Russell Wilson: the Quarterback That Connects

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Russell Wilson, who was featured on the cover of our October 2013 issue, led the Seattle Seahawks to the franchise’s first-ever Super Bowl victory on Sunday, defeating the Denver Broncos, 43–8. Wilson now has 28 wins under his belt, an unprecedented number of victories for a second-year quarterback. Read on to learn more about a player you’ll be seeing plenty more of in seasons to come.

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“You want to catch the log in your stomach, never in your chest.”

Standing in front of a horizontal log raised 61⁄2 feet off the ground, the Marine instructor is explaining the inherent dangers of this obstacle—namely, a cracked sternum and broken ribs—to Russell Wilson. 

To demonstrate proper form, the instructor leaps toward the log, catches it in his belly, rolls over the top, and lands deftly, grabbing the dirt with both hands—a drill designed to teach newbies to bend their knees when they land, he says.

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Wilson is watching intently as he prepares to do the same. He’s on Marine Corps Base Quantico, just outside Triangle, VA, getting ready to show Men’s Fitness what he’s made of, and this first challenge is a tricky one—a shattered sternum wouldn’t sit well with the people of the Pacific Northwest, no matter how well the day’s photos turn out. Wilson’s longtime friend Scott Pickett is standing next to me, and he’s visibly nervous. It’s not long before Wilson, ready to attempt the drill, springs into action.

He catches the log square in the chest—eliciting a groan from Pickett— and Wilson is stuck there until he drops to the ground, frustrated. The Marines are quick to offer tips, and even help him to the top. Instead of giving in, Wilson fires off questions to the assembled corpsmen, determined to get past this hindrance the right way. Satisfied with the Marines’ advice, Wilson backtracks and then soars toward the log again.


This time he takes the hit right in the gut, swings his leg up, and flips his body so it’s lying flat on the log, just like his instructor demonstrated moments before. The Marines erupt in cheers, and Wilson is all smiles.

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Defying Expectations

“So how did you get into magazines?” Wilson asks, striking up a conversation in the car. “And where did you go to school?” Decked from head to toe in Nike gear with a modest watch on his wrist, his broad frame and somewhat unruly head of hair are filling up my rearview mirror. Pickett is seated next to him. I’ve just picked them up at a staging area of Quantico for the 15-minute drive to the obstacle course where he’ll be tackling that log.

It’s an odd role reversal—Wilson, interviewing me about my career as I serve up questions about his football exploits—but the 25-year-old quarterback has never really sought, or attracted, attention. He’s more about sizing up situations, and seizing opportunities, whether it’s negotiating a log to the chest, or sneaking a tight completion into double coverage.

The 75th pick in the 2012 NFL draft, most football experts projected the 5’11” Wilson to spend his career as a hopeful backup. Instead, he’s changing the way the league thinks of a franchise quarterback. He combines a strong, accurate arm with a devastatingly elusive running game, a skills package that puts defenses on their heels. Last season, he tallied 489 yards on the ground (the third-highest total by a quarterback) while completing 64.1% of his passes and giving up just 10 interceptions over 16 regular-season games, a lethal blend that led the Seahawks to an appearance in the divisional round of the NFC playoffs.

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As Wilson explains how he overcame comments regarding his height— “I just had to ignore it”—I think back to conversations I’ve had with pro athletes, the vast majority of which have been a string of clichés (“Leave it all on the field; take it one play at a time”) punctuated by surly silences. The first thing that strikes you about Wilson is his level of engagement with what’s going on around him. Look no further than his college athletics career. A two-sport athlete who spurned Major League Baseball to play college football, he juggled two Division I sports with a massive course load and excelled at all three.

“I was offered a million dollars [by the Baltimore Orioles out of high school],” he says matter of factly. “I turned it down, and I went to North Carolina State to play football and baseball, and I promised my dad I would graduate in three years, so I took 18 credits each semester.” He figured that if he could get a master’s with his scholarship, he’d go after it.

As he grew as a quarterback at NC State, Wilson’s game steadily improved. He threw for 177 yards per game as a freshman, jumped to 252 as a sophomore, and then jumped again to 274 as a junior (and earned a 4.0 GPA to boot). After three years he was near the top of most quarterback records at NC State and was poised to capture many of them during his final season, until it all came to an acrimonious end.

Wilson played baseball for NC State each spring. In the summer of 2010, he was drafted into the majors again, this time by the Colorado Rockies. In January of 2011 Wilson announced that he’d report to spring training with the team. It was a decision that didn’t sit well with NC State head football coach Tom O’Brien, and as the story evolved, it became apparent that if Wilson returned to Raleigh, he would be coming in as a backup. So Wilson requested—and was granted—a release from his scholarship, under the provision that he would not sign with any team in the ACC or on NC State’s schedule. “I believe it is in the best interest of the players and coaches involved to end any speculation of my return to the Wolfpack. It has become apparent that the time has come for the program to move on without me,” Wilson said in a press release.

He played baseball with the Rockies’ Class A affiliate, the Asheville Tourists, in the summer of 2011, but his heart never left football. He had reached a crossroads: Should he take the near-guaranteed money in professional baseball or take one more shot at football? “I would be on the phone with Russell for hours on end talking about what [sport] he wanted to [play], weighing the options,” recalls Wilson’s older brother, Harrison Wilson IV. “Ultimately, what trumped everything else was that he had another year of eligibility to play football. He knew that 10 years from now, he’d regret not seeing [football] through for another six months.” Halfway through the 2011 baseball season, Wilson made his decision. He would transfer out of NC State to play one more season of football. University of Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema announced that Wilson would be a member of the Badgers football team in the fall. The NCAA allows students with a degree (Wilson had earned his B.A. in communications in three years) to bypass the usual year of bench time that accompanies most transfers, so Wilson, soon to be a grad student, would be eligible to play immediately.

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“I took a huge risk leaving baseball, because I was predicted to play in the big leagues,” Wilson explains as he gazes out the window. “I’m kind of a prototypical second baseman.” But it wasn’t the same as being the QB. “For anyone—not just Russell—in baseball, if you bat .300 throughout your career in the major leagues, you’re going to go to the Hall of Fame,” Harrison says. “You’re failing 70% of the time, and you’re considered the best of the best. If you look at it from the football standpoint, if you fail 70% of the time, you’re not going to have a job.”

“[When I transferred to Wisconsin], that’s when I really realized that [football] is what I want to do for the rest of my life,” Wilson says as we meander around a turn. “I knew I could play the game of football, I knew I could make great decisions [with the football], and I knew I could throw. I just needed an opportunity.”

It might’ve been more accurate to say that Wisconsin got an opportunity with Wilson. After one season at the school, he’d set the NCAA single-season record for passing efficiency while setting school records in passing yardage, completions, TD passes, and total yards of offense, capping it all off with a Big 10 championship and a Rose Bowl berth.

“My ultimate goal professionally is to be one of the best to ever play the game, and I think I’ve got a long way to go,” Wilson says as we enter Minute 30 of our 15-minute ride.

At this point, the conversation veers away from questions about Wilson’s football career and toward a common issue—namely, where we are (or aren’t, depending on how you look at it). We’ve been driving for a half hour and the obstacle course is nowhere in sight. Wilson, like most professional athletes, has almost all of his time accounted for, and it appears that I’m wasting it. Bracing for the worst, I prepare to apologize profusely for my miscalculation. Instead, Wilson breaks the silence by asking me where I’m flying out of—and to ensure that I have enough time to make my flight comfortably.

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Muscle That Moves

After 45 minutes, we pull up to a small, Spartan collection of Marine Corps buildings, one of which will serve as an impromptu studio for Wilson’s photo shoot. At the moment, it’s full of Marines and the Men’s Fitness crew, and as Wilson approaches with the calm, confident gait of an athlete, the chatter briefly subsides. That is, until he greets everyone in the group— Marines, photographers, stylists—with a smile and a handshake, introducing himself by name. Some of them are taken by surprise, others are eager to talk football. After he’s made his rounds and the photographers and Marines have returned to their work, the rest of us dive into the catering.

“Anybody have a fork?” Wilson asks, cradling a cupful of fruit in his massive hands. As I hand him one, I ask what he’s doing in terms of his diet. It’s one of the things he’s really trying to focus on, he says. “I’ve been trying to cut out carbs late at night. I’m a big pasta guy, but I’ve cut it out to stay fast and lean.”

During the off-season, Wilson has the green light from Seattle Seahawks director of player health and performance, Sam Ramsden, to eat as he pleases. During the season, Ramsden focuses on Wilson’s getting ample protein (around 30 grams every four hours), and calories (around 4,000 per day). Most of his meals are based around a list of “action foods”(check them out on page 130)—nutrient-dense options that address shortcomings in his macro- and micronutrient profile. He’s started carrying a bit more body fat (10%, up from 8.5% a year ago) to help absorb the bumps and bruises that accumulate over a long season of collisions.

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The photographer snaps a few shots before asking him to take off his shirt. If he’s carrying any extra body fat, you can’t see it. With a barrel chest, massive arms, tree-trunk legs, and those catcher’s-mitt hands, the quarterback looks like he was constructed by a committee of football coaches. “I try to do something physical every day,” he says. “I don’t go heavy every day, though. I’ll lift four days a week, and then on the off-days I’ll be [in the Seahawks training facility] doing core stuff, shoulder stability stuff, or just stretching.”

Wilson works with Seattle Seahawks director of strength and conditioning Chris Carlisle to make sure it’s time well spent. “Our philosophy here is that we are a movement- based program,” Carlisle says. “If you look at the game of football, when the ball is snapped, there is one commonality between all 22 players, and that is movement. So almost everything we do is based on movement.” Their training includes everything from explosive speed to learning the correct way to fall when you’re being tackled. They also work on strength with presses and squats, but not as much as you’d think. “Eighty percent of our program is based on movement—speed, agility, power, and endurance,” Carlisle says. “Twenty percent is based on strength. We get to a point where [the athlete] can be strong enough to play at the highest level and still improve his athleticism.”

Wilson is ready to put that training to the test on the Marine obstacle course on this scorching day, but a football has suddenly materialized in his hands, and the man’s got to do what comes naturally. “Georgia, go long!” Wilson says, cocking his arm and firing a bullet over the open field that somehow lands as gently as a bird into the waiting hands of a photo assistant.

A franchise quarterback is hard to come by, which is why so many folks on set gasp when he throws himself at the log with such vigor. He’ll do the same with almost all of the other obstacles, save for a high rope climb. That one presents too much risk, even for Wilson. By the end of the day he knows just about everyone by his or her first name, and he’s soaked with sweat, still standing under the blistering Virginia sun.

After the last photo has been snapped, the Marines tentatively hand Wilson a folder full of photographs and footballs they’re hoping he’ll sign—some even have personalized message requests slapped on with a sticky note. He’s cutting it close for a dinner he’s supposed to attend on behalf of one of his sponsors, but each message is dutifully spelled out with a real signature, not a sloppy loop that passes for a John Hancock.

As the Men’s Fitness crew prepares to leave, Wilson and Pickett give us advice on how to best avoid the D.C. traffic. Once Wilson confirms that his driver is en route, he gives us the thumbs-up, and we roll out.

Suddenly, he appears alongside our car, racing to catch the moving vehicle. “Did he leave his watch in here?” somebody asks as we crane our necks around, looking for what he may have misplaced.

As the driver’s window comes down, Wilson extends his hand. “Thank you for today,” he says to the driver with a handshake, and then to me, and then to every person in our car, leaning into the cabin to make sure he has gotten everyone.

As we pull away, I notice he’s connecting with every car behind us.

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