‘Why not you?’ Late father still inspires Seahawks’ Russell Wilson


On July 23, Russell Wilson and his wife, Ciara, welcomed another child into the world, an 8-pound, 1-ounce boy named Win Harrison Wilson. The first name got the attention. The middle name, though, carried a deeper meaning to Wilson. It’s a tribute to his late father, the man who shaped the Seattle Seahawks‘ quarterback more than anyone.

To anyone who knew Harrison Wilson, it’s no coincidence that his son has become all that he has: a Super Bowl champion, seven-time Pro Bowler, one of the NFL’s most recognizable stars and — until recently — the highest-paid player in the game, the co-founder of a company and the co-owner of an MLS franchise.

Before he died 10 years ago in June, he taught his son to dream big and not let anyone’s doubts get in his way.

“My dad, when I was young, he always inspired me,” Wilson told ESPN. “He used to always ask me the question, ‘Son, why not you? Why don’t you play pro baseball? Why don’t you play pro football?’ The idea of ‘Why not you?’ was really at the center of who I was. I started really subconsciously and consciously asking myself that question.”

Big dreamers

When Harry Wilson, Russell’s big brother, tells the five-minute version of his dad’s life story, he begins near the end. It was early in 2010. The diabetes that would take Harrison’s life a half-year later at age 55 had already taken one of his legs. A stroke had diminished his speech, making much of what he’d say inaudible.

But on a drive to the grocery store, he turned to Harry from the passenger seat and said something clear enough to stick in his oldest son’s memory more than a decade later:

“I just wish I had been a success.”

The comment struck Harry because of everything his dad had accomplished. He had an Ivy League education as well as a law degree. He played two sports in college and nearly cracked an NFL roster. He opened his own law firm. He and his wife, Tammy, raised three kids: Harry, Russell and Anna.

“So to look at me and say I wish I had been a success, that gives you an idea of the kind of dreamer and the big thinker he was,” Harry said. “He had so much on his plate that he hadn’t achieved that he had planned on achieving. I think that a healthy Harrison Wilson III would have wanted to run for governor of Virginia one day … I could totally see him doing that. I have no idea if that was of his plans, but that was the kind of person he was.

“People person, big thinker, big dreamer, huge smile on his face.”

Harrison fanned bold ambitions in his kids. There’s the famous story of how he would conduct mock interviews on the way home from Russell’s games, pretending to be a reporter asking what it feels like to have just won the Super Bowl. But the near-daily reminder from Harrison that his son could become anything he wanted was more subtle.

“My dad just told me in the car, you can go however far you wanna go,” Russell said, recalling one ride home when he was about 10 years old and had just hit for the cycle. “Why not you? That was a fun time in my life because I got to play the game I love, I was young and I had these big, big dreams. I used to write them on my wall.”

Harry remembers a self-willed spirit in his father that cut both ways. It didn’t always help him manage his diabetes properly. There were a few times when Harry had to administer an insulin shot while his dad was driving because he had forgotten to take it himself. Russell had to take the wheel one time when his dad passed out.

But obstinance also was beneficial for someone with such lofty goals.

“My dad didn’t really listen to anybody, only maybe a select few,” Harry said. “My brother is the same.”

Harry is 5½ years older than Russell and the two are tight, but he can count on one hand the number of times his younger brother has sought his advice.

“For my dad and my brother, they’re not going to conform to what you have to say or be influenced by you saying, ‘Hey, you should go do this or that,'” said Harry, a former dual-sport athlete in college himself. “And that’s been a strength of my brother’s because if he did that, he would be playing Double-A baseball somewhere in like Modesto, California. Maybe he would have made it to the bigs …

“He had people telling him in 2011, ‘Dude, you’re not going to play in the NFL [because of his lack of ideal height]. Go play baseball somewhere.’ I probably would have done that. That’s probably exactly what I would have done. And that’s why I [went on to] sell pharmaceuticals.”

Before the 2010 MLB draft, Russell was playing football and baseball at NC State and wanted to pursue both sports professionally. So when it came time to hire an agent, he wanted one who also had experience representing football players. That led him to Mark Rodgers.

When Rodgers went to Raleigh for their first meeting, Russell wore a suit. What was supposed to be a 90-minute lunch lasted four hours. Russell laid out his life plans while Rodgers listened in awe.

“I was fascinated that somebody that young could have so many ideas and have such a clear-path vision for who he wanted to be and what he wanted to be,” Rodgers said. “It was extraordinary. It wasn’t about football and baseball. It was about a legacy. It was about a foundation. It was about businesses. It was about owning a team some day, an NFL team. It was about building an empire.”

On June 8, the Colorado Rockies took Russell in the fourth round of the draft. His father died the next day.

The Professor

The excitement is evident in Reggie Williams’ voice as he answers the phone, eager to reminisce about his old friend.

“I’m gonna be talking about HB Productions,” Williams says, referring to his nickname for Harrison. “It’s gonna be a good thing.”

The two were teammates at Dartmouth in the mid-1970s — Williams a team captain and star linebacker, Harrison an All-Ivy League wide receiver who returned punts and also played baseball for the Big Green. They remained close after college while both lived in Cincinnati, where Harrison worked for Procter & Gamble during part of Williams’ 14-year career with the Cincinnati Bengals. To most who knew him, Harrison Benjamin Wilson III went by Harry B. But to Williams, he was HB Productions.

“When he entered the room, it’s like lights, camera, action,” Williams said. “It was like a whole production. All of the sudden, everything was brighter. Everyone was happier. Everyone was in a better mood.”

Harrison earned a different moniker from another teammate a few years later. After graduating from Dartmouth in 1977, he earned his law degree from the University of Virginia. That’s when he had an idea that bordered on absurd: Could he make an NFL roster three years after last playing football?

Harrison trained himself back into football shape by running on the giant lawn on UVa’s campus while wearing trash bags. He got an offseason tryout with the San Diego Chargers in 1980 with the help of a connection his father had with one of the team’s executives. He caught a touchdown pass in the preseason and made it all the way to the final cut on a team that had Pro Bowlers John Jefferson and Charlie Joiner at receiver, as well as Hall of Famer Kellen Winslow at tight end. Wilson became good friends with Winslow, who dubbed him “The Professor” because of his law degree.

“Kellen looked up to my brother,” said Ben Wilson, who was born three years before Harrison. “[Winslow] became a lawyer and he will tell you that my brother was an influence on his becoming a lawyer.”

Harrison’s and Ben’s parents both had their Ph.D.s. Their father was the president at Norfolk State University. The importance of education to the Wilson family was why both brothers attended Dartmouth, then law school, and it’s why Harrison sent his two sons to Collegiate, an elite prep school in Richmond.

When Russell started turning heads for his football skills, some of the city’s public schools began their efforts to poach him, trying to convince Harrison that his son would be better off in one of their programs. Pretty soon, word got around that Russell was in high demand.

So Harrison paid a visit to Collegiate coach Charlie McFall.

“His dad came over one day in front of my office and he says, ‘Coach McFall, I guess you’re hearing all of these stories, aren’t you?'” McFall recalled. “I said, ‘Yes, sir, I’m hearing them.’ And he said to me, ‘You don’t have to worry. I didn’t put Russell and Harry in Collegiate for sports. I put them in there to get an education.'”

McFall remembers Harrison as the type of parent that every coach wanted to deal with, always supportive and never one to grumble about playing time or pass attempts. McFall marvels at the balancing act Russell pulled off between two sports and classes once he got to college.

“The great thing that I think about Russell’s career is that when he went to NC State and played baseball and football and graduated in three years with really great grades,” McFall said. “I say to myself, ‘How could anybody do that with all the time you have to put into football and then baseball and then get all your work done?’ He was pretty spectacular when it came to education.”

“You don’t know Harrison — he’s different”

Russell had more than school and athletics on his plate. His father’s health had taken a bad turn.

Harrison was in a coma at the start of Russell’s redshirt freshman season in 2008. It didn’t look good.

“The doctors told his wife, my sister-in-law, that he would not wake up from that coma,” Ben Wilson said. “And I remember saying to the doctor, ‘You don’t know Harrison — he’s different.’

“Tammy tells a story of singing this gospel song to Harry and he opens his eyes, he moves his arms and his legs, and within weeks, the doctors who said he would never wake up saw him walk. And within weeks he was able to see his son play.”

At first, it was from his hospital bed. Ben would go to games, then visit his brother to relay what happened, since Harrison’s failing vision made it difficult to watch on TV. The Wake Forest game the 10th week of the season was the first one he attended after returning home.

Harrison had rarely missed his kids’ games in their younger years. Harry recalls looking up from the baseball field at Collegiate and seeing his dad pacing behind the center-field wall, sometimes in a suit and tie having come straight from court to make an afternoon first pitch. When he couldn’t make it, he’d send Ben or another family member in his place.

Now bound to a wheelchair, Harrison sat in the baseball coaches’ offices overlooking Carter-Finley Stadium during the Wake Forest game, listening to the crowd’s reaction to help him follow what he couldn’t see. Harrison’s family wheeled him into the locker room after the Wolfpack won on a fourth-quarter touchdown pass from Russell. His face lit up when he saw his dad.

It’s no wonder to Ben why the Seahawks never seem to be out of games with Wilson, or why his nephew leads the NFL with 32 fourth-quarter/overtime comebacks since his rookie season in 2012 — four more than the next quarterback. That includes the NFC Championship Game that preceded the Seahawks’ Super Bowl XLVIII victory as well as the following year’s title game, when Wilson rallied them from what seemed like certain defeat — a 12-point deficit with less than four minutes left — throwing the game-winning touchdown to Jermaine Kearse in overtime after throwing four interceptions in regulation.

“We can tell our kids almost anything, but they watch what we do,” Ben Wilson said. “Russell saw his father fight to get his health back, fight to live and fight to survive, and move heaven and earth to see his son play.”

Like father, like son

Pull up Wilson’s Instagram page and you’ll see more family than football. Scroll down from the post announcing Win’s arrival and there are several birthday tributes to his 3-year-old daughter, Sienna. There’s a video of his stepson, Future Jr., taking a dropback while Wilson and his personal QB coach offer encouragement. “Young Star in the makin'” is typed in the corner.

In another post, he wishes Future Jr. a happy 6th birthday, calling him his daily inspiration and best friend.

Part of the caption reads: “Your future is forever endless …”

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