The true measure of Russell Wilson
Seahawks rookie out of Wisconsin defies quarterback prototype
EATTLE -- When nobody was watching, a little quarterback practiced for his day in front of the cameras. He used a hairbrush for a microphone. His dad did the interviewing, prepping him in the hopes that one day a roomful of people would listen. Anything in his control, the kid would be prepared for it. The tightest spiral? He was up at 6 a.m. to work on that. The smartest guy in the locker room? He once drove 17 hours straight, from Richmond, Va., to the University of Wisconsin just to get a copy of the playbook so he could become one with it over the Fourth of July weekend.
It was the stuff out of his control that confounded Russell Wilson. He did not talk about those things. He'd hear someone say he couldn't do something in high school, and Wilson would type the quote, print it out and hang it on his wall so he could stare at it each morning when he awoke.
Three and three-eighths inches. If Harrison Wilson III could make it to the final NFL cutdown back in 1980 after three years of law school, if he could survive a stroke that should've killed him and hold on long enough to see that his kid was going to be OK, then his son could sure as hell overcome three and three-eighths inches.
"What happens in life is someone has to dream a dream for you before you do it yourself," said Ben Wilson, Russell's uncle.
"Like all parents, my brother never gave up on his dream, even if he didn't realize it. He helped his son realize it."
his is a story about nurture clobbering nature. About a life defined not only by limitations, but how a man became better because of those limitations. We'll begin in a basement in Washington, D.C., in the home of uncle Ben Wilson, a prominent attorney whose résumé is too long to list. The 2012 NFL draft party, at least Russell Wilson's version of it, is held here, with Russell's closest friends and family, his wife, Ashton, and their dog, Cali.
The party starts on Thursday night, technically, but who are they kidding? They know Wilson won't be drafted in the first round, because despite setting an NCAA record for passing efficiency, despite leading his Wisconsin Badgers to the Big Ten title five months after he arrived on campus, he is, after all, 5-foot-10 and five-eighths inches tall, which is 3 and three-eighths inches short of the NFL standard. So the real crowd doesn't show up until Friday, after four vertically unchallenged quarterbacks have already been picked, and the party-goers heap their plates with jambalaya and wait. And wait.
At some point in the night, Scott Pickett, Wilson's best friend since grade school, tells him everything will be fine, and Wilson, always calm, agrees. "God is looking out for me," Wilson tells his friend.
Another quarterback, a guy named Brock Osweiler, falls off the board. He's 6-foot-7. Somewhere after Osweiler and a six-minute spat between ESPN analysts Jon Gruden and Mel Kiper Jr. over Wilson's worth -- Gruden ends it by saying he has a headache and that Wilson will prove everyone wrong -- Wilson is finally picked in the third round. It is still considered a risk for coach Pete Carroll and the Seattle Seahawks.
Wilson will be a solid backup quarterback, most analysts say. He will get lost in a league full of 6-5 prototypes. Nobody in Uncle Ben's basement believes that. Five months pass, hundreds of pages of a playbook turn and Wilson is the Seahawks' starting quarterback.
He is not Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III or even Brandon Weeden. Wilson has taken the least glamorous path of the five rookie starters in the NFL this season -- a local radio station has taken a fancy to playing Randy Newman's "Short People" when Wilson's name is mentioned -- and to say he is an anomaly is an understatement. Perhaps the most notable quarterback under 6 feet to have a major impact in the NFL was Doug Flutie, and currently in the college ranks, no quarterback for any BCS school is listed under 6 feet.
Wilson has been called a test study in a league that hinges on centimeters and is steadfast on black-and-white metrics. A wide receiver is supposed to run the 40-yard dash in 4.5 seconds, an offensive lineman is supposed to weigh 300 pounds and a quarterback is supposed to stand at least 6-foot-2.
"He's what you call an outlier," said former Dallas Cowboys executive Gil Brandt, whose grading system would've subtracted 15 points for Wilson's height. "You go broke looking for those guys. For every guy that you draft that's three inches and four inches below the accepted minimum, 99 of 100 are going to fail. He's a real exception.
"Have you ever talked to him personally? He's the most dynamic guy you'll ever be around. He has such an unusual flair. I mean, this guy wins you over with two minutes' talk. I don't know that I've ever seen a quarterback that's undersized like he is that has been so dynamic."
If Wilson makes it, some hope he will break barriers and alter the notion of what a quarterback should look like. If he makes it, virtually no one, from Richmond to Raleigh to Madison, will be surprised.
hese facts, compiled from a list of close friends and associates, are believed to be true about Russell Wilson: He did not have a drop of alcohol until he was 21 because as a quarterback, he's supposed to be setting an example; he rarely drinks now; and he tries not to swear, though it did seem as if at least one four-letter word slipped out of his mouth in the waning moments of Week 1, when his potential game-winning drive wilted in the Arizona desert.
In many ways, Wilson almost seems too good to be true. The first time he did an interview at Wisconsin, he asked to borrow a shirt with a collar from the equipment manager because he doesn't do interviews in T-shirts and shorts. The interview wasn't even on-camera.
He is impeccably dressed in a suit and tie in postgame media sessions. He is somewhat presidential, saying a lot while giving away very little. (Seahawks PR declined a one-on-one interview request with Wilson, saying the team is backing off on individual requests now that the season has started.)
Wilson grew up in Richmond, Va., and went to Collegiate School, a private college preparatory school, from kindergarten through 12th grade. His late dad was a lawyer, his mom, Tammy, a legal nurse consultant, and his little sister, Anna, who's only 15, is already a blue-chip basketball player and nearly as tall as Russell.
Aside from his wife, Wilson's two biggest confidantes are probably his brother Harry and his friend Pickett. When they were little boys, Pickett and Wilson used to watch the clock run down to recess and run outside so they could play football, Russell throwing, Scott catching. Even back then, Wilson was used to being smaller. Harrison Wilson used to wake his boys up at 6 in the morning, and Russell would be out in the backyard, zipping passes to Harry, who's six years older.
His boy wouldn't be the most physically gifted athlete, but he would definitely be the most prepared. He developed an over-the-top delivery to compensate for his size. When Harrison drove his boys to the University of Richmond to work out, he'd get so pumped up he'd talk "a mile a minute," Pickett said.
Had the numbers fallen in Harrison's favor, he would've been the first one in the family to make it to the NFL. He was a star receiver at Dartmouth, but his father was an academician. He wanted his son to finish school, so Harrison did. Harrison used to run up hills wearing a vest full of weights to stay in shape in between classes. And upon graduation, he landed a tryout with the San Diego Chargers. He was the last man cut from the 1980 team.
It was clear, early on, that Harrison's son was special. He had huge hands, a bigger heart and the focus of a med student the night before finals. Everywhere Russell Wilson went, he won people over. One night in a big game against Fork Union Military Academy, Wilson ran for a first down, headed out of bounds, and a linebacker called him a wuss. A couple of Fork Union fans repeated the word, which was actually a bit more inflammatory than wuss, and taunted Wilson.
Hank Carter, who worked the chain gang for the game, told the kids that isn't who Wilson is. The next drive, Wilson knocked over the linebacker and ran for a first down.
"The two guys came up to me after the game," Carter said, "and say, 'Sir, you're absolutely right. We'll never say another word.'"
Wilson jokingly used to ask his high school coach, Charlie McFall, to list him at 6 feet tall. Maybe then the college coaches would notice. They did, but not for what Wilson wanted.
"I'd like to have a dollar for every college recruiter who came in and said, 'Well, you know, can he be a good defensive back?'" McFall said. "I said, 'I've never coached in college, and he can play defensive back, but he's a quarterback.' If I've ever seen a quarterback, it's Russell. He's just a natural."
e went to North Carolina State to play football and baseball. He'd wake up at 4:30 in the morning, lift with the football team, go to class, then practice baseball in the afternoon.
"He never said he was tired," said Wolfpack baseball coach Elliott Avent. "He never looked tired. He was fresh as a baby."
Wilson's dad, who battled diabetes, suffered a stroke in 2008 around the same time Russell was competing for the starting job on the football team. Harrison was not expected to live. And if he did, the doctors said, he would not be able to function. His family, according to Uncle Ben, tried to tell the doctors that Harrison was a fighter. A few days later, he awoke from his coma. Weeks later, he walked. He was eventually in the stands to see his son lead his team to a victory over Wake Forest.
Harrison's eyesight was very poor. But when Russell drove the Wolfpack down the field, his father smiled wide and pumped his fist to the school's fight song.
"I think, more than anything," Ben Wilson said, "my brother lived his life in such a way that he never surrendered. He never gave up."
So Russell didn't, either. He continued to play football and baseball, though football coach Tom O'Brien apparently was not keen on this idea, and thought his quarterback spreading himself too thin. In the summer of 2010, Wilson was drafted in the fourth round by the Colorado Rockies. The next day, Harrison Wilson III died. Ben Wilson believes his brother died in peace. He knew his kid had made it.
ho knows why he seems so much bigger than 5-10 5/8? Why do the people at North Carolina State still speak so fondly of Wilson, who didn't even finish his college career in Raleigh? How did Wilson arrive at Wisconsin in the middle of the summer, so far behind, then win the hearts of his new teammates so quickly that four weeks later he was named a team captain?
"He works harder than you," said Cole Hawthorne, one of his old receivers at Collegiate. "That's what got so many people following the bandwagon. It's almost like a challenge. You're trying to work harder than Russell."
It is believed that O'Brien gave Wilson his release because he was frustrated that Wilson's baseball commitments kept him from participating in the football team's offseason workouts. (O'Brien did not return a message from ESPN.com.) For a short, agonizing time, Wilson was a football player without a home. Badgers offensive coordinator Paul Chryst, who's now the head coach at Pittsburgh, made a trip to Richmond to talk to folks about Wilson. McFall insisted he didn't have to make the trip, that he could find plenty of people from Richmond to vouch for Wilson, but the Badgers had to do their due diligence. A few weeks later, Chryst sent McFall a text. "BETTER THAN ADVERTISED," it said.
When Wilson, who got his undergraduate degree in three years, decided on Wisconsin, he wasted little time. He drove halfway across the country with Pickett and a U-Haul, scrambling to learn the playbook in a month. That brutal cram session, Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema says, paved the way for Wilson to be so prepared to play in the NFL so quickly. He never really stopped. Wilson got married in January. They took a mini-vacation/honeymoon right after the draft last spring. He took an iPad with the Seahawks' playbook on it with him.
It was because of this dogged pursuit of knowledge that Bielema knew Wilson was not only going to be a starting NFL quarterback, but that he would start on opening day. "He seems to process things at a rate faster than normal people," Bielema said.
But history wasn't working in Wilson's favor. Size aside, the last rookie quarterback to start in Week 1 after not being drafted in the first two rounds was Kyle Orton in 2005. And there are a hundred fears about putting a franchise's fate in the hands of a quarterback shorter than 6 feet. The biggest one is that small quarterbacks struggle to see over the line of scrimmage.
But Wilson's line at Wisconsin was the third-biggest in football, college and pro, and he managed to see fine. He's fast, athletic and doesn't get rattled, which is probably a product of starting 50 games in college. His release point is higher than some quarterbacks four inches taller. NFL Network analyst Michael Lombardi said Drew Brees is a good example of a smaller quarterback who sees windows and plays much taller than his size. Brees is roughly a 1½ inches taller than Wilson. But Lombardi said it will take time to see how Wilson fits into the league.
In a "SportsCenter" interview this past spring, Wilson said his height "doesn't define my skill set. I play like I'm a 6-2 or 6-3 quarterback."
Still, it was a gamble. Seattle plunked down $10 million in guaranteed money a month before the draft to land Matt Flynn, who was supposed to be the Seahawks' quarterback of the future. Then Wilson showed up for rookie minicamp, took every single rep and Carroll announced that the competition was open.
Carroll compares starting Wilson to his decision to play Matt Barkley as a freshman at USC. They were so equipped so early that they had no choice but to play them.
"We're going to do what we think is right," Carroll said about the decision-making process between him and general manager John Schneider. "We don't know any other way to act. We always want to know what the conventional thinking is. But when we have our information and we've done our work and when we look at one another and feel really good about the choices we make, we're going to do what's right. We don't care what anybody else says."
t is Thursday, four days after the Seahawks have lost their season opener at Arizona, and the locker room is back to its early-season hum. Music blasts, staffers walk with hurried steps and a couple of offensive lineman are laughing and talking about O.J. Simpson.
In the middle of the noise, Wilson is sitting on the floor in front of his locker, his face buried in a binder. He's highlighting pages with a fluorescent marker. It's as if he's in a library. Oh, Wilson will engage with his teammates soon. In a couple of days, he'll take the field against the Dallas Cowboys. He'll struggle a bit in the first half, but will slap nearly every hand on special teams and make every man feel amped and important.
Then Wilson will scramble and throw lasers in the second half of a 27-7 victory. He completes 13 of his final 15 passes and throws for 151 yards and a touchdown. His 75 percent completion rate is the highest for a rookie in Seahawks history.
"There's just something about what he stands for and how he handles himself," said receiver Golden Tate. "The things that leave his mouth it's just a feeling, you know? You get a feeling that someone's just very, very special. You don't know what it is, but you get that feeling."
The rookie is smaller than everyone else in his huddle. The rookie is confident and subdued. He takes his time in the locker room after the game, putting on his slacks, then a white shirt and a striped tie.
And then he walks in front of a microphone, and a roomful of people listen.
Chris Sprow, a senior editor for ESPN Insider, contributed to this report.
MORE NFL HEADLINES
- Tomlin fined $100K; Steelers may lose picks
- London game starting at 9:30 a.m. ET in '14
- Rex: Our draft as strong as I've ever seen
- RG III: Redskins staff has 'great future'