Column: Moral support is family tradition for Seahawks' Russell Wilson

The New York TimesJanuary 19, 2014 

— Benjamin Wilson arrived in Seattle near midnight Saturday.

Although Wilson’s nephew Russell is the Seahawks’ starting quarterback, Ben Wilson originally did not plan to attend the NFC championship game on Sunday between Seattle and San Francisco. Then he had an epiphany: This was more than a big game; this was yet another signature moment for the Wilson family tree.

“I woke up Thursday morning and said, ‘Man, you’d better be there, this may never happen again,’” Wilson said. “My brother would be there.”

He was right. Russell Wilson wasn’t great but he was clutch, leading the Seahawks past the 49ers, 23-17, and into the Super Bowl.Ben Wilson’s younger brother Harry, Russell Wilson’s father, died too soon at 55 from complications of diabetes. Since his brother’s death in 2010, Ben has been part of a sprawling familial support network for Russell, Russell’s older brother and a sister.

Ben Wilson, 62, provided moral support during his nephew’s collegiate and early professional career, flying across the country to attend games.

When Russell was at North Carolina State, Ben drove to a Richmond, Va., hospital to give his ailing brother a play-by-play account of Wolfpack games that were not televised. Diabetes had ravaged Harry’s vision, so Ben would describe Russell’s play.

Four years after Harry’s death, his son was a victory from the Super Bowl. Ben Wilson was excited yet sad.

“I’m the oldest child in the family, and Harry was the next oldest brother,” he said. “We were close.

“When you look at Russell, the physical resemblance to his dad — his mannerisms are similar; they smile and frown the same, they run the same, their expressions are the same. There is a certain melancholy. I’m excited about seeing him; at the same time, he reminds me of my brother and makes me miss my brother at the same time.”

The Wilson brothers were raised in Jackson, Miss. Their father, Harrison B. Wilson Jr., was the head men’s basketball coach and an assistant football coach at Jackson State in the 1950s. He later became the president of Norfolk State.

At Jackson State, the Wilson boys were surrounded by great athletes and outstanding coaching minds. “We beat Grambling when they had Willis Reed, beat Winston-Salem with Earl Monroe, beat Prairie View with Zelmo Beaty,” Ben Wilson recalled of his father’s basketball teams. “The football team had Willie Richardson and Lem Barney.”

Ben wound up attending Wilbraham, a prep school near Springfield, Mass., after a Jackson State English professor, while attending a conference in Connecticut, learned that Wilbraham was looking for talented African-American students.

Wilson applied, was accepted and attended after his family was able to piece together the tuition. The next stop was Dartmouth, where he made the football team and played on the 1970 squad, which went undefeated and won the Ivy League championship.

Each of Wilson’s three brothers followed his path to Wilbraham, and then Dartmouth. Harry, a receiver, was the best player by far.

“He was the Fred Biletnikoff of Hanover, the Ivy League’s Johnny Rodgers,” Wilson said.

He laughed when teased about not being able to persuade his nephew to attend Dartmouth as well. The course of Ivy League football, and certainly of Dartmouth football, might have changed significantly.

“I took him on a tour of the campus,” Ben Wilson said. “He clearly enjoyed being on the campus where his dad had been a student.”

Nevertheless, Ben Wilson isn’t so sure that Dartmouth would have been the ideal place for his nephew. “All of the doubts that were raised about Russell would have been exacerbated had he gone to Dartmouth, because people would have said, Not only is he small, but he hasn’t played against any competition,” he said. “That would have been yet another hurdle to overcome.’

In retrospect, Russell Wilson could have made it regardless of where he played. Drafted in the third round in 2012, he won the starting job as a rookie, and he has led the Seahawks to the playoffs in each of two seasons.

Ben Wilson credits Harry with instilling in Russell the kind of leadership qualities that allow individuals to soar to heights no one else thought possible.

Ben Wilson, who attended Harvard Law School after Dartmouth, lives in Washington, where he is a managing principal of Beveridge & Diamond, an environmental law firm. He derives some satisfaction from living in the heart of Robert Griffin III territory. Russell Wilson, it seemed, was never the first one mentioned last season when people spoke of rookie quarterbacks. It was the Redskins’ Griffin or the Indianapolis Colts’ Andrew Luck, Luck or Griffin, Griffin or Luck. Wilson was always third.

A year ago, in a playoff victory at Washington, Wilson gave a consummate performance, displaying a compendium of the skills that make him who he is: rushing for 67 yards, passing for a touchdown, sprinting past running back Marshawn Lynch and throwing a block that sprung Lynch for a game-winning 27 yard touchdown run.

Sunday was not one Wilson’s stellar days (he started off with a fumble). But he performed when he had to. With Seattle trailing in the fourth quarter, Wilson connected with Jermaine Kearse on a perfectly executed seam route that gave Seattle the lead for good.

“He’s a thinking man’s quarterback, a whatever-it-takes player,” Ben Wilson said. “Harry taught Russell how to play the game and how to respect the game. Russell has been on this relentless quest to win and to win the right way.”

Wilson said that while his brother would have been delighted by Russell’s victories and accolades, he would have been proudest of his son’s perseverance. Four years after his father’s death, Russell is thriving.

Now Harry Wilson’s son is Super Bowl bound.

“I know how much it meant to my brother that his children are prepared to compete at the highest level and succeed,” he said, adding: “Russell is competing and succeeding at the highest level of his profession. In my mind, he’s already achieved the goal my brother would have wanted.”

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