- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 28, 2014

NEWARK — Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson surveyed the mad scene in front of him and simply beamed.

Dozens of braying reporters surrounded Wilson’s podium at the NFL’s annual Super Bowl media day. It’s all part of the hype that surrounds the biggest sporting event in the United States.

But Wilson was thankful to be a part of a day many players regard as a nuisance. The former baseball player knows his career path could have landed him elsewhere, not playing for a championship in just his second NFL season when the Seahawks face the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLIX on Sunday at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ. But once Wilson committed himself to football, this is what he envisioned – playing on the sport’s biggest stage.

“I definitely expected to be here,” Wilson said on Tuesday. “I believe in my talent. I believe in everything that I’ve been given. I expect to play at a high level, and I expect to be fighting for a Super Bowl every year. That’s kind of our mindset. That’s our team.”

That confidence is innate because not many people saw it when Wilson was a two-sport prep star at Collegiate School in his native Richmond, Va. Overlooked by in-state football programs Virginia and Virginia Tech, Wilson committed to play football and baseball at North Carolina State.

Looking back, then-N.C. State coach Tom O’Brien wishes he and his staff had just named Wilson the starter his true freshman year. The Wolfpack didn’t have an obvious solution at that position entering the 2007 season, but chose to redshirt Wilson instead. It was a decision that would eventually lead to Wilson’s transfer.

That’s because by the next year, N.C. State also had signed Mike Glennon, a Centreville, Va. native and Westfield High graduate who now starts in the NFL for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. He and Wilson battled for the starting job down “to the last preseason scrimmage” before the 2008 season, according to O’Brien.

Wilson, chosen twice in the Major League Baseball draft, including by the Colorado Rockies after his redshirt sophomore season at N.C. State, wanted to finish his career with the Wolfpack. O’Brien, balancing one last year of Wilson at quarterback or losing Glennon’s final two years of eligibility with a certain transfer, told Wilson he had to make a choice: Baseball or football. And so Wilson transferred to Wisconsin, where he helped lead the Badgers to the Rose Bowl in 2011.

“I’m not clairvoyant. I can’t tell the future,” O’Brien said. “The thing that you always do is make decisions on the facts that you have at that time. And certainly with the facts and the situation the way it was, we parted on great terms. Russell went his way. We had to make a decision what’s best for NC State. We made that decision and went forward. And actually the best news is it worked out for both kids.”

Wilson spent two seasons playing minor-league baseball in the spring and summer with the Rockies in 2010 and 2011, reaching the low-A South Atlantic League. He batted .228 that year for Asheville, but showed enough promise as a second baseman that he could have continued on. After slipping all the way to the third round, No. 75 overall, in the 2012 NFL draft, it was tempting.

“Playing professional baseball is something I always wanted to do. I believed that I could play in the big leagues,” Wilson said. “I believed that I could also play quarterback. At the same time I had this itch to play this game of football and I had this itch to play on the big stage in front of 80,000 people either screaming for you or rooting against you with two minutes left in the game.”

And that’s where he’ll find himself this weekend. Listed at 5-foot-11, 206 pounds, Wilson hoped to follow in the footsteps of Drew Brees, another shorter quarterback who proved you didn’t have to be 6-5 with a cannon for an arm to succeed in the NFL. But even at that first mini-camp with the Seahawks in 2012 there were doubters.

“Definitely when he showed up you do notice he’s shorter than the average quarterback,” Seattle tight end Zack Miller said. “But just getting a chance to play with him for so long in that whole training camp when he was a rookie, in the offseason and how he handled himself - he wins you over really quick. You immediately notice that he’s a playmaker, that he knows exactly what he’s doing, and that he wants to win so bad.”

O’Brien said the light went on for Wilson after watching Brees’ Super Bowl title in 2010. He had that potential in himself as well. And while there were rumbling early in that first mini-camp, by the time Wilson took his first few snaps with the starters, according to Seattle center Max Unger, his teammates knew: Wilson could play. Now he has a chance to help lift them all to a title, which would be the first in franchise history.

“It’s kind of silly that it had to happen this way,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. “Because the right thing is to get the best players out there to play and whatever the results show, that is the basis for your opinions of guys. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened. But I’m really grateful that we’ve figured that out with Russell. He just kept being Russell and he showed us what he was all about.”

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