The American public, despite its unyielding passion for pro football, has not often fostered meaningful relationships with pro football players.
We love our teams, of course. From Seattle to South Florida, an NFL stadium on an autumn Sunday is a great place to be if you want to burst your eardrums. We love the players on our teams, too. It’s just different. It’s not as deep. Like that old college saying goes, the name on the front of the jersey is more important than the name on the back. That’s how we are with the vast majority of NFL players.
For that, you can blame the helmet.
On the scale of sports whose athletes can be both famous and anonymous at the same time, football is king. Hockey players wear helmets too, but (except for the goalies) their headgear covers less and comes with clear facemasks. Baseball players are sometimes shielded by caps, eye black and shades, but for the most part we can see their faces.
Basketball players have no choice but to put all of their facial expressions and body language on display. And it’s no coincidence that sports fans and media develop the strongest relationships with NBA players (e.g. LeBron James) and are more confident playing armchair psychologist with NBA players (e.g. LeBron James again).
Football players, for the sake of their safety, might as well be masked luchadores in padded superhero suits.
Whereas the worst player on the worst NBA team probably can’t make it through a major metropolitan shopping mall without being stopped by a fan or two, there are perennial Pro Bowlers in the NFL who can walk amongst us out of uniform and live a pretty hassle-free life.
We know their names and numbers. We know where they went to college. We know their stats. We know where we’re going to draft them in our fantasy leagues. We just don’t usually know what they look like. We don’t usually know the men behind the masks.
And that is why Russell Wilson is the most important man in football.
The NFL needs a face. A recognizable face. A smiling face. A face that can infiltrate A-list circles and mainstream media. The NFL needs somebody who reminds the public that football players are real people, and more often than not, real nice people.
Russell Wilson fits that description.
The Seattle Seahawks quarterback is going into just his third NFL season, and he’s already won a Super Bowl and been named to two Pro Bowl squads. He has built an impressive portfolio of local and national endorsement deals — from Nike to Microsoft to American Family Insurance to Alaska Airlines — and he has the league’s No. 2 best-selling jersey; second only to Browns rookie/celebrity Johnny Manziel.
Even Wilson’s baseball jersey is a hot seller, and he only wore No. 3 for the Texas Rangers for a few days during this year’s spring training sessions.
And yet, Wilson is not the most famous player in the NFL. He’s not the most famous quarterback. He might not even be the most famous player on the Seahawks, as you could argue that Madden 15 cover model Richard Sherman and the delightfully eccentric Marshawn Lynch are bigger household names.
But what makes Wilson more important to the league than, say, Peyton Manning or Tom Brady, is that while those two legends are winding down their careers, Wilson has many years ahead of him to carry the torch.
A decade from now we might be talking about a league that has a team in Europe and plays regular-season games every day of the week. By that time, Wilson could be the league’s No. 1 name on a global level that Brady and Manning haven’t even known.
Meanwhile, Wilson is breaking down barriers within these borders.
He is one of the reasons the East-Coast-biased national media has to pay attention to the West Coast. He is one of the reasons NFL teams can no longer dismiss a talented QB because he’s supposedly too short. And he is one of the reasons the negative stereotypes that have dogged generations of Black quarterbacks may soon become a thing of the past.
Everything a team can ask of a quarterback, Russell Wilson can do. He has the arm and the accuracy. He can run. He wins games. He’s calm under pressure, whether he’s facing a relentless mob of defenders with a fourth-quarter deficit or a relentless mob of reporters with a deadline.
And everything the NFL can ask of its ambassador to the public, Russell Wilson can do that too.
He transcends the helmet.
Follow Austin on Twitter at @UmmahSports