Bret Bielema's wife loves Russell Wilson.
She's not alone, particularly in the Pacific Northwest, where Wilson, the Seattle Seahawks' dynamic young Super Bowl-winning quarterback, is a hero.
Bielema, who coached Wilson at Wisconsin, said his wife Jen's fondness for Wilson stems from his selfless acts, like when he dropped everything to chauffeur the newlyweds around the Emerald City for a quick tour during a 10-hour layover en route to their honeymoon in Hawaii in 2012.
Or how about this:
"Every Friday, we'd go to the Children's Hospital and see kids in bad places, health-wise," said Bielema, now at Arkansas. "I remember after Russell went for the first time, he said, 'I'm going to do everything I can to make it every Friday for the rest of the year for these kids.' He'd get out of the van, and he'd seek out the person at the hospital who lined up all of the visits of the kids they were going to see.
"He always requested to go see the person who was in the worst shape and needed the most prayers."
These are stories intended to emphasize Wilson's appeal, as if that were necessary.
The Marketing Arm, a "next-generation promotion agency," tracks celebrity reach through its Davie Brown Index (DBI). More than 77 percent of U.S. consumers claim to like Wilson to some degree, with 23 percent of those same people liking him a lot, ranking him 497th out of 3,400 celebrities.
It's official—most everyone likes, if not loves, Wilson.
However, Colin Kaepernick, the quarterback on the other side of the heated San Francisco 49ers-Seattle Seahawks rivalry, is not so universally adored. In the same Marketing Arm data, 70 percent of U.S. consumers like Kaepernick to some degree, but only 13 percent cop to liking him a lot. As a result, he ranks in the bottom half of the pool of 3,400 celebrities.
The 49ers-Seahawks rivalry was at the core of a Madden 25 commercial that aired last August, before Wilson and the Seahawks won it all, when it seemed as if Kaepernick and the 49ers were the team to beat, destined to avenge their Super Bowl setback versus Baltimore.
Wilson and Kaepernick co-star in the spot, and at the time, Wilson's inclusion raised an eyebrow. Kaepernick was the draw, the dynamic dual-threat talent. The inference was they were similar, driven by the same themes: faith, competitiveness and the notion that youth will not wait to be served.
But while it's easy to embrace Wilson, it's been a little more complicated with Kaepernick, hasn't it?
He's sometimes prickly with the media.
At a June 4 news conference to formally announce his six-year contract extension, a largely team-friendly deal with a three-year window worth $44.17 million, Kaepernick was described by an unnamed reporter as "charming," according to a transcript of the news conference. Later, Kaepernick was asked if he'd be that way during the season or whether the press would be subjected to "difficult Colin."
"It's not 'nice' and 'difficult' Colin," said Kaepernick, who declined an interview request from Bleacher Report. "It's a 'short and sweet' Colin and someone (himself) that can be a little bit lengthier with their answers."
A traditional fan might find Kaepernick edgy, in part because he wears his baseball cap backward and his torso is draped in tattoos.
Consequently, we're not sure about him.
Why? And what does that say, if anything, about us?
Ask around, dig a little, and those same sort of inspirational, heartwarming tales expected of Wilson are shared about Kaepernick.
Such as when the offensive coordinator at Pitman High in Turlock, California, asked if he might seek counsel from the school's famous alum as the football team was installing a new offense with elements of what Kaepernick ran at Nevada and now with the 49ers—shotgun, pistol, etc. It happened in May, when Kaepernick was back in town for the mayor's 5:30 a.m. prayer breakfast.
Shortly after, he visited Jessica's House, a grief support program for children who have experienced loss, and spent a few hours there. Then Philip Sanchez, a Pitman guidance counselor and one of Kaepernick's confidants, took him to his house, where they were joined by Kaepernick's father, Rick, and the offensive coordinator.
The next two hours were filled with X's and O's, just a few football dorks in their element, filling notebooks with thoughts and sketches.
"This is a guy who is a megastar and he's taking time out," Sanchez said. "We had to tell him, basically, to leave. He had to go be with his mom, go to the movies, go see Spider-Man or whatever. But he was in the moment—he was thanking me for putting this together."
Or when he went back to his high school a few months following the 49ers' Super Bowl appearance. His coach at Pitman, Brandon Harris, was leaving, going back to Idaho to help his mother navigate some medical issues. So the plan was hatched to surprise Harris at graduation, but there were logistical issues.
For starters, Kaepernick had organized team activities (OTAs) with the 49ers that morning. No matter—he hightailed it out of the Bay Area after morning and early afternoon sessions, driving two-and-a-half hours to Turlock.
But he didn't want to be a distraction, and he didn't want to eclipse the students' day. So he waited out back, in a classroom, until after the last student's name was called. Only then was he summoned through a hidden door to shock Harris.
"No one knew," Sanchez said. "He was hanging out, some people milling around, security. He's signing autographs, talking to people—not once was he on his phone and not once did he look at his phone [for the time]. He was just really happy to be there. That's just him as a person.
"Now, if we had cameras there...
"We didn't tell people because it's not for show. He did it for his coach."
Loyalty: another trait both quarterbacks share.
Because of the rivalry, and their roles within the rivalry, they're intertwined, and so comparisons are bound to arise. And because it's a rivalry, and because it's sports, everything is more easily digested when good and bad are taken into account. Given what we know, or what we think we know, it's almost tempting to label their situation as "saint versus sinner," but neither tag fits.
Of course, perception says otherwise, and as Matt Delzell, senior director in The Marketing Arm's celebrity endorsement group, explains, that's really all that matters.
"Perception is reality, whether we like it or not," he said. "Especially with celebrities, who most of us don't know. What we perceive to be true is what we actually consider to be true—and it's wrong.... Colin has tattoos and a commercial for Beats by Dre headphones. That doesn't reveal anything about his character. None of us should judge that way, but the reality is we do."
Especially when you're not willing to share, which is where Kaepernick finds himself. He's not a self-promoter, although some have reasoned that's what gave rise to "Kaepernicking," the act of mimicking the moment the 49ers quarterback seemed to kiss his right biceps after scoring a 50-yard touchdown against Miami.
But that's not the case. It was his reaction to a column penned by David Whitley of Sporting News. Whitley's main thrust was that because quarterbacks are viewed as CEOs of football teams, "you don't want your CEO to look like he just got paroled."
Ink on skin shouldn’t have been an indictment of his character. So he, and his parents, withdrew.
"I saw him two years ago," said Dave Wells, Pitman's athletic director and former basketball coach. "He still calls me 'Coach.' That tells me everything about how he was raised."
Added Sanchez: "The thing with Colin is, he's going to do what he wants to do. He's not going to compromise his beliefs or anything. He's not going to follow what other people think he should do. He is a leader and he always has been."
Leadership is the first quality Joe Mikulik, then the manager of the Asheville Tourists, noticed in Wilson, who hit .228 with three home runs and 15 stolen bases as a second baseman for the Class A minor league team in 2011.
"He had it all," said Mikulik, now the manager of the Myrtle Beach Pelicans. "I've been in this game for 30 years and I've seen a lot of guys come and go, but he's at the top…work ethic, character—everything and more.
"When he set a goal, nothing was going to derail him. I'm a firm believer that if he'd stayed in baseball, he would have found a way to get to the big leagues. I think he would have found a way and actually competed once he got there."
But baseball, even though Mikulik believes Wilson still has a love for the sport, wasn't to be.
Said Bielema: "I distinctly remember during his visit, he was weighing not only us or Auburn but also college football or baseball. After 36 hours [in Madison], the last thing I said to him at the airport was, 'Do me a favor. If you're not going to play here, go play at Auburn. Your gift to the game is something you need to share.
"'You have an opportunity to be a role model, a chance to do something in this game that we all desperately need.'"
Sure, Wilson seems just about perfect, too good to be true, but he isn't. He's just portrayed that way because there isn't much that sticks.
Imagine the (mock) outrage if he played in a larger market:
He sometimes curses!
He failed at baseball!
He got divorced during the offseason!
But there is a method to his actions.
"I know Russell prides himself on his image, what it is," said Bielema, who only half-jokingly proposes Wilson could run for president one day. "He builds his own. He's been doing it his entire life."
Which isn't to suggest it's an act or a ploy.
He views himself as more than a football player, just as he might have been more than a baseball player if he'd stuck it out. Wilson has no intention of being limited by others' expectations, which is precisely why he finds himself where he is now—the starting quarterback of the defending Super Bowl champs, in line for an enormous looming payday.
All at 5'11".
"There is no certain variable you have to be, in terms of height, to be play the position of quarterback in the NFL," he said during an NFL Network interview; Wilson declined an interview request from Bleacher Report.
He doesn't look like what we're used to from our franchise quarterbacks, but he at least sounds and behaves like one. Plus, he's willing to stand in the pocket and deliver. When forced to scramble, he's looking for targets downfield, not to run and risk injury.
It makes sense, then, when Delzell, the senior director from The Marketing Arm, mentions those two quarterbacks, as well as New England's Tom Brady and Denver's Peyton Manning, in making his point regarding Wilson and Kaepernick.
"I think when people think of a NFL quarterback, they think of Manning," he said. "They think of a soft-spoken but humble, well-spoken guy—and that's not fair to the other quarterbacks. Peyton is a great leader, but a great leader doesn't have to be tall, white, humble, soft-spoken and all of those things.
"Those guys have are essentially the same—none of them have tattoos, all are well-spoken, they're very humble—there's no real edge…. With Colin, the presentation is not what people are used to in a successful quarterback, and that's very unfortunate for him. Hopefully he'll change that, but it's been like that for a long time."
All four of those quarterbacks, as well as Wilson, have something else in common—Super Bowl victories.
Can Kaepernick win big, and then win everyone over?
Care to guess which one he's more concerned about?
"Everyone that's here is here to play football and here to try to help us win a Super Bowl," Kaepernick told beat reporters on May 28. "That's all that everyone here is worried about."
Jeffrey Martin is a freelance writer based in Portland, Oregon. He has worked previously for USA Today, The Oregonian, the Houston Chronicle and The Wichita Eagle.
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