John Lok / The Seattle Times
They were only moments, passing quietly through a busy childhood, but over time they revealed a harsh reality.
In the corner of the kitchen, next to a door, the Wilson family selected a wall on which to track their children’s height. It wasn’t much of a wall actually, a four- or five-inch-wide sliver surrounded by cabinets, but Tammy and Harrison Wilson decided it was the perfect spot.
For years, they put a kid’s back against the little wall, raised a ruler to the top of his or her head and used a pencil to sketch a line accompanied by one of three initials: H, A or R. When they moved in 2008, they decided to leave behind all the markings on the wallpaper, like etchings in a cave.
An observant eye would have noticed something, though. The measurements tagged with the letter R had ended prematurely before the move.
Russell Wilson cagily made himself 6-1 on the highlights he shipped to recruiters following his sophomore year of high school. Later, he pleaded with his coach to list him at 6-0 on the official game roster.
But the wall in the kitchen never lied. By his junior season, Russell and his family stopped charting his height.
He didn’t want to know anymore.
Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times
They all want something. The boy wiggled in the front row holding a Sharpie and football that barely fits under his arm. The grown man behind him who keeps shouting a never-ending chorus of “Russell! Russell!” The middle-aged woman who doesn’t appear to have anything to sign except her Seahawks shirt. They crane forward, hold out footballs and jerseys, yell, call his name, beg almost.
On the field below, inside Tacoma’s Cheney Stadium, stands Wilson, the center of their universe at the moment. More than seven thousand fans pack the minor-league baseball stadium 63 days before the season opener for Richard Sherman’s celebrity softball game, and a large number decide to stick around for a chance at a more intimate moment. A signature. A high-five. Even eye contact.
This season, Wilson moves from underdog darling to front-runner, an inevitable metamorphosis after his rookie year. How he carries that weight, how he handles adjusted definitions of failure and success, could mean as much as his on-field preparation.
“He’s dug himself a big hole,” says former North Carolina State teammate Owen Spencer, “but that’s where he’s supposed to be. The next question is, What about next year? Can he repeat? Is he going to hit the wall, or is he going to do something that will make the media question his whole persona?”
By 5 p.m. at Cheney Stadium, though, it’s time to leave and Wilson makes his way down the three dugout steps. Arms holding out jerseys and footballs form a tunnel. As he moves up a hallway toward a door marked “authorized personnel only,” one man drops a football onto the concrete floor, a final effort to get Wilson to sign.
And then, seconds later, Russell Wilson is gone.
Here’s a Senior Bowl story: Daniel Jeremiah is a scout with the Philadelphia Eagles at the time. One of the players he’s assigned to talk to is Russell Wilson. Scouts are supposed to ask players for their agent’s name and number after interviews, but this time is different. Wilson asks Jeremiah for his number. That has never happened. By the time he drives back to his hotel, a text is waiting: “Mr. Jeremiah, thanks for visiting with me. I enjoyed our talk, and I know I can help the Eagles win.” Jeremiah is blown away. “Now,” he says, “I hate the fact that because he came in under 5-11, I dropped my personal grade to the third round.”
Wilson and Spencer used to go to a Chinese restaurant in Raleigh called Red Dragon. Most of the time they wouldn’t wear N.C. State gear. The idea was to detach from football, even if only for a quick meal.
“But in my mind, he was always thinking about football,” Spencer says. “Always, always, always. It was like a cologne. He just had it on him.”
Now that singular focus will be tested by the soaring expectations placed on his team and himself. He enters a crossroads of his pro career. He’s not only expected to be better from a year ago but guide his team to the Super Bowl.
Rarely has so much been asked of a quarterback so quickly.
In August last year, not long before coach Pete Carroll named him the team’s starter, Wilson called Seattle Children’s hospital. He introduced himself to the staff on the other end because they didn’t really know who he was.
Eve Kopp from Seattle Children’s remembers her reaction: “Who’s this guy? Here’s another player that basically wants to look at the kids like a zoo and come visit once and then renege on his offer.”
Wilson upheld his end of the agreement every Tuesday last season. This year, in a sign of the times, he has already filmed segments with ESPN from inside the hospital. What’s easy to overlook are the commitments, let alone the demands, saddled on Wilson. There are team meetings, practices, film study sessions, interviews with local media, interviews with national media, public appearances, youth camps and endorsement obligations.
“When he brought his wife the last time before Christmas,” Kopp says, “that was going to be the only time he and his wife were going to have dinner that week together. They were asking for a restaurant nearby so we told them to go to Jak’s Grill, which is about two blocks away and that was literally the only dinner they were going to have together that week.”
When Mike Holmgren, the former Seahawks coach, met Wilson, Holmgren emphasized two points. The first: Learn to say no. Wilson will be flooded with speaking requests, endorsements, all the extra attention that comes with hype. He will need to pick his moments judiciously. The second point won’t materialize until the season actually starts.
“The challenge for you,” Holmgren told him, “will be how you handle things when they don’t go just according to plan next year.”
Not everyone is convinced of Wilson’s imminent stardom. In June, ESPN.com’s Jeffri Chadiha wrote, “Of all the young star quarterbacks coming off breakout seasons, he still has more to prove than any of his peers.” Wilson didn’t face the national scrutiny of Robert Griffin III, the pressure of replacing Peyton Manning like Andrew Luck or the controversy that surrounded Colin Kaepernick’s midseason insertion. Chadiha quoted an anonymous quarterbacks coach, who said: “I like the kid, but he also was playing with a top-five defense and a top-five running game. It helps a lot when you don’t have to throw the football 35 times a game.”
A myth surrounds Wilson and his height.
His appeal, the common thinking goes, is his every-man quality. He’s shorter than 6 feet, either our height or in many cases smaller. He looks like us. Not only that but he didn’t get drafted until the third round and look how well he’s doing.
As former North Carolina State coach Tom O’Brien said, Wilson is “an American success story.”
But Wilson’s true appeal is that he’s so much different. He has managed to give off the Average Joe vibe, and therefore we like him even more, but in reality he is not.
Tyler Brosius, a backup quarterback at N.C. State, made the same mistake. Growing up in North Carolina, he heard all about the blossoming legend of Russell Wilson. “Pretty much a religious icon if you can believe that,” he says.
Brosius showed up in the summer and worked out with the other incoming freshmen. He didn’t catch a glimpse of Wilson, a junior, until the quarterback jogged onto the practice field the first day of camp.
“Excuse my French,” Brosius says, “but I was like, ‘Oh [expletive], this is Russell? This guy is Russell Wilson?’ I was looking over No. 16 to see if Russell was going to come behind him, like no way is this kid THE Russell Wilson everyone drools over.”
He laughs. “And then as soon as the first couple snaps happened, I said, ‘This is Russell Wilson.’”
Wilson is the shortest quarterback in the league at 5-11, and only two other starters – Michael Vick and Drew Brees – check in under 6 feet 1. Of the 131 quarterbacks listed on the NFL.com’s database, only Seneca Wallace joins Wilson as a sub-6-footer.
But the idea of Wilson as a guy beating the odds is misleading.
“He has gifts,” says Dana Bible, Wilson’s offensive coordinator at N.C. State. “He is not an overachiever. He’s not somebody that’s made something out of nothing. That’s not the story at all.”
Gerry Broome / The Associated Press
Then there’s this: Wilson couldn’t get invited to the NFL combine. Not after he decided to leave North Carolina State with one year of eligibility left. O’Brien and his staff reached out to old contacts. They called coaches. They called general managers.
“We called everybody,” O’Brien said. “They said he was a wide receiver – at best.”
Wilson was invited to the combine after his year at Wisconsin, but the questions didn’t let up. In the days before the draft, there were stories wondering if he would get drafted at all or if he should focus on baseball.
To hear people around the game talk about Wilson now is to hear them talk about how talented he was, how he had all the immeasurables but just not the most obvious measurable: his height. The common line is that they had no one to compare him to, and so they dropped his pre-draft grades despite liking everything else about him.
What they saw, they insist, were the tools to be a good quarterback, height be damned.
A frequent knock on short quarterbacks is that they lack arm strength. Wilson’s arm is big enough to make all the throws, like the off-balance 50-yard strike he threw to Doug Baldwin against the Patriots last year.
“It’s like a golfer on the PGA Tour who’s 5-9, 170 pounds but hits the ball 350 yards,” says Rich Gannon, a former NFL quarterback.
The other knock on short quarterbacks: They can’t see over linemen to read the field and get too many balls batted down. Wilson has never struggled in that area.
“He’s so good at finding throwing lanes,” Brosius says. “You can be 6 feet 10 and still throwing into the linemen. It’s all about throwing lanes, and he knows the game so well and so naturally that he can just scoot over and find that throwing lane. It’s beautiful actually watching him play.”
He is fast enough that many colleges recruited him as a defensive back, but he is a quarterback who can run and not a running quarterback. He was an intriguing enough baseball player that the Colorado Rockies drafted him in the fourth round. And he has giant hands.
Around the time the Wilson family stopped measuring his height, they started measuring hand size, and it wasn’t long before his hands outgrew those of his dad and older brother. “I’m 6 foot 5,” says Mark Palyo, an assistant coach at Collegiate when Wilson played. “And when you shake his hand, it engulfs yours.”
When he does take off running, he is shifty enough to make linebackers miss and smart enough to avoid big hits. He slides when he needs to and steps out of bounds along the sideline, all subtleties people in the game point to as maturity: A healthy Russell Wilson is far more valuable than a banged-up one who fought for a couple extra yards.
“He never takes off the same way,” says NFL Network analyst Charles Davis. “He’s like a chess player who is always a few moves ahead.”
Leigh Steinberg, the former super-agent who represented franchise quarterbacks Troy Aikman, Warren Moon and Drew Bledsoe, draws a comparison to another one of his old clients: Steve Young.
From the on-site studio at the Senior Bowl, NFL Network analyst Charles Davis notices something strange. “Hey,” Davis punches in to his producer, “do you have a camera on Russell Wilson when he isn’t in?” Here’s what Davis and the cameras see: Every time Wilson isn’t in, he pretends to take a snap and mirror the play behind the line of scrimmage at half speed. Bootlegs, handoffs, toss sweeps, pass plays. Davis has never seen that. “That leadership thing? It’s real,” he says. “There’s an extra charisma gene he carries around that most of us don’t have.”
After going 2-12 in inaugural season, Seahawks set then-record for most wins (5) by a second-year expansion team.
After leading Seattle to AFC title game, Krieg started all next season and made the Pro Bowl.
Set NFL rookie records for attempts, completions and yards, but struggled after that.
Tacoma native guided the Seahawks to AFC West title in 1999 before losing his grip on the starting job.
John Lok / The Seattle Times
Wilson and veteran quarterback Brady Quinn spent many early mornings this offseason preparing for the game before the snap.
Live, to most viewers, a play appears to be one cluster of movement. The quarterback’s job is to decipher much of the action before it ever happens. The talk about quarterbacks tends to focus on their ability to make progressions, to look from receiver A to B to C. But rarely do they have enough time to do that.
The key, Eli Manning once said, is to eliminate receivers before the ball is even snapped.
Quinn says quarterbacks have a protocol, a list of objectives they must quickly run through when they break the huddle. The reason Wilson has been successful so far, Quinn says, is that he’s been so thorough in his preparation, so repetitive in practice, he doesn’t leave much to chance.
“The game is all about leverage,” Quinn says. “What you’re looking for is leverage, the guys who should win based on their route and where the leverage is with that defender. There are certain guys where you’re able to say, ‘I’m not going to look there’ before the snap.
“You have one, two seconds and then you’re running or something is happening. It’s hard to really get through a complete progression with the type of athletes you’re seeing up front nowadays. But there’s no hesitation with Russell because he knows he’s right in the protocol.”
By now, the stories of his work ethic and drive have entered a near hyperbolic status.
At Wisconsin, he carried a ring of note cards so when he had five minutes before an interview, he could study plays. When he talked with former NFL coach Jon Gruden on ESPN before the draft, he said he arrived at Wisconsin on July 1 and expected to learn the Badgers’ offense by July 21. “You know what?” former offensive coordinator Paul Chryst says. “He did.”
After an exhibition game at Kansas City last year, the Seahawks returned to the team’s facility in Renton in the early morning. While most players quickly headed for their cars, Wilson studied film for a couple hours as the equipment staff toiled away.
Brosius, one of Wilson’s understudies at N.C. State, noticed Wilson didn’t seem to do as well at practice as he did in games. His theory: He was using that time to process everything a step slower so when it was time to play, he could let his training and instincts take over.
John Lok / The Seattle Times
There’s a story Annabelle Myers, the sports information director at N.C. State, likes to tell. Not long after the NFL draft, Wilson sent her a text message. In it, he told her he would win the starting job and be named rookie of the year. But before Myers passes along the text, which she has saved on her phone, she wants to check with someone first.
“I want to ask Russell,” she says. “I don’t want to do anything that would embarrass him, so let me ask him if that’s OK. He’s so humble. That sounds kind of like an oxymoron because he’s bragging and then he’s humble, but that’s just not how it was intended.”
There’s a sense that Wilson is always prepared, always on. Boring, Myers calls him. The next time he slips up in an interview or in public will be the first time – and a shock to those who have spent significant time around him.
“Russell is very sweet, but he’s not easy to get to know,” Myers says. “He’s the nicest guy you’ll ever meet, but I don’t know if a whole lot of people ever get close to him.”
His teammates in Seattle have plenty of fun with his stonewall demeanor. There’s even a hilarious segment from last season on “The Real Rob Report,” the inside-the-locker-room show filmed by fullback Michael Robinson, in which offensive lineman John Moffitt begins a quest to find out if Wilson is a robot. The hunt ends with Moffitt discovering electrical tape, a screw driver and paint that Moffitt says “could be his skin tone” inside Wilson’s locker.
“You know,” Myers says, “he’s the kind of guy who if he didn’t do everything the right way, I’m not sure other guys would like him very much.”
Courtesy Collegiate School
Yet either because of all that or despite it, there’s something magnetic about him, people will tell you.
In his one season at Wisconsin, Wilson cultivated a fan base so devoted many still eagerly track his progress. “There are two guys in this state who walk on water,” says Brian Lucas, Wisconsin’s director of athletic communications. “J.J. Watt and Russell Wilson.” Watt, a star defensive lineman for the Houston Texans, grew up in Wisconsin. Wilson was there six months.
Brosius, who spent a year with Wilson and doesn’t keep in touch with him, goes a step further: “I feel honored to say that I actually played football with Russell Wilson.”
But there’s an underlying truth to all of this: None of it matters if Wilson doesn’t win.
As soon as N.C. State beats rival North Carolina, Wilson turns and flings the ball into the student section. And then it hits him: There’s someone who deserves the ball more. Bible, the offensive coordinator, isn’t on the sideline or in the press box. He’s in a North Carolina hospital. The Friday before, doctors told him he had cancer. Leukemia. When Wilson realizes his mistake, he sends staffers into the stands to retrieve the ball, then gives it to Bible, although Bible isn’t exactly sure how it gets to him. “I should know that,” he says, his voice tightening. “I just know that for the last three or four years that ball wasn’t five feet from me every day. And it had very little to do with beating North Carolina. It had everything to do with being a part of a North Carolina State team.”
At his passing academy on the campus of the University of Washington in July, a group of 30 campers and parents huddle outside a tent. Inside, Wilson is posing for the final few pictures with campers after nearly an hour. The group outside has waited at least that long, maybe longer.
Eventually, Wilson steps through the tent flaps and is instantly swarmed. He smiles, just a little. He looks tired.
“OK,” he says, “but just one item each, guys, OK? I’ve got to get to a meeting.”
A black Mercedes SUV is waiting to the side. Wilson stands and signs every item. He takes a picture with every camper. He also takes pictures with staffers and four college kids who stumbled by in their swimsuits. One boy, with Wilson’s signature on the back of his white shirt, walks away with his family, stunned. “I can’t believe that just happened,” he says.
What’s often left unsaid but is clear is this: His rise comes with certain terms. He could become the most revered athlete in the city’s history, and that is a burden he will carry throughout his career. But that also comes with gnawing scrutiny, the kind that will place him in a bubble and hound his every step. The only thing as insatiable as our need to build up a hero is our thirst to tear one down.
Now we will see if Russell Wilson can measure up.
Jayson Jenks: 206-464-8277 or firstname.lastname@example.org