When the Rams finally signed Bobby Wagner, it was amid suspicions of a text message.
Les Snead thought it might be a hoax.
The text message that pinged his phone in March piqued the Rams general manager’s curiosity. But was it legit?
The sender claimed to be Bobby Wagner. A six-time All-Pro linebacker recently released by the Seattle Seahawks, Wagner told Snead that he was representing himself as his own agent in his search of a new team. If Snead was interested, here was his contact information.
“I think he signed off as Bwagz,” Snead said, “and I’m like, ‘OK, is this real?’ ”
Snead was not alone. Wagner sent the message to general managers and executives throughout the NFL.
“Everybody thought it was a fake,” Wagner said.
Snead and Rams brass did their due diligence: It was Wagner.
And though Wagner initially did not fit into their plans — on the field or financially — the defending Super Bowl champions gladly found room for a Southland native who won a Super Bowl title with the Seahawks and might be on track to the Hall of Fame.
Wagner, 32, quietly and methodically ingratiated himself with teammates and coaches. He was voted a team captain.
“It says what we all probably know from just being around him,” coach Sean McVay said. “Even though it is his first year, he’s earned that respect throughout the course of his career.”
Wagner’s initial phase of melding with the Rams is complete. Now the 6-foot, 241-pound Wagner is determined to help the team become the first in nearly two decades to repeat as Super Bowl champion … while showing that he still has plenty to offer.
“I’m hungry to prove that there’s still something out there for me to do,” he said, “and prove that I’m still the best of the best.”
Wagner grew up in the Inland Empire and helped lead Ontario Colony High to two Southern Section titles but drew almost no interest from major college programs.
Wagner recalled meeting then-USC coach Pete Carroll. He was recruiting a teammate, defensive back Omar Bolden. The Trojans apparently did not need another linebacker.
“Pete didn’t say it to me, but he was like, ‘He’s too small,’ ” Wagner said.
Utah State was the only school that offered a scholarship. Wagner considered attending Mt. San Antonio College but ultimately accepted the offer to join the Aggies.
“When Bobby holds the mic, people want to listen. And when people want to listen, you get different results.”
— Raheem Morris, Rams defensive coordinator, on Bobby Wagner
“My mom gave me some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten,” he said. “ ‘If you’re good at something, they’ll find you.’ ”
Wagner also got some sage advice from Donald Penn, a former Utah State player and veteran NFL offensive lineman. At a Utah State spring game, Wagner asked the visiting Penn what he could do to increase his NFL stock. Penn told him that while dominating Western Athletic Conference opponents was important, doing it against marquee programs was his ticket.
“I told him, ‘Have an extra weight on your shoulder when you play the big schools,’ ” Penn said. “Scouts want to see small-school kids going against big-name schools to make sure they can hold their own against these SECs, these great schools.”
Utah State opened Wagner’s senior season against Auburn. He had 10 tackles in a 42-38 defeat. “That’s when it really kind of blew up,” Wagner said. “That put me on the map.”
Wagner, however, contracted pneumonia while training for the NFL scouting combine. He watched the event on television from his hospital room. He missed Utah State’s pro day workout, so an individual workout was scheduled.
Snead was a rookie general manager in 2012, and the Rams had three second-round draft picks. After using the first two he traded down, believing that Wagner still would be available at No. 50. But the Seahawks drafted Wagner with the 47th pick.
Snead now abides by his so-called “Bobby Wagner Rule,” which ostensibly means if you’re going to lose sleep over not drafting a player, make sure you select him.
After the draft, when Wagner first spoke with Carroll, he let the coach know he remembered their initial meeting.
“I guess I’m not too small anymore,” Wagner said. “I guess I’m good enough now.’”
As a 10-year veteran and eight-time Pro Bowl selection, Wagner commanded instant respect when he joined the Rams. That was not the case when the Seahawks made him their defensive signal caller as a 22-year-old rookie.
“You test everybody,” said Brandon Mebane, a former Seahawks defensive lineman who played 13 NFL seasons. “Because there’s going to be times during a game when you want to see how they perform when it comes to a stressful point.”
The veterans tried to provoke Wagner after every play. They focused on Wagner’s neck, or the seeming lack of same.
“They’re just like, ‘Who is this guy?’ ” Wagner said. “I tried to call a play and they started talking about my neck. Like, ‘You don’t have no neck. There’s no way he can call the huddle — he doesn’t have no neck. We want a linebacker with a neck.’ ”
Wagner eventually took cornerback Richard Sherman’s advice. “Shut the hell up,” he told the linemen. “After that, it was ‘OK, he’s got what it takes,’ ” Wagner said.
Wagner went on to help anchor defenses of the Seahawks’ “Legion of Boom” era that rank among the best and most intimidating units in NFL history. The group included Sherman and cornerbacks Brandon Browner, Byron Maxwell and Walter Thurmond and safeties Kam Chancellor and Earl Thomas.
Linebackers K.J. Wright, Bruce Irvin and Malcolm Smith and linemen such as Mebane, Chris Clemons, Michael Bennett, Cliff Avril and Frank Clark were other standouts.
“Everybody wanted to be the best in the league at your position,” Wagner said. “If you didn’t want to be the best at your position you stood out and you didn’t fit in and you didn’t last.”
Wagner was in the middle of it.
“There were a lot of alpha males on that defense, but there are different kinds of alpha males,” said Sherman, a three-time All-Pro who is now an NFL analyst for Amazon Prime Video. “It takes a stronger person with humility to be able to know who they are and be comfortable saying, ‘I’m an elite player but I don’t need to say anything. … I don’t need people talking about me.’ [Wagner] is probably the quietest All-Pro in league history.”
Wagner’s release by the Seahawks in March — on the same day the team traded quarterback Russell Wilson — caught him by surprise. Carroll and general manager John Schneider later publicly apologized for not giving such a venerated player a heads up.
Wagner initially was upset. But he claims to not “hold any animosity” and said he appreciates all that Schneider, Carroll, former owner Paul Allen and current owner Jody Allen did for him.
Carroll declined an interview request for this story. He said he wished Wagner the best.
“I love Bobby Wagner,” Carroll wrote in a text. “We’ll always be connected.”
Wagner is not the only NFL player to serve as his own agent.
Sherman and former Seahawks offensive lineman Russell Okung did so before him. Arizona Cardinals receiver DeAndre Hopkins and Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson are among others.
Wagner said he never forgot an NFL rookie symposium presentation that revealed a majority of players were broke two years after their careers ended. He made a point of reading books and the NFL’s collective bargaining agreement, did internships at Microsoft and a venture capital firm and interviewed business owners and executives about negotiating techniques.
Agents represented Wagner for his first two contracts with the Seahawks, but in 2019 he represented himself.
“I felt like I was ready and thought, ‘You know what, I’m going to take a chance,’ ” he said. “The worst-case scenario is I don’t do as good of a job as I could. The best case is I do a good job. Regardless, I learn.”
Wagner negotiated a three-year, $54-million deal that included more than $40 million in guarantees.
“I want to go into business after football and I felt like I wanted to make sure I eliminated any reason why I wouldn’t be a fit for business,” he said. “And so, doing a contract is one, especially doing an NFL contract because it’s so complex.”
After edge rusher Von Miller spurned the Rams to sign a massive contract with the Buffalo Bills, the Rams signed receiver Allen Robinson. The Rams — along with the rest of the NFL — had not anticipated Wagner would be available to add to a defense that already included defensive lineman Aaron Donald and cornerback Jalen Ramsey, probable future Hall of Famers earning huge salaries.
For Snead and Rams Vice President Tony Pastoors, it was the first time dealing directly with a player representing himself.
“I remember joking with Tony, ‘OK, Tony, there you go. Here’s Bobby Wagner. I’m going to leave now. Good luck to you. Hope you don’t piss him off,’ ” Snead said.
According to overthecap.com, the Rams and Wagner agreed on a five-year, $50-million deal that includes $20 million in guarantees and gives Wagner the right to void the final three years of the deal.
Wagner was knowledgeable and prepared, Pastoors said, not just for the negotiation but for a career on the business side of football after he is done playing.
“He’s pretty much ready to do that right now,” Pastoors said.
Donovan English is a senior receiver for the Colony High football team, Jerry Guillen a senior fullback and defensive end.
The 17-year-olds also are aspiring businessmen.
So they were thrilled when they were selected to participate in a tour of Silicon Valley companies, an event that was Wagner’s brainchild and paid for by the NFL veteran. The one-day July tour included about 20 participants from Colony High, Utah State and the Seattle area. The goal: introduce young people to financial literacy and innovation.
“He gave us an opportunity to learn and really just go out and take more things in to see it’s not just football,” English said. “There’s life after.”
Said Guillen: “He would just make side notes on how he got into that specific enterprise. … And he was learning along [with us].”
Wagner was inspired by his experiences as an intern at Microsoft and other companies.
“Where I grew up, we weren’t exposed to that,” he said. “I didn’t know about venture capital. I didn’t know about investing. I didn’t know any of that till I got to the league.
“I’m seeing where I’ve taken it. Now imagine I can introduce these guys and girls to what I got introduced to later in life, earlier in life. See where they can take it and then just hopefully create more jobs and stuff and help the world.”
The tour was one of many ventures Wagner has initiated in Seattle and Southern California that go beyond football.
In honor of his late mother, Phenia Mae Wagner, who died of a stroke in 2009, Wagner in June announced a fund to raise awareness about strokes and assist patients, families and health professionals dealing with the aftermath. The fund will assist programs at Los Angeles and Inland Empire hospitals that treated his mother, and also Cedars-Sinai in Los Angeles.
Wagner has long been a supporter of Colony High, where his nephews Isaiah and Anthony Ward, now playing in college at Arizona, also flourished. Colony coach Brian Zavala said that when fundraising efforts to pay for 2021 Southern Section championship rings stalled, Wagner stepped up and paid for them.
“Bobby’s just a really, really genuine person,” Zavala said. “He’s not bigger than the game.
“He’s still Bobby.”
The Rams are attempting to become the first team since the 2004 New England Patriots to repeat as Super Bowl champions.
Wagner nearly won consecutive titles with the Seahawks.
After defeating the Denver Broncos to win Super Bowl XLVIII at the end of the 2013 season, the Seahawks returned the next season and played the Patriots.
Victory was within their grasp — until Wilson’s second-down pass at the one-yard line was intercepted, clinching victory for the Patriots.
“I was with a great group that was able to go back to back — we just didn’t finish,” Wagner said. “We came literally inches from doing it and didn’t finish.”
Now Wagner is the only Rams player who knows what is required to play in the Super Bowl in consecutive seasons.
Wagner plays with no wasted motion. “I call it elegance,” linebacker Ernest Jones said. No one is questioning whether he can command a huddle.
“When Bobby holds the mic, people want to listen,” defensive coordinator Raheem Morris said. “And when people want to listen, you get different results. You get a different type of calmness.”
Wagner has one Super Bowl title. Like his teammates, he wants more.
“They got a ring, I got a ring,” he said. “They want another one, I want another one.”
If all goes according to plan and the Rams once again make a playoff run, he might get the opportunity in February.
The Seahawks’ Super Bowl loss to the Patriots occurred in Glendale, Ariz., site of Super Bowl LVII.
“How fitting would it be,” Wagner said, “to come back home and win a championship in a place where I lost it?”