I

There’s no way to say this without it sounding downright strange, so I’m just going to come out with it. Russell Wilson, husband of Ciara, Super Bowl-winning quarterback and potential future NFL Hall of Famer, once ambushed me while I was sitting on a toilet in a Florida hotel. We were 13 years old. The TV show “Jackass” was popular at the time, so I’m assuming Russell was doing his best Bam Margera impersonation. Most millenials out there know what I’m talking about: Bam did this recurring bit where he’d rush into the bathroom while his dad was dropping a deuce and slap him, hard, all over. Bam’s dad would holler and cuss. It was chaos.

Cut to today. Bam is, well, Bam. Russell is the highest paid player in the NFL. I’m a freelance writer in Western North Carolina, hardly getting by. I do, however, have an awesome dog. I know this is a lot to take in.

Russell’s attack was harmless. Just a stupid teenage thing. He didn’t rip off my shirt, like Bam often did with his father. The ambush lasted a few seconds, at most, yet it’s given me a story to tell at weddings and get-togethers for the rest of my life. It’s an untoppable story. Other people talk about their kids. I reminisce about the time a multi-millionaire benignly walloped me while I was on the John.

It’s so strange and ridiculous as to be unbelievable. Yet it’s true. I know I can’t objectively prove that it happened. Unlike Bam, Russell didn’t record the incident in question. But I know that it happened. I even wrote a terrible poem about it, back in my early 20s, during my cringe-worthy Bukowski years. It’s called “i was once shoved off a toilet by a guy who went on to become a super bowl winning quarterback.”

To wit:

ok

so 

the title 

pretty much sums up

the first part of the story

so i’ll just pick up

at the second half

this guy 

who shoved me off a toilet

in pensacola, fla

when we were 13

and teammates 

on an aau baseball team

is set to make $20 million

in the very near future

he’s buddies with obama

knows drake

has shared a stage

with jessica alba

i mean, shit

his lookalike

that fills in for him

during commercial shoots

makes six figures a year

for heaven’s sake

and here i am

eating campbell’s tomato bisque

(79c per can)

three nights a week

picking my boogers

and sleeping in til 11 a.m.

trying to get by

on $1,200 per month

if i was smart

i’d had given him 

a swirly

but instead

he pummeled me

on a toilet

and i still haven’t

gotten back

on my feet

Jeez.

II

Perhaps I should provide some background. I could start by explaining why my 13-year old self was in a Florida hotel with a kid who eventually became one of the most famous athletes in the world. It’s simple, really. At one point in my life, I was good at sports. Not great by any means, but talented enough to receive an invitation to play on an AAU baseball team (as mentioned in the above so-called poem) known as the Capital City Riverdogs.

This team was filled with kids who mostly lived in richer areas than I did. Russell, for instance, eventually graduated from Collegiate, perhaps the most prestigious private school in the Richmond area. Many of the players on the team knew one another somehow, but I was an outlier, raised in podunk Powhatan, a county of about 29,000 people, most of whom don camouflage and harvest deer in the fall. I wasn’t into that. Not because of high-minded morals or anything. I just wasn’t into it. I preferred hitting things with aluminum sticks and throwing stuff. My nickname was Chico, because I tanned so darkly during middle school baseball tryouts that one of my teammates thought I “looked like a Mexican.” Racist, I know. But we were young and stupid. 

Chico taking a hefty cut during high school.

The Riverdogs were a talented group. In addition to me and ol’ Russ, there was also a kid on the roster by the name of John Austin Hicks (or “Jazz,” as he was known back then). Baseball fans may recognize the name: he’s now a catcher for the Detroit Tigers. If memory serves, he wasn’t even our starting catcher most of the time. He earned a lot of at-bats, sure, but catching duties were mostly reserved for Daniel Astrop, who went on to play football at Davidson. Jazz was kinda gangly back then, not yet into his own. He certainly is now. Likewise with Russell. 

At any rate, us Riverdogs were decent enough to reach a national tournament held in Pensacola, Florida. It was a big trip for me. I’d never traveled that far from home, and we drove the entire 12 hours, from Richmond to the panhandle, in a small white pick-up truck owned by the father of the only other Powhatan kid on the team: Derek Starr. Derek, I’ve heard, went on to become a world-class Halo player. But let’s stay on track.

I remember a few things in particular about that Florida journey. Being crammed into that small pick-up is chief among them. We played N64 on a small TV powered by a cigarette lighter in an effort to make the close quarters more bearable. I also recall pond alligators at the hotel and a team from Cuba destroying us by 20 runs. Then there’s the horrible ear infection that besieged me during the 12-hour ride back to Virginia. I was curled up in the back, in one of those half-ass seats that small trucks often have, reeling from the pain. 

I also have movies in my mind of Russell swatting dingers at the tournament’s home run derby. Then he swatted me like a heavy bag, with my pants around my ankles. I’m not sure which one happened first. But I remember it, Russell. I remember.

III

I was scrolling through my Facebook feed in July of 2018 when I came across a video that caught my eye. It was of Jazz hitting a towering home run against Justin Verlander, down in muggy Houston. Gone was the gangly kid of Riverdogs fame. In his place was a physically-imposing man, a lumberjack in uniform: 6-feet-2, 230 pounds. He seemed so comfortable in his body, so sure of his movements. He’d just taken one of the greatest pitchers in MLB history deep, and there he was, rounding the bases as though lazily jogging through the park. I saw this clip at 10 a.m. on a Wednesday. I was working from home, still in my underwear. An over-medium egg popped in the pan, so I got up to flip it.

Hicks at Goochland High.
(Richmond Times-Dispatch)

There was more to that clip than just an old teammate of mine homering at baseball’s highest level. What most people wouldn’t know, without doing some research, is that Jazz and Verlander graduated from the same high school: Goochland, the only high school in a county of the same name that’s perhaps more podunk than Powhatan.

A years before that home run, when Verlander was still a Tiger, Jazz had an opportunity to catch him. A battery from the little Land of Gooch, a county of 23,000 people. Who would’ve thunk it? In fact, Verlander played on the same American Legion squad — Post 201 — that I did, though he did so years before I donned the uniform. One of my former high school coaches coached him during legion ball. That coach used to tell us a story about how Verlander, as a sort of parlor trick, would stand on home plate and hurl a baseball over the center field fence, some 350-plus feet away. 

It’s a Paul Bunyan-sized tale. And like the Russell Wilson toilet incident, there’s no way to prove this happened. But I like to believe it. Because it’s a helluva good story. 

Verlander at Goochland High.
(Richmond Times-Dispatch)

IV

Brushing shoulders with greatness before that greatness has manifested itself is a funny thing. At the time, there’s no way of knowing that what’s happening will one day become the stuff of legend. One moment, Russell is Richmond’s All-Metro Player of the Year. The next he’s winning a Super Bowl. How did he get from Point A to Point B? How many people who start at a similar Point A end up at a vastly different Point B? Selling insurance? Working construction? Freelancing from home in their underwear? Not making $35 million per year? 

In 2006, Russell won All-Metro POY, he threw 33 touchdowns and led Collegiate to a state title. I was second team All-Metro quarterback that year. I’d thrown 29 touchdowns and led my team to a gut-wrenching defeat in the state semifinals, which ended when I tossed an embarrassing interception on a two-point conversion at the end of the game. The receiver was wide open in the back of the end zone, but I threw it directly into the chest of the defender in front of him. I remember thinking, right before that fateful throw, “Jeez, he’s wide open.” We lost 20-18, and I collapsed on the turf like a sad sack. 

The All-Metro reception that year was held at a fancy hotel in Richmond. I sported a truly awful Beatles-esque du on steroids. It was 2006: cut me a break. Russell gave a speech that night. I have no recollection of the specifics, but I recall feeling that he was something special. Well-spoken, smart, talented. Even so, I don’t think anyone in the room believed he’d become this big.

Wilson during his senior season at Collegiate.
(Mark Gormus/Richmond Times-Dispatch)

Fast forward to the following spring, 2007. Baseball time. We hosted Collegiate in a non-conference game early in the season. Russell came on in relief during the later innings. I faced him once, and he struck me out on three straight 90-plus MPH fastballs. No movement on his pitches. Pure power, plain and simple. I was used to facing kids throwing in the upper 70s, kids on teams that could barely field rosters. I wasn’t ready for Russell. 

These are the memories: subjective, unverifiable. Yet there is some documentation. Check out the Richmond Times-Dispatch record book. It’s available online. Look under most passing touchdowns in a season. There’s Russell: 40 in 2005, 33 in 2006. And there’s me, the very last name on the list: 29 in 2006. Right below some guy named Lee Bujakowski. 

V 

It’s August 2019 and Bam Margera is in trouble. After being in and out of rehab for years, the former Jackass star reportedly is thrown off an airline flight for being too drunk. The following day, he posts a string of videos on his Instagram page pleading for help from Dr. Phil, of all people. “The only person that I will believe on the planet is Dr. Phil,” he says. The Good Doctor agrees to meet him, and the two apparently talk about filming an episode. 

Who knows what will come of it? Bam’s apparently had a string of misfortunes, some self-induced, others out of his control. He was arrested in Iceland for beating the hell out of a rental car and refusing to pay for damages. He was assaulted with a baseball bat outside of his bar, The Note, after apparently calling a woman the n-word (“I called her a crazy bitch and an idiot, but I definitely didn’t use the n-word,” he told Philly.com). He was held at gunpoint in Colombia, which purportedly caused him to relapse into alcohol abuse. These are, apparently, the facts. 

Bam is 40 now, no longer baby-faced. He’s chunky and grizzled, with heavy bags under his eyes. He looks defeated, and I feel for him. Every time I see a new picture of the guy, he looks more and more like his dad, more and more like the guy he used to terrorize in the bathroom. Things apparently have been going all right for Papa Phil, though. He lost 41 pounds on VH1’s Celebrity Fit Club: down to 312 from 353. I don’t know if he’s kept it off, but if so, good for him.

VI

In February 2014, Russell plays a solid, but not great, game. Thankfully, he doesn’t have to be transcendent. He completes 18 of 25 passes for 206 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. A picture of serenity on one of sports’ biggest stages: the Super Bowl. His Seahawks blowout the Broncos, 43-8. It’s the third-most lopsided final in the history of the Big Game. Russell, then 25 and in his second season, has outplayed Peyton Manning, maybe the second greatest quarterback in NFL history. The former Collegiate star has fulfilled his potential, reached his Point B. The special kid has become a special adult, on top of his game at the game’s highest level. 

Michael Strahan interviews Russell after the historic win (it is, after all, the Seahawks’ first championship). The Lombardi Trophy gleams between them as navy blue and bright green confetti rains. Strahan, who won a Super Bowl of his own with the Giants in 2007, asks Russell a question:

“A lot…has been put on your back, and you handled it like a veteran player. What does it say about you and the team to come out here and perform on the biggest stage…?”

As Russell responds, it’s 2006 again. He’s a thin teen, but well-spoken, modestly accepting an award in front of the best football players in the Richmond area that particular year.

“My teammates are just incredible,” he says. “We’ve been relentless all season. Ever since we lost to Atlanta last year in the playoffs, I remember having that good feeling of ‘man, we’re going to go to the Super Bowl.’ It all started with the championship off-season we had, going into training camp and having that mentality. Tonight was unbelievable.”

He says a few more things, thanks Seattle’s fans. I’m seeing all of this unfold on TV from my wife’s grandpa’s house in Hopkinsville, Kentucky. Another podunk town, though not as much as Powhatan. It’s the first year of a new family tradition, one in which we eat an unhealthy amount of seafood and watch the Big Game in the Bluegrass State. The following year, I’ll move to Austin, Texas, for 24 months or so, to work in a coffee shop and freelance. I’ll never hit a home run in the MLB or throw a pass in the NFL. Nor will I enter rehab. My life isn’t glamorous. But I like making eggs in the morning and walking my awesome dog up the hill in the afternoon.

The night Russell helped the Seahawks win the Super Bowl, right around the time he was lifting the Lombardi Trophy skyward, a childhood friend texted me. 

“Well, Chico, can you believe the guy who shoved you off a toilet is a Super Bowl champion?”

I couldn’t. But at the same time, it’s hard to imagine a universe in which anything else is the case.

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