Beneath the layers of the National Football League’s indomitable entertainment machine — the cameras trained on Kirk Cousins’ every move, the media members parsing each decision, and a cohort of 73,000 fans, most of them actively invested in his failure — there will be exactly three people on the Superdome field Sunday who understand the quarterback’s unique burden.
There will be Drew Brees, the future Hall of Famer and a Super Bowl MVP who has offered Cousins insights from his own journey through the occasional phone call and Pro Bowl conversation. There will be Teddy Bridgewater, who four years ago came within inches of his own defining playoff moment for the franchise that now employs Cousins. And there will be Cousins himself, keenly aware of all that has been entrusted to him by a team and a fan base so hungry for success.
“The ball’s in your hand, and the margin for error is so small,” Cousins said. “You know that nobody else is going to have a chance to impact the game in the same way you will. You know that you’re going to go back and watch the film the next day, win or lose, and point to two plays that made the difference. You don’t know which two it’s going to be; you’re going to get anywhere from 60 to 80 cracks at it, and you know when you hold the football, you hold the hopes and dreams of a lot of people in your hands.”
Cousins’ second NFL playoff start, in which the Vikings are 7 ½-point underdogs against a 13-3 Saints team that’s lost one home playoff game in 13 years, doubles as an inflection point for the quarterback’s time in Minnesota, where he is finishing the second season of a three-year, $84 million contract guaranteed to him in hopes he can help deliver the Vikings their long-sought first Super Bowl victory.
When the playoffs began, there were 11 other quarterbacks in 11 other cities — including six on contracts worth at least $23 million a year, and four former first-round picks still on their rookie deals — expected to justify costly investments with exacting precision under withering pressure. Their salaries afford them little public sympathy; this is their chosen profession, after all. But their jobs, as glamorous as they seem, still require them to operate on a precipice.
“What’s the fraternity like? You may shake the guy’s hand after the game, wish him well,” Cousins said. “You may cross paths with him at a conference or two in the offseason. But without saying a word, there’s just an unspoken understanding of what they’re going through, and I would like to think vice versa. So I always try to, when I see a guy, encourage, because I think if they’re anything like me, it can be a grind at times.”
Cousins and a growing group of NFL quarterbacks have bonded through an online devotional group led by pastor Randy Alcorn, who is based in Portland, Ore., and started working with Christian ministry Pro Athletes Outreach (PAO) after getting to know former NFL quarterback Matt Hasselbeck while he spoke at a Seahawks team chapel service. Hasselbeck, now an analyst on ESPN’s “Sunday NFL Countdown,” invited Alcorn to speak to a group of quarterbacks at PAO’s annual February conference for NFL players, and the online community grew out of that. Currently 27 quarterbacks, including 18 active ones, can read the weekly devotionals Alcorn sends the group; Cousins, Alcorn said, is routinely the first to respond.
“You view them as human beings,” Alcorn said. “You think in terms of what they do, because that’s part of who they are and the life that they live. But spiritual counsel is the same for anybody. You take into account their family situation, their job situation and everything else, as you would anyone else. But of course, those things are different for them.”
‘What we deal with’
PAO — now run by former Bears quarterback Steve Stenstrom — moves its annual conference to different destinations, from warm-weather getaway spots to mountain retreats, and keeps the location a secret to give players a respite from their celebrity. Pastors from around the country come in to advise players on issues like relationships, finances and handling pressure. Last February, former Vikings quarterback Case Keenum and his wife, Kimberly, shared their struggles with infertility (a month before Kimberly became pregnant with their first son).
“It just hits right to what we deal with,” Cousins said. “You can look around the room and see spouses and their husbands who are players that are like, ‘We’re dealing with this; we’re going through this.’ ”
The community at the conference among players — especially quarterbacks — has meant the most to Hasselbeck. He recalled going to Disney World with Russell Wilson shortly after he succeeded him as the Seahawks’ quarterback and getting lunch at Red Robin while he had time to kill before a flight with Carson Wentz, who responded with a playful, “Thanks, Dad,” after Hasselbeck grabbed the check.
“We’ve all been booed — I don’t care who you are,” Hasselbeck said. “I don’t care if you’re Tom Brady, you’re the greatest quarterback who ever played; we’ve all been booed, we’ve all been celebrated. I can remember [talking about], ‘What are some of the creative things you’ve done to hang out with your wideouts?’ You hear guys’ epic failures, and some awesome things. There was one guy who took his guys deep-sea fishing — and half the boat got sick. It’s like, ‘Hey, well-intentioned, bad idea.’ It’s lighthearted stuff, but the irony is, a lot of times, how the NFL is, you end up becoming friends.”
As Hasselbeck put it, NFL quarterbacks are effectively living the same life in different cities, as young men trying to handle status as the face of a franchise. He prayed with Trent Dilfer — when both were playing for the Seahawks — for a generation of QBs who could lean on one another; the group Alcorn now leads is a step in that direction.
The pastor posts weekly Bible verses, book suggestions and thoughts for the group to consider, and texts with players on an individual basis to counsel them through events happening in their lives. He will accept pictures or game tickets if players offer, but he will never ask for them.
“It’s a violation of trust; you lose all credibility, or at least potentially, when you start asking for things,” he said. “Because if you do, now you have become sort of like everybody else.”
Finding a balance
The Vikings’ game against the Saints, as it relates to Cousins’ status in Minnesota, is a gale-force wind that could blow a sailboat in one of two directions. It could squelch the long-running narrative about his inability to win big games, or it could send him into a contract year without the sort of defining victory that would ensure long-term security.
He is keenly aware of the tension between the value of his NFL success and what it means to his worth as a person.
“My wife will say, ‘Hey, it’s not your identity.’ And I’ll say, ‘No, it isn’t — but it’s pretty close,’ ” he said. “It’s such an important part of my life. And while it’s not my identity, and I know that I stand on the rock, and I’m not building my life on sand, this is something that is still very important.
“People say, ‘Why do you get nervous?’ I get nervous because something matters to me. You’re always kind of checking yourself; has it become too important? When you can’t sleep after a tough loss, you’re like, ‘Where’s the balance here?’ But you also know, if it matters to you, sometimes it is going to affect your sleep. That doesn’t mean it’s your identity. You’re always finding that balance.”
For Cousins, that often means texts from Alcorn with Bible verses on Saturdays and a midfield greeting on Sundays from a counterpart he knows is dealing with the same things.
“I do have a lot of respect for him, the road he’s traveled,” Brees said. “For a guy to come in and really have to earn it every step of the way, I respect that road, what he’s had to earn, the position he’s in. He’s had a great year.”
How the year ends, and what it means for Cousins’ future, is yet to be written. The quarterback believes no matter what happens, there’s a purpose behind it.