GREENFIELD — When it comes to picking the winner of Super Bowl XVLIII on Sunday, Cornelius Wortham is stuck – all 6-foot-1-inch, 240-former-NFL-linebacking pounds of him.
“I love what the Manning family stands for,” Wortham said, sitting behind his desk and occupying a sizeable majority of the small office space at Bethesda Lutheran Communities’ Greenfield office. “After all (Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning) has been through, he went right back to work to do what he’s always done. I admire his character.”
However, what little bit of Wortham’s blood that doesn’t flow Alabama Crimson runs Seattle blue and green. The Seahawks, after all, are family.
Wortham, 32, now a program manager for Bethesda, serving those with intellectual and developmental disabilities in Hancock County, is one of the relatively few men who’ve witnessed a Super Bowl kickoff at field level, running like a wild, adrenaline-charged bull toward a smaller man with the audacity to catch the ball and the foolishness to believe he could survive running it back against men Wortham’s size.
“I still remember that moment,” Wortham said of the Super Bowl XL kickoff when he lined up with the Seahawks’ kickoff team in 2006.
The moment Seattle kicker Josh Brown’s foot struck the ball, Detroit’s Ford Field erupted beneath a dome of noise and camera flashes.
“All those lights and flashes reflected off the guys’ helmets. It was amazing,” Wortham said, thinking back. “For so many years. I’ve watched that moment.”
And though Seattle had to swallow a 21-10 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers, playing in arguably the biggest game in the world was a big dream for a big kid from a small town in north-central Mississippi, a few miles west of where the bottom drops out of the land to the Mississippi Delta.
“I come from Calhoun City, Miss., where there are 2,500 people and one stoplight,” Wortham said. “The only thing I wanted to do was play the game.”
Playing for a historically strong high school football program in the region, Wortham went on to play at the University of Alabama, where he racked up 264 tackles as a linebacker and enough other notable statistics in 47 games with the Crimson Tide to get him picked by the Seahawks in the seventh round of the 2005 draft.
Later that same year, he found himself playing before a worldwide audience of millions in the biggest game of his life.
“It’s different from any other game,” he said. “I had many big games at Alabama; it’s a vibe. Everybody wants to do their best because the whole world is watching.”
A year later, Wortham signed with New Orleans. A year after that, he played in Hamburg, Germany, and the following year he was injured and done.
The NFL is like that. For every player like Matt Hasselbeck, the quarterback of that Seahawks team who is still kicking around the NFL – he was Andrew Luck’s backup with the Colts this past season – there are many more like Wortham. In fact, of the 46 players on the Seahawks’ 2006 Super Bowl roster, only five are still playing, according to a story this week in the Everett (Wash.) Herald.
“I felt like I failed,” Wortham said of the end of his playing days. “I wasn’t playing football, and football is what I knew.”
It was a tough transition from the trappings of big-time football and the spotlight to being just another guy, but Wortham said he had some help.
“The biggest pill you have to swallow is going home. But God, faith, my parents and family and my community got me through. It took a while to realize that I was a success.”
Wortham’s mother and father, who also grew up in Calhoun City and went on to get their master’s degrees, stressed education to their children, so it’s little wonder that Cornelius earned a master’s in human environmental science and a master’s in psychology with a specialty in sports psychology.
(He considered coming out for the NFL draft after his junior year at Alabama, but his mother, it seems, had a few things to say about that.)
He met a nice Indianapolis girl while speaking at a youth convention downtown, married her and is now a satisfied Hoosier with a profession, a family and a good church, where he can be found playing steel guitar in the praise and worship band on Sundays.
He helps and guides his clients, most of whom deal with challenges far removed from those most people confront. But for Wortham, it is simply a study in relativity.
“We deal with all facets of everyday life,” he said. “It’s like playing the game; I just try to put people in the right place at the right time so they can win.”
Bethesda spokesman Ross Boettcher says Wortham brings to the organization a perspective that is simultaneously worldly and simple. It allows him to identify with and enable the people he helps.
“He’s an electric, personable guy,” Boettcher said. “Cornelius is a deeply passionate person, and he takes that to whatever he’s doing. He’s a great individual to have on team Bethesda.”
Wortham seems a contented man sitting in his office, doing significant work in a place far removed from the glass bubble his NFL, Super Bowl-contending successors now inhabit in the run-up to kickoff Sunday in East Rutherford, N.J.
He’s been there, done that and has the jersey and the ring to prove it. And in the end, there’s something bigger, more important at work anyway.
“Life is not of our own design,” he said. “God has placed me here for a reason, and that reason is unfolding every day. When I pass, he’ll finally tell me my assignment is over.”
Wortham might be stuck this Sunday at kickoff, but in the end, when the game’s on the line and the true colors need to come out, he knows which way the tide will roll.
“I’m going to be Seahawk all the way,” he said. “Because they took a chance and believed in a small-town kid.”