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Black Quarterbacks

The long and the short of is that Russell Wilson proved his college coach wrong

Quarterback was told he was too small to play in the NFL, but he had other plans

“Listen, son, you’re never going to play in the National Football League. You’re too small. There’s no chance. You’ve got no shot.”

These are the words that former North Carolina State head football coach Tom O’Brien uttered on a phone call with one of his quarterbacks in the spring of 2011. That quarterback, who had started for three years, wanted to return to Raleigh to lead the Wolfpack for one more season as a senior. But O’Brien had other plans. He named Mike Glennon the team’s starting signal-caller, making an ultimately inaccurate prediction about the future of Glennon’s predecessor.

Fast-forward nearly seven years, and Glennon has won a mere five games as a starter in the NFL. The other quarterback? His eight wins in the NFL playoffs alone include a victory in Super Bowl XLVIII. Obviously, Russell Wilson, the four-time Pro Bowl quarterback of the Seattle Seahawks, had some plans of his own.

“He told me I wasn’t coming back,” Wilson recalled in 2016 of the call he had with O’Brien. He told the story during a commencement speech he delivered at the University of Wisconsin, where he transferred and played for one season after leaving N.C. State. The rift between Wilson and O’Brien was the result of the quarterback’s busy schedule as a two-sport athlete. In January 2011, Wilson announced that he’d report to spring training with the Colorado Rockies, less than a year after the club selected the second baseman in the fourth round of the 2010 MLB draft. With Wilson missing spring football practices for baseball, O’Brien decided to take the program in another direction with Glennon. That meant Wilson spent his final season of college eligibility in Madison, Wisconsin, where he led the Badgers to a Big Ten Conference title, an appearance in the Rose Bowl and set a single-season record for passing efficiency, with the highest quarterback rating (191.8) in NCAA history (Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield surpassed Wilson’s mark in 2016.)

By the spring of 2012, the Seahawks took the 5-foot-11 quarterback with the 75th overall pick in the NFL draft. Come Week 1 of his rookie season, Wilson’s name sat atop the depth chart, having been named the team’s starter. Now, it’s not even a question that he’s Seattle’s franchise quarterback for the foreseeable future. Not too bad for a player who was told by his college coach that he’d never make it to the league.

“I embrace the journey,” Wilson said earlier this season. “It’s a process, and it’s never easy to do the things you want to do. But I don’t expect it to be easy.”

Reminiscent of Michael Jordan being cut from his high school basketball team, Wilson’s origin story could shape the plot of a comic book. The climax of his journey would be set in 2014, when the Seahawks stomped the Peyton Manning-led Denver Broncos, 43-8, in the Super Bowl. That night, Wilson became just the second African-American starting quarterback in NFL history to win a championship, 26 years after Doug Williams made history as the first. The following season, Wilson led Seattle to another Super Bowl, where the Seahawks lost to the New England Patriots, 28-24, on a last-minute, goal-line play call that still has us scratching our heads.

Seattle’s back-to-back Super Bowl appearances are just a tiny glimpse at the level of consistency at which Wilson has played since joining the league in 2012. No quarterback in NFL history has notched more wins in the first six seasons of his career than Wilson’s 65. And the league has only witnessed one quarterback — Aaron Rodgers of the Green Bay Packers (103.8) — boast a higher career quarterback rating than Wilson (98.8).

Yet this season, for the first time in Wilson’s career, the Seahawks failed to clinch a spot in the NFL playoffs. Don’t expect that fate to faze him too much, though. That’s mostly because in 2017, he and his wife, star singer Ciara, welcomed their first child.

“Having baby Sienna, I think about this year, just in general and life, and all the hard work that I’ve put into it,” Wilson said, “and I’ve got no regrets. I laid it on the line every day.”

Based on his journey so far, missing the playoffs already seems like slight work to overcome for Russell Wilson.

Liner Notes

The Undefeated will profile 30 black quarterbacks leading up to the 2018 Super Bowl, which marks 30 years since Doug Williams won the big game.

Aaron Dodson is an associate editor at The Undefeated. Often mistaken for Aaron Dobson, formerly of the New England Patriots and Arizona Cardinals, he was one letter away from being an NFL wide receiver.