Standing tall: Can Russell Wilson surprise us again?

jgiglio@newsobserver.comFebruary 1, 2014 

  • Wilson’s college work

    Season

    School

    Record

    TD passes

    Yards

    2008NCSU6-7171,995
    2009NCSU5-7313,027
    2010NCSU9-4283,563
    2011Wisconsin11-3333,175

  • Draft redo?

    Russell Wilson was the sixth quarterback taken in the 2012 NFL draft. He has gone 24-8 as a starter with the Seahawks, best in the class. Here’s a look at what the first five have done:

    PickPlayerTeamAt a glance
    1Andrew LuckColts22-10, two playoff appearances
    2Robert Griffin IIIRedskins12-16, battled knee injuries
    8Ryan TannehillDolphins15-17 as two-year starter
    22Brandon WeedenBrowns5-15, lost his starting job
    57Brock OsweilerBroncosPeyton Manning’s backup

Two of Russell Wilson’s favorite words are “no” and “can’t.”

Tell the Seattle Seahawks quarterback he can’t win Super Bowl XLVIII Sunday night against the Denver Broncos. That’s what he wants to hear.

Doubted and overlooked at every stage of his football career, the 25-year-old N.C. State graduate has gotten to the biggest stage by proving the so-called experts wrong at every turn.

Given the pattern of Wilson’s success and perseverance, it seems all it would take for Wilson to lead the Seahawks to their first Super Bowl title is for enough people to doubt him.

“For me, that’s kind of how I’ve always been,” Wilson told reporters Wednesday at a Super Bowl news conference in northern New Jersey. “If someone tells me, ‘No,’ I’m going to try to do the best I can to prove them wrong and more for myself than anyone else.”

Wilson has heard “no” a lot, from high school in Richmond, Va., to his four years at N.C. State, his one season at Wisconsin, then before he was drafted by the Seahawks in the third round in 2012, and even after he got to the NFL.

But to the football and baseball coaches and former teammates who know him best, none of his success – even as he tracks toward NFL stardom – comes as a surprise. Not with Wilson’s combination of work ethic and determination.

“This is no fluke,” said Dana Bible, Wilson’s quarterback coach at N.C. State. “Russell was successful in high school, he was successful in college and now he’s successful in the pros because there’s substance to him and his character, and because he has God-given talent, and he has put in a lot of effort to make that talent better.”

‘Exception to the norm’

At 5-foot-11, Wilson is about 4 inches short of what most teams look for in a quarterback.

Shorter quarterbacks, such as New Orleans’ Drew Brees or Minnesota’s Fran Tarkenton in the 1970s, rarely get a chance to play in the NFL, let alone excel. Peyton Manning, Wilson’s counterpart in the Super Bowl, is listed at 6-5. Joe Flacco, who led Baltimore to the Super Bowl win last year, is 6-6.

With a win Sunday night, Wilson would be the shortest quarterback to win the Super Bowl.

Quarterbacks are supposed to be tall so they can throw over the offensive line and they can stand in the pocket and take the defense’s punishment.

“Clearly,” said receiver Nick Toon, a teammate of Wilson’s at the University of Wisconsin, “Russell’s the exception to the norm.”

Wilson has always been the exception, said Charlie McFall, his high school football coach.

McFall remembers the most popular question from college coaches who came to recruit Wilson at Collegiate School in Richmond: “Do you think he can play defensive back?”

McFall always gave the same answer: “He can play anywhere, but he’s a quarterback.”

McFall said most college recruiters overlooked what they couldn’t measure. Wilson was so self-motivated and such a strong leader that when he put in extra work, his teammates followed.

“It was like nobody wanted to let him down,” McFall said. “We didn’t have to say anything to anybody. We called it ‘The Russell Factor.’ 

Those qualities grew. He was at Wisconsin in 2011 for three weeks before his new teammates voted him captain.

“He’s intelligent and a hard worker,” Toon said. “It’s easy to like him and easy to respect him. That’s not something that can be manufactured.”

It also doesn’t show up in scouting reports.

Scout.com gave Wilson a two-star ranking (the lowest it gives) and rated him as the 67th-best quarterback in his high school senior class (Carolina Panthers bust Jimmy Clausen was No. 1).

Even after Wilson led Collegiate to three consecutive independent state titles, McFall couldn’t sell most schools on his quarterbacking ability.

The University of Virginia didn’t want the Richmond prep star, the University of North Carolina liked Wilson but already had a commitment from Mike Paulus, a four-star recruit who was ranked the fourth-best quarterback in the class. UNC, then coached by John Bunting, had hoped to persuade Wilson to play defense.

Marc Trestman, then the offensive coordinator at N.C. State, saw what McFall saw in Wilson.

“You know a quarterback when you see a quarterback,” McFall said. “Russell was a born quarterback.”

Wilson never got to play Virginia, but he never lost against UNC. He went 3-0 vs. the Tar Heels, and his performances in the 2009 and 2010 games rank among the best in the history of the rivalry.

The Wilson Way

Trestman, now head coach of the NFL’s Chicago Bears, didn’t get to coach Wilson at N.C. State. Bible and Tom O’Brien, who replaced Chuck Amato after the 2006 season, did.

It didn’t take long for Wilson to impress O’Brien.

“You knew you had a special young man,” O’Brien said.

Those traits were obvious when Wilson beat out four other quarterbacks for the starting job in 2008, his redshirt freshman season, and went on to be ACC Rookie of the Year and first-team All-ACC.

Elliott Avent, who coached Wilson with N.C. State’s baseball team, noticed the same determination.

“Russell has always defied what people expect of him because of the expectations he has had for himself,” Avent said.

Those traits go back to the strength of Wilson’s family and the way he was raised, McFall said.

Wilson’s father, Harrison III, was an accomplished lawyer in Richmond before his death in 2010. He played football and baseball for Dartmouth and then went to law school at University of Virginia, where he met Russell’s mother, Tammy.

Wilson’s grandfather, Harrison Jr., served as president of Norfolk State for more than 20 years. His grandmother, Lucy Wilson, was a professor at Old Dominion. One of Wilson’s uncles, Ben Wilson, graduated from Harvard law school and is a lawyer in Washington, D.C.

Wilson’s brother, Harrison IV, played baseball and football at the University of Richmond. McFall remembers Harrison Wilson taking his sons out for early morning practices at Collegiate School, with Russell as the quarterback and Harry running routes.

“I give a ton of credit to his dad,” McFall said. “His relationship with Russell was really, really special. I’d see them on the field, running those morning routes, and it wasn’t him pushing his sons but it was a teaching-type thing. His dad was always positive. He was the epitome of the type of parent you wanted as a coach.”

Following his dreams

Wilson’s gift from his father was more than just the ability to throw a football or hit a baseball. His dad taught him to focus on dreams, and not just chase them, but fulfill them.

“It was a mission. What else would you call it?” Avent said. “He knew what he wanted to do, and nobody was going to get in his way about it.”

At N.C. State, Wilson played football and baseball and graduated in three years. On June 8, 2010, he was drafted by the Colorado Rockies. The next day, his father, only 55, died of diabetes-related complications.

“His dad meant everything to him,” Avent said.

Baseball was part of Wilson’s dream. He played in the Rockies’ farm system in the summer of 2010. He returned to N.C. State and led the football team to a 9-4 record and top 25 finish in 2010.

Wilson had an outstanding junior season, but O’Brien wanted his quarterback to skip baseball and come to spring practice. Wilson wasn’t done with baseball, and chose another season in the Rockies’ system. O’Brien chose backup Mike Glennon, a 6-6 pocket passer who had two years remaining.

Before Wilson and O’Brien split, O’Brien tried to help Wilson, who was eligible for the NFL draft, get an invitation to the league’s combine, where potential players are evaluated.

Even after three successful seasons at N.C. State, the NFL asked O’Brien if Wilson would be willing to try out with the receivers.

“We couldn’t get him an invitation,” O’Brien said. “The NFL didn’t want him.”

Wilson didn’t want to leave N.C. State, and he was hurt by O’Brien’s decision, but he has since said it was a “blessing in disguise” to go to Wisconsin. Wilson flawlessly picked up Wisconson’s offense in a matter of weeks, which impressed NFL scouts.

Then he was outstanding on the field. He set single-season records for touchdown passes and helped Badgers win 11 games, the Big Ten title and a spot in the Rose Bowl. The NFL combine invitation came, but there were still doubts.

Underrated, again

In the run-up to the 2012 NFL draft, which was considered one of the best for quarterbacks, Wilson’s height inspired more “nos” and “can’ts.”

“Wilson is this year’s big-time question mark at quarterback,” reads the scouting report on NFL.com.

Wilson was given a 68.5 pre-draft grade from NFL.com. According to the NFL’s scale, that’s merely a “draftable player.”

Undeterred by the skepticism, a week before the draft, Wilson returned to Raleigh and boldly predicted: “Hopefully, I can play 12, 15 years and win a couple of Super Bowls.”

The Seahawks, who already had spent $16 million on free-agent quarterback Matt Flynn, took a chance on Wilson in the third round. Wilson was the 75th pick, the sixth quarterback picked.

But just like at Collegiate and N.C. State and Wisconsin, Wilson quickly won the starting job.

In two years, Wilson has won 24 regular season games as Seattle’s starter. No quarterback since 1967 has won more in their first two seasons.

With one more win, in the Super Bowl, he’ll be where always he dreamed. Just where everyone said he couldn’t be. Just where he predicted.

Giglio: 919-829-8938

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