This Sunday there is an amazing NFL game on – The Seattle Seahawks vs The Washington Redskins. Both teams have incredible rookie quarterbacks with current ESPN passing stats impressively ahead of Tom Brady, Ben Roethlisberger, and Drew Brees. Their unexpected success so early in their career is an inspiration, and they have already become huge role models among rising youth, but in a battle between Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson, Russell will always get my vote for MVP. All things Russell amaze me. Not only does he have the ability to persistently conquer challenges and routinely dispel doubts from his critics, but on and off the field, he actively lives a life that makes him a player with a tremendous heart. These qualities are awe-inspiring, and for him, they seem to come naturally, and we were lucky to get to know him as a young athlete at NCSU.
A lot of things happen in the locker room. Its a place where men celebrate victories, lick their wounds, visualize their next game and make new promises to themselves. It’s a place of camaraderie where boys build each other up to become men. In these walls are the sounds of pep talks, prayers before and after a game, strategies on how to win, the boisterous howls of team spirit and determination when the coach delivers his pre game speech. I just know that whatever happens in this ultimate mans cave stays in the confine of those walls. Afterwards, once the game is over and the crowd has dispersed, the room gets quieter. During away games, it’s a scramble to get cleaned up, get back to the team plane, and get back home. And it was in this type of moment, in the hush of a locker room after all players and coaches had gone, that my husband had a real struggle with Parkinson’s. He was unable to button his shirt.
So, there stood 2 men. One was Don – a 50 something year old man responsible for teaching his players to protect the quarterback. The other was Russell Wilson, the 20-something-year-old quarterback that my husband was supposed to protect. I’m sure Russell was one of the last guys because he had just completed post game interviews. In the boundaries of this locker room, is where common decency and humanity happened. Unfortunately limited mobility is one of the side effects of Parkinson’s and Don had expended all his energy on the field. Unaware of Don’s disease, Russell, a player with tremendous heart saw his struggle and helped. He just walked over and helped Don get dressed. Without speaking a word, a tremendous human being didn’t pass judgement, didn’t ask questions and more importantly didn’t walk out of the room without making sure all was good.
When Don got home that night, he shared what had happened in the locker room. He was embarrassed. Yes, for the fact that he needed help, but more so for the fact that he was losing the ability to do the things that he took for granted. That was early on in his disease where he, and truth be told we, had difficulty accepting some of the challenges that were ahead of us. This was our wake-up call. As he shared his concerns about getting into a situation like this again, inspiration hit, and I thought I could help him. I’m not sure if Don ever thanked Russell, or if in a man’s world, that’s just something not spoken about. However, I do remember personally giving Russell a letter of thanks from me. In a football environment where struggles aren’t an everyday occurrence, Russell showed grace and humility. The thank you was truly heartfelt because it’s difficult to express gratitude for something so personal.
In the off season of that year, Russell came to the rescue again. I asked if he could come to my daughter’s school and speak to the students about bullying because I knew he would impart his wisdom, grace and first hand experience. Without hesitation, he agreed to help out. Obviously, the kids were enamored by his presence, but surprisingly it was what he shared that left the impression. Russell admitted that he himself was a bully! He talked about growing up and how he would target kids on the playground in attempt to acquire friends. He then conveyed his turning point and how he now chooses to live his life. The kids couldn’t get enough of him. He was there to give a 30 minute lecture, but ended up staying and interacting with the kids for over an hour fielding questions on everything from his relationships with girls (he wasn’t married at the time), to God, to the music on his iPod and to the challenges of being a student athlete. He was personable and kind and gave each of those 440 kids a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Russell didn’t need to spend his down time doing this but somewhere I felt he was happy to have the platform. Again, just a man living the life he speaks about.
My eldest daughter recently asked me in all seriousness, “How did Russell get a bowl named after him already?” She just assumed that the Russell Athletic Bowl was named after him and not an apparel company. When we watch Russell play, we see more than just a great athlete, or a stat with a story. We see a remarkable human being that we know will have many things named after him one day.