Traveling around the country this time of year, heading almost daily to some NFL team's practice facility or a far-flung college campus for practice, the locales vary but the general scene remains the same. There are a few thousand fans sitting in makeshift stands and lining the fields at every NFL camp. And when final horns blow to signify the end of the session, there is general cacophony of yelling for players to sign autographs.
It's sort of the game everywhere, with availability limited by that day's work schedule or the time of practice or the proximity of the players to the field. And in a league filled with many more genuine good guys -- as opposed to the bad eggs who create media firestorms for their ugly actions -- it's pretty common to see guys going out of their way to accommodate youngsters while still donning full pads under a scorching sun.
In some places it's louder than others, and on some teams the screams are more focused at one particular target than others. In Seattle, well, it's all about Russell Wilson. This guy is a bona fide rock star in the Pacific Northwest. The sheer sound provoked by him walking to a practice field can be shocking, and the bond between him and the youngest Seahawks' fans is impossible to miss.
Whether it's his smaller size -- in a sport of imposing figures Wilson is far from a giant -- or his boyish charm, or his extended outreach with children, or the fact that he just hosted the Nickelodeon Kid's Choice Awards, or the ease with which he makes time to head over to the children's section by the end zone after practice, it's clear that kids relate to him. Also clear: the Seahawks quarterback embraces that aspect of his job.
You get the sense that it isn't forced but something he does because he genuinely enjoys it. On a day in which Wilson stayed longer on the field than almost anyone else -- getting in more goal-line and red-zone work with new tight end Jimmy Graham -- he still made a point of interacting with as many youngsters as he could before having to eventually head back toward the locker room.
"I love kids," Wilson said, lighting up when the topic is broached. "I love kids. I just realize God put me on this earth for a lot of different reasons, but also to inspire and encourage kids. And so you just try to always enjoy it for what it is, and I get to play in the National Football League and it's a dream come true. A lot of people thought it would never happen for me, but that I always dreamed of, and I dreamed it and it's worked out so I just have to keep going."
I'm not sure there is a bigger celebrity in this part of the country right now than Wilson. Felix Hernandez, the Mariners ace, has been huge, but he hasn't been as dominant lately and the Mariners are afterthoughts again. Wilson is so easy to root for and he's done nothing but win since taking over as Seattle's quarterback in 2012. He's a constant overachiever who has helped make this franchise arguably the best in football. He's done it in style, and he's done it with a joyous spirit, and it has made him incredibly in demand and has completely altered the scope of his existence in a few short years.
He's mentally and emotionally equipped to handle the overnight fame, which comes in handy considering few could have predicted such a meteoric rise for Wilson.
Let's remember that if Terrell Owens (yeah, that T.O. was in Seahawks' camp for a flash once) had managed to hold on to a few well-placed passes from Matt Flynn in a preseason game in Denver three years ago, and Flynn had not picked up a boo-boo in the process, then Wilson, a third-round pick, might not have started from Week 1.
Now Wilson has all of Washington state clamoring for his time and all kinds of opportunities to shoot commercials or host awards shows or attend events at the White House. But he knows he can't lose sight of what got him this far in the first place.
"It's like my dad used to say, and like (mental conditioning coach) Trevor Moawad always says, 'Keep the main thing the main thing,'" Wilson explained. "My faith comes first, and family and football. I'm so dedicated to it. I'm blessed to do a lot of fun and cool things, but honestly I love nothing more than playing the game of football. Just getting out here and playing the game and studying the game and trying to learn the game."
Moawad marvels at Wilson's work ethic and attention to detail, working with him months ahead of time in the offseason to make sure he will have access to the diet, workout facilities and equipment he will require to keep up his year-round routine.
"His mental focus is truly awesome," Moawad has told me on more than one occasion. "He is completely self motivated."
Wilson seems anything but spoiled or jaded by his celebrity and he is very careful about how he manages his time and which projects he takes on. He is just as meticulous with his approach to a hosting gig or an endorsement requirement as he is with his preparation for a game.
"Mark (Rodgers), my agent, and Trevor and Matt (Rodgers), my manager, all kind of have a very sort of set plan for where I'm going to go, where I'm traveling to, the dates on my calendar," Wilson said. "And my trainer, Ryan Flaherty, he's always with me. He always meets me wherever I'm going, pretty much. It's always a good thing to be able to have him with me. It's a blessing to get to train and be focused and still kind of expand my brand in a way off the field too as well."
Of course, the biggest matter of business for Wilson this offseason was negotiating a new contract. Deadlines spur action and he and the Seahawks were able to agree on a four-year deal that included $31.7 million guaranteed at signing, drastically altering the financial landscape for the Super Bowl-winning quarterback.
He had yet to make any big money in the NFL -- he was set to make $1.5 million in the final year of his rookie deal -- and this was a huge departure from that, obviously.
It would have been bizarre to see Wilson elsewhere -- his rise is so intertwined with that of this franchise – and the Seahawks would have franchised him twice over if need be to keep in town, regardless. Having that financial security prior to the start of a season in which Seattle is going for a third-straight Super Bowl appearance is massive.
"It's such a blessing to be here," Wilson said. "I'm one of 32 men in the world who get to do what I get to do -- to be a starting quarterback in the National Football League. And I believe I'm the starting quarterback on the best team in the National Football League, and it's such a great thing to be. So I wouldn't want to be anywhere else. I'm very, very grateful for the city, this town, the fans, my teammates. My teammates are such great players, and great people -- great men -- too. We're a huge family, and all of that makes it so perfect, and obviously my coaches, too. The people I get to play with and play for."
"It's electric here, and it's been electric for three years and we've won a lot of football games and done a lot of great things. And the key is to keep that going and keep that fire lit, and like I said, stay in the moment and don't get too far ahead and don't look too far back. Just continue to learn and continue to grow and continue as a team to remain humble, and as players to remain humble."
Wilson will be as driven as ever to win this season, after a year that ended in the most heartbreaking fashion possible. I don't suspect much changes with his makeup despite the fame and fortune. I would expect him to be a homeowner pretty soon -- agent Mark Rodgers had held off any attempts to purchase significant property while on his old contract -- though Wilson wasn't even positive about that. "Who knows, that's still ongoing between me and Mark," he said. What we definitely know is that Wilson is going to be in Seattle for quite some time, and he's going to be signing a ton of autographs along the way.
More news and notes from around the NFL:
|The Ravens better have some dudes emerge from their bungled cluster of receiving targets, because Breshad Perriman is going to be way behind assuming he returns anytime soon -- that knee injury, which always sounded ominous to me, continues to haunt him -- while rookie tight end Maxx Williams continues to be very up and down from what I'm hearing. He's got a ways to go to show true dependability, and with both receiver and tight end such question marks on this roster, they need some heroes, fast. Rookie receiver Darren Waller could be the biggest beneficiary from all of the unproven talent around him. Quarterback Joe Flacco is developing a rapport with Waller, a massive target at 6-foot-6, and for a team in need of some bigger targets, opportunity just might knock big-time for him.
|I love the Bills moving Corey Graham to safety. The longtime corner -- one of the better slot corners in the league for a while now -- is filling a void and taking to the position change very well from everything I've heard. He has natural ball instincts and is a cerebral player and had already played in this scheme essentially from his time in Baltimore. This move is going to pay off for the team, and it'll only serve to extend Graham's career as well.
|Browns coach Mike Pettine is going out of his way to diffuse any talk of a quarterback controversy, and understandably so, but the team will also need to be smart about how much Josh McCown plays next week. McCown suffered a jammed finger in the last game, and while it's not serious and I'm told the swelling was limited, it's still not something you want to aggravate. That could mean less work for McCown than usual in the third preseason game, which would mean more work for Johnny Manziel. And that might end up perpetuating questions about who is starting Week 1 if Johnny produces the way he has thus far. Getting a look at Manziel against another team's starters actually makes sense for this franchise long term, and while I doubt Manziel does enough to steal this job away before the regular season begins, what he could do is lessen the leash for McCown should the team end up deep in the AFC North standings after 4-to-6 weeks, which is hardly foreign terrain for them. … The Browns could not be higher on their top choice in the draft, defensive tackle Danny Shelton. He's proving to be an impact run stuffer right away and has had no shortage of moments during this camp that have left coaches speechless, in a positive way. They remain intrigued about his mounting pass rush flashes as well, though it remains to be seen if he truly is a three-down player for them. For as high as Shelton was taken, one would expect that to be the case soon enough. Considering how well division rivals Baltimore, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh run the football, however, and how much the Browns have struggled stopping it, coach Mike Pettine couldn't be more thrilled with how the big man is showing so far.
|Tom Savage is the forgotten man in the Texans quarterback situation, with Brian Hoyer reportedly beating out Ryan Mallett for the starting job, but Savage is earning some nice kudos from coach Bill O'Brien both in private and public. The Texans seem serious about getting him more reps in the final couple of games and Savage could find himself playing quite a bit in the exhibition finale. He needs reps, and there won't be many (any?) to go around other than scout team stuff once the regular season begins.
|The biggest area where the Colts hope to see veteran receiver Andre Johnson shine is in the red zone. The Colts have plenty of burners and smaller slot receivers -- look for Donte Moncrief to really emerge this season, by the way -- but where Johnson has to use his guile and body control and size (6-foot-3) is in tight space. Quarterback Andrew Luck has been talking about this offense taking the next step in the red zone for several years now and there will be a concerted focus with Johnson there. He doesn't even necessarily have to be in the top three in receptions to make a big difference if he produces the kind of red zone touchdowns many are anticipating. For his part, after all he has accomplished as an individual, Johnson isn't sweating the stats. He just badly wants to win, finally. "I'm just trying to find my way and fit in where I can," he said.
|Other teams continue to look for the Chiefs to be active on the trade market. They remain overloaded with safeties and some teams have called to make initial inquiries about veteran Tyvon Branch, sources said, who could be the most likely to be dealt. Coach Andy Reid is taking it cautiously with safety Eric Berry in his return from cancer, and he continues to get work with backups in the second half of preseason games, but he is making real strides. Baltimore is monitoring the market for defensive backs closely, and should they lose another safety, I could see a trade with the Chiefs still materializing. The Chiefs could deal a corner as well and they have plenty of intriguing candidates at quarterback as well beyond starter Alex Smith. I get the sense GM John Dorsey is going to be on the phone quite a bit the next few weeks and could be open for business on several levels.
|This nonsense about Eli Manning demanding to be the highest-paid player in the league sure died down quickly, eh? The fact is Manning has made no such proclamations to anyone to that extent and the Giants haven't even gotten into the meat of a contract with him yet. And, let's be honest, everyone in the NFL knows it's only a matter of time before Andrew Luck takes that mantle. Manning's current deal is pretty much in line with the old deals of Ben Roethlisberger and Philip Rivers, his brethren in his draft quarterback class. And while he may top those two in certain areas when he signs his new deal, take Manning at his word. He doesn't come out staunchly firing at the media very often, but the degree to which he went to discrediting this report spoke volumes ... I was bullish on the Giants this spring -- prior to them losing a starting tackle and Jason Pierre-Paul indefinitely -- and I still think they can surprise some people in an always up-for-grabs NFC East, but anytime a team signs Brandon Meriweather it gives me pause. He's a head-hunter and a dirty player whose style is a outdated in an NFL trying to eliminate egregious headshots. You have to be pretty desperate to be calling him in now. His coverage skills have eroded, and it's not as if any of this is lost on the Giants, who saw his career seemingly come to a close down the road in Washington. The Giants offense is going to be very good, but it's going to have to be extraordinary to offset which could be another year of transition on defense.
|The Jets loved what they saw from top pick Leonard Williams over the weekend, with him feasting on some of the softer Falcons and looking like a disruptive presence on the defensive line. Doing it with Sheldon Richardson and Muhammad Wilkerson on the sidelines was more impressive. At this point it will be at least until October before rookie head coach Todd Bowles can get all of his top defensive linemen on the field at once (Richardson is suspended for at least the first four games and Wilkerson will be very careful about when he comes back from a nagging hamstring problem), so getting this kid going right away would be a huge boost. He'll see plenty of time next week against the Giants as well.
|True to form for the no-luck 49ers, rookie linebacker Eli Harold suffered a muscle strain last week as he was starting to string some nice performances together. Harold, if you've forgotten, was thrust into a starting opportunity following Aldon Smith's latest arrest and release by the team. While no one expected the third-round pick to be getting these kind of reps so soon, he's been coming along very well before having to miss practice time. The kid is very heady and taking a cerebral approach to all that's been thrown at him. He was sponge when Hall of Fame end Charles Haley, a sackmaster, hung around camp. "He showed me angles and pressure points and moves I've never heard of," Harold said. He's been taking studious notes in his tutorials with elite left tackle Joe Staley, who has battled more in practice than anyone would have imagined at the start of camp, learning more about how to set up tackles and keep some moves in his back pocket. Not a bad place to start.
|Redskins rookie running back Matt Jones continues to grab headlines after another physical outing in the second week of the preseason, but don't sleep on another rookie back there, either. The internal reports on Trey Williams, a rookie out of Texas A&M, have been very strong and though he's small (5-foot-7), he's shifty and he could make a difference in the return game as well. Expect to see plenty of rookie receiver Evan Spencer as well, who is earning the confidence of the staff.