JERSEY CITY, N.J. — Before he became quarterbacks coach with the Seahawks, Carl Smith was a keen observer of the baseball career of Russell Wilson.
Actually, it was Wilson’s teammate on the Class A Asheville Tourists, Kyle Parker, that Smith was keeping an eye upon. He had coached Parker, a prep All-American quarterback, at Bartram Trail High School in Jacksonville, and was monitoring his baseball progress as a first-round pick of the Colorado Rockies. Smith naturally picked up scuttlebutt on Wilson, who was on leave from North Carolina State to give baseball a whirl in the Rockies’ organization.
“I got word from Kyle and his dad,’’ Smith said Wednesday during the Seahawks’ media session. “With the Rockies, the Single-A team, at first they all thought Russell was phony because he wanted more ground balls every day. Then after a while, it was like, ‘Oh, he does that every day. OK.’
“He was just Russ. He was one of the guys, he fit in, and they loved him.”
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It’s a pattern that has marked Wilson’s entire athletic career: Initial skepticism, followed by overwhelming acceptance, and ultimate success.
The lone exception was baseball, but many in the Rockies organization believe that Wilson, a second baseman, would have eventually conquered that sport, as well, had he stuck with it.
“In time, with his work ethic and character, he would have made it,’’ said Joe Mukalik, Wilson’s manager with the Tourists. “It would have taken him a little longer to develop as a major-leaguer, but I had confidence he was going to get there.”
Wilson oozes a certain something that makes coaches quickly fall in love with him, and players follow his lead. He’s an overachiever who is fueled by an ardent self-belief and, like many Seahawks, thrives on the doubts of others. He may seem too good to be true with his hospital visits and film study at zero dark thirty, but after awhile, people realize that’s just Russ.
This is a guy who was the starting varsity shortstop in high school as an eighth-grader; who moved from fifth-string to starting quarterback at N.C. State as a redshirt freshman; who was voted team captain barely a month after transferring to Wisconsin; who learned the Seahawks’ playbook in two weeks (“he just put himself in a room,’’ according to offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell), beat out a high-priced free agent in Matt Flynn, and was eventually named a team captain.
Wilson has won more games in his first two seasons than any quarterback in NFL history, and helped guide the Seahawks to a Super Bowl. Not bad for a guy who was deemed too short for the NFL — but not by the Seattle brain-trust of John Schneider and Pete Carroll, who became the latest to be beguiled by the Wilson aura.
“You see him on film, he has that class about him, that calmness,’’ said NFL Network analyst Brian Billick, who won a Super Bowl coaching the Baltimore Ravens.
“I was there at the combine when he weighed and measured. Everybody loved Russell Wilson, not just the Seahawks. Everybody. They all said ‘Drew Breesesque.’ And then he stepped on that scale, and when the guy yelled out, ‘5-10 and a quarter,’ there was an audible groan in the room. Like, oh, you’re kidding me. I thought he was at least. …”
The Seahawks didn’t back off, and Wilson’s success means the long-standing stigma against short QBs will likely by held in abeyance by NFL evaluators. Billick points however, that the unique qualities that allow Wilson to thrive despite his size may not be shared by those whose trail he will blaze.
“There’ll be a whole bunch of sub-6 foot guys that they’ll say, ‘OK, he’s Russell Wilson-like.’ They’ll come into the league and they’ll fail for all the reasons the others have,’’ Billick said. “This guy has put that unique combination of abilities together.”
It’s what made the notoriously grumpy Jon Gruden go giddy on Wilson after his “QB Camp” appearance before the draft.
“I think last year Russell Wilson had the ‘it’ factor unlike any quarterback I’ve met,’’ Gruden told reporters in a conference call last year. “His intangibles weren’t excellent; they were off-the-chart excellent.”
It’s what made his Wisconsin coach, Bret Bielema, tell anyone who would listen, immediately after the draft, that Wilson would wind up winning the Seahawks starting job.
He inspires faith in others because of his fierce faith in himself — which springs largely from his religious faith. Wilson said Wednesday that he quit baseball to focus on football after waking up one morning —he pinpointed the date as June 28 — and hearing a voice in his ear that said, ‘Go against the odds.’”
He thrives on the “Three Ps’’ his father taught him early: Perseverance, purpose and perspective. You could add a fourth P that may be huge on Sunday: Poise.
In Wilson’s case, it comes from knowing he’s prepared himself to the greatest extent possible — up to and including attending last year’s Super Bowl mainly to find out what it’s all about, just in case.
Poise, Wilson said Wednesday, has always been a strength of his.
“But when you have a game like this and all the cameras are going on, and all the excitement that you’ve been working your whole life to get there, your nerves will be up a little bit. Just turn them down a little bit,’’ he said.
Wilson’s gift is that he can do that while managing not to mute the motivation he gets from all the slights along the way. In that, former NFL and college coach Steve Mariucci, now an NFL Network analyst, compares him to Tom Brady and Kurt Warner, fellow quarterbacks drafted low (Brady) or not at all (Warner).
“There’s a certain drive these guys have that’s a little different than the next guy. It just is,’’ Mariucci said. “You can see where a team would gravitate to his leadership.”
On Sunday, the Seahawks hope to gravitate behind Wilson all the way to a Super Bowl title.
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org