QB Wilson says family, faith and fit led him to the Badgers

by | Special to CBSSports.com
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Wisconsin's pro-style offense was a big factor in Wilson's decision. (US Presswire)  
Wisconsin's pro-style offense was a big factor in Wilson's decision. (US Presswire)  

MADISON, Wis. -- It's an indelible image imprinted on Russell Wilson's mind: Harrison Wilson III in full sprint down a high school football sideline striding step-for-step with Harrison Wilson IV as he bolted 80 yards into the end zone for a touchdown. Strong faith, perseverance and a tireless work ethic are three critical life lessons Harrison Wilson III and wife Tammy passed on to their three children.

So when it came time for Russell Wilson to decide between honing his baseball skills and playing one final collegiate football season to enhance his NFL dream, faith chased the choice.

"I prayed a lot about it every day and kept going back and forth, and the Lord just came to me," said Wilson, who briefly played minor league baseball with the Asheville (N.C.) Tourists, a Colorado Rockies' Class A affiliate.

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"I really realized that I need to do this -- give myself an opportunity to play in the NFL -– and go back and play football. It's a realistic opportunity for me and I didn't want to give up on that."

Wilson completed a Bachelor of Arts degree in communications in three years at North Carolina State. As a junior last season, he threw for 28 touchdowns and 3,663 yards en route to all-ACC Conference second team honors. His three-year career statistics with the Wolfpack include 9,628 yards of offense and 93 touchdowns.

Wilson's aspirations to dabble in baseball and football caused N.C. State coach Tom O'Brien to release him from his scholarship in April due to the fact that baseball obligations kept Wilson away from offseason football workouts.

With one more year of NCAA eligibility, the 22-year-old set his sights on playing at Wisconsin or 2010 national champion Auburn. One aspect that helped boost the Badgers' appeal is the program offers a pro-style offense that aligns with Wilson's professional pursuits.

Fresh off a season in which Wisconsin won a share of the Big Ten title and clinched a Rose Bowl appearance, with the graduation of Scott Tolzien the Badgers faced the daunting task of breaking in a trio of quarterbacks with little game experience and zero collegiate starts.

Wisconsin and Auburn coaches wooed the quarterback to enroll and play for their programs. When Wilson came to Madison for a recruiting visit in early June, officials unfurled the Badger-red carpet. During an evening stop at Camp Randall Stadium, the field was awash in lights, and highlights of Wisconsin's victory last season over then-No. 1 Ohio State blared on the JumboTron.

Though appreciative of the gestures, quality time spent getting to know Badgers coach Bret Bielema and offensive coordinator Paul Chryst were moments that sealed Wilson's decision. The men's belief systems were similar to those of his late father, an attorney and briefly an NFL player who passed away 14 months ago due to complications from diabetes.

"Their faith and their work ethic every single day is tremendous," Wilson said of Bielema and Chryst. "You can see it and you can sense it. There is a positive feeling around them.

"I think their knowledge about the game of football and what they truly believe in also is outstanding."

During the recruiting process, it didn't take long for Wilson to captivate future Badgers teammates. During their first lunch meeting, safety Aaron Henry spent 15 minutes chatting alone with Wilson, and the two immediately bonded.

Bielema and members of his coaching staff fondly refer to Henry as "the closer" due to the senior defender's success and perceptiveness in determining a prospect's character. They feel it's important for players to get the chance to interact when coaches aren't present.

Henry and Wilson discussed their spiritual faith, and Wilson got personal and shared his family background.

"He opened up to me and talked about his dad passing away, and that just shows the appreciation that he had for me as a person," Henry said. "For a guy to let it all hang out or not leave skeletons in the closet (is great).

"Once I found out what kind of person he was, there was no question in my mind (he would fit at Wisconsin). I told Coach Bielema, 'You've got the right one. This guy's a fit.'"

Senior Nick Toon agreed with Henry's assessment. He served as a host during the recruit visit and has become friends with Wilson since his transfer to Wisconsin. Toon said the easy connections Wilson forged made a difference.

"I don't know if it was the biggest reason, but definitely a reason that he decided to come here, and that's helped with his transition," Toon said of building early relationships. "We definitely clicked right away."

Bielema told Wilson he had to earn the starting quarterback slot, and through fall camp, he has relentlessly pursued the post and proven he can handle the job. He's precise, moves effortlessly in the pocket, has decent footwork and is communicating well. It also doesn't hurt that he's spending 10 to 12 hours per day outside of practice learning the playbook.

"I told him as a guy with one year of eligibility: 'I'm not bringing you in with the intention of seeing how you sit on the bench,'" said Bielema of Wilson, who rushed for 1,089 yards and 17 touchdowns during his N.C. State career.

"I wouldn't have gone down this path if it wasn't someone I really respected as a person that I thought could handle this situation."

In his sixth season as head coach at Wisconsin, Bielema likes the play-action and run-action qualities Wilson presents. But he's quick to point out what first caught his attention was the quarterback's depth of character.

"He's a tremendous kid of faith and just all-around a pretty good person," Bielema said. "That was first and foremost for me, whether you believe it or not. I already knew he was a good football player."

Besides team support, Wilson relies on family being nearby. Fiancee Ashton Meem lives in Madison, and older brother, Harrison Wilson IV, is a salesman for a pharmaceutical sales company in Chicago.

Russell Wilson has no regrets about his decision, and not a day goes by without reminders of his father's influence.

"It's been a whirlwind and I'm truly blessed to be in this situation; and my teammates have been behind me the whole way here," Wilson said. "It's been an awesome experience for me so far, and I absolutely love it.

"For me, for right now, my dad's watching me. He's always with me."

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