Among the many skills necessary to prosper as an NFL middle linebacker, the foremost is vigilance. At the vortex of 21 other large men running swiftly to make collisions, no detail can be overlooked in order to avoid having one’s head removed.
For 10 years, Bobby Wagner has kept his head. The game doesn’t get past him. That’s among several reasons why someday he’ll be in the NFL Hall of Fame.
One day five years ago after a Seahawks practice, Wagner drove to Seattle University to listen to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, in town to promote his latest book, “Writings on the Wall,” and arranged to meet him afterward.
“The first thing that stuck with me, was that I didn’t know how tall he was,” Wagner said Wednesday. “I knew he was tall. Then we took a picture.”
As you can see, nothing gets by Wagner.
There was no opportunity for Wagner to size up the 7-foot-2 Abdul-Jabbar, even growing up in the Los Angeles area. The Lakers superstar retired in 1989, then as now, as the NBA’s career scoring leader. Wagner was born in 1990.
After getting past the obvious, Wagner got into the details of Abdul-Jabbar.
“I didn’t really know, in depth, all the things that he was doing outside of the game,” he said. “It was just interesting to learn everything that he was doing that had nothing to do with basketball.”
Wagner didn’t know “Writings” was his 11th book — now up to 15 — published shortly after 2016 election, about his observations of race, politics and American culture from the 1960s to Trump. That year, Abdul-Jabbar was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Obama.
“I just admired his candidness, his willingness to try to change the world, really,” Wagner said. “He’s very opinionated. He was very involved with a lot of the stuff that’s changing now, or changed back then in the league. I admired how he used his platform. I admired how he went about his business.”
The engagement with Abdul-Jabbar was one of many encounters Wagner has deliberately sought out away from sports. This season, he has begun his weekly pressers with a little monologue of things that have caught his attention — books, films, social issues, conversations he’s had with people in tech, business, finance. He even shared his contempt for mayonnaise.
Wagner is not selling any product or point of view. He’s sharing thoughts and experiences.
“I wanted to do something different, my own way,” he said. “I think we all know that we have a lot of power with our platform, not just myself, but (media) included. 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.
“Also (to) talk about how important it is to take your platform seriously, but also embrace how people use their platform. Not everybody uses their platform the same. Some people do it differently. This is the way I decided to do it.”
He does have one agenda item.
“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. I challenge you guys to find unique ways to peel back the layers of each player.”
A worthy aspiration, but also another COVID-19 casualty.
The Seahawks, NFL and all pro and college sports leagues have ended access to locker rooms and clubhouses. One-on-one interviews for independent media are banned. Conversations are nearly all group video conferences, with all information shared. Veteran pros like Wagner are usually more comfortable, the youngsters less so.
Peeling back the layers has become harder.
That’s why Wagner is something of a civic asset, a player transcending a sport on a level that has nothing to do with his league-leading total of tackles.
That’s why it would be a shame to no longer have him in a Seahawks uniform.
The possibility arises because the final, $20 million year of his contract in 2022 contains no more guaranteed money, meaning the Seahawks could gain more than $16 million against the salary cap if he were not on the roster.
The club and Wagner could renegotiate his current deal to a more team-friendly amount. But that is for later. With one more game left against Arizona Sunday, Pete Carroll doesn’t want to consider the possibility of being without a key voice for non-football as well as football matters.
“We have been through so much, there are so many conversations and so many topics, challenges, and issues, so Bobby is the first guy that I go to,” he said Wednesday. “He will always bring you a really good perspective. He is really consistent with his outlook. It becomes a really great resource for me.
“I’ve really encouraged him, wherever he branches out. He is exactly the kind of guy that people in the community want to be connected to. He is a very special person, with a very exciting future well after the game.”
Wagner sprained his knee on the first defensive play Sunday in the 51-29 win over Detroit. It’s not an injury requiring surgery, but he couldn’t commit to playing in Arizona. So it’s possible his season is over. (Friday update: Wagner was declared out of Sunday’s game due to a swollen knee.)
But he doesn’t think his Seattle career is over.
“I don’t feel like this is my last time putting on a Seahawks uniform,” said Wagner, who works without an agent. “There’s a lot of optimism on my end that I’ll be back. I’m not worried about it. Obviously, I can’t control everything.
“My part on this is, I feel like I love this city. I love the Seahawks. I always wanted to be a part of a franchise in the good times and bad times and every time. This is a team that I would love to be able to be a part of for a very, very long time. I’m a Seahawk until they tell me I’m not.”
Why the optimism?
“I would like to say I’m a pretty good businessman,” he said. “I would say I have a lot of respect here. I’m just going to go into my businessman mentality and work some stuff out.”
Regarding his agenda, the point is made — as with Kareem, he’s more than an athlete.