January 27, 2014 Updated: January 28, 2014 at 1:08 pm
NEW YORK — On a fall Friday in Madison, Wis., Russell Wilson approached the man in charge of the hospital tour.
This was a simple request, straight to the point.
"Give me to the person in the worst condition."
The man looked at the Badgers' quarterback as though he were lost.
"That's who I want to see."
This is the opposing quarterback in Super Bowl XLVIII, Broncos Country.
Good luck rooting against him.
"He's unwavering. He doesn't flinch. I think he knows he's just guarded beyond what's normal life," Bret Bielema, who coached Wilson at Wisconsin, said in a phone conversation. "I think he knows he's protected by a higher power."
Wilson, the second-year quarterback of the Seahawks, and Montee Ball, the rookie running back of the Broncos, shared a huddle in one season at Wisconsin.
They share something deeper, though. It's the driving force in their lives, a belief that defines them more than passing yards, Super Bowl berths or touchdown runs.
"Both Russell and Montee are men of tremendous faith," said Bielema, now the coach at Arkansas.
It's why Wilson made a point to find the sickest kid at the children's hospital. It's why he buys T-shirts for his teammates with the logo, "Audience of One."
It's what kept Ball from crumbling when he was assaulted on the Wisconsin campus, just weeks before his senior season. Ball was attacked by five men, beaten and hospitalized.
"It was one block from my house," Ball said.
"That moment changed my life. It changed my perspective," he added.
For Ball and Wilson, perspective is shaped by their Christian faith.
There are 5,000-plus credentialed media at this Super Bowl. As the Broncos team bus left an event Monday, fans snapped Twitpics of their football idols as they rolled by. A corporate suite for the big game at MetLife Stadium goes for $500,000, according to TiqIQ. Jay-Z will rap about money and fame at a party hosted by DirecTV on Saturday.
This Super Bowl is not normal life.
"I was good the whole week," Broncos wide receiver Demaryius Thomas said Monday. "But once we landed, I was nervous."
For some of the players involved, leaning on their faith is a means to stay grounded.
"I was brought up a Christian," Thomas said. "I was raised around great people."
As prevalent as they are in the NFL locker room, the beliefs of Christian players often go underreported. It's odd, considering the prayer huddle after a Broncos practice Thursday included 22 players — almost half the active roster.
If it's that big of a deal to that many players, why aren't we writing about it?
"That doesn't sell newspapers and magazines," Broncos tight end Julius Thomas told me in training camp. "As athletes, the big stories are when we do something wrong."
After one of their final practices in Colorado before leaving for the East Coast, roughly two dozen Broncos formed a circle near midfield. Former player Brian Dawkins, one of the most vicious tacklers to play safety in the NFL, led the group in a rousing prayer.
"God saved me in 1990. I knew about Jesus Christ. But I did not have a relationship with him," Dawkins said afterward. "I made a decision at that time to welcome him into my heart. From that point on, that's when my journey began."
Dawkins now is an analyst with ESPN. As a high-profile figure in the sports world, but also a devoted Christian, Dawkins walked a fine line, he said.
"You don't push your beliefs on other people. But I'm going to tell you that I'm a man of God," Dawkins said. "I'm going to tell you that I'm blessed. I'm going to tell you that Jesus is my Lord and savior. If we're talking about football, and the conversation's not leading us there, I will not bring that up."
He paused and added, "But if we get to that conversation, I'm going to tell you that I'm a man of God. I try to say that in all of my press conversations at some point."
Asked for his favorite memory playing alongside Wilson at Wisconsin, Ball pointed to a Big Ten game against Indiana in 2011.
"The halfback pass, when I threw it to him," Ball said.
The play was different, a break from the norm.
Wilson's past six games appear, for the most part, quite pedestrian. In that stretch he hasn't thrown for more than 215 yards. For comparison's sake, Peyton Manning threw for at least 215 yards in 17 of 18 games. In Seattle's two playoff wins, Wilson completed 25 passes, total. Manning did that in the first half at Oakland.
But there's something different about Wilson. He breaks from the norm.
"I'm big into visualizing," Wilson said Sunday upon arriving for Super Bowl week. "This moment right here is exactly what I visualized."
Wilson's best moments come on third, even fourth down. Case in point: Trailing the 49ers 17-13 in the fourth quarter of the NFC championship game, Wilson unloaded a deep pass that doubled as a prayer.
The target was Jermaine Kearse, a receiver who had one other catch in the game, one in the previous game and zero in the game before that.
On fourth and 7, Wilson hit Kearse for a 35-yard touchdown.
A play like that takes some kind of faith.
"There's a huge belief that he's at his strongest when you're at your weakest," Bielema said. "That's when Russell takes off."