Russell Wilson had a lot to say about Tom O’Brien and N.C. State during a commencement speech the Seattle Seahawks quarterback gave at the University of Wisconsin on Saturday.
Wilson shed some new light on an old story — his exit from N.C. State in 2011 and transfer to Wisconsin — and tried to teach the graduating class: “What do you do when life tells you no?”
Wilson, the only ACC quarterback to win a Super Bowl, mocked O’Brien, his football coach with the Wolfpack from 2007 to 2010, in the process and stretched a few details about his baseball career at N.C. State.
Inexplicably, Wilson used what he called a “country voice” to imitate O’Brien when retelling the story of how Wilson left N.C. State and ended up at Wisconsin. O’Brien was born in Ohio and doesn’t have a Southern accent.
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During the speech, which was posted to YouTube by Wisconsin, Wilson went into detail about a now-famous phone call he made to O’Brien in April 2011 while Wilson was playing minor-league baseball in Rome, Ga.
“I called my football coach at N.C. State and said, ‘Hey coach, I’d like to come back for my senior year,’ ” Wilson said.
“He told me I wasn’t coming back. He said, ‘Listen son, you’re never going to play in the National Football League. You’re too small. There’s no chance. You’ve got no shot. Give it up,’ ” Wilson said in a “country voice.”
Wilson has told the story about the phone call with O’Brien before. In Feb. 2013 he told Sports Illustrated that O’Brien said: “It's time, bud. We're going to move on. You should go ahead and transfer.”
Wilson added the details about O’Brien doubting Wilson’s future in football for the first time in Saturday’s speech. While Wilson was profuse with his words during an 18-minute speech, O’Brien was more concise.
Asked if he had a response to Wilson’s version of the phone call or to Wilson’s speech, O’Brien, a Marine known for his economy of words, simply texted on Sunday morning: “Good for him.”
Both parties have been consistent in how Wilson’s exit came about. O’Brien wanted Wilson, N.C. State’s starting quarterback in 2008, ’09 and ’10, to give up baseball and concentrate on football.
Wilson, who was drafted in the fourth round by the Colorado Rockies in 2010, chose to play baseball that spring. With Mike Glennon in place — and with two years of eligibility remaining compared to one for Wilson — O’Brien chose Glennon to be his starter during spring practice in 2011.
Ironically, Wilson’s insistence on playing baseball led to his split with O’Brien and N.C. State. When Wilson got to Wisconsin in 2011, he finally gave up his baseball career.
Wilson had a stellar season at Wisconsin, throwing for 3,175 yards and 33 touchdowns leading the Badgers to 11 wins, a Big Ten title and a trip to the Rose Bowl.
When Wilson came back to N.C. State before the NFL draft, O’Brien said “it worked out for the best for everyone involved.” Wilson was taken by the Seattle Seahawks in the third round and then led them to the Super Bowl in both the 2013 and ’14 NFL seasons, beating the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII.
Glennon started for two seasons, leading N.C. State to records of 8-5 and 7-6 and was a third-round pick of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2013.
After six seasons, O’Brien was fired before N.C. State’s bowl game in 2012. He was an assistant coach at Virginia for two years before retiring to Charleston, S.C.
Wilson has been back to N.C. State regularly in the summer to run his passing academy at the football practice facility. He also came back in April 2014 to have his football jersey honored as a “Wolfpack Legend.”
He reiterated then that it wasn’t his choice to leave N.C. State.
“The plans kind of changed a little bit so I had to move on,” Wilson said before his jersey was honored. “At the same time, this school will never leave me."
During Saturday’s speech, Wilson also had some choice words about his baseball career at N.C. State. He said he was “barely playing and honestly I don’t know why” during the 2010 baseball season. He said he was frustrated about being on the bench.
N.C. State baseball coach Elliott Avent said Sunday that he didn’t take Wilson’s comments personally.
Wilson was the first-team All-ACC quarterback in 2008, his first year as the starter. He threw for more than 8,500 yards and 76 touchdowns in his three seasons with N.C. State (he redshirted as a true freshman in 2007).
He couldn’t quite duplicate his success in baseball. He hit .296 as a freshman in 2008 but his average fell to .236 in 2009 (hampered by a knee injury suffered during the football season). He had his best hitting season in 2010 with a .306 average and three home runs.
“That’s just Russell being a competitor,” Avent said. “He wanted to play more. There’s nothing more to it than that.”
Wilson was a little loose with some facts about his baseball career during the commencement speech. He told a story about how he hit a game-winning home run in extra innings to beat UC Irvine in 2010. That was true but Wilson stretched a few of the details along the way.
He said in his speech that he had about “450 to 500 at bats” during his freshman and sophomore seasons. In 2008, Wilson had 71 at bats in 32 games and in ’09 he had 72 in 27 games. He actually hit more, with 98 at bats, during the season in question in ’10.
Wilson also said N.C. State and UC Irvine were “both teams top 5 in the country,” at the time of the game. UC Irvine was ranked No. 3 but N.C. State was unranked.
Details aside, Wilson’s point was “life has a way of turning a ‘no’ into ‘yes.’ ”
“That’s what brought me to the University of Wisconsin,” Wilson said.
The crowd at Wisconsin’s Camp Randall Stadium cheered Wilson’s comments but many people back at N.C. State were left scratching their heads.
Giglio: 919-829-8938, @jwgiglio