'He can be a little corny': Six stories that explain Denver Broncos QB Russell Wilson

The meeting was supposed to last only 90 minutes.

Instead, Russell Wilson and Mark Rodgers spent four hours together over lunch, the future Super Bowl champion and nine-time Pro Bowler presenting his life plans as his soon-to-be agent listened in amazement.

This was before the 2010 MLB draft, when the new Denver Broncos quarterback was playing football and baseball at NC State. With a dream of pursuing both sports professionally, Wilson wanted to hire a baseball agent who also had experience representing NFL players, as Rodgers had done years earlier.

Ever the buttoned-up professional, the 21-year-old Wilson wore a suit when the two met for the first time at a restaurant in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Their conversation was an early window into how much more there is to Wilson than his Hall of Fame talent and news conference clichés.

"I was fascinated that somebody that young could have so many ideas and have such a clear-path vision for who he wanted to be and what he wanted to be," Rodgers told ESPN in 2020 for a feature on how Wilson was shaped by his late father, Harrison. "It was extraordinary. It wasn't about football and baseball. It was about a legacy. It was about a foundation. It was about businesses. It was about owning a team some day, an NFL team. It was about building an empire."

Wilson will begin the second act of his NFL career following his trade from Seattle to Denver. With his Broncos set to open against the Seahawks on Monday Night Football (8:15 p.m. ET, ABC/ESPN/ESPN+), here are stories about who he is and how he got here. -- Brady Henderson

Calm in the face of a literal storm

The Asheville Tourists crouched together in a concrete underground tunnel as the sky turned dark over Rome, Georgia. The forecast was so ominous on this day in 2011 the minor league baseball game against the Rome Braves had been canceled early, and tornado watches came with a designation of PDS -- Particularly Dangerous Situation.

The Tourists had contemplated hunkering down at an Applebee's because their hotel lacked proper shelter. But at the urging of the Braves, Asheville took refuge in a long, narrow space between the Braves' dugout and clubhouse.

Nerves, naturally, were frayed. But Russell Wilson, the Tourists' second baseman, was calm.

"We opened the dugout door and you literally could hear the tornado a few miles away," former Tourists infielder Joey Wong said. "I just remember Russ being in there telling some stories and making people laugh in a crazy-serious time."

The late-April outbreak of tornadoes would claim 324 lives across six states, but Rome avoided the brunt of it. The team was given the all-clear after about an hour and a half of stories, banter and an unsuccessful game of telephone. The Tourists headed back to the hotel to rest up for a doubleheader the following night. Wilson played in both games.

Wilson and his singer/actress wife Ciara might have a $25 million house with a nine-car garage in the Denver suburbs, but 10 years ago, his life was much different. He was riding thousands of miles in cramped, smelly buses, eating off per diems, and staying in motels next to Waffle House.

After being selected by the Colorado Rockies in the fourth round of the 2010 MLB draft, Wilson played a summer at the Low-A Tri-City Dust Devils in 2010 before landing with the Class A Tourists. That summer of 2011, less than three years before he'd lead the Seattle Seahawks to a Super Bowl championship, was in flux for Wilson.

He'd already graduated from NC State and had another year of football eligibility, but coach Tom O'Brien made it clear he didn't want his quarterback playing two sports. So Wilson asked Tourists skipper Joe Mikulik for permission to take football recruiting trips during the team's off days.

Wilson started the season in a slump, and spent much of his free time trying to work through it in the batting cage. The pitchers he was facing were better than the ones in college, and could throw nasty breaking balls. Hitting them required repetition, which is easier when you're a full-time baseball player. A few months into the season, things started to click for Wilson. He hit .271 in June and had an OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) above .800. Late that month, he committed to Wisconsin for his final season of football eligibility and left the Tourists to prepare.

The day after his departure, Asheville was on a bus trip to Greenville, South Carolina, when Wilson appeared on a college football show on their TV. The bus erupted in cheers.

"There's no doubt in my mind Russell Wilson would've played in the major leagues," Mikulik said. "The drive, the work ethic ... There was something that started clicking. If you just give him two or three years of facing obviously better pitching, I think he could've run out to the outfield and played because he's such a good athlete.

"There's never been a player in baseball that had that drive that I've seen in 38 years. And it was true. It was authentic. There wasn't any eyewash there." -- Liz Merrill

Wasting no time at Wisconsin

Before Wilson wrote his own 15-page scouting reports on opponents for NFL teammates, he carried around notecards, filled out in tiny letters.

They didn't leave his pockets while at Wisconsin in 2011.

"One side was the concept, and if you flipped it over, it was different defenses, what side of the route scheme you would go to against Cover 2, Cover 3, Cover 4," said Bradie Ewing, a Wisconsin fullback and co-captain with Wilson. "The attention to detail was impressive. He'd just pull them out at random times, after eating dinner or whatever."

Wilson arrived in Madison in 2011 as a graduate transfer from NC State. He spent 190 days at Wisconsin, but wasted none of them.

Wilson immediately began organizing passing sessions. He commanded the huddle and was elected a co-captain less than two months after committing to the program.

"I didn't sense any hesitancy or insecurity at all," Ewing said. "His ability to lead and pull a group together is unlike a lot of people I've seen."

Coach Bret Bielema technically wasn't allowed to watch summer workouts, but he would often step out to his office balcony at Camp Randall Stadium to check out the view eight floors below.

"When the guys watched him work, and more importantly, when the receivers and those guys saw him throw, they realized, 'OK, this guy's at a different level,'" Bielema said. "That made everybody like him in a short fashion."

At Wisconsin's first preseason practice, Wilson scrambled to his left and threw off his back foot from around midfield. The ball hit Ewing on a wheel route, knocking him over.

"We were kind of like, 'What literally just happened?'" Bielema said.

During a break, Bielema walked over to then-offensive coordinator Paul Chryst. The two men smiled.

"F---, this is different," Chryst said.

Chryst and Wilson worked closely for a crash-course install of plays. First, they put in what Wisconsin had used before. Then, Wilson picked his favorites. They debated whether certain passes should be run toward the field (wide side) or the boundary side (short side).

"That was fun for me," said Chryst, now Wisconsin's coach. "It forced me to see the world a little differently, through his eyes. We started to understand each other."

Despite limited time to learn, Wilson made only one incorrect play call that season, and "was visibly pissed off," Chryst said. Wilson's purposeful approach even extended to how he traveled.

"Flying home, the dude would drink three quarts of water," Ewing said. "They would bring him the largest vertical water bottle, much bigger than 32 ounces. He would drink one or two on the plane ride, one or two on the bus ride from the airport. Always working on getting better in little ways."

That season at Wisconsin, Wilson completed 72.8% of his passes for 3,175 yards with 33 touchdowns and four interceptions, leading the FBS in passing efficiency.

He guided Wisconsin to a second consecutive Big Ten title.

"A playmaker to the finest," Bielema said. "He could change a game." -- Adam Rittenberg

'One of the most significant things that I do'

In a little under four minutes, the NFC Championship Game following the 2014 season went from Wilson's worst moment as a Seahawk to perhaps his finest.

Before winning in overtime, Seattle trailed the Green Bay Packers 19-7 late in the fourth quarter after four interceptions from Wilson, two of which had bounced off the intended receiver's hands. A day of disaster for the Seahawks' offense had seemingly sunk any chance of the defending champions returning to the Super Bowl.

But as always, Wilson remained neutral.

Just as the late Trevor Moawad had taught him.

Moawad, who died last year from cancer, was Wilson's longtime mental-conditioning coach and a member of what he calls his performance team. That team also included a personal quarterback coach, a physical therapist, strength and speed coaches, a masseuse and a chef -- full-time employees who carry a combined annual cost to Wilson that's believed to be in the neighborhood of seven figures.

Moawad's area of focus was Wilson's mind. They had worked together since before his rookie season in 2012, with 90-minute brain-training sessions every week that took place either in person or over the phone. When they weren't meeting, Wilson's phone was often buzzing with encouraging messages from Moawad:

"It takes what it takes"

"The best is ahead"

Wilson called Moawad his best friend and once described their work together as "one of the most significant things that I do."

"Russell is a collection of world-class behaviors," Moawad told ESPN in 2019. "... He has very good gifts, but he has exceptional behavior. But if he didn't act the way he acts, he wouldn't be who he is."

A pillar of Moawad's teaching was what he called neutral thinking, a fact-based mindset that's neither positive nor negative. One of his go-to examples of neutral behavior in action was how Wilson handled himself on the sideline before leading the Seahawks' improbable rally against the Packers, when they scored 15 points to force overtime before Wilson threw the game-winning touchdown pass.

It gave Wilson one of his 35 game-winning drives in the fourth quarter or overtime, the second-most of any quarterback since 2012.

"He's not pretending that he didn't throw four picks," Moawad said. "But what he's being very clear of is there's still five minutes left. And that's the truth, and even the most skeptical people recognize that that five minutes has not happened yet, so how are we going to play those five minutes? And we don't have to concede those five minutes because of the first 55 minutes."

Wilson now continues his mental work with Tim Grover, a personal trainer and consultant whose past clients include Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. Wilson was scrolling on his phone during a sleepless night early last offseason, going down a rabbit hole of Jordan and Bryant videos when he came across one of Grover and he knew he had to talk to him. Now the two talk every day.

"His understanding of pushing me ... and what that means, it's invaluable," Wilson said, "You can't even put a value on how much that means, just to have that in my world.''

But Wilson lost more than a coach when Moawad died. He also lost a best friend.

"I wish I could talk to you again," Wilson said during an emotional farewell to Moawad last September. "But I'll see you again. See you again.

"The best is ahead." -- Henderson and Jeff Legwold

'He can be a little corny'

They pour out of him. Declaratives, those phrases and clauses Wilson instantly delivers into any, and all, conversations.

On leadership, team chemistry, family, down time, travel, fitness, even the weather. No item too small to address in the most serious of fashions, no topic too big to avoid.

He adds words like "amazing" or "gift" or "responsibility" or "demand excellence" and the more than occasional "wild obsession" to it all. He'll throw in a biblical reference like "new wineskins." The already ubiquitous "Let's ride" -- much like "Go Hawks'' during his decade with the Seattle Seahawks -- is now used as a signoff to all of his public appearances and group interviews.

The new phrase has been the subject of some playful social media mockery over the summer. And it's not the first time Wilson has been the center of such a swirl. In 2020, Wilson was the focus of similar social media dissection when he posted a self-shot video calling his competitive alter-ego "Mr. Unlimited."

Despite the teasing Wilson stays on message, a walking, talking, throwing, scrambling, globe-trotting motivational tsunami, your rolled eyes be damned.

He's just not worried about what people think.

"Winning is everything, winning is everything," Wilson said. "And it's the only thing to me. ... I've said in terms of coming [to Denver] and trying to prove everything. I just believe every day you prove yourself to yourself so I'm not trying to impress anyone else."

Though there are far more platforms than ever to spread football and life gospel, the messages aren't new for Wilson. And those who have paid attention know this.

"I had some people reach out to me from [the Broncos] and wanted to know what it was like," Bielema said. "I know Russ, he gets a little bit of heat, he can be a little corny, but he's a genuine person, through and through. I know if they brought him in, he would be the hardest-working, most detailed, championship-level [person] that you can [have]. He's driven by success. Everything he does embodies that. There's no falseness to that."

"When he's leading the huddle or out on the practice field or in some of his videos, it does feel a little bit fake and corny, but honestly, that's Russell," Ewing said. "He's genuine, he's got passion and it's contagious. It's fun to be around."

It has been there since the start of his pro career. Before the 2012 draft, the then-23-year-old Wilson outlined his process, his plan, to succeed in the NFL.

"It's about the pursuit of excellence," he said then. "The constant pursuit of excellence, taking the lessons you've learned and applying them to where you want to go. ... I just feel like it starts with the work and there is no substitute for that."

Former Broncos wide receiver Rod Smith -- a teammate of John Elway's who still lives in the Denver area and has attended practices from the Peyton Manning era through Russell Wilson as a guest of the team -- said it's all about being authentic.

"You lead how you lead, no bulls---, just honest, however that is," Smith said. "And if you got a ring, like those guys have rings, if you've got Pro Bowls, been in it, right in the middle of it, all those years, guys are going to listen. And if you work harder than everybody, you can say it any damn well way you please and guys are going to listen because they want what you got and you can get them there."

Earlier this month the Broncos committed to Wilson with a five-year contract extension that includes $165 million guaranteed and could be worth as much as $245 million. So, if it's hokey, corny or heavy-sigh-inducing to others, it doesn't much matter inside the team's complex in south suburban Denver.

"His presence is different," Broncos tackle Calvin Anderson said. "He has the presence of somebody who has just been to the Super Bowl and won and has been to the Pro Bowl. He walks into a room, and you feel his energy immediately. I think that's really helpful coming from a leadership position because he affects everyone else around him." -- Legwold and Rittenberg

Turning to Manning after Manning turned the wrong way

Before Tom Brady's move to Tampa Bay and before Wilson's move to Denver, the greatest quarterback to switch teams with so much of his career left was Peyton Manning. After 14 seasons with the Indianapolis Colts, Manning arrived in Denver in 2012. And while Manning would eventually lead the Broncos to two Super Bowls during a 50-win run over the next four years, his first few days in his new city were far from flawless.

"I was thinking about all of the things I wanted to do, how I would go about doing something different from what I had done for the last 14 years, getting settled, finding a comfort level when you've had a routine for so long somewhere else," Manning recalled. "And then I looked up and figured out I was going the wrong direction to get to the facility. So, yeah, my first day and one of my first memories was trying to find a place to turn around."

Wilson hasn't had to squint into the Rocky Mountain sun to decipher the reflective letters on the road signs overhead, he has arrived heading in the right direction.

Wilson was introduced as the Broncos' franchise quarterback on March 16, already wearing an orange tie with his meticulously tailored ensemble. In the five-plus months since, Wilson has turned his "acclimation period" into a whirlwind of personal appearances, FaceTime calls, extra practices, additional meetings and hallway conversations. He's trying to send a message to a team that has wandered the quarterback wilderness since Manning retired after winning Super Bowl 50 to finish the 2015 season.

And Wilson started it all with a call to Manning.

"I called Peyton right away, once it all seemed like it was going to be very real, because I just wanted to kind of figure out what he thought about the city, things like what he did for schools, how he moved his family -- my family is everything to me -- just a lot of those different questions," Wilson said. "Then I wanted to know about the team and about his experiences here, what he believed went well, what he may have changed in any way looking back. Teammates have said Wilson has gone several extra miles to talk, engage, push and fire off more than a few motivational missives. Rookie tight end Greg Dulcich called one such call "awesome, I mean he's a Hall of Fame dude."

Wilson took a vacation to London with coach Nathaniel Hackett's family, a trip that included an Ed Sheeran concert in Wembley Stadium, the same stadium where the Broncos will face the Jacksonville Jaguars on Oct. 30.

"I stay busy and try to accomplish as much as possible -- family, football, things that are important to you off the field -- but I still kind of look at him and wonder how he does it," said safety Justin Simmons. "His commitment to commitment I guess I would say. He became important to this team right away, the way he dove in, got to know us, lead, do everything right from the jump. So, yeah I'd say he made the most of the last few months. He changed everything." -- Legwold

Always there for his sister

Anna Wilson isn't sure how many games her brother attended during her basketball career at Stanford. Twenty-four maybe.

Sometimes, Russell would fly in for a couple of hours. He'd sit in the stands, linger for a bit outside the locker room to talk to her after a game, then zip away. Russell is nearly nine years older than Anna. She was 12 when their father, Harrison Wilson III died, but Anna remembers the day vividly.

"Russell and I were both there when my dad was taking his last breath," Anna said. "I just remember him talking to me and just being like, 'I'm going to be here for you; I'm going to help you through everything that you've got to go through.' And so in every massive aspect and big moment in my life, Russell's been there."

Anna was a highly touted guard who sat out most of her freshman season because of concussions and a foot injury. Her senior year, she filed a petition for a fifth year of eligibility, but the NCAA denied her hardship waiver. When she texted Russell the news, he flew out for her final regular-season game at Arizona State.

When they met outside the locker room, Anna was still wearing her Stanford jersey. Russell asked her what she wanted to do, but didn't let her answer.

"I don't think you're done giving to this team," he told her. "I think you have more leadership and more basketball to play."

Anna started crying. How would she ever play again? She didn't know that in a week, COVID-19 would shut down the NCAA tournament. Three days after Stanford notified students they had to leave campus, Anna left for San Diego to train with her brother. She caught passes from him while he was separated from his usual targets because of the pandemic.

She wrote an appeal letter to the NCAA, and Russell helped her rewrite it. A short time later, the NCAA granted her appeal. Anna started every game in the 2020-21 season, and lifted the Cardinal with her stellar defense.

That April, when Stanford clung to a 54-53 lead over Arizona in the national championship game, Anna swarmed Aari McDonald in the waning seconds, forcing her to heave a desperation shot that clanked off the backboard. Anna was a national champion.

"I wouldn't have had the opportunity, or the perspective to try again if Russell hadn't told me I had more to give," Anna said.

The younger Wilson was granted a sixth season because of COVID-19, and the woman who struggled to be healthy enough to play wound up playing 160 games -- fourth-most in NCAA history.

Wilson, who didn't hear her name called in the 2022 WNBA draft, is training for a marathon and working for a creative agency. Her home office? Denver.

She's working remotely so she can be near Russell, who's always there. -- Merrill