Virginia’s Favorite QB

It’s a hero’s welcome for Seattle Seahawks star Russell Wilson as he returns to his hometown of Richmond.

“Russell! Hey, Russell!” cries a crowd of eager children on a warm June morning in Richmond.

They jostle to get closer to the fence of the Tuckahoe Sports complex, necks craning upward, their faces flushed with anticipation. Russell Wilson is about to take the field.

The 2014 Super Bowl-winning quarterback of the Seattle Seahawks is back in his hometown for the fifth year of the Russell Wilson Passing Academy, a one-day football camp for kids ages 8 to 17, the third stop on the camp’s six-city tour across the U.S. and Canada.

Marc and Eileen Molina have driven their 8-year-old son, Marc Jr., all the way from Union City, New Jersey, to attend the camp, confessing, “We told him Russell checks the grades, and if he got honors he would get to go to camp.” The Molinas are among the more than 350 kids and parents who have gathered here today, including Trish Werner of Richmond and her 11-year-old son, Will, who plays for the Tuckahoe Tomahawks—the same youth football team Wilson played for as a boy before going on to Collegiate School, where he led the Cougars to state championships in 2005 and 2006, and was twice named the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s athlete of the year.

For these kids, Wilson’s success on the field has made him a hero—for their parents, that success combined with Wilson’s easy confidence and focus on all-American values has made him a role model. He’s the real deal.But before the now 25-year-old Wilson became a hero, before he won the Super Bowl, before he was named to two Pro Bowls, before he won Rookie of the Year and before he was drafted by the Seattle Seahawks, he was considered by NFL scouts to be just too short, at 5-feet 10 inches, to succeed as a pro quarterback. “He’s too short! He’s too short! He’s too damn short!” said ESPN analyst and former Tampa Bay Buccaneers coach John Gruden in 2012, mocking the litany of preseason draft reports.

For all the sports writers and draft wonks who doubted, there were people closer to Wilson who did not. “It was pretty clear from the get-go how good he was. He was always very competitive. I always thought he was going to be in the NFL,” says Cole Hawthorne, Wilson’s friend and teammate at Collegiate with whom he and a third friend, Scott Pickett, founded the Passing Academy after graduating from high school in 2007.

“Russell was a tremendous leader,” says Charlie McFall, Wilson’s football coach at Collegiate for three years. (Wilson also starred in baseball and basketball.) “The way he carried himself, he earned the respect of not only his own team, but of the opposition.” McFall remembers that even in the most heated of rivalries (“there was some bad blood,” he says), after the game, opposing players would leave their animosity on the field to give him a genuine band-of-brothers slap on the shoulder pads.

Wilson didn’t play organized football until the 6th grade, showing up to a Friday night practice for the Tuckahoe Tomahawks because one of his baseball coaches asked him to stand in for a big game the next day. “On the very first play, our starting quarterback got knocked out of the game. The coach sent me in to play quarterback,” says Wilson. “I told him, ‘I don’t know any of the plays.’ He just told me to do the best I could. Well, I drew plays in the grass and just improvised my way through. I ended up throwing six touchdown passes, and we won by 45 points.”

Even if his athleticism came naturally, many of the traits to which Wilson attributes his success were learned from his parents, Harrison Wilson III, a lawyer who died from diabetes complications in 2010, and Tammy Wilson, a legal nurse consultant. “Our dinner conversations always centered around three major themes—faith, family and education,” says Wilson. “We talked about role models, all the way across the board, from Martin Luther King Jr. to Derek Jeter. These were role models that lived the life that my parents wanted for my brother, sister and me.”

Though he was offered a major league baseball contract directly out of high school (and would even spend the last two summers of college playing minor league baseball in the Colorado Rockies organization), Wilson decided against professional baseball to attend N.C. State, to play both football and baseball, largely at the urging of his father, who was insistent that his son go to college. At N.C. State, Wilson made a promise to his father that he would graduate in three years—a promise he fulfilled. He then played a final season at the University of Wisconsin, setting a school record for passing touchdowns in a single season and leading the Badgers to the Rose Bowl.

Education and athletics have always gone hand-in-hand for the family. Harrison Wilson Jr., Wilson’s grandfather, (who served as the president of Norfolk State University from 1975-1997), played basketball, baseball and football at Kentucky State University. Both Wilson’s father and brother were multi-sport athletes at Dartmouth College and the University of Richmond, respectively, and his sister Anna, one of the top-ranked basketball recruits in the country, will graduate from Collegiate in 2016 with a scholarship offer to attend Stanford University already sealed. 

After lunch, the campers crowd around Wilson, reaching out for a fist bump or a high five. “Were you nervous before the Super Bowl?” one boy asks. “No, not at all. I never get nervous before games. God’s given me a tremendous ability to play the game of football. It’s a game. It’s a game that I love, that I put all my work and energy into, and it’s also my job, but I don’t look at the game of football as life and death.”

The kids are quiet as he continues. “I think about my dad getting sick, my mom having to take care of him, my dad passing away. That’s pressure, and I feel like a game is supposed to be fun. Being out here with you guys, jumping up and down, throwing the football, enjoying this game is what it’s all about.”

Does it feel the same for Wilson to step out onto the field now as it did when he was a kid? “I love the energy of the game. That has never changed for me. I love competing …. It’s always been the same. I just love the game. That’s every single day.”

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