Commentary

Seattle QB plays for two generations

Dr. Harrison B. Wilson sees his late son in his Super Bowl-bound grandson Russell

Updated: February 8, 2014, 6:01 PM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPNNewYork.com

At 88 and fighting an uncooperative back in his Virginia home, Dr. Harrison B. Wilson will not make it to Super Bowl Sunday to watch his grandson take on one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. Dr. Wilson will watch Russell on TV, watch him try to go pass-for-pass with Peyton Manning, and at some point he believes he will see his own son out there on the MetLife Stadium field, wearing Seahawks jersey No. 3.

[+] EnlargeRussell Wilson
Courtesy of April WoodardDr. Harrison B. Wilson -- posing with his grandkids, including Russell, at his 80th birthday party -- won't be able to make the trip to MetLife Stadium on Sunday.

Russell Wilson is his late father, Harry B., from the way he walks to the way he talks, from his facial features down to the size of his hands. "A spitting image," said Dr. Wilson, who should know. They said Harry B. was all but a carbon copy of his old man, too.

Russell's father and Dr. Wilson's son died in 2010, the day after Russell was drafted by the Colorado Rockies. Harrison, or Harry B., was only 55 when he finally succumbed to diabetes a couple of years after he emerged from a coma and returned to his everyday life, stunning doctors who had expected him to be gone within days.

He was a strong man who was raised by one himself. A child of the Depression, Dr. Wilson has seen it all and done it all, living what his daughter, April, described as a Forrest Gump-like existence. Maybe that's why his grandson has sounded so confident about taking the Vince Lombardi Trophy from the Denver Broncos, who happen to be led by a quarterback whose camp Russell attended in 10th grade.

Back in the day, Dr. Wilson was the only black athlete on his high school teams in Amsterdam, N.Y., where he played every sport he could and even found time for speedskating in the winter. He played ball in the service with Larry Doby, and while in the Navy became fast friends with Pee Wee Reese at Pearl Harbor, where Reese would sit next to Wilson on bus rides just as he would later plant himself next to Jackie Robinson in Brooklyn and beyond.

Dr. Wilson said he watched Douglas MacArthur hop out of a boat and walk ashore in the South Pacific. Dr. Wilson became a basketball star at Kentucky State, and then the head basketball coach at Jackson State, where he started on a $3,400 salary before going 340-72 over 16 years and beating teams featuring the likes of Earl Monroe (Winston-Salem State) and Willis Reed (Grambling).

"If I couldn't recruit you," Dr. Wilson said Monday evening by phone, "nobody could."

[+] EnlargeWIlson
Courtesy of April WoodardDr. Wilson was a star athlete in his own right, playing hoops for Kentucky State in the late 1940s before turning to coaching and later serving as president of Norfolk State.

Bear Bryant became one of his dear friends. Dr. Wilson was good enough himself to win big at the highest levels of Division I, to overcome the hurdles forever blocking the paths of ambitious black coaches. Only Dr. Wilson wanted to run a college, not a locker room, so he became the president of Norfolk State and built it into something it was not.

He earned his doctorate degree at Indiana, had six kids and coached his four boys as often as he could. Harry B. was the most athletic of the bunch, good enough to grow into a dynamic wide receiver at Dartmouth and to believe he had a credible shot at pro ball. But Dr. Wilson made him a deal. Get a law degree and I guarantee I'll get you a tryout afterward.

Harry B. earned his degree from the University of Virginia, where he was president of his class, and Dr. Wilson made good on his promise by landing him the tryout through San Diego Chargers personnel man Tank Younger, a Grambling grad who was the NFL's first player from a historically black school. Harry B., known to teammates as the Professor, would end up being the last Charger expelled from Don Coryell's class.

A few other Chargers cut before him were distraught, including a hulking lineman who was reduced to tears; they didn't have a fallback plan, not even close. Harry B.? He had that law degree. He settled into a successful practice, started a family and helped groom his own kids on the athletic fields the way Dr. Wilson had groomed him.

When he could get away, Dr. Wilson would chip in and play pitch-and-catch with young Russell in the yard. Sometimes the Norfolk State president would gather his driver, tell his colleagues he had business in the Richmond area, and make the 90-mile trek to see his grandson throw the ball at his private high school, Collegiate.

"And I'll never forget the first time I saw Russell play," Dr. Wilson said. "He made a throw from the middle of the field to the sideline, a bullet, and the receiver caught it and ran for a touchdown. The only quarterback I'd seen make that throw was Johnny Unitas."

[+] EnlargeRussell Wilson
Courtesy April WoodardHarry B. Wilson (left, posing with his wife Tammy, son Russell and daughter Anna) succumbed to diabetes in 2010.

Harry B. wouldn't miss Russell's football and baseball games, even if it meant pushing back a case or two. He lived long enough to see his son start at quarterback for North Carolina State, and to see him get drafted into the big leagues. He didn't live long enough to watch Russell lead Wisconsin to the Rose Bowl (he transferred before his senior season), or to watch him prove that a 5-11 quarterback picked in the third round can start as an NFL rookie and reach the Super Bowl in Year 2.

But Harry B. wouldn't have been surprised, not coming out of a family of achievers, educators and winners. His older brother Benjamin graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Dartmouth and earned a degree from Harvard Law School, and his sister, April, is a journalism professor at Hampton University and a former reporter for Inside Edition. Harry B.'s aunt, Martha, once beat Kirk Douglas to win a high school speech contest, and his daughter, Anna, is a prep basketball star who has verbally committed to Stanford; big brother Russell calls her the family's best athlete.

On Sunday night in East Rutherford, N.J., Russell needs to borrow that title from Anna if the Seahawks are to win the whole thing.

"I don't want to mess him up," Dr. Wilson said, "but Russell has to start running more again. Someone must've convinced him recently that he has to be a pocket quarterback, because he stopped running. Sometimes he's got a wide-open lane to get 30, 35 yards, and he's still trying to pass the ball. I'd like to say, 'Son, pull it down and run,' but I can't tell him that."

Here's one thing the grandfather can tell Seattle's quarterback:

"When I see Russell, I see Harrison. Harrison is living through Russell for me. ... I think Harrison is watching his son now, and he's seeing his dream. He sees what he would've been if he had made it. He sees that everything he did for Russell was worth it."

Harrison, or Harry B., has left an indelible mark on his son, who tweets out old photos of his dad and talks about him nonstop. Russell also keeps alive his father's memory by playing the game he loved, and by playing it the way Harry B. taught him.

This is a special gift to Dr. Wilson, who lost another son, Richard, to brain cancer years before Harry B. died. It isn't the natural order of life, fathers burying their sons, but Dr. Wilson leaned heavily on his faith when dealing with his unfathomable pain.

He's also leaned on his wife, Lucy, and his children and grand kids. Now Russell is the public face of that support network, a face that matches up perfectly with the old reflection in Harry B.'s mirror.

"They look exactly alike," Dr. Wilson said, "and people say they look just like me, too. But more than that, we all have the same tenacity. Harrison gave that to Russell just like I gave it to him."

So Harry B.'s presence will be felt Sunday by the way his son competes. Down in Virginia, one 88-year-old fan with a bad back will be watching closer than most.

Dr. Harrison B. Wilson, patriarch of a proud American family, gets to see one generation play for another. If nothing else, Russell is going to be Harry B. out there on the MetLife field, win, lose or draw.

Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

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