NCSU's Wilson keeps ill father in his heart

Dad will miss his first college start after suffering a stroke

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 26, 2008 

Russell Wilson wouldn't leave his father's side.

It was 2000, and they were on their way to a club baseball tournament when Russell's father, Harrison Wilson III, began suffering serious complications from diabetes.

Harrison was losing consciousness while driving.

Russell, who had just finished sixth grade, took the wheel and got his father emergency treatment.

When Harrison was stabilized, he begged Russell to leave him at the hospital and go with the rest of the team to the baseball game.

"You know what, Dad, it's not worth it," Russell said he told his father. "You're everything to me. ... I'm staying right here."

That's why the past few weeks have been agonizing for Russell as he competed for and then won the starting quarterback job at N.C. State. The Pack opens the season at South Carolina on Thursday night and Wilson, a redshirt freshman, will be the third N.C. State quarterback in the modern era to start his first collegiate game.

Wilson's father suffered a stroke during the first week of preseason training camp three weeks ago and remains hospitalized.

This time, Russell couldn't be with his father, who is in Richmond, Va.

His mother, Tammy, and older brother, Harrison IV, advised him to stay in Raleigh and be part of N.C. State's five-player quarterback competition.

Russell always has dreamed of starting at quarterback for a big-time school. The quarterback race would have continued without him if he returned home.

If there was any doubt, his father's words from back in 2000 told Russell what his father would want now.

"My dad has been waiting for this moment his whole life," Russell said.

Changing priorities

Russell was a bit mischievous until that club baseball trip in 2000.

He would talk trash on the field. He jokes that he spent more time in his middle school principal's office than in the classroom. Nearly losing his father changed his priorities.

Russell became responsible and studious beyond anybody's expectations. He was elected senior class president at the Collegiate School in Richmond and spoke at graduation. He was so good at baseball and football that he plays both sports at N.C. State.

Charlie McFall, his football coach at Collegiate, had known Russell would be a special athlete ever since he saw him on the sideline throwing while working as a ball boy while he was in elementary school.

"He had the most natural delivery I've ever seen," McFall said, "and he was just really a great kid."

Russell's father and brother helped create that delivery. Harrison III played football and baseball at Dartmouth and afterward survived until the final cut at a San Diego Chargers training camp.

Harrison IV would go on to play baseball and football at Division I-AA Richmond, a tradional power in that tier of college football. Harrison III and IV were wide receivers, and they needed someone to pass to them when they ran routes in the backyard.

They taught Russell to throw, and the three of them often practiced until after dark.

Harrison III, a lawyer, coached both sons in baseball and football.

In the summer of 2005, before Russell's junior year of high school, his father took him to New Orleans for the Manning Passing Academy run by Archie, Peyton and Eli Manning. Russell and Harrison returned home with stories of delicious soul food in ramshackle restaurants and a hotel room next to a noisy laundry room.

Russell was so exhausted from playing football that he slept soundly anyway.

His father enjoyed watching him excel in front of the NFL's pre-eminent quarterbacking family.

"They both loved it," Tammy Wilson said. "Every minute of it."

Keeping dad close

Tammy Wilson wishes to keep details of Harrison III's condition private, except to say he's very sick but has improved, and the family is hoping and praying for a full recovery.

Russell has spoken to his mother and brother every day since his father became ill. They've provide news of his father's condition and encouraged him.

"If anybody can handle this type of thing," his brother said, "it's Russell."

Russell, who is deeply religious, writes the name of a new Bible verse (it was John 6:35 on Friday) in black marker on the tape on his left wrist each day. Then he writes "COMPETE" and "DAD."

He became discouraged at times during training camp, seeking answers from the Bible and his mother, and from Tony Dungy's book, "Quiet Strength."

But he stayed in the quarterback race as others gradually were eliminated.

Harrison Beck and Justin Burke were out before the second scrimmage. Burke transferred to Louisville. After the third scrimmage, coach Tom O'Brien decided to redshirt freshman Mike Glennon, leaving Wilson and senior returning starter Daniel Evans as the final competitors.

On Friday, Tammy Wilson was on a conference call at work when her cell phone rang.

Harrison IV called, followed immediately by Russell.

He had been named the starting quarterback.

"I was elated," she said.

Constant incentive

Russell's father often told him that "there is a king in every crowd."

As explained to Russell, the quote means that there's always somebody -- God, and perhaps a coach or pro scout -- watching you.

That is constant incentive to do things right.

That philosophy helped Russell earn the right to line up behind center on Thursday night, a game that will be nationally televised on ESPN.

His mother and brother will be there. So will his 11-year-old sister, Anna, and two uncles. His father won't be able to attend, but will be in Russell's thoughts on the bus ride to Columbia, S.C., and before the game.

When the game starts, though, Russell will be ready to do his job.

"I'll be thinking about him, but I'll be focused on winning the game," Russell said. "That's what my dad would want."

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