SEATTLE – Doug Baldwin went undrafted out of Stanford University, carrying that injustice (which is exactly how he viewed it) like a permanent scar. It was a reminder etched into his id to work just a little harder.
Baldwin burned with an inner fire that always seemed to be a little hotter than everyone else’s, because he felt it had to be. And if he sensed it was beginning to flicker, the embers dying out, Baldwin would find some perceived slight to rally behind.
Angry Doug, they called him, although it wasn’t so much anger as survival. It drove Baldwin to a stellar NFL career as a wide receiver that effectively ended Thursday with word from the Seahawks that they were terminating his contract, with that of another longtime veteran, strong safety Kam Chancellor.
This mindset, Baldwin would admit in moments of candor – which were all of them, because no one was more honest with his emotions than Baldwin – emanated from a dangerous obsession that he had with proving himself. That was borne of an insecurity that developed as he straddled two worlds growing up in Florida – between the affluent white families in his hometown of Gulf Breeze who never quite accepted him and the more diverse and hardscrabble world of Pensacola, on the other end of the Three-Mile Bridge, where Baldwin felt like an outsider.
Baldwin knew this obsession, bordering on a neurosis, cost him relationships and friendships.
“It’s a very cold feeling at times, but it’s what I’m comfortable with,” Baldwin once told The Seattle Times.
And so he was compelled to smolder on, to the eternal benefit of the Seahawks. And now, finally, Baldwin can allow the fire to go out, if he so chooses. The Seahawks announced Thursday that Baldwin had failed a physical exam, as had Chancellor, leading to the contract terminations that essentially ended their Seattle careers.
With Chancellor, it was a mere formality. He sat out last season and retired in all but name only because of a spinal injury that made it too dangerous for him to don football pads again.
But the acceleration of Baldwin’s departure was more jarring. Though it was known that he had been hard-hit with injuries last year – he went through “hell” in 2018, he said at one point – Baldwin still had fought his way back to start the Seahawks’ playoff game against Dallas. He recorded what now appear to be the final three receptions of his career in the agonizing loss.
One figured that Baldwin would do what he always did – work like a madman to find a way to overcome the odds against him. But word leaked out that he had three surgeries this offseason. And on the second day of the NFL draft two weeks ago, it was reported that Baldwin was seriously considering retirement – a rumor that Seahawks management didn’t try to shoot down.
On Thursday, with a simple press release, the hammer dropped with a stark finality. At age 30, Baldwin has many more things to accomplish, and I fervently hope this brutal sport doesn’t leave him with the same physical trauma that has plagued so many ex-players.
As for that fire, I fully suspect it will be redirected, not extinguished. Baldwin always was about far more than football. The son of a policeman, he had strong opinions on many prevailing issues, including social justice, that he supported with research, and by going into the field to talk to folks on all sides of the fence.
Baldwin occasionally would give guest lectures in the “Theory of Knowledge” class at Sumner High School under the alter ego “Mr. Worthy.” He has pondered a career in politics after his playing days are over, and it’s easy to imagine him in Congress, if not the White House.
Few local athletes have as eclectic a résumé as that of Baldwin, a Science, Technology and Society major at Stanford, and football is just one aspect of it. Baldwin once was so unsure whether he would stick in the NFL that he put out feelers to Dropbox about an interview on the day before final cuts his rookie season, just in case.
Yet through sheer tenacity, and the possession of skills that the Seahawks coveted even though they weren’t moved to draft him, Baldwin became a Pro Bowl receiver. Early in his career, he vowed to catch 500 more passes each day than were required of him. He set a franchise record with 14 touchdown catches in 2015. Only Steve Largent and Brian Blades have caught more passes or accumulated more receiving yards for Seattle than Baldwin. He got himself a Super Bowl ring. One day he’ll be in the Seahawks’ Ring of Honor.
One by one, the extraordinary collection of personalities and talents that marked the most successful era in Seahawks history are leaving: Marshawn Lynch. Richard Sherman. Michael Bennett. Earl Thomas. And now, officially, Chancellor and Baldwin. Only Russell Wilson, Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright remain from the golden era.
Baldwin is as indelible as any of them. He used his uncanny acceleration to separate himself from defenders, augmented by a computer-like understanding of opposing tactics, and an intensity and will that made him the antithesis of “pedestrian” – the phrasing by commentators that characteristically fueled him in the lead-up to the Super Bowl.
It’s hard to imagine Doug Baldwin without a slight to spur him. But it’s easy to suspect that we haven’t heard the last of him.
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