By Rick Maese The Washington Post
RENTON — Russell Wilson walked inconspicuously through the Seattle Seahawks’ locker room. The televisions overhead were tuned to ESPN, where another commentator was raving about Washington Redskins quarterback Robert Griffin III. Some teammates were playing cards. Wilson didn’t seem to draw a single eyeball.
“I’m not about flash,” said Wilson, the rookie quarterback who will lead Seattle into its first-round playoff showdown Sunday against and the Redskins and Griffin.
Wilson is undersized. He speaks in cliches. He talks about faith and family. He doesn’t hit the town with teammates, and many nights he’s in bed by 9 p.m.
“He’s always serious, even when we’re not supposed to be serious,” Seattle fullback Michael Robinson said. “That’s a good thing.”
“He’s pretty much all work and no play,” tight end Anthony McCoy added.
But that doesn’t mean Wilson is without substance. Everything the Richmond, Va. native does is backed by motivation, and his meteoric ascent through the NFL has followed a unique and unpredictable path. Those who have known Wilson his entire life say the 24-year-old was always destined for success, but few figured it’d be as an NFL quarterback.
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Years ago, Harrison Wilson Jr. saw his grandson, barely old enough to run at the time, swing a Wiffle bat. “I can tell he’s going to be very special,” the patriarch told family members.
Russell Wilson’s family tree is rooted in special. His grandfather was president of Norfolk State University, and his grandmother was a college professor. His uncle went to Harvard Law School and is an accomplished Washington attorney, and his father studied law at Virginia and practiced in Richmond.
“Whether it was sports or academics, it really didn’t matter. We wanted to succeed against whatever was deemed the best,” said the quarterback’s uncle, Ben Wilson. “You wanted to play the best and succeed against the best.”
Wilson attended the Collegiate School in Richmond and played football there for Charlie McFall. Though his talent was undeniable, football seemed to have a ceiling. Tom Holliday, N.C. State’s associate head baseball coach, first saw Wilson play baseball as a junior and he had no doubts. “He was a major league baseball prospect,” Holliday said. “He was probably a football player who could maybe make football work because he was so athletic. But you could see a future in baseball.”
Wilson attended N.C. State and played both sports. Several members of his family had competed collegiately, including his father, Harrison Wilson III, who played football and baseball at Dartmouth. In fact, Harrison III attended training camp and played in the 1980 preseason with the San Diego Chargers, reportedly one of the last players cut.
Wilson’s father was a guiding influence but he became sick midway through Wilson’s time at N.C. State. Still, he followed Wilson’s exploits from afar. Ben Wilson would drive to Raleigh, N.C., watch Russell Wilson’s games and report back to Harrison all the details.
On June 8, 2010, Wilson was drafted by the Colorado Rockies in the fourth round of the Major League Baseball draft. On June 9, Harrison Wilson III died of complications from diabetes.
“I think his father being sick kind of motivated Russell, maybe more than most kids,” Holliday said. “Most kids would’ve fallen into a depressed funk. He was the other way. He was going to prove to his dad that he could do something special. … He was not going to waste a single minute of his life.”
Wilson signed with the Rockies and reported to the Class A Tri-City Dust Devils, but he wasn’t giving up on football. Wilson told the Rockies that he hoped to play both sports professionally. Baseball seemed like the more realistic option, though.
Wilson stood 5 feet 103/8 inches and knowing how few NFL quarterbacks are shorter than 6 feet, Holliday would tease his pupil: “Don’t ever close the door on the Canadian Football League.”
“I was challenging him in a joking way, but I was being real with him, too,” the coach said.
Wilson was still participating in spring football practice, and in the minors, he wasn’t getting the at-bats needed to fully develop as a baseball player. In two shortened seasons the middle infielder couldn’t hit better than .230.
“There were people on our staff who felt he had a chance to someday play at the major league level,” said Bill Schmidt, the Rockies’ vice president of scouting. “It was just going to take some work.”
Soon, following Wilson’s junior season, Wolfpack Coach Tom O’Brien asked Wilson to focus more on football. Wilson wasn’t ready and thought he’d have to leave football behind entirely. He “agonized” over what to do, said Mark Rodgers, Wilson’s baseball agent.
Because Wilson had already completed his undergraduate degree, he was able to transfer without sitting out a year. N.C. State granted Wilson his release, and needing a quarterback, Wisconsin called shortly thereafter.
Wilson learned the Badgers’ playbook in just a couple of weeks and was named captain within a month. Then the Big 10, the Rose Bowl, the Senior Bowl. He called the Rockies and said he’d be participating in the NFL Scouting Combine and hoped to be drafted. Wilson knew if football didn’t work out, he could always pick up a glove and bat again. But he had to try.
“It was definitely difficult to walk away from baseball,” Wilson said. “It was one of those things where I was fighting to figure out. … I took a great, great risk, and I’m glad I did it. It was the best decision of my life.”
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Shortly before the NFL draft last spring, Wilson and his new bride, Ashton, scribbled the names of 32 NFL teams and put them in a hat. It was just a fun game. He pulled one out: the Seahawks. “I’m not sure if God or my dad or somebody had something to do with that,” he said.
In April, the Seahawks chose Wilson in the third round, the first quarterback drafted by head coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider since they took control of the team in 2010.
“We never doubted the makeup of the kid and his athleticism,” Carroll said. “We just didn’t know if he could translate it to this game and how fast could he do it.”
Wilson entered training camp with no guarantees. Because he wasn’t a first-round pick and because the Seahawks had also signed free agent Matt Flynn, Wilson was a presumed backup, maybe a third-stringer.
“Most people didn’t expect him to get the hang of it that quick,” said Seahawks wide receiver Sidney Rice. “Once he got the hang of it, though, he continued to roll from there.”
The Seahawks gave Wilson the job in August and by the regular season’s midpoint, the offense was clicking. Coaches kept adding to the playbook, and Wilson would often come to them with suggestions.
“Sometimes he’ll see something and he’ll come to us and ask, ‘Can we just do that?’” said offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell, “and we’ll say, ‘Okay.’”
Wilson tied Peyton Manning’s NFL record for touchdown passes by a rookie (26) and finished the season with a passer rating of 100, fourth in the NFL.
“Really, I can’t stop talking about him once you get me going because there’s so much to accentuate,” Carroll said in the days leading up to today’s playoff game. “The cool thing is he’s going to go out today and practice and he’s going to work his butt off. He’ll be the first guy out there and he’ll be the last guy off. He’ll be the first guy in the film room and he’ll be the last guy to leave the building. That’s just what he is.”
It’s a mentality instilled by his father. Family members say Harrison III passed along so much to his youngest son: resilience, faith, a strong work ethic, a positive attitude. “You can’t watch Russell play and not see his father,” said Ben Wilson, the quarterback’s uncle.
The childhood lessons are still evident, even as Wilson prepares to walk onto the biggest stage of his career. It’s difficult to remain under the radar in the playoffs, and Wilson says he’s ready for the attention and scrutiny.
“My dad used to always tell me, ‘There’s a king in every crowd,’” Wilson said. “What that means is, with my faith, God is always watching me. With my dad passing away, he’s always watching me — a big smile on his face, watching every snap on the 50-yard line. And then you never know what coach or GM is watching you. And the main thing that always stuck with me, you never know what kid is watching you, what kid wants to be like you.”