Over the weekend, Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson spoke to a group of graduating students at the University of Wisconsin, utilizing his overcoming-all-obstacles story in order motivate the youngsters as they move forward to make America great again.
Per usual, Wilson was entertaining and inspirational. And per usual he played up the massive chip on his shoulder.
However, Wilson, in the process of giving this message to the graduates, took unnecessary shots at two of his former NC State coaches, ex-football coach Tom O'Brien and current baseball coach Elliott Avent.
"The summer before my senior year of college, I'm playing minor-league baseball. I called my football coach at NC State and said, 'Hey coach, I'd like to come back for my senior year.' He told me I wasn't coming back. He said, '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. Give it up.' Of course, I'm on this side of the phone saying, 'So you're telling me I'm not coming back to NC State? I won't see the field?' He said, 'No son, you won't see the field.' Now this was everything I had worked for. And now it was completely gone. If I wanted to follow my dream I had to leave NC State. I had no idea if I would get a second chance somewhere else."
Fiction can be fun. Personally, I find the truth to be much more enlightening.
Now, there are only two people who know the truth about the phone call between Wilson and O'Brien (well, three if you count You Know Who watching upstairs), but O'Brien wasn't pushing Wilson out of football or telling him to give up the dream when the two parted ways before 2012.
Wilson wanted to continue pursuing a dream playing baseball (he was with the Asheville Tourists) and wasn't willing to commit to just football. On the other hand, you had Mike Glennon (also a legitimate NFL quarterback prospect and now backing up Jameis Winston with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers), who was also eligible as a graduate transfer and probably ready to leave if Wilson returned.
So O'Brien was left with a choice: either go with Glennon for two years or gamble Wilson would quit playing baseball and return for his final season at NC State.
"Michael would have graduated that year," O'Brien said in 2014 . "He could move on if he wanted to at the end of that year. That was all part of the decision making process that had to happen.
"You could have one quarterback, two quarterbacks or have no quarterbacks."
Make no mistake: Russell Wilson was really good at playing football for Tom O'Brien in three seasons at NC State. Wilson was a first-team All-ACC quarterback as a freshman, the only freshman to pull off the feat. He threw 59 touchdowns and 25 interceptions in his last two seasons and set an NCAA record for most passes without throwing an interception (379, since broken) while playing for the Wolfpack.
He wasn't O'Brien's recruit and Glennon, who O'Brien did recruit, definitely fit the mold of a "traditional quarterback" more than Wilson. It wouldn't be surprising if O'Brien thought Wilson might struggle to make it at the next level (and he wouldn't be the only one who felt that way, obviously).
But look at what O'Brien said before Russell ever left/thought about transferring, with the NC State coach appearing 99.9 the Fan with Adam Gold and Joe Ovies to discuss the situation:
Yeah certainly. We had a lot of discussion about it going forward. The National Football League, stay here and play football or go play baseball. And his choice was to go play baseball. And he's working extremely hard getting ready to head to spring practice here in a few weeks," O'Brien said. "With that being said, Russell understands we need to move forward. We have a very talented young man here in Michael Glennon. Who knows what Russell's future is? I know that the future of NC State football is we better have a quarterback ready to play and go forward. Playing quarterback at the college level is a 365-day a year job and the job now is Michael Glennon's. We worked out this week, he's out there with the receivers, they're starting to build their rapport. We have a whole new receiving corps. Those sort of things have to be done. You can't sit around here and, are we going to hit the lotto or not. We gotta move forward. If Russell comes back, that's fine. Michael Glennon's going to be the quarterback -- I don't see way it's not going to play that way if we're going to have a chance to be a good football team."
The interesting line in there is "if Russell comes back." Ovies followed up on that with O'Brien, who if Wilson returned he would have a spot on the roster, albeit as the backup.
"He'll be the backup. He can sit there and fight for the job but I don't see any way forward. And I'm not wasting any time thinking about him coming back. I mean, I can't do that," O'Brien said. "We're going to go ahead and get Michael Glennon ready to play. He will be the starting quarterback against whoever we open up against next year."
Benching Wilson would've been a pretty silly thing to do. It would understandably not make Russell happy (even though Russell's mantra is "compete" no matter what).
And the decision to let Wilson walk was about not risking the possibility of losing both talented quarterbacks. This is not really debatable nor is it something developed via hindsight. This is from Gold back during the 2011 after Wilson left:
Michael Glennon is a good quarterback whom O'Brien compared with Falcons passer Matt Ryan -- taken third overall in the NFL draft a few years ago. A player thought to be THAT good deserves to play more than just one year and had O'Brien allowed Wilson to return to Raleigh in August and compete for the starting job, Glennon would have taken his final two years of eligibility somewhere else.
O'Brien screwed up by letting Russell walk because the result backfired on him (his Glennon teams weren't good enough to prevent him from getting fired and Russell helped Wisconsin play in the Rose Bowl).
But the "no one believed in me" line from his days at NC State are a little far-fetched too. From a 2014 Toronto Sun story where every Wolfpack coach was effusive in their praise for Russell:
"Trestman was a coach at North Carolina State when, one day, the baseball coach Elliott Avent walked over during their offseason workouts and introduced him to a teenage infielder to whom they had just given a scholarship.
"He wants to play baseball and football," Avent said.
"If he's good enough to play both, we'll do it," said the head football coach, Chuck Amato, not necessarily believing it was going to be possible.
So Trestman walked the infielder out to the football field, uncertain as to what to expect. He had done this so many times before. Just never like this one.
"That day, watching an 18-year-old, having never seen him in a game, I would have projected Russell as a fourth-round NFL pick. Right away. That's before he'd ever played a game in college football. I was that confident of his ability, just because of what he showed me.
Russell also has a weird memory of his baseball days.
During his speech he points out that he went from getting a bunch of at bats in his freshman and sophomore years to not playing his junior year.
"Another time life told me no was during my junior year when I was playing baseball," Wilson said. "My freshman and sophomore year at NC State, I had about 450 to 500 at-bats. Now it's the first few weeks of my junior season, the draft-eligible year, and I'm barely playing. And honestly, I don't know why."
This is just patently false. Wilson got 71 at bats in his freshman year at NC State and 72 in his sophomore year. (That's a total of 143 and less than both 500 and 450.) Wilson got 98 at bats in his junior year.
Wilson also used a specific story from those days to illustrate a point about being ready for whatever life throws you:
This one weekend, we played UC-Irvine. Both teams are top-five in the country. I don't play at all the whole weekend -- nothing. I'm not going to lie. I was pretty frustrated. But my dad used to always tell me, 'Be ready. Always be ready.' So I decided I'm not going to complain. Instead, every time our defense comes in and we're up to bat, I'll put my helmet on. I'll put my gloves on -- Nomar Garciaparra style. I get my bat in hand, and I stand there waiting -- first inning, second inning, third inning. All the way to the 10th. We get to the bottom of the 10th or 11th, and there's two guys on base with one out. I'm just sitting there with my helmet on looking like a dork, and a guy pops up. Two outs. Then I hear it. 'Wilson, you're up.'
"And this guy's pitching it nasty. I'm talking he's throwing 125 miles per hour, if that's possible. I mean fuego. I mean, he's legit. The first pitch is a slider, and what do I do with it? Swing and miss. Next pitch, a slider in the dirt. Swing again, shouldn't have swung, strike two. I'm one strike away from losing the game. It's the first time I've played in awhile. The guy throws me a fastball high and inside. I still don't know to this day why he threw me a fastball. And what do I do with it? Wham! Boom! Game over. Hit it over the fence. Now everyone in the stands that day, they saw the game-winning home run. But they probably didn't notice the guy who spent all those innings on the edge of the dugout with a helmet on his head and a bat in his hand. But if I hadn't stayed prepared like that for 10 or 11 innings, that home run, that never would have happened. So that's my second charge to the graduates. When life tells you no, stay ready. Always be ready.
Backing the Pack (SB Nation's NC State site) broke down Wilson's memory of that game, pointing out various inaccuracies from the story. (Also more than likely inaccurate: someone throwing the baseball 125 miles per hour.)
What's wild about this is it paints Wilson as some long-suffering player in the baseball program, which reflects pretty poorly on Elliott Avent. That's a shame because there are few people who supported in and believed in Wilson like Avent, who is still the coach of the Wolfpack's baseball team.
I actually spoke to Avent for a Wilson story -- about the quarterback constantly overcoming adversity!! -- before the Seahawks beat the Broncos in his first Super Bowl appearance.
This is the guy who fought to get Wilson a spot on the NC State football team in the first place, when Wilson was a high school recruit:
"I picked up the phone and called Chuck and asked him what he knows about Russell Wilson and one of his recruiting guys said Russell's a really good player but everybody thinks he's a little short," Avent said. "So I immediately got a hold of Marc Trestman when I got back and I told Marc he needed to get this guy into camp. And Marc's the first guy I think to really notice Russell -- he compared him to [Rich] Gannon as one of the best throwing quarterbacks he's ever seen on the run.
"They got Russell into camp and then when you learn about Russell's discipline and his whole background and who he is, he's just so impressive. So it was very, very easy at that point to offer him a scholarship and they did."
He's had nothing but effusive praise for Wilson since his departure from the program. Again, from 2014:
"It's always easy to see it in the rear-view mirror when you see how everything panned out. And Coach O'Brien had to do what he to do," Avent said. "For me ... it was a little personal to me.
"Russell Wilson, in a day and age when college athletics are full scandal and full cheating ... every day we sit here and talk about student athletes and what they do," Avent said. "A lot of college athletics is full of scandal and not very good things. And you get a guy to come along and he has all those [good] qualities? He's this, that and a third. He's everything. I just don't understand, no matter what the situation was ... this is a guy who tore his knee up and he's at every workout at 5 o'clock in the morning. Always the first guy to workout and the last one to leave. First guy in the film room, last one to leave. He's playing two sports. He graduates in three years. He's a great teammate. He has the commitment to do everything at the highest quality. He was all these things and more. If you can get 25 percent of the college athletes to have the qualities that Russell Wilson has, college athletics would be much better.
"So to have that guy and not let him finish his career where it started, where he meant so much to the program and the fans ... I don't know all the things that went into the decision but I just think there had to be a way to keep Russell Wilson here and finish at NC State."
Wilson didn't bash Avent the way he bashed O'Brien. And Wilson has every right to dislike O'Brien for making the choice to gamble on two years of Glennon instead of risking Russell pursuing a professional baseball career instead of coming back to play football for one more season.
He probably caught a little, ahem, feedback for the speech.
Which may explain why Wilson, the consummate politician, decided to remind everyone how much he loves both his schools:
But his implications were that NC State wholesale kicked him to the curb and didn't believe in him as either a baseball or a football player.
It makes for great theater when you're attempting to inspire young people, but it's just not true.