Russell Wilson wins NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year Award

Russell Wilson wins NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year Award
UNSPECIFIED - JUNE 24: In this screengrab, (L-R) Russell Wilson and Ciara speak during All In WA: A Concert For COVID-19 Relief on June 24, 2020 in Washington. (Photo by Getty Images/Getty Images for All In WA) (Getty Images/Getty Images for All In WA)

The NFL just did what Seattle Children’s Hospital, the people who benefit from his Why Not You? Foundation and the countless others who benefited from him donating a million meals during the pandemic this past year already had.

It named Russell Wilson the NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year Saturday night.

The Seahawks’ franchise quarterback won the league’s most prestigious, real-world award to highlight the league’s annual NFL Honors awards event from Tampa, Florida, the night before Super Bowl 55 there.

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Wilson joins Hall of Fame wide receiver Steve Largent as the only Seahawks to win the award. Largent won in 1988.

It’s the second time in seven years his team has nominated Wilson for what’s considered the NFL’s most prestigious award. It recognizes the best of the league’s humanity off the field. Given as the NFL Man of the Year since 1970, the league renamed the award in 1999 to honor the late Hall of Fame running back from the Chicago Bears who was an equally legendary humanitarian.

Some of the bravest little people in the world, plus their families and care-givers at Seattle Children’s already knew who should win the NFL’s honor Saturday.

LIFTING ISAAC

Isaac Williams was spent.

Kelli Williams was right there with her boy—as always. Mom had hit one of the lowest points in her fight with her 17-month-old son against cancer in his nerve cells. About 800 children age 0 to 14 in the U.S. get his type of cancer each year.

“It was Isaac’s second stem-cell transplant, his second long stay,” Kelli Williams said this week of 23, absolutely brutal days Isaac spent fighting for his young life inside Seattle Children’s Hospital bridging Thanksgiving to Christmas in 2017. “It was the first holiday season as an inpatient, away from my family and my parents.”

Little Isaac had just endured five consecutive days of what his mom called “lethal” chemotherapy. It was doctors’ attempt to keep his stage 4 high-risk neuroblastoma that had spread to his lymph nodes from spreading any more to his bones, bone marrow, liver, skin and organs. The survival rate for high-risk neuroblastoma is estimated at 40-50%.

“Kelli was in a dark place,” her husband Dennis said Thursday on the telephone from their home in Bellevue.

Then, about a half hour before Isaac was to begin another grueling stem-cell transplant, she and Isaac heard a commotion outside their seventh-floor room. Nurses were running around in the hallway, giddy and almost squealing with excitement.

“Oh, my GOSH!” they heard some nurses exclaim, though it may have been stronger than “GOSH!”

“RUSSELL AND CIARA ARE IN THE ELEVATOR!”

Then: “Russell’s HERE!!!”

Of course Russell Wilson was there.

It was a Tuesday. The Seahawks’ franchise quarterback always is at Seattle Children’s Hospital on Tuesdays. On the lone players’ off day of the NFL work week—plus in the offseason, when he is in Seattle and not at his other homes in southern California or Mexico—Wilson visits the sickest of the sick inside one of the premier treatment centers for kids with serious medical conditions on the West Coast.

Wilson’s been doing it every Tuesday since his first week of his first rookie minicamp in with the Seahawks. That was nine years ago.

That’s why Isaac was wearing his little gray, Seahawks shirt on with his name in blue across the back that day of his stem-cell transplant in November 2017. It’s why his mom was wearing a blue Seahawks long-sleeve that day.

It’s the second time in seven years his team has so honored Wilson for what’s considered the NFL’s most prestigious award.

BLUE TUESDAYS

At Seattle Children’s, they don’t just celebrate “Blue Friday,” Western Washington’s unofficial holiday before each Seahawks game.

They also celebrate “Blue Tuesday”—12 months a year.

That’s the day Russell Wilson’s coming to the hospital.

Yes, even this past year.

The coronavirus pandemic didn’t stop Wilson’s streak of Tuesday visits. He made them virtually. Seattle Children’s has had to split parents and limit family to one visitor per household for the last year because of the threat from the COVID-19 virus. So Wilson made his weekly rounds via online Zoom calls.

Each patient room inside Seattle Children’s has an iPad provided by Bungie Foundation’s national iPads for Kids donation program. That allows every family to have access to a device if they do not wish to use or do not have their own. That’s how Wilson has been connecting with patients and their families via Zoom from their hospital beds.

“We’ve received great feedback from patients and families,” Kathryn Muller, senior public relations specialist at Seattle Children’s, said of Wilson adapting his weekly visits in 2020.

“After the visits, families comment about how meaningful their interaction with Wilson was.”

In non-pandemic times, Wilson visits a handful of kids over a couple hours each Tuesday at the hospital. Now that his visits are virtual, he’s been spending more and more intense time with one child.

“That allows for a really personal connection with the families,” Mueller of Seattle Children’s said. “Often, parents are part of the call, too.”

‘WE TALKED ABOUT LIFE’

To thank Wilson for all he’s done this past year, and for the past nine years, Seattle Children’s this week wants you to know the stories of patients and families he has touched since 2012.

They want you to know Jackson Boboth. He’s 7. In November, Jackson was noticeably more pale and lethargic than his identical twin brother. Doctors in his eastern Washington hometown diagnosed Jackson with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. The next day he was transported to Seattle Children’s.

On their unfathomably scary trip across the state, Jackson’s dad Everett was trying to reassure and help his son.

“You know, Russell Wilson visits Seattle Children’s,” his dad told Jackson. “Maybe we’ll see him.”

Seattle Children’s child-life specialist Garrett Goody arranged for Wilson to surprise Jackson with a Zoom call in December.

“We didn’t talk much about football,” Jackson’s dad said. “We talked about life.”

Jackson and Wilson bonded over their dislike for COVID-19 tests. As a member of the NFL’s only COVID-19-free team, Wilson got a nasal-swab test every morning with every other Seahawk from July into January. When Wilson told Jackson that, the boy felt better—and luckier than the $140 million quarterback with a glamorous wife and family.

Everett Boboth said as the Zoom call with Wilson ended, Jackson was speechless at the time he got to spend with the Seahawks’ quarterback.

Dad was not lost for words. He told Wilson: “Thank you for taking the time to love and serve the community.”

Wilson got the idea to come to Seattle Children’s on his first flight to Seattle as a Seahawk. It was the spring of 2012. He’d just been drafted in the third round out of Wisconsin. Wilson didn’t know it at the time, but he was about to become the winningest quarterback in NFL history for the first nine seasons of a career, the only Super Bowl-winning one in Seahawks’ franchise history, and the richest player in league history with his new contract in 2019.

As he looked out of his plane’s window at Mount Rainier just before landing at Sea-Tac Airport for the first time, Wilson decided he’d make a personal commitment to visiting the children’s hospital in his new home city regularly.

He calls it one of the best decisions of his life.

“It’s been one of the greatest gifts God’s given me, it’s just to be able to have influence and a little bit of change, too,” Wilson said. “I think the combination of the two has been a blessing in my life, and I know a blessing in Ciara’s life. ...

“It’s been probably one of the greatest things that’s ever happened to me.

“Obviously, I think makes a big impact for them. But I don’t think those kids understand what they do for me. Just for my soul. Just for what God has called me to be, and for giving back. Loving other people.”

“Every room you go into you never know what you are going to get. Every time you go into a room, the family may have tons of faith. May have no faith at all. They may have tons of family there. They may have no parents, no moms to be there, no dads to be there. They may just be on their own.

“I think that, more than anything, it’s about giving love. It’s about giving a moment to give a little glimpse of hope, a little glimpse of, just, belief.

WHY NOT HARPER?

Harper Foy was born with a rare genetic condition called Harlequin Ichthyosis (HI). It occurs in one of every 500,000 newborns. Harper was given a 50% chance of survival. She was transferred from her hometown hospital to Seattle Children’s when she was days old, to save her life.

That’s when Wilson walked into her hospital room. The baby’s mom, Angie Foy, calls Wilson “a calming and reassuring presence that was so meaningful during such a difficult time.”

As Wilson would say—and what his charitable foundation that builds charter schools and aids children and people in need with 1 million meals and more nationwide is named: “Why not you?”

Why not Harper Foy?

Harper not only survived, she’s thriving. She’s an aspiring model. Her mother says Harper “loves Wilson so much that one of her first photo shoots was at the hospital and the theme was blue and green for the Seahawks.

“She adorned a Wilson jersey and showed off her touchdown dance.”

‘IT WAS GENUINE’

The Tuesday he visited little, fighting Isaac Williams was Nov. 21, 2017. Wilson and the Seahawks had just taken a tough, 34-31 home loss on a Monday night to the Atlanta Falcons about 15 hours earlier. It cost them a chance for first place in the NFC West.

“He could have been anywhere else,” Kelli Williams said.

Yet there was Wilson and his wife Ciara walking into Isaac’s room on the cancer floor 30 minutes before noon.

“I started crying even before they came into the room,” Williams said.

She and her husband remember like it was this morning. Wilson came in and promptly hugged Kelli and kissed her on the cheek. Ciara hugged her. Then Wilson and his wife got down on one knee, “to be on Isaac’s level” as he laid in his bed. The quarterback was wearing his RW3-brand Nike ball cap and a Canada Goose coat over a dark T-shirt with the words “God is great.” Ciara was wearing a blackwatch-plaid flannel shirt under a black knit cap.

“They looked like just normal people,” Dennis Williams said. “I was thinking about both of them, superstars. It wasn’t like this untouchable celebrity that came in.

“It was genuine.”

Dennis Williams was at work that day as a financial planner. To ease the unbearable stress they were under caring for their critically ill 17-month-old at his hospital bed each day, mom and dad often alternated days at Seattle Children’s. Of course, the huge Seahawks fan said, the day he’s at work is the day Wilson and Ciara come to Isaac’s room.

When Ciara found out Dad was at work, she grabbed Kelli Williams’ phone. She thumbed to the FaceTime app and dialed Dennis Williams.

To say Williams was startled to see a superstar singer’s glamorous face on his wife’s call is an understatement.

“It’s cool to say Ciara Face-Timed me,” Dennis Williams said, as his wife laughed.

Wilson and Ciara playfully talked to Isaac. The young boy was exhausted from his five days of therapy. His mom said he just stared. He was not too young or tired to be in disbelief at who came to see him through all the wires and the beeping and the fear in his hospital room.

“They were there quite a while,” Isaac’s mom said.

As Wilson and Ciara were about to leave to visit another child, Kelli Williams’ mother, knowing Wilson is a man of faith, asked the quarterback if he would pray with for Isaac.

Wilson didn’t hesitate. He immediately joined the entire hospital room—nurses, hospital staff, Isaac’s family—in prayer.

“There were probably 25 people in the room,” Kelli Williams said. “We all held hands. Russell held my hand. Ciara held my mom’s. He prayed for us.

“It was the coolest prayer. It was a really heartfelt, emotional prayer. It spoke to Isaac. It spoke for us.”

“That prayer was meaningful,” said Dennis Williams, who joined in it on FaceTime from work. “It wasn’t fake. It wasn’t some standard package he always gives. It was for Isaac.

“He got it.”

As Dennis Williams said: “Russell couldn’t have come at a better time. Kelli was really down.

“He came in, and that went away.

“He just...it does something for you.”

Isaac’s treatment at Seattle Children’s went on and off from April 2017 through June 2018. The 23-day stay during which Wilson visited was the toddler’s and his family’s longest, toughest stretch.

Why not Isaac?

After five rounds of chemotherapy, a surgery to remove the mass in his abdomen, a stem-cell transplant, more chemotherapy, radiation and immunotherapy, he’s home. And he’s a kid. He’s doing what 5-year-olds do.

Thursday afternoon, he was taking the toy Corvette he just got and running it over the floors all over the family house.

“Into all the walls’ trim,” Mom said, laughing, three-plus years after so much crying.

Before she finished describing how Wilson got her, and Isaac, through their darkest days, Kelli Williams asked when the announcement for NFL Walter Payton Man of the Year was happening.

I told her it was Saturday night. Isaac’s mom had to have been smiling.

I could hear her smile through the phone.

“Oh,” another one of Russell Wilson’s biggest fans, for all the right reasons, said, “I’m DEFINITELY watching that.”