When Russell Wilson was a boy in Richmond, Virginia, his father, Harrison Benjamin Wilson, III, a lawyer and former star college athlete, had him practice giving interviews so he’d be ready when he won the Super Bowl. (“Stuff like ‘I’m just part of a team’ and ‘I’m lucky to be here’ and ‘I just want to thank my coaches, my family and God,’” Russell explains.)
Wilson has his rap ready; all he has to do is beat the New Orleans Saints today, win the NFC championship game on January 19, and, finally, take the Super Bowl on February 2.
He is the NFL’s winningest second year QB—his teams have won 24 of 32 regular season games—since the first Super Bowl in 1967.
Last year, after leading the Seahawks to a 24-14 win over the Redskins in the first round of the playoffs, Wilson suffered the bitterest loss of his short career, a 30-28 heartbreaker to the Falcons. Wilson was sensational, throwing for a career high 385 yards, running for more, and accounting for all four of his team’s touchdowns. His statistics were no consolation, though. “I spent the whole offseason,” he told an interviewer, “thinking about getting back to this point—being in ‘The Moment’ all the time. That’s my goal for the playoffs now. How tuned in can I be? How laser focused can I be? That’s what I want to find out.”
This week, as his Seahawks prepared to play the Saints, they they are number one-seeded and favored by the oddsmakers to not only win the NFC but to go all the way. The main reason is Wilson, who isn’t merely the most efficient but the most exciting young quarterback in the game, blessed with dazzling speed and mobility as well as a whiplash-throwing motion which enables him to evade tacklers and hit receivers downfield. He gives defensive coordinators nightmares. (Watch him in action this past December 2 in the Seahawks 34-7 victory over the Saints in which he threw for 310 yards and ran for 47 more—a game Seattle hopes will be a preview of what is to come on Saturday.)
It isn’t his fault that he’s not famous yet. This year, among passers with at least 300 throws, he was third in the league in the most important of all throwing stats, yards per pass attempts, averaging 8.25 per toss. And among the top passing QBs, he’s the best runner.
Simply put, he’s the best all-around offensive player at the game’s most important position. Some, including his coach Pete Carroll, wonder why he isn’t considered a more serious contender for NFL Player of the Year. (The consensus is that the award will probably go to the Denver Broncos’ Peyton Manning, the quarterback most likely to square off against Wilson and Seattle in the Super Bowl.)
“He’s the most important player on the top-seeded team going into the playoffs,” Carroll said during the postgame press conference after the Seahawks last regular season game. “Does that make him most valuable player material? It certainly should.”
Wilson is far from the first NFL quarterback to be overlooked. The National Football League has made a ridiculous habit of underestimating many of its greatest quarterbacks. Johnny Unitas, Bart Starr, Joe Montana—all Hall of Famers—and the New England Patriots star Tom Brady have some things in common. They have 14 championship rings among them, yet few in the pros thought they were legitimate prospects when they left college.
When I brought this up to an NFL scout, he replied, “Well, yeah, but that was years ago when there was all sorts of prejudices about what an NFL quarterback could and couldn’t be. That doesn’t happen today. The process of scouting is more scientific .” Uh, huh.
When Wilson left the University of Wisconsin after the 2011 season, he had to wait until the third round of the draft to be selected. That’s right: 74 college players were chosen ahead of the man who may be the best athlete and the most valuable player in the league.
And he wasn’t passed over because he didn’t deliver in college. At North Carolina State from 2008-2010 and then at Wisconsin, where he transferred for his last year after graduating from NC State in three years, Wilson scorched defenses, running and passing for 141 touchdowns. And yet he wasn’t invited to the 2011 NFL Scouting Combine.
In the days of Unitas back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Wilson probably would have been asked to try out for the scouts, but not at the position he wanted to play. He is multiracial, of African American and Native American heritage. Back then, talented black players were usually expected to play running back or defensive back, but not to assume the position that demanded the most leadership. There weren’t any black QBs in the NFL until James Harris broke the color line in 1969, and scarcely any in 1980, when his father tried out for the San Diego Chargers.
The athletic talent runs in the family; his sister is one of the top women high school basketball players in the country. Russell played basketball, baseball, and football at the college level and even played a year of professional baseball with a minor league affiliate of the Colorado Rockies. He was recently drafted by the Texas Rangers, so if football doesn’t work out after all, he’s got a backup. In fact, he has several options, having earned a BA in communications along with graduate-level business courses at North Carolina State.
All Wilson’s potential is honed by an upbringing which emphasized hard work, discipline, and religion. Both parents were professionals; his mother, Tammy T. Wilson, is a legal nurse consultant.
His deep religious commitment was reinforced in 2010 when his father died from diabetes-related complications. When asked about winning the last game of the regular season, Russell responded, "I think my dad would tell me, 'Just be poised Russ,’ … He always told me to always be the calm in the storm, to keep believing in yourself no matter what the circumstances are."
By his own admission, Russell was a bully and “a bad kid” in his youth. He talks openly about how his faith has centered him. (See at 7:00 here.)
In 2012 he married his high school sweetheart, fashion model lovely Ashton Meem, who recently told a Seattle radio station, “I would be out there on the field blocking for my husband, but I’m not quite big enough.”
Before he became a star in the NFL, many said the same thing about Russell. Wilson isn’t short by the standards of most people, but certainly by those of the National Football League where quarterbacks are expected to reach 6’4”, or at least 6’2”, so they can see over the heads of not only massive defenders but their own huge blockers. Since 1983, the New Orleans Saints’ Drew Brees, whom Wilson will play against this Saturday, has been the only passer under 6’2” to win a Super Bowl. (Brees is a hair over six feet.)
Wilson is 5’11” “soaking wet,” as he quipped to a football writer in his rookie season. Or perhaps he may be just 5’10”, his official measurement by the Seahawks. Whatever his real height, he is unquestionably the shortest starting QB in the NFL, which is the reason he was drafted in just the third round. Since 1999, no quarterback drafted as low as the third round has won a Super Bowl.
When Wilson’s draft status was discussed on ESPN in 2012, former Indianapolis Colts general manager and current analyst Bill Polian commented, “Third-round passers aren’t expected to be starting quarterbacks. That’s not what you draft them to be. You draft a quarterback in the third round to be a backup, a guy you figure can play in maybe six games a year and maybe win four of them. That’s a valuable commodity in the National Football League.”
When asked recently to reevaluate Wilson, Polian said, “I was very, very wrong. I can only take comfort in the fact that I was in good company.”
Polian was right, though, about Wilson being a valuable commodity; no player on any team gives more value for the dollar. Wilson was paid just under $527,000 for the 2013 season, in which he led the Seahawks to a conference-high 13 wins—around 6 percent of what Drew Brees received this past season and 3 percent of Peyton Manning’s 2013 salary. Wilson isn’t eligible to renegotiate his contract till after the 2015 season, but it’s reasonable to assume that he’ll be seeing a sizeable raise and a contract extension before then.
As former NFL coach Jon Gruden said last season on Monday Night Football, “The only issue with Russell Wilson is his height. If he was 6’5” and put up the same numbers, he probably would have been the first to go in the draft.”
Wilson gets another MVP vote from his teammate, defensive back Richard Sherman. “If he’s not up there with Peyton Manning and Tom Brady, I don’t know what he has to do to get there.”
But Wilson knows: win the Super Bowl, which the Seahawks have never done in their 38-year existence. The odds would seem to be in his favor. By virtue of having the NFC’s best record, Seattle will have home field advantage at CenturyLink Field, where Wilson has won 15 of 16 games over the last two seasons. If he maintains that laser focus, there isn’t a team in the playoffs that can stop him.