Russell Wilson never pulled any punches. From the first day Colorado Rockies scouting director Bill Schmidt talked to him, Wilson was up front about his long-range plans. "He wanted to be Bo Jackson, Deion Sanders, Brian Jordan," said Schmidt. "He wanted to play in the NFL and in the Major Leagues."
Schmidt always has had a penchant for taking a shot in the First-Year Player Draft on football players, including Michael Vick after his junior year at Virginia Tech. And he was willing to give Wilson the opportunity to fulfill the baseball portion of his dream, signing Wilson as a fourth-round pick out of North Carolina State University in 2010. Some day, Wilson may make good on the baseball part of the equation. Right now, however, Wilson is living the NFL dream. He not only merited a third-round selection in the NFL draft by the Seattle Seahawks, but he won the starting-quarterback job and has played his way into contention for the Rookie of the Year Award. On Sunday, Wilson will be behind center for the Seahawks in the first round of the NFL playoffs against the Washington Redskins. In the NFL, Wilson is far removed from his baseball life, where he spent parts of two seasons in the Minor Leagues, hitting a combined .229 with 118 strikeouts in 315 at-bats at short-season Class A Tri-City and Class A Asheville. Most scouts were convinced that Wilson's best chance for professional success would come in baseball, not football. They just figured it would take a while. Wilson had his baseball development slowed at North Carolina State, where he basically platooned, playing primarily against left-handed pitchers. That's why the Rockies never wavered in their belief in Wilson's future, despite his initial struggles. Given a $250,000 signing bonus, he was considered the best athlete and fasted player in the system. And his managers and instructors always raved about the Wilson work ethic. Wilson, however, had that football dream, even if others doubted his potential, only because they wondered if Wilson, who is a shade below 5-foot-11, had the size to play in the NFL. Wilson ignored the skeptics. The gamble the Rockies took in the 2010 Draft was believed to be outfielder Kyle Parker, who also was a quarterback at Clemson. Parker, however, focused on baseball immediately, and he is one of the top outfield prospects in the game. Wilson? Well, during Spring Training 2011 it was suggested in an interview that Wilson could create some interest among teams in the Canadian Football League because of his quickness and athleticism. "I'm thinking the NFL," he said. He thought right. "You're always disappointed when you lose a player of his potential," said Schmidt, "but did he make the right decision? He sure did. We really felt he was going to be a good player, but it was going to take a while before that decision was going to be made. He was 1,500 Minor League at-bats away from knowing what was going to happen." There was no time wasted in the NFL. Wilson may have been a third-round pick last spring, the sixth quarterback taken in the NFL draft, and he may have arrived at Seahawks training camp with most people expecting Matt Flynn, Seattle's free-agent addition, to be the starting quarterback, but by the season-opening game it was Wilson who had won the job. He set an NFL rookie record with a 100.0 quarterback efficiency rating, ranking fourth among all NFL quarterbacks for the regular season, and his 26 touchdown passes equaled an NFL rookie record set by Peyton Manning in 1998. He threw 10 interceptions, but only four in the final 11 regular-season games. And in addition to passing for 3,118 yards, he had 489 yards rushing. That's the Wilson way. He's a quarterback who was a starter for three consecutive Virginia state champions in high school from 2004-06, but kept being told by recruiters he would be wise to move to the defensive backfield. He finally was told he could get a shot at quarterback with North Carolina State. Listed fifth on the depth chart at the start of fall camp in 2008, his redshirt freshman year, he was the starter by the first game of the season. Wilson started three seasons for the Wolfpack, throwing 76 touchdown passes, but after the football staff was upset that Wilson was going to return to pro baseball for a second season in 2011, the Wolfpack committed to junior Mike Glennon as their starting quarterback and told Wilson he would be released from his scholarship if he didn't want to be a backup. Wilson, who had already earned his degree, took advantage of that opportunity, and wound up landing at Wisconsin for his final collegiate football season. Seattle liked what it saw in Wilson that year with Wisconsin, drafted him and then lured him away from pro baseball with a four-year, $2.99 million deal that made it easy for Wilson to repay the bulk of his bonus from the Rockies. The Rockies do have the rights to Wilson in baseball for another four seasons, and they would welcome him back if he decided to try baseball again. Right now, however, baseball has become an afterthought. Wilson was determined to prove he could play in the NFL, and he has emphatically done that.
Tracy Ringolsby is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.