Russell Wilson gave a smart and funny commencement speech to University of Wisconsin graduates last weekend. And while it was full of sage advice and life lessons, it was really a revealing portal into what drives the Seahawks quarterback.
Wilson, whom by now all of us should know never to discount, recounted all of the times that life had told him "No." The list went from losing his father -- the single greatest influence on his life -- at a young age to being told he would never be a top college passer to being informed he was no longer wanted as the quarterback at North Carolina State.
Oh, yeah, and there was the second Super Bowl he came a few seconds from winning and lost in the most heartbreaking fashion in NFL history.
"If you're playing the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl and you've got 26 seconds left and you're down by four and it's second-and-goal on their 1-yard line, try not to throw an interception," Wilson quipped to a full football stadium in Madison, Wisconsin. He then got the crux of his message about finding what brings you joy, and surrounding yourself with the right people to help you get there.
At just 27, lest we all forget, Wilson was all kinds of cool and composed speaking in front of some 55,000 people, self-deprecating but also extremely confident. He casually mentioned, while reflecting on his darkest days at , the fact that his mindset, even then, was fixated on winning multiple Super Bowls and getting enshrined in Canton, Ohio. This was at a time when misguided coach Tom O'Brien was giving Wilson zero reps with his quarterbacks and trying to convert him into a defensive back or receiver or some other such nonsense. Wilson is already well on his way to proving himself right.
I've said it before and I will say it again: I love this kid. And he's only still just scratching the surface.
I wouldn't bet against Wilson accomplishing any of his goals. Even these. Actually, given what he has done through his first four seasons in the NFL, I expect him to shatter his own lofty expectations by the time he calls it a career.
He is wired like a total overachiever. He is one of the most mentally strong, unshakeable figures in all of professional sports. He does not believe in wallowing in or accepting failure and truly believes every goal he sets from an athletic standpoint is attainable. Alas, Wilson did have the good sense to scrap any plans to be a Michael Jackson-style singer/dancer long ago as he chronicled in his touching speech, grasping that even he does have limitations in some domains.
"Am I capable of doing what I want to do?" Wilson told the graduates he asked himself at his time. And, realizing that, from the time he was a 3-year-old beast in his local T-ball league, that sports were his gift, Wilson set about honing those skills to be among the very best on the planet.
So yeah, some things may truly be impossible -- no amount of hours would turn Wilson into a singer -- but the key to finding a meaningful career is to spend as much time as possible harnessing those traits and skills that seem to come more naturally.
Like all of the great ones who once had their dreams dashed -- Tom Brady and Michael Jordan come to mind -- Wilson has a loooong memory. But unlike some others, he seems to truly take those bad times as a blessing now, and as a means to fortifying him for the challenges that would come. He has internalized it as motivational fuel, but in a far less toxic or negative manner than the way others might.
Even when he kinda sorta mocks O'Brien at times, mimicking his drawl while detailing the conversations where the coach was essentially trying to crush Wilson's dreams, he did it in an endearing manner.
When discussing the biggest setback in his life -- losing his father just after being selected in the MLB draft -- Wilson chose not to consider what it what have been like having his dad with him on the sideline for his first NFL start, or winning a Super Bowl or getting his ring. Instead he cherishes their time together and tries to find ways to let his father, and his messages, live on through him by imparting those lessons to others.
Wilson began and concluded his address relying heavily on his dad's words.
"Son, potential just means you haven't done it yet," Wilson's father told him back in his T-ball days. "The moments when life tells you, 'Yes,' aren't the moments that define you."
It's how you respond to adversity, and being told no, that will determine one's path. And Wilson has never lacked for doubters.
Wilson segued from one story to the next, tying his parables back to his central theme of not letting others define your future and embracing being told "No" as an opportunity to still achieve. He possessed the air of some champion of business who makes his fortunes giving motivational speeches to Fortune 500 companies.
He joked about being dorky in his desire and commitment to his dreams at times, like wearing his batting helmet and gripping his bat on the bench for 10 innings once in college during a period his skipper was not playing him. Wilson ended up hitting a pinch-hit, game-winning three-run homer that night.
For all of his national ad campaigns and his crossover celebrity status as Ciara's fiancée, Wilson has never been shy about sharing his true beliefs, telling his story honestly and reveling in his single-minded devotion to his fitness and his playbook. He doesn't run from his inner nerd, and there are very few people as successful as him that don't have that in them.
Some just try harder than others to obscure it.
No stage is too big for this dude. He was basking in this opportunity to speak at Wisconsin, so thoroughly prepared to the point I never saw him really even have to refer to his notes until he literally tore up his notes to punctuate his final remarks.
He was rocking a hoodie and you could tell he fully embraced this challenge in the same way he did having to transfer over to Wisconsin as a senior, with his minor-league baseball career essentially over, and winning over that locker room and campus in the manner he did.
Watching him speak now, you can see why, in hindsight, of course the third-round pick was going to dispatch of Matt Flynn within weeks of his first training camp opening, even though Flynn had just signed a $26 million deal with $10 million guaranteed. Of course he was going to keep his mouth shut and provide historic production for scant compensation his first three seasons before landing a deal worth $20 million a season.
Wilson, we now know, saw it all the time. It seems obvious to all now.
"Even the best professional platform speakers sometimes shy away from graduation speeches," said mental conditioning expert Trevor Moawad, who has long worked with Wilson and several top college football programs and who happened to be speaking to Occidental University grads himself. "They are challenging and there can be a lot unforeseen factors -- particularly in a football stadium in the Midwest.
"In typical Russell Wilson fashion he rose to the challenge -- as he is able to do because of his relentless preparation -- and incited 50,000 millennials to give him and themselves a standing ovation in a hail storm. Simply amazing. Russ has so many special abilities that transcend the sports world but also are core to who he is on and off the field."
And almost everyone would have to agree that doubting Wilson is unwise. He's just entering his prime and coming off a season in which he -- not the Marshawn Lynch-led running game -- truly powered the Seahawks to another nice playoff run. Even his most staunch critics would have to realize after a 2015 in which he was one of the top pocket passers in the NFL, that it is impossible to come up with a logical list of the best quarterbacks in the world and not have Wilson near the top.
And with all of last summer's discord about the post-Super Bowl loss hangover and Lynch's contract and 's holdout now out of the equation for the Seahawks, a return to the Super Bowl for a third time in four years would hardly be a surprise.
Since entering the NFL in 2012, only one quarterback has a better passer rating than Wilson's 101.8 (Aaron Rodgers at 104.1). Only seven active quarterbacks have thrown more touchdowns than Wilson's 106 in that span (Ben Roethlisberger and Matt Ryan each have one more TD, for instance). Only five active full-time starters have a better completion percentage that Wilson in that time (his 64.7 percent is tied with Rodgers). Only four quarterbacks have a lower interception percentage in that span, and only Rodgers (125-27) and Brady (128-35) have a better TD/INT results than Wilson's 106-34.
Among all quarterbacks, only Cam Newton and Andy Dalton have rushed for more touchdowns since 2012, and of all the regular starters in that span, only Newton (7.6) has a better yards-per-carry average than Wilson (6.4). Including the postseason -- and that last-second loss to the Patriots -- Wilson is 53-21 as starter -- he's never missed a game -- with 122 TDs, 43 INTs, and a QB rating of 100.6.
Oh, and four of those playoff picks came in one game against Green Bay, which Wilson shrugged off to then engineer one of the more memorable comebacks in postseason history.
Guess the Packers were trying to tell him "No" that day. And he did what he does in response.
I found myself re-watching the speech twice in a row, blown away by Wilson's natural charm and leadership ability and the way in which he wove his life's journey to this point. I'd urge you, regardless of age and particularly any college grads, to view it at least once.