Friends and teammates: Former Utah State stars shining in NFL as Seattle Seahawks
RENTON, Wash. — The day after he had been drafted to play football in the NFL last April, Bobby Wagner was still soaking it all in.
Together with his family, the middle linebacker, who had been instrumental in helping turn around Utah State's football program in 2011, was playing games with his family while they cooked dinner together.
Suddenly, the second-round pick of the Seattle Seahawks heard his sister Nakima scream at the TV, tuned to Day 3 coverage of the draft, in the other room.
"I walked in the room and was like, 'Who else do you know that's going to get drafted?' " says Wagner. "And she was telling me that Turb got picked up."
"Turb" is Robert Turbin, Wagner's teammate and close friend at Utah State.
"I was like, 'For real? I've got to call him,' " Wagner explained. "And she said, 'He got picked up to the Seahawks.' And I was like, 'Wait, I got picked up to the Seahawks. Are we really on the same team?' And I was like, 'Dang, that's crazy.' "
From the outside looking in, Wagner and Turbin's whirlwind journey from being college stars at Utah State to becoming rookie stars for the Seattle Seahawks has been nothing short of crazy.
Eight months removed from finding out they were chosen by the same franchise — Wagner 47th overall in the second round and Turbin 106th overall in the fourth round — both players are nearing the end of very successful rookie seasons.
With one game remaining in the regular season, Wagner, who's from Ontario, Calif., leads the Seahawks with 130 tackles — six shy of the franchise's rookie record. The middle linebacker also has two sacks and three picks while anchoring Seattle's defense.
Meanwhile, Turbin, who's from Fremont, Calif., has been equally effective — in a completely different role. With Seattle starting running back Marshawn Lynch enjoying the best season of his career, Turbin has carved out playing time as the team's backup running back, spelling Lynch and entering in blocking situations.
They're both appreciative of the opportunities they've been given on a team that clinched an NFC playoff berth after a win over the 49ers last Sunday.
"It's been," Turbin says of their rookie seasons, "a blessing."
So too has been their friendship with each other.
Wagner and Turbin had been acquaintances and teammates in USU's program for more than three years before becoming close friends during the 2011 season. What brought them together initially? Their shared desire to lift USU's football program out of the doldrums.
"I remember sitting outside class saying we wanted to turn Utah State into a winning program," says Wagner. "I don't think we were going in that direction, so we were kind of like, 'what do we gotta do as leaders of this team to get to that point?' "
Wagner and Turbin helped make it happen. USU had lost three of its first four games in heartbreaking fashion — losses to defending national champion Auburn, Colorado State and rival BYU were by a combined eight points — but rallied to finish with a winning record and earn the school's first bowl appearance in 14 years.
Turbin rushed for 1,517 yards and scored 23 touchdowns en route to WAC Offensive Player of the Year honors, while Wagner led USU's defense — and the entire WAC — with 147 tackles.
While they were turning USU's fortunes around on the field, Wagner and Turbin, known at Utah State for frequently joking around with each other in press conferences, started talking about other things off the field — much more personal things.
"We kinda found out that we had some similarities about each other — some things we had in common," says Turbin.
Those things included the deaths of family members and other tragedies they've endured.
Turbin grew up largely without his mom and has helped take care of a sister, Tiffany, who was born with severe cerebral palsy and is paralyzed from the neck down. He watched as another sister, Trina, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and died at 21, and — most recently — faced the unspeakably heart-rending tragedy of losing a beloved brother, Lonnie, who was addicted to heroin and died after being shot at the age of 35.
Wagner, meanwhile, has also faced difficult things. Among them were dealing with the death of his mom, Phenia, while he was a freshman in Logan.
"He went through some tragic things in his life that I was able to relate to, and vice versa — whether it was brothers, sisters, moms, dads, girlfriends, stuff like that," says Turbin. "We were similar in some of those categories, and that brought us together."
Adds Wagner, "He helped me with my personal life issues, and I helped him with his."
At the end of the 2011 season, Wagner, a senior, began to prepare for the NFL Draft, and so did Turbin, who declared himself eligible following a terrific junior season.
Come draft day, neither really considered the possibility of them ending up in the same organization.
"Not for two seconds did I think I would be on the same team because, to be honest with you, I thought I was going to go in the second round," says Turbin. "And when the second round went, I thought for sure the third round. It didn't work out that way for me, but everything happens for a reason. The fact that we both ended up in Seattle, that happened for a reason. That reason I don't know yet. We don't know. But it did, and it's an exciting feeling to get here."
So far, neither has disappointed.
The Seahawks signed free agent Barrett Ruud during the offseason to compete with Wagner for a starting spot at linebacker, but Wagner was so impressive during the preseason that coach Pete Carroll traded Ruud away before the season began.
Wagner hasn't looked back, and with the regular season nearly complete, some are saying he should be the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year. According to fellow linebacker K.J. Wright, the rookie hasn't been fazed by the bright lights of the NFL.
"When these guys draft you, they expect you to come in and do your part and contribute immediately," says Wright. "He's handled the pressure just fine, came up here to play football, and he's got a good career ahead of him."
Fullback Michael Robinson expressed similar sentiments about Turbin.
"He's done a great job," Robinson said. "I don't think people really realize the effect he's had. When Marshawn is having the best season of his career, he's having the best season of his career because he's able to be spelled and be fresh later on in the ballgame.
"Robert has come in and done exactly what they drafted him to do."
Their next challenge? Sustaining this early success, a task infinitely easier to say than do.
The friends, though, believe each other is capable.
"If he goes on to have the career that I know he'll have, which is, in my opinion, greatness — to sum it up in one word — he'll be a 12-year, 13-year, 14-year, 15-year vet getting ready to retire, and they'll look back at his rookie year and say, 'he's been doing it ever since his rookie year at a high level,' " says Turbin.
Wagner hopes the same thing — a long, successful career — for his good friend from Utah State.
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