Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson hoists the George Halas Trophy after the 2013 NFC Championship football game against the San Francisco 49ers at CenturyLink Field. (USA TODAY Sports: Kirby Lee)
NEW YORK — Considered too short to thrive as a quarterback, Russell Wilson of the Seattle Seahawks has proved doubters wrong all the way to the pinnacle of his sport - the Super Bowl.
Wilson fought his way to a starting role in high school and college but slipped to the third round of the 2012 NFL Draft as evaluators felt the 5-foot-11 (1.80 m) signal caller would not be a big-time player in the pro ranks.
Now, after two seasons and two Pro Bowl selections, Wilson tackles his biggest challenge yet in a Super Bowl quarterbacking duel against a towering figure on the National Football League landscape in Peyton Manning of the Denver Broncos.
A gifted athlete who pondered a baseball career and played two seasons as a minor league second baseman for the Colorado Rockies, Wilson has used his strong arm and quick footwork to set an NFL record for most wins by a quarterback in his first two seasons.
Wilson grew up in Virginia in an athletically-gifted family that placed a premium on education and became a quarterback almost by default.
His father played two sports at Dartmouth College, went to law school at the University of Virginia and nearly made the San Diego Chargers as a receiver after graduating.
Wilson’s older brother became a college receiver, and that made young Russell the quarterback in family practice sessions and the pint-sized boy developed a powerful arm.
Talent merged with planning, thought and preparation for Wilson, whose grandfather was a multi-sport athlete in college and became president at Norfolk State University for 22 years, and he became a winner at every level.
He won three state championships in high school, went to North Carolina State where he was fifth on the pecking list at quarterback but wound up the starter by the opening game.
Released from his scholarship three years later after declining to quit pro baseball, he went to the University of Wisconsin-Madison and led the Badgers to a Rose Bowl in his only season.
After being taken 75th overall in the NFL Draft as the sixth quarterback drafted, he beat out newly-signed Matt Flynn to become the starting signal caller and as a rookie led Seattle into the playoffs with their first winning season in five years.
Wilson, dwarfed in the 2012 draft by the top two picks of Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III, has succeeded by using his quickness to find lanes between giant pass rushers to make his throws, and his elusiveness to buy time with scrambles while his receivers move into open space.
The young quarterback, who once attended Manning’s camp for promising passers, found a quarterbacking role model in Drew Brees, a smallish quarterback who won a Super Bowl with the New Orleans Saints in 2010.
“Drew Brees was a guy that I looked up to ever since my dad told me about him back when I was in middle school and high school, (saying) ‘Hey you have to watch this guy at Purdue.’”
“When I went to Wisconsin, that’s when I really started watching him. I watched every single throw that he made the year before in the National Football League, just studying his craft, studying his game,” Wilson told reporters on Sunday.
“I’ve read his book several times, and he’s just great inspiration. He’s a guy that does things right, a guy that is a great leader and he’s so poised in big situations.”
Wilson said he reached out to Brees last week to talk to him about what Super Bowl week is like.
The Seattle quarterback is tireless in pursuit of an edge, which was demonstrated when the college communications major accepted some broadcasting work at the Super Bowl last year after the Seahawks were eliminated in the playoffs.
“My main objective was to get prepared for this situation if this was the case,” he told reporters about his mission to help the Seahawks win their first Super Bowl.
“That was a big day for me to able to scout, just to be able to watch. I was there four and half hours before the game, just watching the rhythm of the day, the rhythm of pre-game. That helped me to personally understand the timetable it takes.”
Wilson gave up some relaxation time on Seattle’s transcontinental flight to New Jersey on Sunday, spending more than three hours breaking down scouting tape.
“The best way to be sure that you’re ready for this moment is to prepare the right way,” Wilson said.
Seattle coach Pete Carroll is supremely confident in his young signal caller heading into the big game.
“We’ve never seen anything from Russell that wasn’t consistent. Direction, support, mindset, character, work habits - he’s never changed at all,” the coach said. “He’s been so rock solid consistent. He’s ready for this opportunity.
“He’s been readying himself throughout his playing career in all sports. He’s got a great savvy about him and I think he’s going to continue to show that.”