This idea, that he can accomplish anything he wants on the gridiron. We traced Russell Wilson's roots, from Richmond to Raleigh to Madison to Seattle, to figure out just how he willed himself to the top of the football world
The Patriots wanted their 15 minutes with Russell Wilson. At the 2012 NFL combine in Indianapolis, New England coach Bill Belichick was thinking about drafting a quarterback to groom behind Tom Brady, though he wouldn’t actually do so for another two years. As Wilson sat in front of Belichick, another member of the New England contingent mentioned that the team already had a pretty good quarterback. What did Wilson think about that?
He told them, “Yes I understand who he is, but I’ve competed against everyone, so if you choose to bring me in here, I’m coming to compete and coming to win the job.”
That is according to Wilson’s uncle, Ben, who doesn’t often tell that story—he doesn’t want his nephew to be mistaken for cocky.
“It wasn’t arrogance,” Ben Wilson says. “That’s just his makeup. He loves competition, and it doesn’t matter to him what he’s up against.”
If you watched that NFC Championship game two weeks ago, you know where this is going. Somehow, Russell Wilson rebounded in a flash from a four-interception afternoon and rallied his team from a 12-point deficit in the final minutes to earn a return trip to the Super Bowl. ESPN’s win probability bot gave the Seahawks a 3.9 percent chance of winning after Wilson’s fourth interception, trailing 19-7 with 5:04 left. It was pretty much impossible for Seattle to defend its Super Bowl title this week, until it wasn’t.
Wilson, by all accounts, was stoic and reserved up until he broke down in tears and thanked God after the game. It begs the question: Just how does one have such an inflated sense of what he can accomplish on a football field?
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For starters, “He’s flat,” says Seahawks quarterbacks coach Carl Smith. On second thought, Smith says, flat isn’t the right word.
“He’s level,” Smith says. “Focused, not shaken.”
The weeping after the NFC title game was the most emotion the public had seen from Wilson in the three years since Seattle drafted him in the third round and made him the opening day starter. Most of the time, he’s doing little exercises to stay level. In games, he finds a spot in the stadium to stare at in urgent moments.
“A spot in the stadium that kind of brings me back down to zero,” Wilson explains. “I always have the same spot in CenturyLink. It lets me relax. It lets me focus on the moment more than anything else.”
In the facility and in practice, he’s constantly and quietly talking to himself in odd acronyms that remind him to stay on task.
Says Smith: “He’ll be taking notes and say to himself, ‘KTN. KTN. Keep taking notes. Keep taking notes.’ ”
Matthew Rodgers, the quarterback’s assistant and son of Wilson’s agent, says he has never met anyone with more patience.
“When you’re our age you want everything now,” Rodgers says. “He can just take so much before he breaks.”
Rodgers shares another Wilson favorite: “TTT: Things take time.”
Where did Wilson get it? His older brother, Harry, has a clue: “That sounds like something my dad would do.”
Harrison Wilson III is as critical to understanding Russell Wilson as anybody. He died June 9, 2010, at age 55 from complications related to diabetes. He was a lawyer, a former Dartmouth football and baseball player, and the son of a Norfolk State University president. Harrison’s brother, Ben, is an environmental defense attorney in Washington with an office decorated wall-to-wall in sports memorabilia. He uses phrases like de rigueur in conversation and can speak as eloquently and passionately about the 1933 Negro League champions as he can about the Clean Air Act.
“A child is not born with a dream in his heart, someone has to suggest it to them,” Ben says. “Russell’s father said, ‘Russell you could do this one day. You could be a great baseball player. You could play both sports!’ And Russell believed that. He was an apt pupil.”
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Of course, Russell did play both sports. The Colorado Rockies drafted him the day before his father died, and he was pulling in six figures during minor league stints when he wasn’t in-season as N.C. State’s quarterback. The Wolfpack went 9-4 his junior season, with Wilson throwing 28 touchdowns and rushing for nine more. And then, depending on who you ask, either N.C. State coach Tom O’Brien preferred a quarterback who was all-in on football, or highly-recruited sophomore Mike Glennon threatened to transfer if Russell came back from the minors and remained the starter. Or both.
O’Brien ultimately released Wilson from his scholarship, leaving him free to transfer to any non-ACC school and play immediately. After long deliberation, Wilson picked Wisconsin over Auburn. He and best friend Scott Pickett drove from Richmond to Madison in a day, arriving at 1 a.m. The next day, Wilson got his playbook and spent the next 10 hours converting every play from every possible formation in Paul Chryst’s offense onto notecards.
“He would take them everywhere,” says Aaron Henry, a senior defensive back on the 2011 team. “This big stack, over 150 of them. And this was a very, very complicated college offense. Pro-style with a lot of motion.”
Three days later, Wilson was calling out plays in throw-and-catch sessions with incredulous wide receivers. Less than two months after he stepped foot on campus, his teammates voted him a team captain.
“He looked at it as sort of a great warmup for what he was going to have to do the next year—learn an offense in a short amount of time,” Pickett says.
Early on, Wilson took it upon himself to correct receivers on their routes down to the yard in practice.
“It was kind of an awkward situation, to have a guy come in and contribute right away,” says former Wisconsin and current Saints receiver Nick Toon, who now considers Wilson a close friend.
“I’m sure there were plenty of guys that didn’t want that direction from a new guy,” Henry says, “but at the same time we wanted a QB. Guys believe when they see a guy throw a comeback route across the field with some accuracy.”
Wilson would try this bit again a year later. After Pete Carroll named him the Week 1 starter his rookie season, Wilson started coaching up veteran wide receivers in practice. He was told to knock it off: “We worked on that aspect of his game early on,” Smith says. “Because you can’t tell a [veteran] run this route this way in front of the coaches. We told him do that in your private time with the guy. Some guys respond well to that. Other guys don’t, and if you start off like that, you could fracture the relationship forever.”
At Wisconsin, any trepidation among teammates vanished when they started winning games, including a Big Ten championship that year. Wilson became a local celebrity, and for the devout Christian who was engaged when he arrived in Madison, temptation was everywhere.
“He was a god in Madison, but he didn’t handle it like a college kid,” Henry says. “Once he started having a little bit of success you found out if God was real or not for him. Girls coming at him at 100 mph. I was with him one night and I watched him pushing girls away. Any other person would’ve taken that and ran with it.”
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Wilson’s unapologetic faith has turned heads at these never-ending pre-Super Bowl festivities. Asked if he thought God cared about football games, he responded, “I think God cares about football. I think God cares about everything he created.”
After the NFC title game, while other teammates partied, he attended late-night church services with the young, energetic pastor of a megachurch in Kirkland, Wash. Ben Wilson equates Russell’s faith to David vs. Goliath.
“Most people think that David’s first game was against Goliath,” Ben says. “He actually used the slingshot against bears and lions—he had a warmup game. And so, I think that as Russell enjoyed success, however improbable, against odds, against conventional wisdom—being told all the time he was too short—I think that gave him greater faith.
“He believes that there’s a greater force, a higher force, helping him.”
And the obstacles keep coming. Last spring he filed for divorce from now ex-wife Ashton. Since their breakup, Wilson has been evaluating his personal relationships and tightening his circle, friends say.
“He’s gone through and removed every single negative influence in his life,” Rodgers says. “He’s so careful now with who he invites around him, because he doesn’t want the slightest bit of negativity to enter his life.”
Says Wilson: “I visualize success every day. I never visualize failure. I never waver from that and I think that’s a credit to my parents.”
Success is one thing, but what Wilson did two weeks ago is something more than that. Consider the absurdity of Wilson targeting Jermaine Kearse six times that day. The first four were intercepted. The last one was planted in Kearse’s breadbasket from half a field away, the game-winner in overtime. Watching Wilson weep in the aftermath, Ben was reminded of the last time he saw his nephew cry.
He was seven years old, playing baseball in Ben’s front yard with his brother, Harry, his father, Ben and Ben’s daughter. Russell hit a bomb into the street and was sprinting around the imaginary bases. Harry (who would go on to play football and baseball at Richmond) gunned him down at home for the out. Russell burst into tears and hollered for a do-over. Then he wiped away the tears and hit another jack, further than the last.
“It’s a nice metaphor, right?” Ben says. “When he makes a mistake, he wants to correct it right there. He doesn’t want to wait until next game, next week, next practice—he wants to fix it right there.”
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