NFC title game) I’m OK with it because I understand it.”
Fuel for the furnace
A pickup basketball game this summer, just for fun. He calls the sport his first passion, even if friends say he is only decent.
One day he played for three hours, and a guy on the other team caught his attention. He had never seen him before, but there was something about him, something Baldwin respected. The guy didn’t talk or look at Baldwin. He just played hard.
“He didn’t back down,” Baldwin says. “And I NEEDED that. I didn’t look him in the eye, either. I wouldn’t speak to him. He’s an enemy on the basketball court.”
At times, Baldwin got angry, but not with anyone or even with himself. His anger is more indirect, like someone throwing wood into the furnace Baldwin goes to for inspiration.
“Sometimes I think to myself, ‘Doug, why are you like that? It’s just a pickup basketball,’ ” he says as he laughs. “But I truly love that. I enjoy that part of it. I would rather be that way than anyway else. I’ll take the side effects.”
Baldwin walked up to the guy after the game and told him how much he appreciated the way he played. That’s the word Baldwin used: appreciated.
Said Baldwin: “And it was to prove to himself that he could go against me. I respect the (expletive) out of that.”
Baldwin is great in big rooms, in crowds. Always has been. Put him in front of strangers or fans, and he is personable and charming.
“But when it comes to a deep, personal relationship,” he says, “that’s the ones I struggle with.”
The branches of his ambition twist into every corner of his life. He keeps only a few close friends and doesn’t think he will get married or have kids until he is done playing. His time, his energy, goes into football first and foremost, and he has talked about that challenge with his girlfriend.
“It’s like I go through life and all these relationship that I have, they’re more like acquaintances than they are true relationships,” he says. “It’s not fulfilling. I don’t know. It’s a very cold feeling at times, but it’s what I’m comfortable with.”
This is an icy line to draw, and it concerns him when his career is over. Will he relax? And what if he never reaches all of his goals? Will it have been worth it?
“That’s what I’m worried about,” he says. “When I wake up one day and I have nothing to do with football.”
An example for his brother
He pulls out his phone and scrolls through his messages until he finds the one he is looking for.
There is no one in the world Baldwin cares about more than his younger brother, Devon, a 13-year-old with dreams of becoming a basketball player. One day this summer, Baldwin sent his brother a text. Part encouragement, part motivation.
Don’t ever think you’re good enough because you never are.
But soon after sending the text, he regretted it. Why did he tell his little brother he would never be good enough? And why the hell did he feel that way?
“I’m still dealing with it to this day, that I don’t feel like I’m good enough to myself,” he says. “And I don’t want my brother to feel like that, because it’s a lonely feeling. It’s so (expletive) lonely, man.”
He sees so many similarities with his younger brother that he worries for him. But another part of him is proud. In a small sign of progress, he sent his brother a second text trying to soften the blow, trying to explain himself, trying to untangle sports from life, best he could:
One thing I have to change. Don’t ever get complacent. Continue to work hard and practice every day cause if you want to be great at it, you’re going to have to work at it. I know you know this, but it’s just a reminder. Don’t ever think you’re good enough because the day you do is the day someone who works harder than you do becomes better than you.