Russell Wilson arrived in Seattle in May of 2012 with some lofty goals on his mind.
But while Wilson was joining the Seahawks looking to win the starting quarterback job and launch a Hall of Fame-caliber career, he had more in mind than just on-field goals; he also knew he had a chance to be a difference maker in the community.
"I got out here and my whole thought process on my heart was, I want to make a difference," Wilson said. "One, I want to start, I want to play, I want to have a long career and win multiple Super Bowls and hopefully go the Hall of Fame, do all that stuff—that was my thought process my rookie year before I even hopped on the plane here. The other part was I really wanted to make an impact on the city, and I really wanted to be able to make a difference in the community."
Over a nine-year career, Wilson has in so many ways lived up to his own lofty goals, becoming a Super Bowl champ, an eight-time Pro-Bowler, and just as importantly, a person who has done so much good in the community. Wilson was again a Pro-Bowl quarterback in 2020 and his off-field impact was bigger than ever, and as a result, Wilson won the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award at Saturday night's NFL Honors show.
The Walter Payton Man of the Year Award, one of the most prestigious honors given to an NFL player, was established in 1970 and renamed for the Hall of Fame running back in 1999, and recognizes excellence both on and off the field. Each team nominates one player for the yearly award, and by winning Wilson receives a $250,000 donation to Russell and Ciara's Why Not You Foundation. Founded in 2014, the nonprofit is dedicated to fighting poverty through education, empowering youth to lead with a why not you attitude. Wilson is only the second player in franchise history to win the award, joining Steve Largent, who won it in 1988.
"The Walter Payton Man of the Year Award, to me, represents excellence, not just on the field, but more importantly off the field," Wilson said. "In life, we're granted the opportunity to have an impact, no matter what sphere of influence we're around. Walter Payton was one of the greatest examples of what he was able to do not just on the field, but more important off the field to give back and to serve and to love and to care. For me, to be able to be even mentioned with a name like Walter Payton is one of the greatest blessings I could ever have and one of the greatest honors you could ever have."
Giving back is nothing new for Wilson, who started visiting kids at Seattle Children's hospital prior to his rookie season and never stopped going back, making visits nearly every Tuesday throughout his career—this year those visits had to be virtual due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Wilson and his wife, Ciara, also have made a huge impact over the years with their Why Not You Foundation, which strives to empower change in the world, one individual at a time. Since it launched in 2014, the Why Not You Foundation, in partnership with Safeway and Albertsons, has donated more than $9 million to Strong Against Cancer, money that funds life-saving immunotherapy treatment. Wilson and Ciara have also helped raise more than $1 million for Friends of the Children, a nationwide organization dedicated to breaking the cycle of generational poverty.
Russell Wilson's community service efforts have been numerous and varied, a big reason he has received the 2020 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award and 2022 Bart Starr Award. Take a look at photos of Wilson in the community from throughout his time with the Seahawks.
But for all Wilson and Ciara have done over the years, a 2020 that was so challenging for so many people brought out the best in them from a philanthropic standpoint. Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, Wilson and Ciara donated 1 million meals to Feeding America and Food Lifeline, then partnered with the aviation company Wheels Up to launch the Meals Up campaign, which raised the equivalent of more than 50 million meals.
The Why Not You Foundation also teamed up with the United Way, the Rockefeller Foundation and Door Dash to expand Ride United to deliver food and supplies to vulnerable populations in 175 communities across the country, a program that made more than a million deliveries in 2020. The newly-established Seattle program became a "pilot program" to be used as a model nationally, and has expanded beyond food banks to include grocery stores.
And in a year when the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery sparked protests around the country and increased the dialogue about racism and police brutality, Wilson became more outspoken in the fight against systemic racism, using his voice and platform to fight for change.
"The reality is that me as a black person, people are getting murdered on the street, people are getting shot down, and it's not like that for every other race," Wilson said in June after Floyd was killed by police officers in Minneapolis. "I think about my stepson, I think about my daughter, I think about our new baby boy on the way. It's staggering to watch these things happen right in front of our faces. So I have a heavy heart right now. Ultimately, it's a lot of pain, there's a lot of history in America. There's a lot of hate in America, there's a lot of division. I pray that we can be better as people… Some of this police brutality is staggering, and honestly that's not something I understand fully. It's pretty emotional just to watch some of the videos.
"I'm going to say I am hopeful that we can make a change. I'm hopeful that we're going to vote, I'm hopeful that we're going to pick the right leaders to be able to help us in this process. I'm hopeful that the people that I get to work with, the corporations I get to work with, will help make a change with me and Ciara and everybody else that we know. And I know that us, the Seattle Seahawks, are going to do as much as we can to make a difference. I'm hopeful that there will be a change, because I'm praying that my kids don't have to grow up in a world where they have to face that much weight every day when they walk outside.
"A guy was murdered last week, and there needs to be a change. There needs to be a change. It's not overly complicated."
Later in the summer, Wilson co-hosted the 2020 ESPY Awards with fellow Seattle sports stars Sue Bird and Megan Rapinoe, and he opened the show in a Black Lives Matter shirt, delivering a powerful monologue on pioneering Black athletes and the role sports can have in the fight against racism. At the same time, Wilson and Ciara secured billboards and digital message boards in communities across the country reading, "Black Lives Matter, Love Russell & Ciara."
Wilson and Ciara also used their platforms to encourage voting, especially among young people and communities of color, through the I AM A VOTER campaign. They also announced in 2020 the founding of the Why Not You Academy, a tuition-free public charter school in Des Moines, Washington that is set to open in the fall of 2021.
"For me personally, 2020 really changed my perspective," Wilson said. "I've always thought about others and that's always something that's been important to Ciara and me, but when you realize that so many people every day can be affected in so many different ways, it was so important that we give back. It felt like God was calling on us to do something, calling on us to use our resources, use our networks of relationships and such to come together and really try to make a difference. Ultimately it made me think about my kids, that I pray that this isn't them one day, so that's why we really tried to step up and make a difference in 2020."
On the field, Wilson excelled as he has throughout his career, earning Pro-Bowl honors for the eighth time in nine seasons, helping the Seahawks to a 12-4 record and an NFC West title, and throwing a career-high 40 touchdown passes.
And throughout his career, Wilson's success on Sundays and in the community has been driven, in no small part, but the rhetorical question his father, Harrison Wilson III, used to always ask his three kids, Russell, Harrison IV and Anna.
Why not you?
Harrison III died from complications of diabetes in 2010, but not before he and his wife, Tammy, instilled in their three kids the drive to excel not just in sports but in life.
"The thing my dad used to always tell me as a young kid was, 'Son, why not you?'" Wilson said. "'Why not you play pro baseball, why not you play pro football, why not you graduate early, why not you do this and that?' I realized at a young age when I was 6, 7, 8 years old, that was the driving force question consciously and subconsciously that I ended up asking myself all the time. And I think that's the question we all have to ask ourselves."
So it's only fitting that this prestigious award Wilson won, acknowledging his excellence on and off the field, happens to be named for one of Harrison Wilson III's favorite athletes.
"My dad's probably smiling ear-to-ear, because (Payton) was probably one of my dad's favorite athletes of all time, and he always talked about what he did off the field and who he was as a person," Wilson said. "… I know my dad's smiling down on me, and I know Walter's up there too, they're probably hanging out, maybe even smoking a cigar, who knows? What a blessing it is.
"If I can serve others, I think that's my responsibility. It's my responsibility as a quarterback to serve to help my teammates, but more importantly, it's an opportunity and gift to be able to give back to others around the country, around the world, and I think that's why God has me right where I am, and I'm grateful for it every day."
A look back at past winners of the Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year. The award recognizes an NFL player for his excellence on and off the field. It was renamed in 1999 after the late Hall of Fame Chicago Bears running back, Walter Payton.