RENTON, Wash. -- Doug Baldwin's mom, Cindy, remembers it being close to midnight when her phone rang in 2009.
She picked up to hear her son's voice. He had made a decision: It was time to leave Stanford.
"There were a lot of things going on," Doug Baldwin said. "First and foremost, I was struggling in school ... obviously missing my family, homesick, coming from [Gulf Breeze, Florida] all the way to the West Coast, having culture shock, having a hard time finding myself. And then I was struggling on the football field, as well. It's well-documented that myself and [then-Stanford coach] Jim Harbaugh didn't see eye to eye on a lot of things. That played a role. So yeah, I was just struggling in pretty much every category in life my junior year."
Baldwin was coming off a promising sophomore season in which he caught 23 balls for 332 yards and four touchdowns. But the next year, he and Harbaugh butted heads. Baldwin said he was told if he stayed healthy and showed consistency, he'd get a shot at more playing time. Instead, he was demoted to the scout team.
His mom had perspective and didn't believe in coddling her son. She tried to walk the line between offering comfort and providing tough love. With her son on scholarship at a prestigious university, she decided this instance called for the latter.
"At first, I didn't really realize the extent of his frustration and what he was going through," Cindy said. "I told him, 'Life is just rough. You just have to get past it and move forward.' And he explained that he just couldn't do it. He couldn't take it. Me being the woman I am, I said, 'Quit whining. Get over it. You can do it. Stuff's not going your way? That's OK. It's not always going to go your way.'"
That wasn't what Baldwin wanted to hear, and instead of arguing, he just hung up.
"I got nervous then," Cindy said. "I realized he must really be seriously in a bad place. So I texted him back all night long, and he never answered. ... I thought, 'Oh my God. I can't believe I just did what I did.' He really needed me, and I just said, 'C'mon, son, get over it. You can do this.'"
She eventually decided to text Baldwin a photo of the most important person in his life: his younger brother, Devon.
Baldwin reached back out to his mom a couple of days later. He was still interested in transferring, and this time Cindy made it clear that she was open to discussing his options. Baldwin had the paperwork and was ready to move on until finally his mom's words sunk in.
"I tell her how I feel, she tells me how she feels, and at the end of the day, it's made for such a great relationship," he said. "So in that moment, she wasn't telling me what I wanted to hear. And I'm so thankful that she didn't tell me what I wanted to hear. She was who she always has been. So in that moment, I appreciated her more than I've ever appreciated her, even though I was frustrated. That changed the course of my life."
Baldwin finished his junior year with four catches for 78 yards. The following season, he got on the field only because the wide receivers ahead of him got injured. But when Baldwin got an opportunity, he made the most of it, catching 58 balls for 857 yards and nine scores.
It might not have been the college experience he had planned, but those around Baldwin point to that period in his life as one that shaped who he is today.
"It was difficult," said Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, who played with Baldwin at Stanford. "It was unfortunate that he had to go through that. He deserved better than what he got that year, playing with scout team and things like that. As a junior, as a person who had contributed and was expecting a big year, it was unfortunate. But those were the circumstances he was dealt, and it made for a lot different of a role than it probably would have and should have been for him.
"But thank God things are panning out as they should have in the first place. It took a little bit of time, but God works in mysterious ways, and things are working out great for him. Right now, he's the most prolific receiver in the NFL."
Baldwin, 27, is having a career year by every measure. He has 65 catches for 905 yards and 13 touchdowns, tied for first in the NFL. There have been ups and downs along the way, but right now Baldwin is Russell Wilson's go-to target, and the Seahawks' offense is on fire.
'He didn't come from anywhere'
With 9:01 left in the Seahawks' Week 14 game against the Baltimore Ravens, Baldwin found himself in a one-on-one matchup against cornerback Lardarius Webb. Teammate Jermaine Kearse had offered him a tip earlier about how Webb played certain routes.
The Seahawks were in the red zone, and Baltimore was in Cover 0 defense, meaning no safety in the middle of the field. Baldwin started his route by taking an aggressive vertical angle that caused Webb to turn his hips. On his fourth outside step, Baldwin stuck his foot in the ground and turned inside for the post. The route caused Webb to fall down, and Wilson hit Baldwin for a 16-yard touchdown.
Since Week 10, Baldwin ranks third in the NFL with 560 receiving yards. His 11 touchdowns in that span are four more than any other player. With his two-TD performance Sunday against the Cleveland Browns, Baldwin joined Jerry Rice as the only players in NFL history to score 10 touchdowns in a four-game span.
What has changed? He has been a productive receiver for years, but the recent numbers jump off the page.
"You have a year like this, and everybody's like, 'Oh, where did this guy Doug Baldwin come from?'" Sherman said. "He didn't come from anywhere. He's been there. He's been this guy. He's just getting the opportunities. He's getting his chance to shine like he's always had the ability to."
Baldwin agrees with Sherman's assessment. He has always worked hard, studied hard and waited for his opportunities. But Seahawks coach Pete Carroll believes in a certain formula. He wants to win with defense and the run game. He wants the quarterback to take care of the football.
Even when the Seahawks went to back-to-back Super Bowls, the offense sometimes lacked structure. Wilson is a master of improvisation, and the offensive line didn't always hold up. Baldwin would often have to abandon his initial route and work his way back to Wilson.
Even this season, only two teams have had fewer pass attempts than the Seahawks. Among the seven wide receivers with double-digit touchdowns going into Week 16, Baldwin has the fewest targets, with 82. The other six have an average of 134.
"When you're in the system for as long as I've been, and in the role that I've been in, you go through the roller coaster," Baldwin said. "You're excited to be here, excited for the opportunities, then frustrated that you don't get more. You might reach a point where you think you're fed up, and then you realize it is what it is. Enjoy it, and make the most of it. We talk about that on a consistent basis, because it is difficult. And it would be difficult in any situation."
'I care less'
On a December afternoon at the team's practice facility, Baldwin is called on to answer reporters' questions in the auditorium. Wilson does this every week. So does Sherman. Other players rotate in throughout the season.
Before he headed to the podium, Baldwin walked up to reporters with a newspaper in his hands. He was upset that running back Christine Michael had been misidentified in a photo in the sports section. Baldwin knew the reporters weren't at fault, but he didn't seem to care.
"If you're 3-13, what do they say about the quarterback?" Baldwin asked. "Association."
Give Baldwin credit for his honesty. While many athletes insist they don't pay attention to what's being said about them, he goes the other way.
"Do you listen to the noise? Depends on your definition of listen," Baldwin said. "I think everybody hears it. It's kind of hard to not hear it, especially being in this business. I don't know. You hear it, and I'd be lying if I said it didn't affect me to some degree at some point in my career. At the same time, I've got a job to do. I'm just focused on that, trying to be as consistent as I can."
Coaches and teammates have fielded questions in recent weeks about whether Baldwin is still angry, whether the chip on his shoulder has shrunk.
"That's relative," Sherman said. "It's a pebble of sand less."
Baldwin insists the period following last year's Super Bowl loss was instrumental in his growth, that he's become much better about focusing on what he can control. His mom said she has noticed a difference.
"He's actually relaxed a lot more," she said. "He's chilled out a lot more than he was before. He's kind of let loose his tie. I see the transition. I see the evolution of the depth of Doug. He's come a long way. He still has a long way to come, but he's come a long way."
Added Baldwin: "The only difference is I care less, and it's not in a bad sense. I've just stopped worrying about what the game plan looks like, how many targets am I going to have in a game, all of the stuff that would distract me when having fun out there on the football field. It's allowed me to be less stressed and enjoy my teammates more and go out there with a loose mentality and have more fun. That's the thing I worked on during the offseason, is having the mentality that all this stuff is going to come to an end eventually."
Remember who's watching
Asked to comment on her son's journey, Cindy needed a moment to gather her thoughts.
"I'm a bit emotional sometimes when I think about it," she said. "I can never articulate what I feel about what's going on with my son. It's just wonderful to see."
After Sunday's win over the Browns, when Baldwin was peppered with questions about how well he's playing, he downplayed his accomplishments and told reporters that he was going to kick them in the shins if they wrote about him again.
The truth is, even though Baldwin has played a prominent role on successful teams, this is new territory. As the team was advancing through the postseason the past few years, Baldwin's name was most often brought up when analysts were talking about the Seahawks' weakness, the receiving corps. That type of criticism can wear on a person.
"It just kind of gets to you when you've got people all of the time, every time we make it to a Super Bowl, talking about the receivers are the biggest weakness," Sherman said. "That's just totally not true, and it's unfortunate that they had to deal with that kind of ridicule from people who I don't think even know the game, have no credentials to speak of. It's frustrating. So that kind of stuff frustrated them more than anything, because they have to deal with it. And then the fans who don't know as much listen to the media and take heed to what they say and don't know the truth."
The conversation ultimately led to Baldwin taking aim at analysts Cris Carter and Deion Sanders, among others
Asked if he regrets any of his actions, including the infamous celebration of a touchdown in the Super Bowl, Baldwin paused.
"Do I regret it? I don't know if I regret it, because all of the experiences that I've gone through, all of the mistakes that I made, they made me the man that I am today," he said. "I feel like I am a better person because of my struggles, because of my challenges and persevering through them and realizing the mistakes that I've made, correcting them. It's made me a better person."
But Baldwin is aware he has someone impressionable close to him, watching his every move: his brother Devon, who is 13½ years younger than him.
Cindy said she has never seen Baldwin happier than when Devon was born. The brothers are in opposite corners of the country -- Gulf Breeze, Florida, and Seattle -- but Baldwin recognizes how his actions will impact the most important person in his life.
"Me and him relate," Devon said. "He understands if I do something wrong, if I make a mistake, then he says that he was 13 before, and he understands the mistake I made. That just really makes me feel comfortable because I have somebody that's not my age that understands what I go through."
Added Baldwin: "I want him to have a good role model in his life, someone that he can look up to that's a positive male image for him. So that's always on my conscience about making the right choices, making the right decisions for him, showing him what work ethic can do for you in life."
During Seahawks games, Cindy will text Baldwin even though he's on the field. Sometimes he'll sneak a peek during halftime. In the past, there have been times where she has sent about 50 messages, but Cindy said she has learned to tone it down. Most often, they are positive and encouraging. Sometimes, though, she'll make sure Baldwin's staying grounded.
"You're not all that and a bag of chips," Cindy said with a laugh.
Regardless of how much success he has, Baldwin's edge will never disappear. It's a part of who he is, and he will continue to find motivation from a variety of sources.
Those close to him know his journey well and realize what this season has meant to him.
"You can't speak enough about how amazing this is for him," Sherman said. "He deserves every single thing he's getting. Every bit of praise, multiplied by 10, because he's had a hard journey. And that's going from high school, being undersized, tearing both shoulders in high school during his senior year, going to college, getting put on scout team as a junior when that's supposed to be your year to shine. ... Gets to the league, and he fights and claws as an undrafted rookie, leads the team in yards, breaks the record. For him to have a season like this, there's nobody who deserves it more."
Added Cindy: "The journey has just taken many different turns, hills and valleys. So just enjoy the moment. But kind of anticipate, and be ready for anything. He's been there many times before. I've been to the top and the very bottom with my son. ... He is always a work in progress."