Looking to assist his client ahead of the 2012 NFL draft, Mark Rodgers recommended a meeting between Russell Wilson and Trevor Moawad, a sports psychologist whom Rodgers had met in baseball circles.
Wilson was training at the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla., where Moawad was a mental conditioning coach. After a successful college football career at N.C. State and Wisconsin and seasoned in handling life adversity (the death of his father) and career struggles (.229 minor-league baseball batting average), did Wilson really need another voice in his head?
“I knew I wanted it,” Wilson said during an interview with The Denver Post. “I don’t know if needed it or not, but I know I wanted it and I’ve always believed in the mental side of things. That’s really a critical part and a separator for me.”
Those initial meetings were the start of a tight-knit relationship both personal and professional. Wilson and Moawad would talk nearly every day on the phone. Moawad would travel to Seattle for Wilson’s Seahawks games. And in 2019, along with Wilson’s brother, Harry, they launched Limited Minds, which brings competitive thinking to the corporate workspace.
The conversations — covering any topic at any time — continued during Moawad’s two-year battle with cancer, which took his life last September. Since Wilson was traded to the Broncos in March, his new teammates have seen and heard first-hand how positivity is page No. 1 in No. 3’s playbook.
“It’s such a natural positivity because it’s coming from a place of being prepared and of being able to know he can go out and have success because he’s prepared to have it,” receiver Courtland Sutton said.
The Broncos have embraced Wilson’s modus operandi of staying positive and neutral, trying to get better each day, entering Monday night’s opener against the Seahawks.
“When you hear Russell talk about much he loves the process and loves pushing all the guys and the coaches, it’s awesome because it’s inspiring to a coach,” Broncos coach Nathaniel Hackett said. “It’s something that makes you feel really good about your chance to be able to get where we want to get.”
Moawad, who was 48 when he died, worked with teams such as the NBA’s Memphis Grizzles and college football programs at Alabama, Michigan State, Florida State and Michigan, connecting with coaches such as Nick Saban, Kirby Smart, Jimbo Fisher and Mel Tucker. He was also close with Los Angeles Clippers executive Lawrence Frank and tennis player Taylor Dent.
Wilson wrote the foreword for Moawad’s 2020 book, “It Takes What It Takes,” and the postscript of this year’s, “Getting To Neutral,” which was released posthumously.
Moawad’s first book was about “neutral thinking,” which he described as a “method of making decisions that requires us to strip away our biases and focus on facts. … Neutral thinking asks you to focus on the next set of steps in order to move forward.”
The second book, which included a foreword from Wilson’s wife, Ciara, centered on overcoming negative feelings amid chaos. Moawad described six levels of competence and incompetence and Wilson checks the box of unconscious competence — “You’ve succeeded the task so many times, you can do it successfully without even thinking about it” — and conscious competence — “You know the steps required for success and you can repeat them.”
“We would talk almost every day,” Wilson said. “We didn’t change up the message, we may have changed the story. The message was, keep the main thing the main thing, stay neutral, you don’t have to be sick to get better — just reminders and little nuggets.”
Wilson now self-delivers those reminders and little nuggets. Throw a first-drive interception that wasn’t his fault? Pick up the offense. Score a touchdown to regain momentum? Go tell the defense to get the football back. Off the field issues? There is only one way to approach it in Wilson’s mind.
“I believe in the midst of chaos, you have to remain neutral because if people are going through COVID, losing a child, injury, bad relationship, whatever it may be, it’s hard to be positive in the midst of a storm,” he said. “The critical part is learning how to be neutral. On top of the mountain? How to know how you got there and keep going. Lowest part of the mountain? How to keep going.”
In his second book, Moawad wrote of Wilson: “As I watched Russell operate through the years, it was obvious he didn’t allow his feelings to overtake his decision-making processes in moments of high stress or rousing success.”
In a 2020 TED talk, Wilson said: “It’s OK to have emotions, but don’t be emotional.”
Exhibit A was this offseason with Wilson, whose Seahawks contract had a no-trade clause, considered starting a new chapter with the Broncos or another team. It wasn’t the time for a knee-jerk reaction. He dug into the Broncos’ 2021 game video to see if he would be joining a viable roster (he concluded he was). Once in the locker room, the offense and heck, entire organization, rallied to him.
“I’ve been in a lot of locker rooms and on a lot of teams and you lean on your experience and what you know,” Wilson said in building a rapport.
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In the spring of 2021, Moawad sent Wilson a message: “First you form your habits, then they form you.”
Wilson’s habit is to arrive early at the Broncos’ facility and when the game week begins, he walks through the doors with one thought.
“Go win,” he said. “Keep it simple and go win the football game. That’s the thought.”
Wilson has only won since entering the NFL — eight playoffs in 10 years and 104 regular season wins. The Broncos, meanwhile, have been mired in irrelevance since winning the Super Bowl in 2015. Wilson will be their fifth different Week 1 quarterback in as many years and the six-season postseason drought is the franchise’s longest since 1976.
This is a roster with little winning memories much less playoff appearances. On offense, among the projected starters, only Wilson, running back Melvin Gordon and right tackle Billy Turner have notable postseason experience. Wilson has needed to instill the belief that things will be different.
“What I’ve learned is, the more experience and success you have, the more you can give,” Wilson told The Post. “I don’t withhold information. I want to pour it all out because I want this team to know as much ball as possible and that’s my responsibility.”
Said Sutton: “He tries to bleed his preparation over to the rest of the team and have us understand, ‘You can have confidence and positivity if you prepare yourself.’”
Gordon was Wilson’s teammate for a year at Wisconsin and reminds him of former teammate Von Miller. To a person, the Broncos believe with Wilson, they are in the contending mix. Finally.
“I try to find the positive in some things and sometimes, if (stuff) is negative, I’ll just say how I feel,” Gordon said. “Von thinks of the positive of any situation and that helped me a little bit and Russ is no different. If the defense is getting on us in practice, he’ll be like, ‘Hey, we’ve got two-minute. It’s our opportunity to come back.’ He’s always locked in. With him, it’s never over until there are all zeroes on the clock. We always have a chance.”