Elliott Avent can't take his eyes off the shortstop. He oozes confidence. He's so instinctual and yet so raw. Avent, North Carolina State's baseball coach, already envisions the kid in red and black even though he's only seen him play a few innings of this 2006 tournament in Salem, Va. A fan overhears Avent and a pro scout marveling at Russell Wilson's play and offers a critical piece of information.
"Hey coach," Avent remembers the man saying. "That kid's a heckuva quarterback, too."
"Excuse me a second," Avent tells the scout.
Avent steps away and calls soon-to-be-former N.C. State football coach Chuck Amato. Do Wolfpack coaches know about Wilson, the quarterback at Collegiate School in Richmond? Yes, they do. Are they interested? Yes, they are.
That's all Avent needs. A conversation with Wilson reveals that his father, Harrison Wilson III, played football and baseball at Dartmouth. His older brother, Harry, played both sports at Richmond. Russell wants to do the same, but his height (5-foot-11) and his potentially high baseball draft position -- he projects as a star second baseman -- have scared off most college football and baseball programs. Avent and Amato agree that a tag-team recruitment might help the entire athletic department.
A little more than two years later, Wilson celebrates his 20th birthday on his back. Miami's nose tackle has just creamed him near midfield at Carter-Finley stadium, so Wilson has a horrible view as the pass he's just thrown floats into Owen Spencer's hands for a 32-yard touchdown. The score helps the Wolfpack beat Miami and caps a four-game winning streak that's taken N.C. State from 2-6 to bowl eligible. Wilson, who has started the past seven games, has changed everything. In the stands, Wilson's father -- who suffered a stroke in August 2008 that left him comatose for days -- watches live for the third consecutive game.
It's now March. Spring practice starts soon, and Wilson, the guy who changed everything, sits in an office on the N.C. State campus. The firmness of his handshake, the look in his eye and the tone in his voice suggest he could, after he turns 35 in 2023, decide to run for president. For Wilson, capturing the electorate would appear as effortless as capturing first-team All-ACC last year. After meeting him, it makes perfect sense that young Russell, barely out of sixth grade, took the wheel after his father -- who also suffers from extreme complications from diabetes -- lost consciousness while driving to a baseball tournament. Russell got his father to the hospital and disobeyed dad's orders that he leave and play in the tournament.
Wilson seems confident now even though uncertainty swirls. First, there is the knee. He tore the posterior cruciate ligament in his left knee and missed the second half of a loss against Rutgers in the PapaJohns.com Bowl. He has endured 11 weeks of rehab, and now Wilson waits for the clearance to play baseball games and practice football. When spring practice begins later this week, Wilson will juggle both sports, playing outfield in baseball because preseason All-America Dallas Poulk has second base covered.
Second, there is Wally Pipp. Wilson says the name doesn't ring a bell, but N.C. State football coach Tom O'Brien mentioned it half in jest not long ago. Offered a bit of baseball history, Wilson understands. Redshirt freshman Mike Glennon, the first quarterback O'Brien and his staff recruited to Raleigh -- they inherited Wilson, who committed to Amato -- will play Lou Gehrig in this analogy.
Third, there is the unknown. Harrison, an attorney, hasn't been able to work since the stroke. Wilson's mother, Tammy, busts her hump as a manager at a health insurance company, but mom and dad still must care for kid sister Anna, an 11-year-old softball/basketball star who may continue the Wilson two-sport legacy. Though he hasn't played the sport full-time for two years, Wilson could be a hot commodity when he's eligible for the baseball draft in June 2010. Though his parents have told him to only worry about what's best for him, he sure wouldn't mind helping them.
"Having that basis financially definitely helps, especially in my family right now," Wilson says. "That's what I have in the back of my head. My dad is sick. My mom is working hard. And they've got my little sister. I want to help them out the best I can."
Wilson means that differently than you probably think he does. The dean's list student wants to put himself in the best position to help, and he doesn't yet know whether that will be on the football field or the baseball field or whether the greatest opportunity will come in 2010, 2011 or 2012. So he will just play.
And he'll play differently than other athletic, shorter-than-preferable quarterbacks because for some reason, he throws the ball like a man six inches taller. During a five-man competition prior to last season, O'Brien marveled at how Wilson could fling a pass into a tight space with a whistling spiral. Harry, the older brother, has a few theories. "My dad was a wide receiver, and I was a wide receiver," said Harry, a 25-year-old pharmaceutical sales rep in Chicago. "We needed somebody to throw to us." So young Russell had plenty of practice. But there's another explanation for why he throws with so much more control than the fellow members of the sub-6-foot club. In 275 pass attempts last season, he threw one interception, a desperation heave with the game already out of reach. "His hands," Harry says, "are huge."
As Russell thumbs his new BlackBerry Storm, he is asked how his thumbs, which look like a lineman's, navigate the tiny touchscreen letters. "I get around on it," he says, chuckling.
O'Brien doesn't worry too much about Wilson's height. Though O'Brien didn't work at Boston College until he became head coach there in 1997, he had heard plenty about a little guy who once played for the Eagles. "There was a guy at BC named Flutie who made a pretty good living throwing it and running around," O'Brien says.
O'Brien believes he and his assistants must help Russell, whose scrambling ability keeps opposing defensive coordinators on edge, understand that sometimes the potential gain is greater if he ignores his instinct to run and waits for a receiver to spring open. "His first reaction is to take off and run -- which is not unlike any young quarterback," O'Brien says. "But if there's an opportunity to throw the ball, then he's got to trust his arm, trust the read and throw the ball. That's something we've got to help him get better at. He's been hurt three times running around."
The first injury silenced a packed stadium. During the season opener against South Carolina, Wilson ran a quarterback draw. He tucked the ball, turned and ran smack into defensive end Jordin Lindsey. Lindsey's hit drove Wilson's head into the leg of defensive end Cliff Matthews, who was rushing from the other side. Wilson lay on the turf for several minutes before being carried off on a stretcher. He suffered a concussion and sat out a win against William and Mary. He doesn't remember the injury, but he does remember how fast the game seemed before it. "When I look back at then compared to now, everything has slowed down so much," he says. "It's probably 50 percent slower."
Wilson returned the following week and split time with Nebraska transfer Harrison Beck in a loss at Clemson. The following week, things looked as though they would get worse against an East Carolina team coming off wins against Virginia Tech and West Virginia. But Wilson threw a 5-yard touchdown to George Bryan with 1:05 remaining to tie the score at 24, and Andre Brown carried twice for 26 yards and a touchdown in overtime to complete the upset.
Few knew, but Wilson had injured his shoulder against the Pirates. He missed the following week's game against South Florida, and the Wolfpack hit rock bottom with a 41-10 loss. Wilson returned as the starter against Boston College, kicking off a trio of moral victories in which N.C. State improved each week but lost every time. Finally, on Nov. 8 at Duke, everything clicked. The Wolfpack beat the Blue Devils, then edged Wake Forest at home and crushed North Carolina in Chapel Hill. By the time N.C. State beat Miami, Wilson had become the most exciting player in the ACC.
Now, he's fighting for his job. O'Brien doesn't believe in ceding jobs to veterans. "Everybody competes," he says. "They don't own the jersey. N.C. State owns the jersey." That's fine with Wilson. "It's not going to affect me at all," he says. "I'm a competitor. I want the best man to play."
So Wilson will compete, just as he did last August while his family dealt with the fallout from his father's stroke. Wilson wanted to drive home and stay by his father's bedside as he had that summer after sixth grade. His parents told him to stay in Raleigh and fight for his job. He fought and won. He believes he'll do it again. Neither his knee, the Wally Pipp factor nor uncertainty will stop him.
"I'm not really a look-down-the-road type of guy," he said. "I worry about each day. I've got a lot on my plate already right now, so I'm not really worried about that. I know the opportunities will come, and I know I've just got to keep competing and get better every day. If I do that, things will fall into place."