When nobody was watching, a little quarterback practiced for his day in front of the cameras. He used a hairbrush for a microphone. His dad did the interviewing, prepping him in the hopes that one day a roomful of people would listen. Anything in his control, the kid would be prepared for it. The tightest spiral? He was up at 6 a.m. to work on that. The smartest guy in the locker room? He once drove 17 hours straight, from Richmond, Va., to the University of Wisconsin just to get a copy of the playbook so he could become one with it over the Fourth of July weekend.
It was the stuff out of his control that confounded Russell Wilson. He did not talk about those things. He’d hear someone say he couldn’t do something in high school, and Wilson would type the quote, print it out and hang it on his wall so he could stare at it each morning when he awoke.
In many ways, Wilson almost seems too good to be true. The first time he did an interview at Wisconsin, he asked to borrow a shirt with a collar from the equipment manager because he doesn’t do interviews in T-shirts and shorts. The interview wasn’t even on-camera.
“I’d like to have a dollar for every college recruiter who came in and said, ‘Well, you know, can he be a good defensive back?'” McFall said. “I said, ‘I’ve never coached in college, and he can play defensive back, but he’s a quarterback.‘ If I’ve ever seen a quarterback, it’s Russell. He’s just a natural.”
He went to North Carolina State to play football and baseball. He’d wake up at 4:30 in the morning, lift with the football team, go to class, then practice baseball in the afternoon.
“He never said he was tired,” said Wolfpack baseball coach Elliott Avent. “He never looked tired. He was fresh as a baby.”
How did Wilson arrive at Wisconsin in the middle of the summer, so far behind, then win the hearts of his new teammates so quickly that four weeks later he was named a team captain?
“He works harder than you,” said Cole Hawthorne, one of his old receivers at Collegiate. “That’s what got so many people following the bandwagon. It’s almost like a challenge. You’re trying to work harder than Russell.”
When Wilson, who got his undergraduate degree in three years, decided on Wisconsin, he wasted little time. He drove halfway across the country with Pickett and a U-Haul, scrambling to learn the playbook in a month. That brutal cram session, Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema says, paved the way for Wilson to be so prepared to play in the NFL so quickly. He never really stopped.
For most of the nearly five-hour flight from Seattle to Newark Liberty International Airport, Russell Wilson did what he does: break down video clips of his Seahawks offense and of opponents’ defenses. Situational football, mainly; third-and-whatever, from whichever area of the field, at varying parts of the game.
“Until I met Russell, I’ve never seen anyone prepare like Brett Favre,” said Wilson’s Super Bowl ringer, wide receiver Percy Harvin, who played with Favre in Minnesota and who, having been held back by injury issues, will be suiting up on Sunday for just the third time this season.
“It was like 6 a.m. before the offseason program had even started, and he was watching film,” Harvin added. “The way he prepares is like no other.”
All quarterbacks worth anything have an unbridled work ethic; film study and repetition, leadership and respect from teammates are part of the daily lifestyle. However, what Wilson has that a lot of others — like Manning, Tom Brady, or even his idol, Drew Brees — don’t is a rapidly growing book on how to stop him.
“I’ve never seen someone with such a will to be great,” Seattle fullback Michael Robinson said of Wilson.
“I believe in my talent,” he said. “I believe in everything that I’ve been given. I expect to play at a high level, and I expect to be fighting for a Super Bowl every year. I put all the hard work in, and I expect great things when I put the hard work in. Like I always say, the separation is in the preparation.”