NEW YORK — Sometime before the NFL season began, Russell Wilson was rummaging through old photographs, stopping at one that made him smile.
There he was, a high school junior at the Collegiate School in Richmond, Va., with his father, Harrison Wilson, at his side. The Cougars had won the state championship in football that season, and for kicks, Russell and his dad had grown out their hair as the ride kept going.
“It kind of inspired me,” said Wilson, who again let his hair grow this season, which will end with the Super Bowl.
When the picture was taken, Wilson was a football and baseball player for Collegiate, a young man divided between two loves and an ambition to someday play both sports professionally. After his senior season, the Baltimore Orioles drafted him in the 41st round to play second base, offering a $1 million contract. He considered it, knowing he’d be trading his football dreams for money. Instead, his dad — known as Harry — asked him to make a promise that would alter football history: attend college and graduate, playing both his beloved sports. Professional sports, he told him, could wait.
Harry Wilson, the son of educators, was living with adult-onset diabetes. His vision was disappearing and his health was deteriorating. But he wanted his son to earn his degree. Russell had heard for years about how the family valued education and about Harry’s father, who was once the president of Norfolk State University and whose sons had become attorneys. With an education, Harry told his son, who knew what greater opportunities — bigger even than a million-dollar bonus — were possible?
Young Russell agreed, making the pledge and turning down the Orioles. And like when they let their hair grow, the father and son could experience this together, too. He signed in 2007 to attend North Carolina State, where he’d play baseball and football, beginning an unexpected journey to the Seattle Seahawks and the Super Bowl.
“Harry planted a dream in Russell’s mind,” said Ben Wilson, Harry’s brother and an attorney in Washington. “And now we’re all watching it come to fruition.”
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The brothers occasionally traveled to Raleigh, N.C., Ben leaving his home in Washington and picking up Harry on their way to watch Russell.
When Harry’s disease sunk its teeth in, his eyes no longer working, they’d sit at Carter-Finley Stadium with Ben describing the action to his brother — his ears still worked fine.
“He could just tell by the roar of the crowd,” Ben recalled.
When Russell was a redshirt freshman, the Wolfpack football team played Wake Forest, and Ben Wilson told his brother about the 152 passing yards, the quick scrambles out of the pocket, and that pretty touchdown pass in the end zone near the Murphy Football Center.
Other times, when Harry was hospitalized, Ben sat in his room and described how Russell had played. Harry would slip occasionally into a coma, and once the doctor said the end was near; even if he regained consciousness, he’d never be the same. Harry awoke anyway, and several weeks later, he was walking again.
Russell, meanwhile, was becoming a dependable and exciting player. He led the Wolfpack to five wins in each of his first two football seasons, and he was named the Atlantic Coast Conference’s rookie of the year. When baseball season began, he pitched and played outfield. Professional scouts noticed his instincts and athleticism, reporting to their organizations that Wilson was a natural leader who seemed mature and thoughtful beyond his years.
On June 8, 2010, Wilson was again eligible for the MLB draft. This time, the Colorado Rockies selected him in the fourth round, and Wilson drove to Richmond to tell his dad. Harry was again unconscious, but Russell leaned down and told him the good news anyway. And this time, he was going to sign to play pro baseball.
A day later, Harry died at age 55. That night, Wilson went to a batting cage and took a few swings.
“Athletics,” Ben Wilson said this past week, “were refuge.”
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Wilson played in 32 minor league games in 2010, and a few months later, he opted to play baseball rather than participate in N.C. State’s spring practices.
Wolfpack Coach Tom O’Brien and his staff, uneasy with their quarterback’s decision to split his time, asked Wilson to commit full-time to football. Wilson refused, and O’Brien named Mike Glennon — now the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ starting quarterback – the starter. Wilson was eventually released from his scholarship to N.C. State, and because he had graduated in three years, fulfilling the balance of the promise he had made to his dad by completing his degree in broadcasting and communications, he was free to transfer and play immediately.
“Russell went his way,” O’Brien, now an assistant coach at Virginia, told reporters last week during a conference call. “We had to make a decision best for N.C. State. The best news is, it worked out for both kids.”
Wilson signed with Wisconsin, but after batting .228 with three home runs and 15 stolen bases with the Class A Asheville Tourists in 2011, he quit baseball and repaid much of his signing bonus. He had been an interesting baseball prospect, but his devotion to two sports had already cost him in football; now it was clear his swing hadn’t developed because he didn’t practice baseball year-round.
“I decided: What do I want to do with the rest of my life?” Wilson said. “I had this passion, I had this fire to play the game of football. And I knew that I could do it.”
Still, he said this week that he learned poise during those two seasons; living the life of a pro athlete had matured him, he said. He was a steady leader that fall for the Badgers, who started 6-0 with Wilson as their starting quarterback, and they finished 11-3, winning the Big Ten and playing in the Rose Bowl.
Wilson attended the 2012 NFL Scouting Combine, and he was seen as a risky choice because of his 5-foot-11 frame. He had the misfortune of being draft-eligible during the wrong year, it seemed; Stanford’s Andrew Luck, Baylor’s Robert Griffin III and Texas A&M’s Ryan Tannehill were that year’s headliners. Wilson slipped to the third round, where Seattle selected him. He beat out Matt Flynn to become the Seahawks’ starter, and after leading his team to the playoffs as a rookie, Wilson is the first member of that star-filled 2012 draft class to reach the Super Bowl.
“So many people told me I couldn’t, and to be here now proves that to all the kids that you can,” Wilson said this week. “You can do whatever you want to do.”
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This past December, pro baseball teams received a thick printout with hundreds of names, those of players eligible for the Rule 5 draft. Most of the players are journeymen with little chance of contributing to a big league club; others are interesting for various reasons.
“An opportunity to be creative,” said Josh Boyd, the Texas Rangers’ director of pro scouting.
Wilson’s name was on the 2013 list, and the Rangers highlighted it among the first. Boyd was among the team’s representatives who sold the idea of selecting Wilson to general manager Jon Daniels. The Rangers, who had scouted and admired Wilson in high school, took him in the Class AAA phase of the Rule 5 draft, paying $12,000 to acquire his baseball rights from the Rockies.
Boyd said the Rangers, if circumstances were different, would see Wilson as a second baseman. But the reality, he said, is that the team has few expectations he’ll resume his baseball career; rather, Boyd said, the Rangers simply wanted to be aligned with such an influential player. Maybe he’ll visit the team during spring training, telling young players about leadership and doing what they believe in, even if the choices aren’t obvious — choices Wilson once made that have somehow worked out.
“We saw a unique opportunity, whether he plays or even takes batting practice or anything, he’s part of the Texas Rangers organization,” Boyd said. “It’s kind of exciting to think about, if it’s a 10- or 15-minute deal, or if it becomes more than that.”
For his part, the 25-year-old Seahawks quarterback chuckled this past week when he was asked whether he’d spend spring training in Surprise, Ariz., at the Rangers’ complex. “I haven’t thought about it at all,” he said.
Then Wilson, surrounded by cameras and microphones, Seattle’s biggest star on sports’ biggest stage, smiled and fielded more questions. Moments like this, Ben Wilson said, were the kind his late brother imagined when he asked Russell to make his promise seven years ago.
“There’s more to Russell than athletics. I think that’s what Harry wanted. And he knew that Russell would grow in college as a person, and he did,” the quarterback’s uncle said. “He used the dreams of his father to drive himself, to live up to the dream that his father had for him.”