At 5′11″, Russell Wilson is the shortest starting quarterback in the NFL, but that hasn't stopped him from turning the Seattle Seahawks into a Super Bowl contender
The criticisms were constant, but Russell Wilson always welcomed them. As a kid, people kept telling him, "You're too short to play pro sports." So, at age 13, Wilson started using those discouraging words to push himself to work harder. "Anything the naysayers would say, I would type it up, print it out, and hang it above my computer at home," he says. "Every day I would see those words and use them as motivation."
Wilson stopped using that motivational tool by the time he turned 18. Other peoples' doubts, however, continued throughout his college career, and on NFL draft night in 2012, when he wasn't chosen until the third round. Last season the 5′11″ Wilson proved the critics wrong once again by winning the Seattle Seahawks' starting quarterback job in training camp and then leading the team to an 11–5 record and a wild-card playoff victory. He tied Peyton Manning's NFL record for touchdown passes by a rookie (26) and had the second-highest rookie QB rating in history (100.0).
Heading into his second season, the 24-year-old QB, who is a threat as a passer and a runner, is looking to redefine what a player his size can do. "My height doesn't define my skill set," Wilson says. "It doesn't measure how well I can lead a team."
Wilson started throwing passes at an age when everyone is small — five years old. His father, Harrison, a former college football and baseball player, paired him with his older brother, Harrison IV, to practice throwing outside their home in Richmond, Virginia.
Like his dad, Russell played baseball too and later had an impressive career in both sports at Collegiate School. Wilson led his football team to an undefeated record and state title in 2005 and batted .467 as a high school senior on the baseball team in 2006. His success on the gridiron and on the diamond continued at North Carolina State, and the Colorado Rockies drafted him in 2010. Even with one year of college eligibility left and a desire to play in the NFL, Wilson chose pro baseball instead. He struggled in two minor league (Class A) seasons, finishing with a .229 batting average, five home runs, and 26 RBIs.
In 2011, Wilson headed back to football, transferring to the University of Wisconsin for his senior year. "I said, I'm going to be the 5′11″ starting quarterback and play in the NFL," he says. "I believed in myself and took a leap of faith."
Wilson made a big impact upon his return to the gridiron, setting an NCAA record for pass efficiency by throwing 33 touchdown passes and only four interceptions in leading the Badgers to the Big Ten title and a Rose Bowl appearance.
Wilson's strong senior season didn't do much to boost his pro prospects. NFL quarterbacks shorter than 6′2″ are rare, and few in history have been successful. Over the past decade there have been only two, Drew Brees and Michael Vick (both 6-feet), who have become stars.
When Wilson was drafted in the third round, it looked as if he would back up Matt Flynn, who had signed a three-year, $26 million free-agent contract with Seattle during the off-season. But Flynn struggled with a right arm injury during the preseason, and Wilson impressed Seattle coaches with his talent and work ethic. In the third preseason game, against the Kansas City Chiefs, he went 13 for 19 for 185 passing yards and two TDs, and rushed for 58 yards. Seahawks coaches named him the starter for the regular season. "When we gave Russell the job, I thought, Well, buckle up. It's gonna be a Disney ride," Seattle coach Pete Carroll told SPORTS ILLUSTRATED last February. "It wasn't conventional thinking. But conventional thinking, that's not always what wins."
The risk paid off for Carroll and the Seahawks. After a 2–2 start, Wilson found his rhythm. During the final five weeks of the 2012 regular season, he racked up several big-time performances. Against the Chicago Bears on December 2, he led a 97-yard touchdown drive in the final minutes of the fourth quarter and an 80-yard TD march in overtime. Two weeks later he had three rushing scores in a win over the Buffalo Bills, followed by four touchdown passes in a blowout of the rival San Francisco 49ers on national TV. Seattle finished 11–5, reaching double-digit wins for the first time in five years.
Wilson's success continued in the postseason. He steered Seattle to a 24–14 road win over the Washington Redskins in an NFC wild-card game. The Hawks fell to Atlanta in the next round, but Wilson broke a 75-year-old record for passing yards (385) by a rookie in a postseason game. It was clear that the Seahawks had found their field general for years to come.
HAWK TAKING FLIGHT
Wilson's success proved that many of the concerns about him were overblown, such as the theory that he would have trouble seeing over the line of scrimmage and spotting receivers downfield. "If I was 6′2″, I still wouldn't be able to see over my linemen who are 6′8″," says Wilson.
Wilson uses his smarts, footwork, vision, and poise to make plays in a variety of ways. "He's good in play-action, he's good in regular passing situations, he's good as a designed runner," says ESPN analyst Tim Hasselbeck. "Do I think that he can be a guy who's a Pro Bowl quarterback for a decade? Yeah, I think he can be."
His teammates see value beyond his physical skills. "He has an unwavering leadership quality, especially under pressure," says cornerback Richard Sherman.
One skill that some observers overlook is Wilson's ability to throw deep. "Look at the completions he racked up last year," says Sherman. "His arm is a lot stronger than people realize. He chucked a 70-yard bomb the other day in practice."
Wilson now faces the challenge of trying to top his rookie campaign. After Seattle acquired star receiver Percy Harvin in the off-season, there was talk that the team would be a Super Bowl contender. In July it was announced that Harvin would miss several months with a hip injury, putting the pressure of those expectations on Wilson's shoulders. The little guy is ready to take on all doubters. Chances are, he'll come up big once again.
Photo: Kevin Casey/Getty Images