A loving but strict upbringing only partly explains how the Seahawks' rookie quarterback has defied all odds to become the talk of the NFL.
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. —
Tammy Wilson is referencing scripture, 1 Samuel Chapter 16, Verse 7, and looking through her purse to find her Bible.
Turns out it’s in her work bag, which just means she’ll go from memory.
“It’s not the countenance of a man nor the height,” she begins. “But the heart.”
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And then Russell Wilson’s mother begins to speak of the difference between fact and truth. The fact that her son, the Seahawks’ quarterback, stands short of 6 feet does not define the truth of his abilities. And the fact her husband was once feared brain dead did not override the truth he walked out of a hospital on his own and was able to see their oldest son married and the youngest one drafted before he passed away.
And it’s right here, on this Thursday night in a high-school gym where Russell Wilson’s sister just finished a basketball game, where you begin to understand why Tammy’s son has always been able to do things people said he couldn’t. It’s a glimpse of the unflinching belief that has carried Russell Wilson on his journey from a Virginia town through two colleges, a pair of minor-league baseball teams to starting in the NFL at a position some colleges concluded he was too short to play.
“The Lord does not look at the things people look at,” the verse from Samuel continues. “People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”
And then Russell Wilson’s mother puts her own words to that message, delivering it in a honeyed Virginia accent you could listen to all day long, even as her eyes flash the resolve she and her husband passed along to their three children.
“Don’t be defined by what other people say,” she says.
And right here you begin to understand how her son has come to shine in Seattle.
It took three days in May and about 400 passes for Russell Wilson to prove to Seahawks coach Pete Carroll he was a legitimate consideration in the team’s quarterback competition. It took little more than three weeks in August to earn the job, Wilson becoming the first Seahawks rookie to be named starting quarterback since 1993.
“More than anything, I think they saw how I prepared. I’ve been the same way throughout my whole life just by the way my parents raised me by focusing on the little details, the attention to detail.” — Russell Wilson, Sept. 6.
Russell Wilson sounds rehearsed when answering questions, almost robotic. A Stepford quarterback complete with a standard interview pose of placing his hands on his hips.
But the thing is, he tells you everything about his approach to the game if you listen, and if it sounds kind of boring, well, it’s because his approach is not all that complicated. He studies relentlessly, believes in himself unwaveringly and has that combination of confidence, ability and work ethic that gives him the gravity to tilt an entire room in his direction.
When Carroll gave the players a Monday off after a victory earlier this month, Wilson went to every rookie on the team to say they were still working out the next morning.
The question is not why Wilson succeeds so much as how he got to be this way.
The answer starts with his family, which was loving but strict. It continues to the prep school he attended for 13 years and onto college, where he was talented enough to have the option of playing two sports professionally and confident enough not to allow himself to be rushed into a decision.
He endured long days and short jokes, a college transfer and a family tragedy, and even now, while those in professional football wonder whether he is the best rookie in football, those in his hometown in Virginia just nod knowingly about his ability.
“What took you so long?” joked Keith Evans, the headmaster at Collegiate School. “Everyone in Richmond was just waiting for everyone else to find out.”
How can football success be a surprise when Wilson has never really failed in the sport?
He won three state championships in high school, but the University of Virginia recruited a taller kid to play quarterback the year Wilson graduated.
So Wilson went to North Carolina State, where he was the No. 5 quarterback when practice started in 2008 and wound up the starter by Week 1.
Released by the school three years later after declining to give up pro baseball, he went to Wisconsin and not only earned the starting job but led the Badgers to a Rose Bowl in his only season on campus.
He was the sixth quarterback drafted this year, chosen in the third round by a Seattle team everyone expected would start newly signed Matt Flynn. But eight months later, this rookie has led Seattle to its first winning season in five years and has the Seahawks one win from a playoff berth.
Wilson’s arm strength is above average, even for an NFL quarterback. He’s faster than most players at his position, too. So why have there been so many doubts?
The answer isn’t that much longer than your thumb: 3 inches. If Wilson was that much taller he would have been a first-round pick, maybe top 10. But at 5 feet 10-5/8 inches, Wilson is shorter than every other starting quarterback in the NFL.
Would Wilson’s vision be obscured when he tried to pass? Could he see enough of the field to get a good view of his receivers? Would his passes be tipped?
But at some point, the number of people who think Wilson can’t be a successful quarterback is overwhelmed by the evidence that he has been, at every level. Pretty soon people are going to stop looking at those few inches Wilson lacks and see everything he has.
The Seahawks are assured their first winning season since 2007. They have two games to play, needing to win one to guarantee a playoff berth. They host San Francisco, the reigning NFC West champion, on Sunday night in a nationally televised game with the city whipped into a fervor that only a young quarterback can generate.
“I believe you’ve got to stay poised in every situation.” — Russell Wilson, Dec. 19.
This is a kid who never drank alcohol before turning 21, and a man who married the woman he met when he was a sophomore in high school. That would be Ashton, a high-school swimmer who was a grade older and attended a different school. Their wedding was in January, but they still haven’t gone on a full-fledged honeymoon.
Russell is the middle child of an athletically gifted bunch. Father and both sons played two sports in college while Anna, the youngest, is a ninth-grader, a point guard who is nearly as tall as Russell and a top basketball prospect. Anna and Tammy will fly to Seattle for the first time on Saturday and watch Russell play Sunday.
Academics, though, is what the family orbited around. That’s been true for decades, in fact. Russell’s grandfather was a multiple-sport athlete in college, and served as president at Norfolk State for 22 years.
Russell’s dad, Harrison Wilson III, played two sports at Dartmouth, went to law school at the University of Virginia and then nearly made the San Diego Chargers after graduating. Nicknamed “The professor,” he was one of the last players released by the Chargers before the 1980 season.
Russell Wilson began as a quarterback almost by default. His older brother, Harrison Wilson IV, was a receiver, just like the father he was named after. That made little Russell the quarterback. He developed an arm that became almost mythical.
In grade school, serving as a ball boy for his brother’s high-school team, he threw a ball to an official with such velocity that the high-school coach, Charlie McFall, decided right then and there, “I’m going to stick around for that kid.”
Collegiate School is 97 years old, a preparatory school whose campus — and tuition — rivals a small college. It placed at least one student in each of the eight Ivy League schools last year. There are 1,600 students, from kindergarten through 12th grade. There are about 125 students per graduating class, about half of whom attended the school beginning in kindergarten.
“Lifers,” McFall calls them.
Russell Wilson was one of them, from kindergarten through a senior year when he served as class president. It should be noted, though, there was a rough patch in-between. He spent a fair amount of his sixth-grade year in the principal’s office.
“He was all boy,” says Charlie Blair, the principal. “Rambunctious is a good word for him.”
His mother, Tammy, laughs at that memory, joking that she was sure Blair had such a bellyful of her son that he was going to send him packing. In truth, it was nothing that bad. As athletic as he was, Russell ruled the playground, dictating who played in which games. He wasn’t exactly shy about his opinions.
Blair can’t remember what it was exactly that Wilson did that landed the student at his doorstep one evening more than 10 years ago, but he won’t forget the image of Russell, along with his father.
“I’m sitting in my living room at home,” Blair says, “and here’s Russell and Harrison at the door.”
Father told son to explain exactly what he had done, so Russell confessed, looking his principal in the eyes and everything.
“I can assure you,” Blair says, “whatever he had done was not that bad.”
It was the guidance that Wilson got first from his family and then the school that explains how he arrived in Seattle fully formed, a 23-year-old with two years of pro sports experience, a fire hose of a right arm and the kind of perspective that comes from losing a father too soon.
Russell Wilson did not celebrate his most important play of this season. Not at first, anyway. He was too concerned about Seahawks receiver Sidney Rice, who appeared to be knocked out in the end zone of Soldier Field as he scored the game-winning touchdown in Chicago. Carroll ran onto the field to celebrate, and the only thing his quarterback was concerned about was his teammate’s health.
“Whether things are going really well or not so well you just want to play one play at a time and stay in the now.” — Russell Wilson, Dec. 6.
Dad wanted his son to go to his baseball game. Insisted, even.
Russell Wilson wasn’t leaving, though. Not after his father, who suffered from diabetes, started to black out while driving near Fredericksburg. Harrison told his son he had to take the wheel, so Russell climbed on Dad’s lap, steering the car just as he had a few times in the cul-de-sac near their home.
Once they got to an intersection and pulled over, Russell got another motorist to call 911. His dad was taken to the hospital, and once there he told Russell to go to his baseball game.
“I said I would, but just to get him to relax,” Wilson said.
He wasn’t going anywhere. That moment was a landmark, not just for the father, but for the son who would help care for him.
“Russell made a turnaround,” Tammy said.
He got a little more serious. He had to.
Mom has always been strict, the family very focused on faith. It didn’t celebrate Halloween, and while gifts were a big part of Christmas, Santa Claus was not, feeling it distracted from the meaning of the day.
The trips to the principal’s office evaporated, his focus intensified. Some of this was the natural maturation of a teenager, some of it was a product of his father’s illness, which he later lost a leg to.
Harrison Wilson spent years waiting to see his youngest son play quarterback in college. The fact that he got to see it defied the diagnosis he was given after suffering a stroke in 2008.
Found unconscious, there was a serious question whether he would recover enough to function. Russell’s mother — a nurse — knew just how dire that diagnosis was.
Russell was in the midst of a quarterback competition at North Carolina State, and he considered coming home. He didn’t. Dad wouldn’t have wanted that.
Harrison walked out of the hospital, lived to see Russell drafted in 2010 to play baseball, a fourth-round pick of the Colorado Rockies.
His father died in the hospital the day after Russell was drafted, and if there is sadness in the fact that he never got to see his son play professionally, there is also solace that he knows Russell reached that goal.
“He’s got the best seat in the house,” Russell said.
Russell Wilson is five touchdown passes away from breaking the NFL’s rookie record. He has run for more yards than any quarterback in Seahawks history. Most important, Seattle is 9-5 and he is playing like a trump card in what is often called a quarterback-driven league.
“I always expect greatness and always expect an opportunity.” — Russell Wilson, Dec. 13.
It was after midnight in July 2011 when Wilson and Ashton drove a U-Haul into Wisconsin.
Sometimes opportunity knocks. Sometimes you have to drive 17 hours straight from North Carolina for a fresh start to a football career that was now Wilson’s primary focus.
He was the one who made that decision, though, not a coach.
Oh, Tom O’Brien tried at North Carolina State. After three seasons of watching Wilson divide his attention between football and baseball, the Wolfpack’s coach wanted his quarterback to stick around for spring football in 2011.
When Wilson opted to play minor-league baseball for a second season, O’Brien decided he’d rather have two full years with Mike Glennon — the backup — than a final season with Wilson. The school announced that Wilson had been granted a release from his scholarship.
As the summer of 2011 began, Wilson was that rarest of birds in college football: an experienced starter who was essentially a free agent. He was free to play at another school immediately because he had already earned his bachelor’s degree in communications from NC State.
Wisconsin and Auburn were two of the top options, and Wilson chose the Badgers. Wilson was going to break his drive from North Carolina to Wisconsin into two days, driving a U-Haul packed with his belongings while his best friend, Scott Pickett, drove Wilson’s Mercedes.
It should surprise exactly no one at this point that Wilson ended up coaxing his friend to make the entire drive in a day. Russell Wilson doesn’t do halfway.
The two-vehicle caravan arrived in Madison, Wis., after midnight. Wilson parked the U-Haul inside the gates at Wisconsin’s stadium. He had his playbook the next morning.
“By the afternoon, he was like, ‘OK, quiz me,’ ” Pickett said.
That crash course on the Badgers playbook turned out to be perfect preparation for what he would do in Seattle a year later, learning a new offense at warp speed, even as he learned his teammates.
Paul Chryst — who was Wisconsin’s offensive coordinator during Wilson’s season with the Badgers — came to Richmond during the recruiting process. Coaches were limited in how much they could contact Wilson, and the coach wanted to get a firsthand look at the kind of guy he was in for.
He went up to Collegiate, the school that had nurtured Wilson, met McFall, the coach. Not long after Wilson reported to school at Wisconsin, he was the starting quarterback. It was about then that Chryst sent McFall a text message.
“Just three words,” McFall said, relaying Chryst’s message. “Better than advertised.”
Danny O’Neil: 206-464-2364 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @dannyoneil.