Russell Wilson’s late father always told him that there is a king in every crowd, looking to make sure he did things properly.
Few people have had more attention on them during an all-star college career than Wilson, NC State’s junior quarterback and accomplished baseball player. And few people have handled the attention with the poise and grace as the well-grounded young man from Richmond, Va.
“My dad always told me that someone is always watching,” Wilson says. “It might be a scout, a coach, a fan or a young kid who is trying to imitate you. In my own life, I know the Lord is always watching over me and that my dad is watching over me.”
“That’s a good thing. I know that you can’t do everything perfectly, but you can always try to do things the right way.”
Wilson rarely makes missteps.
Over the course of his freshman and sophomore seasons, he set the NCAA record for most passes without an interception. He graduated from NC State with a degree in communication in just three-and-a-half years, posting a 3.232 grade point average and earning three mentions on the ACC Honor Roll. When he proposed to his long-time girlfriend, he asked for permission from her father first.
As his junior football season ends, Wilson is more than just an All-America candidate, leading the ACC in passing yards, total offense and touchdown responsibility. He is an All-American role model. He has the respect of his teammates, the confidence of the coaches and the deep admiration of fans throughout the ACC.
Wilson always talks about his many blessings. He has always handled his great successes, like being the first freshman quarterback to win first-team All-ACC honors, and great adversities, like the stroke that debilitated his father, Harrison Wilson III, soon after Wilson was named the starting quarterback as a freshman two years ago, with similar even-keeled aplomb. The elder Wilson passed away in June, the day after his son was taken in the fourth round of the Major League draft of amateur players.
In the 22-year-old’s eyes, even the most traumatic event of his life was a blessing.
“I’m happy for him,” says Wilson, who made long trips to Richmond when he could to visit his dad in the hospital. “I know he’s in a better place than I am right now. He can watch every game and not worry about bumping somebody to the side of him in a full stadium.”
That outlook and disposition has made Wilson successful on the gridiron and the diamond. There is no deficit that can’t be overcome, no challenge that can’t be met. As a freshman, he twice missed games after suffering severe injuries. When he returned, finally healthy, the Wolfpack won four consecutive ACC games and qualified for its first postseason bowl game in three years.
Wilson’s positive attitude has been absorbed by his teammates, who have faced multiple difficulties over the last two seasons, from the loss of star linebacker Nate Irving in a near-fatal accident last summer to the fight offensive coordinator Dana Bible had with leukemia at the end of last season. Throw in multiple injuries to key players, and the Wolfpack has faced the trials of Job the last two years.
But Wilson has never let it bother him or the team.
“If something bad happens, our team tries to turn it into a positive,” Wilson says. “I think that’s something positive for us right now, to keep fighting whenever adversity comes.”
Leadership is one of Wilson’s key assets. He took command of the huddle as a freshman, and had the subtle touch to get in the face of underperforming older teammates who needed it and to encourage those who he knew could be better. Those abilities have been important to his individual success and the team’s fortunes.
“Obviously, we all embrace Russell,” says sophomore offensive lineman R.J. Mattes. “He is a great leader. He is always doing the right thing, always leading us in drills, always being the first in everything. He is one of those people who you love to be your captain, because he knows the right things to do.
“Russell is a special player. I love blocking for him.”
His other teammates appreciate how he shares his success with them. In two of the Wolfpack’s early wins of 2010, Wilson threw passes to 11 different receivers. He threw three touchdown passes on five occasions during the season and gradually took his place as one of the most productive quarterbacks in both NC State and ACC history.
Teammates on the Tri-City Dust Devils, the minor league baseball team Wilson played for this summer in Pasco, Wash., lined up during their free time to catch passes from one of college football’s premier quarterbacks, without the concern of twisted ankles on the gravel parking lot where they ran pass routes or broken fingers from Wilson’s precision bullet passes.
“The guys had fun with it, and so did I,” said Anthony Sanders, an assistant coach for the DustDevils who was once a highly recruited football/baseball prospect. “How often do you get a chance to catch passes from one of the best quarterbacks in college football?”
Among Wilson’s many admirers are two of his predecessors under center at NC State: legendary NFL quarterback Roman Gabriel and current Pro Bowl quarterback Philip Rivers of the San Diego Chargers.
“Russell has tremendous pocket-presence,” says Gabriel, the two-time football All-America who also led the Wolfpack baseball team in home runs in 1961 as a first baseman. “Guys who have the feel to move right and left without looking around in the pocket are the ones who are successful. Guys who worry about the pressure and are always looking for it are the ones who get sacked all the time and throw interceptions. Russell has the feel.”
Rivers adds: “He’s a lot of fun to watch. I just appreciate the way he plays. He has a command, leadership and presence in that offense. You can never count him out when he has the ball in his hands.”
Wilson is well-organized and diligent, two traits that helped him graduate from NC State in just three-and-a-half years with a degree in communication, while also playing two varsity sports. Though he has moved into the world of professional baseball, he still handles his duties as NC State’s starting quarterback while taking graduate school classes.
If anyone has the demeanor and skills to succeed in both sports, the way his personal heroes Brian Jordan and Deion Sanders did, it’s Wilson.
“Russell prepares for everything,” NC State coach Tom O’Brien says. “He’s mentally strong about a lot of things. He’s already started down the path to becoming a major league ball player. But the reason he came back to play football this year is to answer the question about his abilities to play in the NFL.
“Russell’s the kind of person when you tell him he can’t do something, he is going to go out and prove you wrong.”
Wilson is a master of details. When his minor league baseball team left for long road trips this summer, he was diligent about hiding his NC State football playbook in a secret place at his host family’s home, lest there be a rival fan somewhere out there – a full continent away – who might want an inside look at the Wolfpack’s offense.
He never lets an opportunity to improve go wasted. While on long bus trips with his baseball team this summer, he often sat with the Latino players so he could brush up on his Spanish.
Without question, Wilson has been through a lot in the last nine months, making difficult decisions that will allow him to pursue his dream of becoming an NFL quarterback and a Major League Baseball player, graduating from college, losing his father, spending the summer away from his football teammates and family and proposing to his long-time girlfriend.
He’s handled more critical life situations in a little more than a semester than most students face their entire college careers. Like always, he’s welcomed the challenge.
“There is nothing I can’t handle with the Lord,” Wilson says.