Seattle Seahawks rookie linebacker Bobby Wagner is pretty much the same kid he was at Utah State, despite his rise toward NFL stardom. Only the brightness of the lights around him has changed.
He still hangs with old Aggie teammate and current Seahawk running back Robert Turbin, still calls him "Turb."
He still wears his Ninja Turtles backpack, a manifestation of his lifelong reverence for and obsession with the cartoon characters, his favorite of which is Raphael, Wagner said, "because he's angry and sarcastic when he does his work." He added: "I got the backpack right here in my locker, as we speak. My teammates are on me all the time, they say I have to grow up. But since I'm doing well, nobody's going to mess with the good mojo."
He still closely follows the Aggies. "I've watched them the whole season," he said. "I still have friends there. I take pride in [their success]. Turb and I were talking about how we wanted to be a force for change there." And they were. As for the departure of Gary Andersen, Wagner said: "He did what he had to do. But I felt for the players. They thought he was coming back."
He still makes tackles. While in Logan, Wagner annually led Utah State's effort in that regard. Turbin called him back then "the heart of what we do defensively." Against Louisiana Tech, the linebacker racked up 20 tackles. Well, he got 14 this year in a 24-23 win over the New England Patriots, and he leads the Seahawks in tackles with 121. Over the past seven games, he's averaged 10 tackles, and he's on track to break the team's rookie tackle record, a mark set in 1977.
"This year's been crazy," he said. "Being in the position to be an impact player, it's been cool. The older guys have helped me through the process. And I've just tried to help the defense. We're a real strong playoff team, in a fight for the division."
The Seahawks currently are 9-5, trailing 10-3-1 San Francisco in the NFC West. Their defense has allowed just 219 points thus far, second-best in the league to the 49ers' 218. And Wagner has been, quite literally, at the center of Seattle's great improvement. As an MLB, he's given the club precisely what it needed: a man in the middle who could shed blocks quickly and cover sideline to sideline with speed. That's the reason the Seahawks took Wagner with the 47th overall pick in the 2012 draft. They have big, physical defensive linemen, but they needed somebody with jets to clean up the mess. Just like he did at Utah State, Wagner accelerates quickly and has smooth closing speed, and that combo-pack is what makes him so valuable to Seattle.
"Athletically speaking, I fit right in," he said. "I never felt like anyone was faster or bigger than me. In that way, the transition was easy. The biggest transition was on the mental side. Offenses here try to trick you, but I feel like I'm on the right track. I set the defense, but I feel comfortable with it."
So does Seahawks coach Pete Carroll, who earlier this season said his young linebacker has properly acclimated himself to the NFL: "He's really playing good football. He's doing a terrific job handling things. He's shown up with big hits, he's covering well. He's chasing the football. You can see the speed he has."
Every so often, Wagner pauses to consider the remarkable path he's traveled, and, deep down, it kind of blows him away. From Logan to Seattle, playing football the same way he always has, with the same passion and brilliance.
"Sometimes, I sit back and think, 'Last year at this time, I was home at Christmas with my family,' " he said. "Now, I'm here. But I'm enjoying it."
The one moment when he had to get ahold of himself was during the game against the Patriots, when he was matching strength and wits with a quarterback he'd watched on television for years: Tom Brady. Wagner got the All-Pro's attention that day with his 14 tackles, and afterward they exchanged greetings.
But Wagner is still Wagner.
One night this past week, he was up late, after a long practice, learning his trade, studying the offensive tendencies of the Seahawks' Sunday opponent the 49ers.
"I know I've got to stay humble," he said. "Even though I'm doing good, I still have a lot to learn. I'm happy with my season, but this is only the beginning. I try to watch a lot of film, try to understand it all."
The one surprise that rocked him a bit was how much of a business the NFL is.
"But it's football," he said. "And I'm hoping for a long career."
He said he'll also hope for Utah State's continued success, echoing the words he spoke after first leaving Logan for his rise into pro football: "No matter where I go, I'll always be an Aggie."
GORDON MONSON hosts "The Big Show" weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 1280 AM and 97.5 FM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.