RENTON, WASH. — In his other athletic life, Russell Wilson was little more than a light-hitting second baseman. He platooned against left-handed starting pitchers, his combination of athleticism, dedication and wisdom unable to translate in the batter's box in Asheville, N.C. He told the Rockies when they drafted him of his desire to be a two-sport athlete, if not Bo Jackson, maybe a less-amplified Deion Sanders. He had never failed at anything in sports, so the idea of a part-timer on the diamond at North Carolina State reaching the big leagues didn't seem that preposterous.
Then life threw him a curveball. Plenty of them.
He was batting .228 for the Single-A Asheville Tourists on June 27, 2011 — 93 games into his minor-league career — when he quit baseball and enrolled at Wisconsin for a final season of college football. He had to repay the bulk of the $200,000 signing bonus the Rockies gave him as a fourth-round draft pick, but his urge to make it in football proved brilliant.
That decision, which led to Wilson's transformation into a household name as the Seattle Seahawks' quarterback entering the Super Bowl next Sunday against the Broncos, has been oft-explored but not dissected by those who knew him then.
It was on Wilson's mind as he knelt down in the victory formation at the end of Seattle's stirring 23-17 victory over the San Francisco 49ers in the NFC championship game.
“The thing I thought about during (those) last snaps was, 'Man, I could have been playing baseball right now,' ” Wilson told reporters.
His time in the minor leagues, said former Asheville teammates, provided a window into his current success despite his trouble hitting the curve. The batting cages in North Carolina revealed not so much resilience as confidence and commitment. It was there that he showed characteristics of a Broncos quarterback. Not Peyton Manning but rather Tim Tebow.
Wilson, a second baseman with good range and an above-average arm, showed up hours early to get in cage work with former coach Lenny Sakata, who tried to help him become a better hitter.
“We got really close during the season. He was a big Christian and a humble leader,” Rockies outfielder Corey Dickerson said. “He rubbed some people the wrong way with his work ethic. Some people thought he wore himself out before games. But he was a player who studied the game and helped out other guys. He left (to go back to football) but did it the right way, and we all respect that.”
“Tremendous work ethic”
It's doubtful Wilson would have reached the big leagues by now, no matter how hard he worked. Given his career arc, he likely would be at Double-A Tulsa or competing for a starting job in Triple-A Colorado Springs this spring.
There was something about Wilson during those days on the farm, however, that led teammates to gravitate toward him. Kyle Parker, a former star quarterback at Clemson and a power hitter pegged for Triple-A ball this year, is convinced Wilson would have eventually figured out how to hit. He just grinded too hard and was too talented not to unlock the secret.
“He was a great dude with tremendous work ethic. He was going to be successful, be it in football or baseball,” Parker said.
Wilson is everything Manning is not. At least physically. He's 5-foot-11, 206 pounds. He relies on his feet (1,028 rushing yards in two seasons) as much as his arm (6,475 yards passing over the past two seasons with 52 touchdowns, three fewer than Manning threw during the 2013 regular season). The software is not the same, but the hardware is identical.
Wilson's greatest strength comes from what fans don't see. In the film room. At practice. At the training facility here. He arrives early. Really early.
“Man, around 6:15 a.m. It's hard to beat him here. It rubs off on guys. You don't want to be slacking when you know he's in here getting better,” linebacker Malcolm Smith said.
Wilson's preparation shows in his decision-making on game day, teammates say. His strength isn't through “Omaha” audibles but understanding tendencies when plays break down. He had not played particularly well last Sunday, when he used a fourth-and-7 opportunity from the 35-yard line to punch the 49ers in the gut. He called a double-count, hoping the 49ers would fall for the ruse. San Francisco's Aldon Smith cooperated, jumping offside and stopping, negating the pass rush. Armed with a “free” play, Wilson fired the ball deep knowing his receivers, as they had practiced repeatedly, were running vertical routes to the end zone.
Jermaine Kearse made a leaping grab that held up as the winning score.
“Russell is fabulous in everything we have asked him to do. He's done a great job of managing all of the situations, and he's come up big just about every time,” Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell said. “We don't want to push him to the limit and ask to him to do too much and have that show up in his play. But I don't know if we could do that to him.”
Wired for success
It can be hard work being a young star quarterback, with the demands for time, but Wilson is a young star because he's worked for it, rising from a third-round draft choice to grab the starting job as a rookie. It doesn't hurt that he fell into an ideal situation. Would he have enjoyed a meteoric rise in Buffalo or Cleveland? Wilson can turn around and hand the ball off to the league's most destructive running back, Marshawn Lynch, whose finely tuned cruelty to a defense's midsection opens up the field for a capable, underrated receiving corps.
“He has great guys around him,” said receiver Doug Baldwin. “He has one of the best running backs. He has an offensive line that keeps him up, giving him an opportunity to make plays.”
Wilson, though, still has to capitalize, and often does. The Patriots' Tom Brady overthrew a deep pass to a wide-open Julian Edelman late in the first quarter against the Broncos last week. Complete that pass and the complexion of the game changes.
Wilson's success has been a series of surprises because he doesn't allow for them. He attended last year's Super Bowl to get a “feel for it,” he said. He has talked with New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees about how to manage his time and, according to ESPN, even had the Seahawks' practice footballs slicked up to mimic those used for the Super Bowl.
There's no detail too small to overcome. Unless, of course, it's a curveball.
“But you know what? I think he would have made the right adjustments and become successful in baseball,” Dickerson said. “He tries so hard to get better every day. It was noticeable, and it's evident with everything that he's done in his two years in Seattle.”