EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — He came into the game as the other quarterback the undersized and underestimated foil to record-setting, commercial-pitching Denver Broncos star Peyton Manning.
It took only one half of Seattles 43-8 win in Super Bowl XLVIII, however, for Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson to upstage Manning on the games biggest stage, dialing up a cooler, better-orchestrated performance.
He used his underdog status as fuel, as he has done during his football career, whether related to his size (5-foot-11), his career choice (deemed better fit for baseball), his draft status (sixth quarterback selected in 2012) or his marketability (tucked away in the Pacific Northwest).
My dad used to always tell me, Russ, why not you? Wilson said. And what that meant was believe in yourself, believe in the talent God has given you even though you are 5-foot-11, and you can go a long way.
Wilson did not earn Super Bowl Most Valuable Player recognition, but he outplayed the leagues MVP, Manning, finishing with a sparkling line: 206 yards, two touchdowns, 18-of-25 passing, including 11 completions in a row during the second half. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll considered it a perfect football game.
At the end of the day, I wasnt playing Peyton Manning, Wilson said. I was doing my job and doing all the things I needed to do to help the offense move the ball down the field.
During the two weeks leading up to the game, much of the talk about Seattles offense focused on its punishing running back, Marshawn Lynch, and how Lynchs running ability could keep the pace in the Seahawks favor (and the ball out of Mannings hands).
Wilson seemed easily forgotten or dismissed, his ability framed as a game manager: competent and savvy but hardly remarkable. Analysts debated Mannings legacy, or Richard Shermans talkativeness, or Lynchs Beast Mode impact. By Sunday, did anyone remember Wilson delivered the go-ahead touchdown pass on fourth-and-7 in Seattles defeat of San Francisco in the NFC title game?
Carroll did. Sunday, he kept the ball in Wilsons hands, forgoing Lynch (who rushed for only 39 yards on 15 attempts) for his second-year quarterback, who passed 13 times during the first quarter alone.
Hes the general, teammate Percy Harvin said. I said it all week during the press conferences: I havent seen anybody prepare the way he prepares. There were three minutes on the clock, still ticking, and hes still in our face telling us, Stay ready. And were like, Man, the games pretty much over. He just wants to be great that much.
Wilson is accustomed to playing the underdog role. He was a two-star recruit coming out of the Collegiate School in Richmond, Va. His size was deemed an impediment. He played two sports at N.C. State, was drafted as an outfielder by the Colorado Rockies in 2010 and played two seasons of minor league baseball. Plenty of people pushed him to pursue baseball.
Wilson, though, chose a different route. After he had an impressive postgraduate season at Wisconsin, Seattle selected him in the third round of the 2012 draft. It was not long after the Seahawks had paid a considerable sum to sign the free agent Matt Flynn.
By August 2012, though, Wilson was starting for the Seahawks, quietly building a following while two other rookie quarterbacks Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III received the bulk of the adulation early on. A third young quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, became an overnight sensation for San Francisco en route to starting Super Bowl XLVII. But this season, Wilson with 3,357 yards passing, 26 touchdown passes and a 101.2 quarterback rating probably was better than any of them.
I had so many people telling me I couldnt do it, Wilson said. I wanted to go against the odds.
During the first half against Denver, Wilson spread the ball around to his receivers, probing for weaknesses, rarely attempting anything more than 10 yards downfield. When he did go deep like a 37-yard pass dropped right into the arms of receiver Jermaine Kearse along the left sideline during the second quarter it was a thing of beauty.
Wilsons arm continued to make plays, even with the Seahawks ahead by 29 points. He fired a touchdown pass on a short slant route by Kearse, who spun away from two defenders and ran in from 23 yards.
On the sideline, Wilson had his helmet off, his thick mass of curls looking like a tuft of black smoke. As a junior in high school, Wilson recalled last week, he grew his hair out en route to winning a state championship. In a show of solidarity, his father, Harry, grew his hair out, too.
Harry Wilson died during 2010 of complications related to diabetes. He never saw his son choose football over baseball, get drafted, win the starting job, win a Super Bowl. But Sunday, Russell Wilsons hat was off as he ran to midfield to shake Mannings hand, after winning another title.
Wilson said later, I guess Im going to have to get a haircut now.