At his first weekly news conference of 2021 in early September, Seahawks linebacker Bobby Wagner preempted the first question with an announcement.
“I thought about doing something different this year,” Wagner said.
And thus began one of the most unusual and thought-provoking player-media interactions I’ve experienced in a four-decade career.
By way of background, Wagner and quarterback Russell Wilson are the only Seahawks made available to reporters each and every week, Wagner usually on Wednesdays and Wilson on Thursdays. Wagner decided he would use that forum to discuss some topic apart from football that was on his mind — a book, a business, a person, a concept. And then he would address football matters.
“I know sometimes you guys ask me some very thoughtful questions, but I decided to help push you in the right direction,” he said that day.
Frankly, it sounded like it had the potential to be preachy, or pedantic. But it was neither, because Wagner didn’t allow it to be. Instead, it was an illuminating exploration of eclectic topics that succeeded in opening my mind and steering it in new directions. And in the process, Wagner presented far deeper and more genuine insights into who he is as a person than any dissertation about, say, the linebacker blitz or the mechanics of defending the screen pass could ever yield. (Though we eventually got those, too.)
I think about that four-month interactive project now as Wagner’s future with the Seahawks, after a golden decade, is in question. The contract Wagner negotiated himself in 2019 carries a $20.3 million salary-cap hit in 2022. The Seahawks could save $16.6 million in cap space by releasing him, or they could ask Wagner to renegotiate a more team-friendly deal. He could be back, or he could move on, like his great friend K.J. Wright after last season.
In his last media session, before the season-ending game with Arizona — which Wagner missed because of a knee injury — Wagner promised to have provocative new topics for us to explore next season. If there is a next season. But even if there isn’t for Wagner in Seattle, he succeeded in what he set out to do with his briefings, just as much as he succeeded as an All-Pro linebacker who was an integral part of a Super Bowl-winning team.
“I just want to let everybody know that we are more than just athletes,” he said. “We have more capacity in our brains than just going out there and tackling or catching passes or anything like that.”
That very first week, the topic Wagner tossed out was a company called pgLang, founded by Kendrick Lamar and Dave Free to foster content creation and youth development. It gives a window into what emerged as ongoing themes of Wagner’s: his championing of Black entrepreneurs, his desire to prepare for a life in business after football and his belief in the importance of developing his mind beyond football.
“I’m constantly looking at different companies, constantly reading and constantly trying to grow as a person,” he said. “It’s important that we start to open a conversation up that you can do more than just your sport.
“I feel like that’s the reason why a lot of guys get really confused or have trouble when they leave their sport that they’re playing, because they focus so much of their time and energy on their sport that they don’t realize this game can be taken away from you at any moment. You have to have something else. This game doesn’t last forever. You have to have a different path.”
In discussing his decision to negotiate his contract — which evolved, he said, out of defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. urging all Seahawks players to read more, which for Wagner led to poring over the league’s collective-bargaining agreement — Wagner said, “It opened a lot of doors for me. It opened doors that I didn’t know existed. When you constantly have your head down in football, there’s a whole world out there that you can be passionate about.”
Over the ensuing weeks, Wagner broached topics that he was not only passionate about, but well-versed. Here’s a sampling:
- Public, an investment app focused on educating people on how to build financial literacy.
Wagner: “It’s important for me, because it was something that I wasn’t taught growing up in school. I was always taught on working hard to make money versus figuring out ways to make money work for yourself. … I want to change this narrative, that you have to have a certain amount of money or look a certain type of way in order to learn how to invest.”
- Meditation and yoga.
Wagner: “I personally find a lot of peace in meditation and yoga. When I heard about it I didn’t think it was something for me. I thought it was something that was a lot different than really what it was. I find, especially in this game being so mental as it is, having something to find peace is why I like to do it. I think it’s important for me to talk about it, because kids watch us play and they watch us perform, and they think this game is all physical.”
- A book called “The Seat of the Soul,” by Gary Zukav.
Wagner: “I read it, and it really changed my life in a positive way. … This book was really inspirational because it kind of moves beyond the limitations of just the five senses and opens your mind to your spiritual life and your spiritual world. It made me more mindful about my thinking, more mindful about my intent in all my relationships, not just football but family. I think it was really about moving toward your authentic self and authentic power.”
- (During Thanksgiving week) The power and brilliance of women.
Wagner: “There are a lot of ways that we can help, whether it’s investing in a woman founder, whether it’s understanding the obstacles they go through, whether it’s in medicine or media. I want to say A, I’m grateful; and B, I challenge men to have an open mind and perspective and do your part in whatever it looks like to move that needle forward.
“I do feel like the role that women play now and in the future is extremely powerful and important, so I’m open to conversation. I understand that I’m still learning a lot of things that I don’t understand, but I want to understand. I challenge men to challenge themselves in that world. That’s what I’m thankful for.”
- Mental wellness.
Wagner: “It doesn’t matter what color you are, doesn’t matter what profession you’re in, doesn’t matter how much money you have or how little money you have. Everybody has something going on in their lives that sometimes is overwhelming.
“If you always just keep it compressed, at some point it’s going to come out, and come out in ways that you may not want it to come out. I just want to stress it’s OK to not be OK, and it’s OK to look for somebody to help you out through that process.”
It was amusing (and telling) to Wagner that after discussing such weighty topics — and many others — the one that went viral was an off-handed comment about hating mayonnaise during a talk on supporting black-owned business. Wagner tried to turn that around the next week by offering a chance for nine students to join him after the season in a tour of the Silicon Valley.
“We’ll see if we can blow that up,” he said. “We’re going to turn something funny into something positive and help kids.”
In his final weekly session, Wagner reflected on the success of his venture.
“I wanted to kind of peel back some layers for myself, but also peel back some layers with you guys and allow you in my world a little bit,” he said. “I think through this process we had a lot of amazing conversations about books, about things that could change the world, about things maybe we weren’t aware of.”
“Hopefully we can do something more impressive next year. I’m going to follow through with everything that I’ve said in these press conferences. … I would like to encourage athletes as they’re embarking on their journey, whatever sport they’re in, regardless of your craft that you’re trying to perfect, understand and keep an open mind that there’s other things to be mastered. We are not a one-shot pony. We can be more than just athletes.”
And Wagner finished with a message to the media that I suspect he was leading to all along: “I challenge you guys to find unique ways to peel back the layers of each player, because every player in this building, every player in this league, has something special about them. I think that’s the stories you want to write about.”