Scrambling for nearly a half hour in the mid-day heat, quarterback Russell Wilson converted boys, girls and grown-ups into Broncomaniacs for life by relentlessly signing more than 400 autographs and scribbling one heartfelt apology to the mother of 16-year-old Kenny Vargas.
“I’m going to turn everything Mr. Wilson wrote on my leg into a tattoo,” Vargas told me Wednesday. “Just don’t tell my mom. She doesn’t have to know.”
Doesn’t have to know?
All I can say is: This plot hatched by a star NFL quarterback and his new bestie from Legend High School is going to be extremely difficult to keep a secret.
Wearing a smile that wouldn’t quit, Vargas rolled up the hem of his shorts to proudly reveal unmistakable evidence of fandemonium for Wilson now adorning his right thigh.
In the big bold strokes of a black Sharpie, Wilson had heeded Vargas’ request to decorate the teenager’s leg by signing an autograph, which prominently features the No. 3.
But Wilson did not stop there. He kept writing, citing a Bible verse from the Book of John and scrawling “Let’s Ride,” the veteran quarterback’s mantra from this new football adventure with the Broncos.
Before handing back the Sharpie, Wilson added a final thought to the adult that will have to give final approval to Vargas before a teenager turns this piece of body art into a permanent tattoo:
“The kid told me: ‘My dad said I could get it tatted. But my dad also told me not to tell Mom,’” recalled Wilson, chuckling at the family dynamics at work. “So felt like I had to add: ‘Sorry Mom!’”
At the conclusion of each of seven practices at training camp, Wilson has stayed on the field to put in extra work with his receivers, then removed his helmet and jogged over to hundreds of fans that lean over a thin rope at the bottom of a grassy berm to scream adulation for the elite quarterback Broncos Country has been awaiting ever since Peyton Manning retired.
With great enthusiasm and without fail, when the vast majority of NFL players would rather quickly retreat from the hot summer sun to cool solitude inside the locker room, Wilson instead works his way through the crowd like a guy running for president of the United States.
He poses for selfies, leads chants and demonstrates that when this 33-year-old quarterback says, “If somebody says you’ve got to do X amount, I triple it,” Wilson genuinely means it.
With simple acts of kindness that brighten the lives of young Broncos fans celebrating a birthday or battling cancer, Wilson reminds us that while he might be married to a beautiful singer and enjoys the perks of an average annual salary north of $30 million, a quarterback listed in your program at a modest 5-foot, 11 inches, is really a man of the people.
After sweating on the field with teammates for nearly two hours, I clocked this autograph session at 29 minutes, 46 seconds. Although Wilson signs faster than a knucklehead like me can count with absolute accuracy, I pegged him for 403 autographs on this cloudless August day.
He signed a poster on which teenagers Otto Eienzel and Swaym Jain confessed they were playing hooky from school. With voices from the crowd shouting “Please, it’s my birthday, Mr. Russ” and “My grandma loves you,” he signed a straw hat, a mini Broncos helmet and a lime green jersey from his former employer in Seattle.
“It’s awesome!” exclaimed 18-year-old Taylor Burton, clutching a Seahawks jersey now worthy of framing to his chest. “Russell Wilson is the best player in the league, if you ask me. And he cares about the fans. I don’t see any other NFL player spending this much time signing autographs day after day. Do you?”
This was not the first time Wilson has been asked to turn his autograph into a tattoo. “Second time in the past week alone!” he said.
While watching practice, Vargas confided to his father why he wanted Wilson to sign his leg.
“And I told him: ‘You’re crazy. There’s no way (Wilson) is going to do that,’ ” said Victor Lases, now a willing accomplice in young Kenny’s scheme.
“But he signed it. Yes, I’m on the board with the tattoo. But what will his mom say? Well, I don’t know. We’re going to have to call and find out.”
After the last of more than 400 autographs was finished and his friendly team of security guards disbanded, Wilson exhaled once, then hustled over to roll in the grass with his kids and give a hug to his extremely patient wife.
While 292 career touchdown passes and a Super Bowl championship are serious feats, know what impresses me most about Wilson? He might be the only man in the world that could keep Ciara waiting nearly a half hour and get away with it.
When time with a beautiful family is so precious during training camp, Wilson views hanging with his new Broncos peeps a joy rather than a duty.
“I’m one of 32 men in the world that get to do what I do: Be a starting quarterback in the NFL. It’s a gift,” Wilson told me.
“If an autograph can inspire somebody that dreams of playing football on this field one day or inspires a young boy or girl that dreams of being in this building to run a football team, I’m all for it. I’m here to try to inspire those young fans. It’s not about me. It’s about them. Giving. Loving. Serving. That’s what life is all about.”
Something as simple as an autograph reveals a big truth in the gospel according to DangeRuss.
First and foremost, a true leader is a servant of the people.
Offering me a fist pump to celebrate that core belief, Wilson added: “Amen.”