Sure, Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson took some poetic license in his address to Wisconsin graduates, but his central point remains the same: Being dumped by N. C. State still fuels him.
Give Russell Wilson 15 yards for poetic license, or as it’s known in North Carolina, illegal use of embellishment.
But you’ve got to give the guy credit: He knows a good narrative when he lives it.
For a commencement speech that’s garnering as much attention — positive and negative — as Wilson’s address to the University of Wisconsin’s graduating class of 2016 last weekend, it’s pretty boilerplate. Standard-issue Wilson.
After four seasons of Wilson in Seattle, you know the high points: All the people who told him why he couldn’t succeed. The doubters who provided obstacles on his road to the NFL. The heartfelt inspiration from, and love for, his late father. Wilson has seemingly found a never-ending fount of motivation from those elements of his backstory and is eager to expound on it.
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Nothing wrong with that. I both read and watched Wilson’s speech, and I know that when I graduated from college in a century long, long ago, I’d have been far more riveted by Wilson’s words than those of the ancient English professor who spoke to us.
Wilson gave the audience a bit of local flavor, a dash of humor, and a dose of self-deprecation (“If you’re playing New England in the Super Bowl and you’ve got 26 seconds left and you’re down by four and it’s second-and-goal on their 1-yard line, try not to throw an interception.”)
As for the central theme of how to react “when life tells you no,” well, even as familiar as that universal trope is, it still has the power to touch the heart. There’s a reason that Disney and Hallmark churn out a never-ending supply of tear-jerkers with that general message — people eat it up.
By now, it’s clear we’ve got to come to terms with the fact that Wilson is probably never going to let us any deeper into his life, or his inner soul, than we’ve gotten so far. The above narrative works for him, because he truly has internalized the setbacks of life and learned to use them in his favor, a burning grudge that never seems to be extinguished.
But also, conveniently, it works because people eat it up so eagerly that there’s not much pressure for Wilson to reveal himself more profoundly. So he can be robotic and clichéd and formulaic in his media sessions, touching the same notes, and no one minds. Certainly not when he’s producing like Wilson has done in his first four seasons. Wilson comes across, for the most part, as grounded and likeable, with his heart in the right place. Maybe it’s unfair to expect profound soul-searching as well.
The backlash that resulted from something even as tame as Wilson’s commencement speech could be seen by him as a cautionary tale of the risks of even opening up yourself a little bit. It’s far safer to stick to the tried-and-true crowd pleasers that have stoked the highly popular (and profitable) Wilson brand, even though some might be ready for Wilson to move on to the next chapter.
One of his former teammates, Kalani Heppe, lashed out on Facebook, calling Wilson a great player “but a ‘me’ player, unable to put the team before himself and his ‘illustrious’ baseball career.”
The fact that Wilson may have played slightly fast and loose with the circumstances surrounding some of the anecdotes in his speech, particularly a baseball game in his junior year at North Carolina State, seems pretty irrelevant to me.
So Wilson had fewer at-bats in his first two seasons and more at-bats his third season than he indicated, and he entered the game in question a couple of innings earlier than he said in the speech. The key point, that he hit a walkoff home run in extra innings, is accurate, and that’s the crux of the life lesson he was trying to convey.
The fact that some people in North Carolina seem peeved that Wilson hammered the North Carolina State program — perhaps in slightly hyperbolic fashion — well, again the complaint seems to be off-point. Wilson was trying to make a point about how to persevere when handed rejection. That’s unquestionably how he perceived the decision by then-N.C. State football coach Tom O’Brien to opt for two years of Mike Glennon rather than one of Wilson, because of Wilson’s refusal to give up baseball.
The reality that Wilson used that perceived slight, and all the previous ones, to fuel his rise to the top of the NFL is a bonus for the Seahawks and their fans. It might not have been particularly gracious for Wilson to rub it in so heavy-handedly in his speech — even using what he called a “country voice” to imitate O’Brien, who was born in Ohio. And many coaches might have made the exact same call, considering the uncertainty of Wilson’s football future once he decided to play in the minor leagues.
But Wilson’s divorce from North Carolina State will forever be central to the Russell Wilson narrative. It’s not like Glennon was chopped liver, mind you. He had been one of the top quarterbacks in the country coming out of high school, and put up pretty good numbers.
But as it turned out, he was no Russell Wilson. As the old knight guarding the Holy Grail in “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” might have said of O’Brien — perhaps in Wilson’s next speech — “He chose … poorly.”
And Wilson won’t ever let it go.