In a previous lifetime as sports editor of the Richmond Times-Dispatch, one of the more enjoyable duties was serving as master of ceremonies at the end-of-the-school-year banquet honoring the area’s best high school athletes.
The 2007 choice as the paper’s high school athlete of the year?
Russell Wilson, a multi-sport star at Collegiate School who was headed to North Carolina State to play football even though many figured his future was in professional baseball.
Before the event started, Wilson sought me out.
“Mr. Harris,” he said, “I’d like to give a short speech.”
It normally wasn’t done. That’s a tough spot for a high school student. But something made me say “sure” and I’m sure glad I did.
A teammate’s father had died in a plane crash not long before the banquet. Wilson spoke for 10 minutes about what the man, a local oncologist named Chris Desch, meant to him, meant to Desch’s family and meant to the team. His talk moved the entire room.
Only 18, he had more charisma than anyone in the banquet hall and that included a number of high-profile college football coaches.
Wilson, as everyone knows, is now the quarterback of the Seattle Seahawks and he’s preparing to lead his team in the Super Bowl on Feb. 2 against Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos. He’ll become just the sixth quarterback to start a Super Bowl in his first or second season.
He’s become the leading light of a talented group of young quarterbacks that includes Indianapolis’ Andrew Luck, the Redskins’ own Robert Griffin III and several others. He wasn’t drafted until the third round and he had to beat out a high-priced free agent in Matt Flynn to win the job with the Seahawks.
If you’d said Wilson would get to a Super Bowl before some of his young quarterbacking colleagues, you might have drawn a sneer. Luck was the top pick in the draft. The Redskins gave up a trio of first-round picks to move into position to draft RG3 with the No. 2 pick. Three other quarterbacks were taken before Seattle took Wilson (Ryan Tannehill, Brandon Weeden, Brock Osweiler).
Yet those who knew Wilson as he wandered the halls at Collegiate aren’t the least bit surprised.
“It doesn’t seem all that strange. It all seems part of the plan,” said Weldon Bradshaw, an English teacher at Collegiate. “He just has this drive to be the best. Even lately, when he hasn’t had some of his greatest games, all they’ve done is win.”
To say Wilson isn’t physically gifted is crazy talk. Clearly he is gifted. He managed to start at N.C. State and later Wisconsin, taking the Badgers to the Rose Bowl. Though he never reached the majors, he played pro baseball for two seasons in the Colorado Rockies system before deciding to make football his life’s work. Sure, he’s short, listed at 5-feet-11. But Wilson is an athletic marvel.
What he is along with athletic is brilliant, instinctive and driven. He’s proof that intangibles do count, more than you might guess. Alone? Maybe not. Combined with his skill? Yes. Very much.
To call him a Pied Piper of sorts is not a stretch. With Wilson and Manning in the Super Bowl, the sound bites won’t sizzle, won’t cause an outcry on social media for their outrageousness. They’re bland. But they lead. They command respect where it counts. Manning’s had it for years. Wilson will, too.
“When we were younger, he obviously had all the physical tools, but he had that extra intangible. There was never any doubt he’d succeed at every single level,” Scott Pickett, one of Wilson’s receivers at Collegiate, told the Times-Dispatch in a story published the day before Seattle beat RG3 and the Redskins in the wild-card round of last season’s playoffs.
“He’s a great leader. He’s one of those guys who makes every single guy on the team better, whether you’re in the huddle or are on the sidelines. It seems like everybody has bought into his mindset and the guy that he is. He’s an easy guy to follow.”
Wilson is the only player to twice win the Times-Dispatch‘s player of the year award in football. He threw for 6,291 yards and rushed for 1,786 yards in those two seasons. He threw an incredible 73 touchdown passes and ran for 32 more scores. He also played defense, and intercepted 10 passes.
Every step he made, someone told Wilson he was too small. Fortunately, the Super Bowl doesn’t have one of those “you must be this tall” signs like you see for amusement park rides.
“All you have to do is know Russell and be around him, and you’re a believer,” his high school coach Charlie McFall told the Times-Dispatch. “He has an unbelievable confidence in himself. He knows he’s been blessed with a lot of talent, but he’s not going to rest on that. He’s going to work harder than everybody.”
It is an incredible Super Bowl matchup at quarterback with the revered and experienced Manning on one side and the young star Wilson on the other. It is easy to think, given his experience, that Manning would have an edge. Wilson, no doubt, wants people to think exactly that. Bet against him at your own risk.