Performance team key to Russell Wilson's remarkable durability

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RENTON, Wash. -- In Week 3 of the 2016 season, Russell Wilson suffered what remains the most significant injury of his NFL career. The Seattle Seahawks' quarterback was running to his right when an awkward takedown bent his left knee well beyond where it was meant to bend, leaving him with a Grade 2 sprain of his MCL.

Luke Del Rio couldn't believe what happened next.

Del Rio, then the Florida Gators' starting quarterback, suffered the same injury on his same knee eight days earlier, knocking him out of a win over North Texas. The way he describes it, 80% of his left MCL was torn off the bone. He was on crutches, and his knee was in a splint.

"I had to fight back tears I was in so much pain," Del Rio told ESPN.com.

Yet Wilson was able to finish his game, practice all of the next week and play the following Sunday. It kept alive a streak of consecutive starts that has now reached 125, the second-longest among active quarterbacks behind Philip Rivers' 221. No. 126 will come Sunday against the Carolina Panthers, who are starting Kyle Allen with Cam Newton -- who's missed all but two games this season -- on IR.

The MCL sprain was one of three significant injuries Wilson dealt with during a trying 2016 season that led him to expand what he refers to as his performance team, a group he employs to keep him on the field and at his best. In addition to his mental conditioning coach, Trevor Moawad, Wilson has a personal trainer (Decker Davis), a physical therapist (Janet Jin), a massage therapist (Carrie Hart), a movement specialist/yoga teacher (Elena Cheung) and a personal chef (Andrea Witton).

Wilson had also suffered a high-ankle sprain in the 2016 opener and hurt his right pectoral around midseason. The way he played through the MCL sprain left Del Rio incredulous, so much so that he reached out to Wilson to find out how he was doing it.

Del Rio got an MRI the day after his injury and was told he'd likely miss three to five weeks, tough news to hear for a guy who already transferred twice, then had to wait his turn to start. He made it back in about half of the typical timeframe from an emergency appendectomy the previous summer and was determined to beat the odds again.

Per team rules, Del Rio had to practice by Wednesday to be eligible to play that week, so he gave it a shot. He could manage the pain he felt when running in a straight line. But he realized during the first period of practice that day that any sort of lateral movement was out of the question.

"The first play that we're practicing in QB-center exchange ... is a stretch play to the right," Del Rio recalled. "And it felt like I left my leg at the line of scrimmage it hurt so bad."

Del Rio would miss two games plus a bye week before returning and wore a knee brace for the remainder of his career. Now an assistant coach at Santa Margarita Catholic High School in Rancho Santa Margarita, California, he can still feel where he tore his knee.

Wilson, meanwhile, has still never missed a game in his eight NFL seasons. He was the only quarterback to play every one of his team’s offensive snaps in 2018 and has yet to miss one this season. The only two practices he's missed in his career were to attend funerals.

The investment he's made in his performance team has had a significant hand in all of that.

Wilson has been working with Jin since 2013, initially on a part-time basis because he couldn’t afford to hire her full-time while on his third-round rookie contract. Wilson signed his first mega-deal in 2015. He hired Davis and brought Jin on full-time after his injury-filled 2016 season.

"I always knew I wanted a PT because I believed that the best thing I could do is be available, be on the field," Wilson said.

With his jet-setting lifestyle, Wilson knew he needed his trainer and physical therapist to be full-time so they could come along wherever his busy schedule took him.

"The reality is that training was going to be a key part for me and no matter where I go, no matter what hotel I'm in, no matter where I am in the country, no matter where I go, at the end of the day, I've got to train first," he said. "Everybody knows that. That's my thing. I'm going to get up early, and I'm going to make sure I train. That's the first thing. So, I end up hiring Decker and worked with him. I've been working with him for years now, and he's been awesome."

When Wilson hosted a group of skill players at his home in San Diego last summer for their latest offseason training trip, the team was there. Davis ran morning workouts, Cheung led post-workout yoga sessions and Witton kept them all fed.

"All of that is significant, don't get me wrong, but the nutritional part has been probably the part I've had to learn the most about," Wilson said. "Growing up I didn't have much. I would just eat whatever. As you're younger, you can do whatever. As you get older, you have to start being more strategic: 'I can't eat this. I can't eat that,' and figuring out what I'm allergic to, what I'm not allergic to, all those different things. So I've really dived into that process over the past couple of years, and that has, I think, helped me a lot."

Wilson's initial goal was to play until he was 43. That number had significance because it would mean a 20-year career, just like his idol, Derek Jeter. Wilson has since bumped it up to 45, a goal he reiterated on his 31st birthday last month.

That would make him the oldest quarterback to ever start an NFL game. Warren Moon, Vinny Testaverde and Steve DeBerg were all 44 when they made their final starts. Seeing Tom Brady win a Super Bowl after age 40 has reinforced Wilson's belief that playing until 45 is realistic.

"I feel like I'm just getting started," he said. "I feel like I haven't done anything yet. That's a good feeling. I'm fortunate to be able to play every game and be out there every play. ... I feel really young. I feel more vibrant than ever. I feel fast. I feel strong. My arm feels great. My mind feels better."