When Russell Wilson was a small boy, he would join his father in front of the mirror in the morning.
Harrison Wilson III would rub shaving cream on both of their faces. He'd bought Russell a razor without a blade in it, and they would "shave" together before Harrison left for work.
Telling the story brought a smile to Russell Wilson as he prepared to begin his junior season as N.C. State's quarterback. After a lengthy illness, Harrison died at age 55 on June 9, one day after Russell was selected by the Colorado Rockies in the major league draft.
N.C. State coach Tom O'Brien attended the funeral and watched Russell speak eloquently about his father. It became obvious to O'Brien at the service that Wilson would return to play football at N.C. State this season, even though he would join the Rockies organization for the summer and has his degree in communications.
O'Brien believes Russell has returned to football this season to prove he can play in the NFL after his father came within an eyelash of doing it 30 years ago. Harrison Wilson, a wide receiver, was the last player cut by the San Diego Chargers in the preseason of 1980.
Russell said that's half true.
"It is my dad's dream that I can in a way fulfill," Wilson said. "But it's also my dream."
Russell Wilson graduated in three years while playing both football and baseball at N.C. State (he's now taking post-graduate courses).
The Wilson family tree shows that Russell's academic ability, energy and poise have been passed down through generations.
His grandfather, Harrison Jr., served as president of Norfolk State for more than 20 years. Russell's grandmother, Lucy Wilson, was a professor and administrator at Old Dominion.
One of Russell's uncles, Ben Wilson, is a Harvard law school graduate and a decorated lawyer in Washington, D.C. Russell's father excelled in football and baseball at Dartmouth before attending law school at Virginia, where he met Russell's mother, Tammy, when she was an undergraduate.
"To look at his father's family and his mother's family, they're very impressive people," O'Brien said.
Harrison Wilson was the top wide receiver on a Dartmouth team with lots of talent. His teammates included linebacker Reggie Williams, who went on to play 14 years with the Cincinnati Bengals; longtime NFL kicker Nick Lowery, and Gregg Robinson, who became a New York Jets defensive lineman.
Ben Wilson said Harrison was daring, could make tacklers miss in the open field and had outstanding hands. Russell's Houdini-act, cut-across-the-field, 29-yard scoring run against Miami in 2008 reminded his uncle of the kind of plays Harrison used to make.
"When I see Russell play, I see his father," Ben Wilson said. "When I see him cut against the grain, I see his father. When I see him face second- and third-and-long and ignore a prior play that was a poor play, I see his father. There's a resilience, there's a perseverance that does not come by accident. It's a quality that is learned, and I think he learned it from his father."
Harrison Wilson also was tough. In 1976, in the second-to-last game of his Dartmouth career, Wilson separated his shoulder. He played the second half anyway against Brown, and then persevered through the season finale against Princeton to tie the school career receptions record of 65, which hadn't been equaled in 27 years.
He went on to Virginia to study law. His father knew Paul "Tank" Younger, a scout with the Chargers, and convinced him to give Harrison a tryout after his third year of law school.
To prepare, Harrison wrapped himself in plastic trash bags underneath a full sweatsuit, put boots on and ran laps around The Lawn, the historic grassy field in the middle of the original campus grounds designed by Thomas Jefferson.
"He'd beg his buddies to work out with him so he could get ready to go try out for the NFL," said Harrison Wilson IV, Russell's brother.
He got his shot at a mythical time in Chargers history and almost made it pay off.
The final cut
Harrison tried out with the Chargers of coach Don Cor yell, quarterback Dan Fouts and tight end Kellen Winslow, who were revolutionizing the NFL passing game.
Dubbed "The Professor" by his teammates because of his education and his thick glasses, Wilson caught a touchdown pass in a preseason game against the San Francisco 49ers. Nonetheless, Wilson was the final player cut from the team, Ben Wilson said.
He kept the football from the 49ers game on his mantle in Richmond, where he practiced law. It was decorated to commemorate the game with the word "Chargers" and the final score.
Russell and his brother (who later played football and baseball at Richmond) often took that football from the mantle and threw it in the front yard.
"The idea was for it not to hit the ground because Dad would be mad," Harrison IV said. "Of course, it did hit the ground, and some of that paint did come off of there, but he didn't care."
Harrison III urged his sons to treat every play in practice, even in their backyard, as preparation for a game. For Harrison IV, a wide receiver, that meant turning upfield and sprinting after he caught a pass, rather than just jogging back to the huddle.
Although Harrison III worked hard to provide for his family, he found a way to get to his sons' games. When the Collegiate School team bus pulled up to some faraway outpost such as Fork Union Military Academy, Russell's father would be waiting to greet the team.
He taught his sons to set high goals, and he didn't doubt their ability to reach them. Although Russell passed for 3,009 yards and rushed for 1,132 as a high school senior, many college coaches wondered whether he would be able to play quarterback in Division I at 5 feet 11.
"For him to succeed at this level, someone had to believe in Russell," Ben Wilson said. "That was always Harrison. He always believed in Russell."
That belief has helped Russell accomplish big things at N.C. State. Despite being burdened by the pain of his father's stroke in 2008, he beat out four other quarterbacks in preseason camp to win the starting job.
He was named first-team All-ACC as a redshirt freshman and led the ACC with 31 touchdown passes last season. When his father was too ill to come to games, Ben Wilson would attend and then visit Harrison, telling him every detail.
N.C. State's win over East Carolina in 2008, which was Wilson's first big success, excited Harrison because it proved what he'd always known about his son.
Later that season, Harrison watched proudly from a sheltered end zone seat as his son led the Wolfpack to a defeat of Wake Forest. Even as his own health deteriorated, Harrison was thrilled to see his son living out something they'd both yearned for.
"Before anyone excels at anything, someone else has to dream that for them," Ben Wilson said. "And I think Harrison dreamed for Russell. I think it's important that parents have dreams for their children. That's what I take from my brother's life."
A few months ago, Harrison was very ill, and Russell came home to Richmond to be with him. When he saw that his father's whiskers had grown out, Russell went to Westbury Pharmacy to buy an electric shaver, a razor, shaving cream and some clippers.
He lovingly cut his father's hair and shaved his face. Russell thought he looked 25 years younger. When Russell was about halfway done, Harrison asked what he was doing.
"It's Russell, Dad," Wilson said he replied.
"What are you doing, son?"
"Dad, I'm shaving your face, just like you used to do for me."
Now Russell says he is playing football for his father as well as for himself. What began as Harrison's dream has become Russell's dream.
Russell's future after this season is uncertain. He plans to play minor league baseball again next summer, and he wants to play in the NFL, too. He will be eligible to play football for N.C. State in 2011 but hasn't revealed whether he plans to do that.
What he does know is that he wants to be a Hall of Famer in football and baseball. And he will chase that goal with all his might.
"The only way to do that is to envision it in your mind and go after it and have that goal," Wilson said. "... Otherwise you're never going to do it. That's what my dad instilled in me."
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