SEATTLE -- The San Diego Chargers of 1980 had never seen a rookie quite like Harrison B. Wilson III. A Dartmouth grad and the president of his law school class at the University of Virginia, he solicited an invitation to training camp to take his one shot at the NFL. It was an ambition he had deferred for three years out of respect for his father's academic absolutism. The advanced degree had to come first, then the chance to play wide receiver as a pro.
"He trained religiously in law school to be ready for his tryout upon graduation," his older brother Ben said. For the brief time he shared a field with Hall of Famers Kellen Winslow, Charlie Joiner and Dan Fouts, he was known as "The Professor."
"To this day, people I knew from the Chargers who were there when Harry was there remember the Professor, and he was only there for one training camp," said Winslow, who topped off his playing career with a law degree of his own.
"He was so unique, taking a different path, I'm pretty sure he didn't know how many people he affected. He made everyone think: 'Maybe there's something different I can do.'"
Thirty-two years later, Wilson's younger son Russell arrived in the NFL through a more conventional route -- the University of Wisconsin and the third round of the draft -- but he gave the Seattle Seahawks another anomaly. His height of barely 5-foot-11, usually a disqualifier for a quarterback, didn't even rank as the leading oddity. He was so ridiculously disciplined, so hospital-corners meticulous, so relentlessly happy and calm, his teammates figured they had a Stepford quarterback in the house.
John Moffitt, a now-retired lineman, conducted an investigation with fullback Michael Robinson, asking the question: "Is Russell Wilson a robot?" A videotaped search of his locker stall yielded incriminating electrical tape, a large battery, a drill and a lot of snickers in the background.
"When I first met him, I kind of thought he was trying too hard," wide receiver Golden Tate said, "just this stupid rookie trying to walk a straight line. But he didn't change. He's just so focused all the time."
Decoding Russell Wilson, it turns out, required only an understanding of the flesh. The family lost Harry, the Chargers' Professor, to diabetes complications in 2010, when he was just 55. But Russell carries a part of him to work every day. He quotes his father, a well of aphorisms, at press conferences, in a Levi's commercial and amid his teammates.
"There's a king in every crowd" began circulating when Russell was still in college. It's a reminder to be at our best constantly, because we perpetually are being watched by someone we'd consider important. Levi's heard the line in an interview and snapped it up.
Early this season, his follow-up to a record-setting rookie year, Wilson talked with his teammates about the possibilities in front of them. "He said when he was young, his father used to say, Why not you, Russ? Why not you?" wide receiver Doug Baldwin said after the Seahawks' regular-season finale. "I could feel the passion when he said it. I think it's the only time I've seen him get really emotional. It gave me goose bumps. It's giving me goose bumps thinking about it right now."
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The day after Christmas, Wilson posted a picture of his father in a Dartmouth baseball uniform on Twitter. "Is that me or my dad?" he asked. If the photo weren't in black and white, betraying it as an artifact of the '70s, no one could answer the question with any confidence. The resemblance is that startling.
The photo had surfaced as a Dartmouth publication prepared to do a story on Harry, a two-sport player whose son, while preoccupied with quarterbacking the Seahawks to the top playoff seed in the NFC, was also drafted by his third MLB franchise. (The Rangers took him in the Rule 5 draft last month, dropping $12,000 for his rights, gaining what Wilson indicated would be nothing more than a motivational talk to the franchise's young players.)
On the Dartmouth football team, Harry played amid predictably high-brow company. Reggie Williams would spend 14 seasons at linebacker for the Cincinnati Bengals, simultaneously serving on the City Council for two of those years. Jimmie Lee Solomon, a fellow wide receiver, became a lawyer and then a high-ranking executive with MLB. Jeff Immelt, an offensive lineman, is now the CEO of GE. From the baseball team, pitcher Jim Beattie played for the Yankees and Mariners, then became general manager of the Expos and Orioles.
"I think anyone that ever played football at Dartmouth roots for whoever they've always rooted for, but also roots for the Seahawks now," Immelt said, "because Harry was just such a well liked and well respected guy."
They all remember a young man very similar to Russell's public persona, though a bit less reserved.
When Beattie pitched for the Yankees, he heard someone hollering to him from the stands in Baltimore one day and spotted Harry. "He said: 'I'm going to rent a bus and bring a bunch of people to see you up in New York,'" Beattie said. "It was just typical Harry, he always had so much energy."
From Williams, Harry received the nickname "HB Productions" because in the cold, gray winters of Hanover, N.H., "every time you would walk into a room and he would smile, everything would brighten up like he brought the lights, camera and action."
The last conversation between the two, as Williams remembers it, took place by phone in 2008. Harry Wilson lay in a hospital near the family's home in Richmond, Va. Diabetes had forced an amputation below one knee. Williams was in a New York hospital, finishing up the eighth surgery in five months on his right leg.
"He is talking to me the day after he has had his leg amputated, and the call is all about caring and compassion for me," Williams said. "He was advising me if I should lose my leg, where is the best place to have it cut, and telling me about the regimen he is preparing for."
Over time, Williams has had 24 operations on the leg, rendering it more than two inches shorter than the other and leaving him in constant pain. A prosthesis might be an easier solution, but Williams holds on, in part because of that conversation with his friend and former teammate.
"One of the most intimate, emotional reasons that I am fighting so hard to keep my leg is that I told him I would," Williams said.
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In a lounge at the Seahawks' headquarters, Michael Robinson is trying to explain the perfectionism of his quarterback. He remembers the two of them staying late once to review every detail of an elementary flat route. Wilson wouldn't stop until he felt he could hit Robinson's hands in a position that created optimal fluidity and momentum for an upfield turn and run. "The difference between this," Robinson says, smiling as he holds up his hands, then moves them a few inches and changes their angle barely 20 degrees, "and this."
It reminds Robinson of his favorite quote from Wilson's dad: "The separation's in the preparation." "I'm going to hold onto that one," he says. "I'm passing it down to my children."
As an undergrad, Harry III was determined to go to Harvard Law School, like his brother Ben. "He did everything he could to make that happen," said Solomon, his road-trip roommate on the football team. "He was constantly meeting the right person, making sure he had the right contacts. He'd be invited to Boston to have dinner with guys who had gone to Harvard after they went to Dartmouth, and he was constantly clearing his schedule so he could go and meet with them."
When Harvard rejected his application, HB Productions shut down briefly. "He was crestfallen," said Solomon, who believed that Harry wanted the achievement for his father, then the president of Norfolk State College, as much as for himself. "Harry B.'s father was larger than life to him, and he would have done anything to impress him," Solomon said. "I could see that B. always had a road map, a recipe for the future, that I knew I did not have."
Russell and his brother have told stories repeatedly about their father conducting mock media interviews with them, and with their friends, as prep for big moments in the future. "He'd say, 'In the future there'll be a human-interest story on X, Y and Z,'" said Harrison B. Wilson IV, now 30 and working for a pharmaceutical company in Chicago. "My dad was like a sitcom. He was like The Cosby Show. He was fun and always on your side, but always was trying to teach a lesson or the moral of the story."
In 2011, Russell's career options yielded a mini-drama that sold the merits of "The separation's in the preparation." When he turned pro in baseball, after the Rockies made him their fourth-round pick out of North Carolina State in 2010, he had two years of football eligibility remaining. The Wolfpack used only one of them, then turned to Mike Glennon, a junior without a minor-league baseball gig absorbing his attention. Wilson needed to choose between his sports and then, once he picked football, settle on one of two schools, Auburn or Wisconsin.
He had already made one astute decision that set him up for the move: His decision to finish his undergraduate work in less than four years allowed him to transfer without penalty. Now, his brother put together an Excel spreadsheet to measure the pros and cons of each school. It showed a clear winner in Madison. "I know he still has it, or still had it until recently," Harry said. In this family, data and sentiment mesh beautifully.
When Russell got to Wisconsin, his compulsions stunned and amused his new coach. As the Badgers practiced the week before their first away game, Bret Bielema noticed that Wilson's head kept swiveling to a certain part of the stadium before each snap.
"I'm thinking what the devil is this kid looking at?" said Bielema, now at Arkansas. "Well, he'd gone on the Internet and looked up where we were playing and found out where the [play] clock was. It's in a different location in every stadium, and he was training his eyes to go to that part of the stadium as he took every snap."
The Wisconsin offense was known for running reverses off inside ball fakes. When the call was an actual inside handoff, Wilson would yell "reverse, reverse," to con the defense into thinking one of its own was sounding an alarm. "You could get certain players to react to it," Bielema said. "And anytime we faked the handoff inside and gave the ball off on the reverse, he wouldn't say a word, and he would throw his shoulders down even lower to sell the fake. That's in a Tuesday practice. Every detail matters to Russell."
Had the coach seen either approach before? "Never seen it and never heard of it," he said. "But now we teach it."
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The family's sitcom epiphanies eventually gave way to the lessons of a father losing his health, his vision, a leg and, far too soon, his life. Russell found himself steering a car off the road at age 13, when his father's blood sugar soared and he passed out behind the wheel. Years later, at one of Russell's football games, Harry IV had to carry their dad through the stands after another collapse. He survived a stroke and a coma that doctors considered irreversible; Harry III came out of it to the sound of his wife, Tammy, singing a hymn.
Even as his eyes failed, he wanted to absorb the sounds of his children at play. His older brother, Ben, remembers a softball game where his niece, Anna, the youngest of the three, played in the infield, and with runners on first and second, the team turned a triple play.
"Harry could not see very well, but like people who know the game, he could tell by the sound of the crowd and the situation what was happening," Ben said. "He'd wait for confirmation, but he knew, and you could see the joy on his face."
He died the day after the Rockies drafted Russell in 2010. The news was one of the last things he heard. He couldn't know that Russell would choose football instead, and he apparently never pushed in one direction or another. "My dad just wanted me to do whatever was in my heart," Russell said. "I admired him and wanted to be like him, but it was always important for me to be self-motivated, not just doing what he wanted me to do."
Harry IV said there were no illusions that his father was perfect. "No, far from it," he said, "but that's even a better representation of what he wanted to teach us, I think. You know that people make mistakes; they'll take a left turn when they should take a right. But it's about what happens next, how you respond when something bad happens."
Russell has an heirloom phrase for that, too: "Be the calm in the storm."
His father's short stay in the NFL yielded a valuable memento: the ball he caught for a preseason touchdown against the 49ers, before he became the final cut in camp. The team painted all the pertinent information on it in white and handed it to the Professor for posterity. Over the years, his sons would take it out and toss it around, wearing off the script, slowly ruining the ball. "He never said a word," Harry IV said. He knew the difference between treasures and possessions, and he let the kids play.