Wolfpack's Wilson living a dream as two-sport college athlete
Wandering raccoons and sleep-deprived neighbors bore witness to Russell Wilson's competitive drive long before the baseball and football coaching staffs at North Carolina State University ever did.Growing up in suburban Richmond, Va., Russell and his older brother, Harry -- 5½ years his senior -- engaged in epic backyard-baseball games that often ended in the wee hours of the morning on weekdays.
"Whenever we'd compete against each other, it was pretty intense," Russell recalls. "It was like we didn't even know each other."
It wasn't long until everyone at Richmond's Collegiate School knew who Russell was, and the day is fast approaching when Russell Wilson becomes a household name in ACC country. As an infielder on the baseball team and quarterback on the football team entering his second year at NC State, Russell is merely the latest two-sport college athlete to come out of the Wilson family.His grandfather, Harrison B. Wilson Jr., split time between football and basketball at Kentucky State, and his father, Harrison III, doubled as a baseball and football player at Dartmouth. More recently, his brother Harry completed an accomplished career at the University of Richmond as a wide receiver/punt returner for the Spiders' football team and an outfielder on the baseball team.
Russell, 19, embodies all the Wilson family's greatest athletic attributes. "Russell's 10 times better than I am at either [football or baseball]," Harry freely admits. "You have to be supertalented to do both as well as he does. In baseball you expect him to get a hit every time, and in football I'm amazed at the type of leader he is."
In 32 games as a true freshman on an NC State baseball team that advanced all the way to the super regionals this spring, Russell started 16 games and hit .296 with two home runs, eight RBIs and six stolen bases in seven attempts. Shifting between second base and third base, Russell emerged as a starter early in the Wolfpack's season. But when spring football practice beckoned in late March, Russell was whisked away for several weeks in the middle of the baseball season.
"He was a starter in the infield after only five weeks," marvels NC State head baseball coach Elliott Avent. "We didn't have him the whole fall, and he came to practice on Jan. 10. After two to three weeks you could see the talent there. He's a tremendous athlete, and his instincts are so good. The time away hurt him in the field -- he was a little rusty when he came back -- but what amazed me is that he was still able to hit even in the ACC, one of the top leagues in the country."
Having to re-earn playing time after his spring football hiatus, Wilson eventually worked himself back into the lineup, belting two hits in the second game of the Wolfpack's best-of-three super regional loss against Georgia. Though Avent may eventually have to move Wilson to the outfield because of the time he misses for football (footwork can be difficult to rediscover for any out-of-practice infielder), he isn't concerned that such a change would have a negative impact on someone so naturally gifted.
"To play in the outfield, for a guy as talented as [Wilson], is actually easy," says Avent. "There are wide receivers or cornerbacks who get bored in the spring and go out and run the 200 [meters, on the track team]. I don't think that's as much a two-sport athlete as Russell Wilson."
Indeed, Wilson juggles his baseball while competing for the starting quarterback position on State's football team. As it stands now, Wilson -- who redshirted last fall -- still has a legitimate shot at being under center when the Wolfpack opens at South Carolina on Aug. 28. Hailed by ESPN Insider as a "hybrid between former Virginia QB Marques Hagans and Doug Flutie," the 5-foot-11, 191-pound Wilson is a true dual-threat quarterback. As a junior and senior at Collegiate, he threw for a combined 6,296 yards, rushed for an additional 1,766 yards and accounted for 107 total touchdowns with his arm and his legs. Wilson was named the 2005 Richmond Times-Dispatch Player of the Year -- a rarity in Richmond for someone from a tiny independent school like Collegiate -- and he has also appeared in Sports Illustrated's "Faces in the Crowd" section.
Like all the other men in his family, Russell was determined to be a two-sport college athlete. "I knew my whole life I wanted to play two sports in college," he says, crediting his brother for showing him it could be done. "[Harry] was a big influence on me in a lot of different ways -- telling me I've got to be tough and constantly on the grind. He's always been there for me. I love him to death."
As a high school sophomore, Russell started receiving invitations to play at various baseball showcases. Avent discovered him at the Commonwealth Games in Salem, Va. "I saw this kid playing shortstop with a great arm, and someone told me he was a top quarterback recruit in football," Avent recalls. "So I called up [then-NC State head football coach] Chuck Amato and told him about Russell. They had heard of him but weren't actively going after him at the time, so Coach Amato said, 'I might recruit him.'"
Though he now plays for a different football coaching staff (former Boston College coach Tom O'Brien supplanted Amato), Wilson is still permitted to play two sports. He is on scholarship for football, but baseball is likely where his future lies. Already taken by the Baltimore Orioles in the 41st round of the 2007 Major League Baseball draft, Wilson instead elected to fulfill his dream of playing two college sports while pursuing a degree.
"I was leaning towards [entering the draft]," Wilson says, "but a college education is something you'll always have."
When Wilson chose college, major league teams backed off -- the Orioles eventually selected him late in the draft as a just-in-case. "A lot of scouts said Russell could have been taken in the third or fourth round [of the '07 MLB draft] and were making calls trying to get him to sign," Avent says. "I have no doubt he'll make it to the big leagues."
Wilson's career goals aren't limited to baseball, however. A sports fanatic his entire life -- "I was never a cartoon guy," he says, "I was always watching ESPN" -- Wilson hopes to one day become a "SportsCenter" anchor after his playing days are over. With that in mind, he sought out ESPN college baseball analyst and former two-sport star Brian Jordan at this year's super regionals. Like Harry, Jordan played football and baseball at the University of Richmond.
I knew my whole life I wanted to play two sports in college.
-- Russell Wilson
"He was the announcer for our game," Wilson explains. "He told me, 'Don't ever let anyone tell you you can't [play two sports]. Do what your heart tells you.' That was motivating for me, especially coming from someone who played professionally. My goals long-term are to play professionally, but being successful for me means being a leader in your community. People like Brian Jordan -- kids look up to them. I want to be someone like that."
What gives Avent the confidence that his star pupil can develop into the next Brian Jordan is not only Wilson's extraordinary athleticism, but his unrelenting work ethic. In the dead of winter bridging the end of football season and the beginning of baseball, Wilson regularly hit the weight room at 5 a.m. before heading off to class. If he was exhausted come class time, it didn't show: Wilson posted an impressive 3.6 grade-point average his freshman year at NC State.
"Russell handles both sports as well as anybody I've ever seen," says Avent, State's head baseball man the past 13 seasons. "The things this guy has done and continues to do so far he's done it unbelievably well. He's such a positive guy -- he always has a smile on his face. We're so proud to be associated with such a first-class person from a first-class family. For all our students who say they don't have time to do certain things: Tell them the Russell Wilson story."
Chris Preston is an editor for the Northeast Sports Network and a frequent contributor to Varsity Magazine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.