August 27, 02012
It was during an Asheville Tourists Class A baseball game when Russell Wilson showed himself. In the bottom of the fifth inning, with two runners on, Wilson turned on a pitch and slapped it high off the right field wall. Halfway between first and second, it became apparent that he was committed to the idea of a triple. As he rounded second, he lurched his upper body forward, running with a sort of chugging motion. He eased up at third and caught his breath while the next batter approached the plate. It was around then that my thoughts turned to faith.
“Faith is the evidence of things not seen.” That’s how the apostle Paul surmised it. And several centuries later it was seconded by the writer James Baldwin, who co-opted it for the title of his final novel. Baldwin, as much as any writer I know, struggled with the nexus between religious faith and real life.
In real life, Russell Wilson is what North Carolina State coach Tom O’Brien calls “exceptional.” That’s high praise from a guy who seems committed to overstated stoicism. But O’Brien is correct in this assertion. Wilson is also quite greedy. Had he given up baseball his senior season at N.C. State, Wilson would have finished his final year as a four year starter—a rarity for any division one quarterback.
But Wilson doesn’t seem the type to give things up. He consumes. He turns a double into a triple, a broken play into a touchdown, and an opportunity to transfer to another school into a spectacular legacy. It’s an oft quoted line from that fictional character, Gordon Gekko, but it applies to Russell Wilson’s real life: “Greed is good.”
After Wilson had completed three successful years as the North Carolina State starting quarterback and second baseman, after he had finished second in the voting for A.C.C. Player of the year, and after the Colorado Rockies selected him in the fourth round of the 2010 Major League Draft, Wilson had a decision to make. Well, that’s because O’Brien had to make a decision too. O’Brien’s sophomore quarterback, Mike Glennon, might have transferred if he had to sit behind Wilson another year.
Wilson wouldn’t have to quit football altogether. He could still be on the team, just not as the starting quarterback. Easy choice for Wilson. Easy choice for anyone who has faith not just in himself but in things he can’t see. He packed his bags and moved to Wisconsin.
Yeah, and after he got there, he met his new teammates, learned a new offense with new terminology in a tougher conference, got his teammates to follow him, threw for 3,000 yards and 33 touchdowns, ran for another 6 touchdowns, and led the Badgers to the Big Ten title and the Rose Bowl. Made it all look easy too.
I caught him in between functions at last winter’s Combine. Told him I had seen him in Asheville and wondered about baseball. He smiled and thanked me. “I’m focused on this here,” he said.
He was chosen with a third round pick. It’s an interesting spot to be chosen. It’s high enough so that you’re assured an opportunity—usually beyond your first season. But it’s not an investment. Besides that, it lacks cache and for a quarterback it says “backup.” Wilson is playing as if he wants more than what he got on draft day. He’s playing as if he wants to be seen as a first round pick—a franchise quarterback. Well, of course he is. The young man always wants more and that’s what he gets.
While on the way to his destiny, Wilson had a chance to watch a teammate seal his fate. His name was Terrell Owens. In the first game, he saw Owens run a deep post. He saw Matt Flynn throw the ball to Owens. It was a heavy ball that Flynn threw. On that ball lay a chance for Owens to… redeem himself? Maybe not totally. That horse has long since galloped away from that barn. But there was a chance for Owens to show that he could still play, and that he was worthy of a roster spot.
And after 15 years, how had it come this? Simple. Owens is greedy. He always wanted more. And greed is bad.
Once upon a time Terrell Owens had been the Forty Niners’ third round pick. He worked really hard. He was known for working really hard, feverishly so. Quiet as it’s kept, maniacal work habits are a symptom of greed. One day, after Owens caught twenty passes in a game—then a league record, Jerry Rice sat down next to him. Rice was on his way out of town, so he had a few words for his protégée. Said Rice, “It’s your team now.”
That must have been something coming from Jerry Rice. The Forty Niners had been after all, Jerry Rice’s team. Before it was Jerry’s team, it had been Joe Montana’s team. Once upon a time Joe Montana had been a third round choice.
Perhaps Terrell Owens failed to understand what Rice meant that day. Owens was outspoken and intense, and he demanded more from himself and his team. He tried to convey this to anyone who would listen. But more often than not, something was lost in translation as the only words he spoke were variations of “Give me the ball.” He became an enigma, and not the intriguing kind. His skill became his only virtue. That’s the only thing for which he could be counted on. I’m sure he knew that.
All this made that one ball really heavy. Maybe that’s why he dropped it.
Alan Grant was a four-year starter and all-conference player for Stanford University. He played five years in the National Football League with the Indianapolis Colts, San Francisco Forty Niners, Cincinnati Bengals, and Washington Redskins. He has written for ESPN the Magazine and The Postgame, and appears frequently on radio and television.