Interview: Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin on technology, touchdowns and the importance of building community

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Renton, Wash. means a lot to Doug Baldwin. It’s a place that welcomed the wide receiver as his NFL journey began in Seattle seven years ago, and it’s the city where Baldwin is now helping build a new community center.

We interviewed Baldwin at a special live recording of the GeekWire podcast in Renton — part of our GeekWire on the Road project — where the Seahawks star talked about his work in Renton, life after football, his tech investing, the role athletes have in engaging with the community to take on societal challenges and issues, and those amazing touchdown celebrations.

Baldwin, a Stanford graduate and self-proclaimed nerd who helped the Seahawks win a Super Bowl in 2013, has teamed up with the City of Renton to build the Family First Community Center, “a recreational facility in the city of Renton to enhance the stability of the community by helping families achieve goals in education, fitness and overall health,” according to the center’s website.

The two-time Pro Bowl selection and Stanford grad knows how important a community center can be to kids. He grew up in Pensacola, Fla., and credits a similar center there for helping him get to where he is today. He’s donated $1 million of his own money for the Family First Community Center.

Continue reading for the full Q&A, edited for clarity and length. Listen to our conversation in the player below or watch it in the video above. 

Taylor Soper: I want to go in the past a little bit, to 2011. You’ve just arrived in Seattle, specifically here in Renton. Tell us about the teriyaki joint you and Richard Sherman went to, and how that kind of started your experience here in Renton.

Doug Baldwin: So those who have been around Renton for a very long time, they know of Momma’s Teriyaki. It was just this little hole in the wall place. [The owner] made it a very vibrant, very welcoming place to come and just enjoy a meal. Sherman and I being in the area, we wanted to find our little joint where we could go and relax and be ourselves. That was it.

What we noticed was there were always people coming. There were police officers coming, students coming. It just felt like this was a hub of the community. But we also noticed that the kids didn’t have anything else. One of my passions was to bring activities to the area so kids could enjoy it.

Todd Bishop: Doug, many people may not know that the Seahawks do have their practice facility here — the VMAC, as it’s known.

Baldwin: Yes. The Renton Seahawks.

Bishop: Exactly. You talked a little bit about your roots after arriving here in this community. But I’d be curious to know, what’s it like to be in Renton? How would you describe it to somebody who’s never been here before?

Baldwin: Wow. Well for me personally, I’m from Pensacola, Florida, and if you know anything about Pensacola, Florida, you know it’s not diverse. It’s very old school, if you will. I was fortunate and blessed enough to come out to the west coast. I went to college in California, a phenomenal experience. A culture shock for me. Then it felt like a natural transition when I came here to Renton. The community. The people. The vibe was just very warm.

Obviously we know it’s a very progressive area. That was very similar to what I felt in California. The diversity, I can’t speak enough about the diversity. It was just, not only just in ethnicities, but diversity of thought. Diversity of just everything. The collective was so diverse. I keep saying diversity, but it meant a lot to me. That’s why it was so important to me to be a part of it. The people who know it, people who haven’t experienced it yet, I would say this. The opportunity to be a more well-rounded human being is right here in Renton.

GeekWire editor Todd Bishop (right) and reporter Taylor Soper (left) interview Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

Soper: In 2016 you teamed up with the city and the school district to help start the Family First Community Center. Why put your time and your energy and your money into this?

Baldwin: My response to you, and typically to people who ask me, ‘Why do you do these things?’ is typically, ‘Well why not?’. I think it’s very easy to categorize athletes and entertainers into this one category and say, ‘Oh. Now they’re philanthropists,’ or, ‘They’re doing things for the community.’ Players, athletes, entertainers, they’ve always been doing things for the community. Now it’s being more broadcast, right? The technology and social media, you hear about it more often.

But for me personally, it’s always been about how I was raised, serving those around you and being a part of the community for the greater good of that community. It’s a no-brainer for me. When people ask me, ‘Why do you want to do this?,’ well, I’m a part of something. I’m a part of the human collective and I want to be a part of it that’s going in a progressive manner and doing things in a positive way. That’s why I do it.

Bishop: Taylor mentioned Vicis, which is the high tech football helmet company based here in Seattle, spun out of the University of Washington. You’re an investor.

Baldwin: Yes. They just announced the Vicis ZERO1 youth helmet, if you need a youth helmet.

Bishop: It’s a roughly $500 helmet that you can buy for youth. But do you also wear a VICIS helmet?

Baldwin: I do, on the field.

Bishop: I want to talk about technology broadly. But first I want to ask, tell us what that helmet has done for you in terms of your confidence about your safety.

Baldwin: It definitely has brought me more confidence. It’s funny, it’s hard for me to talk about this because I am a football player. The NFL in the broader spectrum doesn’t want NFL players talking about the dangers and inherent risks that come with playing football. I’ve been fortunate enough to not have as many injuries as some others have, specifically brain injuries. It’s just one of those things. You get to a point when you start to realize what’s important in life: what you value, what you prioritize. I want to live a very long and healthy life for my future children that aren’t born yet, you know? I want to create memories with them and remember them, and be cognitively aware of everything that’s going on around me. Just being present with my children.

One of the factors that plays into that is being healthy on the football field. Not with just the general body, but also with my brain. Vicis was a no-brainer, no pun intended.

Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Doug Baldwin wears the Vicis ZERO1 helmet. He’s also an investor in the sports tech startup. (GeekWire Photo / Kevin Lisota)

Bishop: What about technology overall? Are there things that have changed, even in the past two, three years? We had you at the GeekWire Sports Tech Summit a couple years ago and you talked a little bit about this. But I know things are evolving quickly. Anything that stands out for you that’s changed the game, or your preparation or recovery from the game?

Baldwin: There’s always technology being pitched to us, as you can imagine. We get a number of things to the facility. Genuinely I would say that nothing beats just a good night’s rest. A good day off with some solid food and some rest and relaxation, I think nothing beats that. We can throw a whole bunch of technology at problems that you see athletes having. But nothing’s going to beat time off from actually doing what we do.

Bishop: Apart from the score, is there any one number that you look at right after a game that you use to either evaluate your performance, or the team’s performance? What are the most important numbers you look at when you look at the stat sheets after a game?

Baldwin: Individually, I’ll start there first. As a receiver I look at my targets-to-catch ratio. We’ll go through the course of a game, and the quarterback may throw me four or five passes. I want to make sure that I’m catching four or five of those targets. In Seattle, we don’t throw the ball that often. I haven’t been really able to compare myself to the greater collective of receivers in the NFL, just by gaudy numbers.

The way that I can compare myself to other individual receivers is by how many times the ball’s thrown to them, and how many times they catch it. To me, if you’re a receiver and the quarterback throws you the ball, and you catch it more times than the other people do, then you might be a good receiver. Not to boost my own ego, but nobody comes close.

As a team, as a whole, I think it might sound counterintuitive for a receiver to say this. But I always look at the rush attempts. The more we run the ball means that we’re controlling the clock, meaning that the opposing offense is not on the field, so they can’t score points. Then also our third down conversion rate. If we’re converting on third down, that means we’re keeping the ball longer than the opposing offense, and typically we’re scoring points. If we can do that on a regular basis, then I think that typically tells us how well we really did in that game.

Bishop: We cover a lot of startups on GeekWire. It always strikes me when I start to follow the Seahawks again over the offseason and think about the next season and read all the coverage, a lot of times the challenges you’re facing as a team are just natural things that startups would face as well. New people coming in. Different teammates to play with. Are there any lessons that you can impart to the startup community, the tech companies out there, about what you do? What Pete Carroll does? About what Russell Wilson does? That basically keeps people on the same page amidst all of that sort of turmoil. Both internally and externally.

Baldwin: You know, it’s funny. I get this question a lot. The honest truth is, we don’t know what we’re doing. We don’t know what we’re doing. Let’s be honest. If we really did know what we were doing, then there would be a lot more successful startups, football teams, sports teams out there. Right? Because you would just copy and paste the formula. But the truth of the matter is, you’re dealing with individuals on every level. You’re dealing with human beings who are different on every level. You have to approach it as such.

My passion is social justice right now. I know it’s a big word and it’s thrown out there all the time. But really what it comes down to to me, when we start attacking these problems in social issues, it’s more that you have to attack these issues from an empathetic place. You have to look at the individuals. You have to look at human beings. You have to humanize these issues. I think it’s the same thing for startups, for teams, for organizations. Anybody. When you look at a collective group of people, you have to humanize the problems or the solutions you’re trying to bring about.

But I will say this. This may seem weird coming from a 30 year old thinking that he may know it all, but I will say this. There is an unconscious conspiracy in every organization to keep the status quo the status quo. I believe that that is the number one factor that prevents good people or good organizations from becoming great, or from excelling to the next plateau.

Sometimes I believe you have to, even if it’s good, you have to blow it up. Because if you want to become great, you’re always changing. You’re always progressing. You can’t progress, you can’t change if you stay stagnant. If you’re too afraid to go out on a limb. Take that for what you will. I think just, human beings in general should never be afraid to risk. Because when you risk, you are growing. I don’t want to stay stagnant.

Soper: As you talked about family and kids that you might have, and life after football, what does that look like for you? I know social justice is a passion for you, and you’re building a community center here in Renton. Are you thinking about this? What does Doug Baldwin after the NFL look like?

Baldwin: Hopefully, my number one obviously is taking care of my family. That’s always going to be my priority. That’s what my values are set on, is my family. Absolutely think about it everyday, what I want to put myself into after football’s done. I think I’ll probably take a year off, do nothing, disappear from the public eye just to kind of recalibrate who I am as a human being, and really reassess my values as a man. Then we’ll see what happens.

I really hope that I can get away from the label and the logo of Doug Baldwin the football player, and people can start looking at me as Doug Baldwin the human. Because ultimately I think that’s how you can really create change and affect change in the world. When people start looking at individuals as human beings. I’m hoping that is the direction that I go in after I’m done with football.

Bishop: To that point, what role do athletes have to play, as you’re thinking about these social issues? I realize you want to sort of get beyond Doug Baldwin the NFL player. But is there a chance to use that platform in your post NFL career?

Baldwin: Absolutely.

Bishop: How could you do that?

Baldwin: I don’t know yet. That’s the conundrum I’m in. I want to get away from this football persona, but it also has presented me an opportunity and a platform to do the things that I want to do.

There’s this parable, it’s called the parable of talents. Some of you may know it. I think that I’ve been blessed with a number of talents, and I don’t want those to go to waste. I don’t want to bury them and not risk them to create more. I’m willing to do that, and I think that, again like I said earlier, being a human being first and foremost will help me do that.”

Bishop: I’ve got to ask you, talk about your outlook on the rest of the season here. I know you’ve got the Chargers coming up here.

Baldwin: You know, it started off very rough, both as a team and personally. But I think what I’m most excited about is that this team is filled with young men that are really trying to find themselves in the world. They’re trying to experience something that they’ve never experienced before, and they’re enjoying it. They’re having fun.

If you go into our locker room after a win, it’s really like we’re having a party. I’m the second oldest guy on the team, so I’m kind of lost. But it’s really exciting to see these guys come alive, because it’s hard. This sport is hard. It takes a toll on you physically, mentally, spiritually, emotionally. It takes a lot out of you. You want to see people enjoying it while they’re in the process of it.

For me looking forward, I think that this team is just, we’ve kind of found our identity as men, and the sky’s the limit for us. I wouldn’t even say that. The sky’s not the limit. We can go even further than that. But again, it’s the process. I’m so excited about it, because these young guys are great men first and foremost, but obviously they’re great football players as well.

Soper: You mentioned earlier about not knowing what you’re doing as a team. But something where you do know what you’re doing is these post touchdown celebrations, which I know you’re a part of. Tell us about that. How do those, do you get prepared? Do you practice those?

Baldwin: We do. We do. Our coaches are probably annoyed with us at this point, but we do spend a lot of time practicing our touchdown celebrations. I think just in general, the atmosphere that we try to create as a team, but mainly as a receiving group as well, we try to have fun. Again like I said, the job we do is hard. I was there at 6 a.m., and I didn’t leave until 6 p.m. It’s hard, and we want to have fun, so when we’re on the football field, if we get to celebrate a touchdown as a unit, oh, we’re going to do that, and we’re going to spend some extra time making sure it’s perfect.

Audience question: I want to hear more about your view on the talents. I was impressed that you brought that up.

Baldwin: The parable of the talents is that there were these three men. They were given these gifts, these talents. One man was given one, one man was given three, one man was given five. The man with the one, he buried it. He wanted to protect it. When the man who gave him the talents came back he was like, ‘I didn’t lose the talent that you gave me.’ The man with three talents, he saved them. Saved some of them, invested some of them, and got one back. The man with five talents, he invested all of it and got 10 talents back.

When the man who gave them the talents came to them and said, ‘What did you do with the talents I gave you?’ they all explained what happened. The man with five talents at the beginning, who came back and now has 10 talents, has 10 gifts to give back. That’s the man that I want to be. That’s the man that I want to teach my kids to be, or the people I want to teach my kids to be. That’s the way I want to be for my children and for my wife.

I think it’s a scary thing, right? Because we’ve been given these gifts. We’ve been given this opportunity to feel safe and comfortable and stay in our bubble and our circle. When you really are asking yourself to invest in something greater than yourself, that means going outside of your bubble, going outside of your comfort zone, and sometimes not feeling safe. I think that that’s the area where God can really work.”

Audience question: On the day you die, on the day you die, what do you want to be remembered for?

Baldwin: I want to be remembered for being the best husband to my wife, and the best father to my children. All this other stuff doesn’t matter. No matter how many touchdowns I catch, no matter how many Super Bowls we win. Don’t get me wrong, I want to win. But at the end of the day, when you’re on your deathbed, and I’ve thought about this a lot, the only people that I want around me are the people that I love and that love me. Don’t bring me the Super Bowl trophy. Don’t bring me a football. Bring me my family, because that’s really, in this life, that’s all that matters. When I’m on my deathbed, I hope they know that I love them with everything that I’ve had.

Audience question: Do you see yourself staying in Washington after you retire from football?

Baldwin: Absolutely. I will be working in Renton in some capacity. I don’t know if I’ll be actually living in Renton. But I will be for sure working in Renton in some capacity.”

Audience question: What is your favorite game off day recovery meal?

Baldwin: Spaghetti. My mom used to make spaghetti when I was younger, and it actually wasn’t really that good. Don’t tell my mom that. No, it was pretty decent. It was decent. But it gave me this feeling of safety, right? When I’m on my off days, I like to get some spaghetti. My wife makes a delicious spaghetti.

Audience question: What does Southport mean to you?

Baldwin: When I look at Southport and what’s coming to life here, I look at this as an opportunity, with its challenges, right? When you have a beautiful building like this come up, it raises the cost of living in the area. Truth be told, there’s some people in this area who won’t be able to afford that. I know they probably don’t want to hear that, but that is the truth. If my value is to be honest, I have to be honest.

But I will say this. The people that I’ve worked with here, and they know that I’ve worked with them, I’ve partnered with them. The reason why I’ve partnered with them is because I know that they have that vision. I know that their moral compass is focused on the right things, and their thought process and their consideration for the community that they’ve been blessed to be a part of, they don’t take that lightly.

I think that this area has a great opportunity to do things differently, and to really humanize the problems that we see in neighboring cities, and make things better for all. That is my honest opinion.

Bishop: It’s a perfect segue to what we’re going to be talking about in our next segment, because Taylor Soper next to you has been spending the week here as a journalist, looking at the positives and the negatives, and the challenges and the opportunities. What you’re saying is very much what we’ve been reporting all week. There are many positive things happening here. But one of the challenges they’re going to face is avoiding some of the pitfalls of the growth of the tech sector if it does come.

We see it first hand in Seattle and Fremont, and all the places where we are there. It’s a very great point, and that’s why we’re here, is to be candid. We are very grateful to Southport for bringing us here. But at the same time, we are here to do a journalism project. That’s very much in line with what we’re doing here, so thank you, Doug.

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