The day after the Colorado Rockies drafted Russell Wilson, his father died. Jay Matthews, the Rockies scout who spent five years coveting Wilson and was sure he would one day play in the major leagues, happened to be driving through Wilson's hometown of Richmond, Va., and called his cell phone.
Wilson told him the bad news. Diabetes had taken Harrison Wilson III, 55, a man Matthews knew couldn't have been any prouder. His son played football at North Carolina State and was about to play baseball for the Rockies and maybe, just maybe, was the evolutionary answer to Deion Sanders and Bo Jackson and Brian Jordan: not just a football player who thrived at baseball but a quarterback who thrived in both sports. Matthews reflexively asked if there was anything he could do.
"You can throw me some batting practice," Wilson said.
So around 10 p.m., about 24 hours after he said good-bye to his father, Russell Wilson ripped baseballs at a local batting cage with his brother, Harrison IV, and Matthews.
The world now knows Wilson as the dynamic quarterback of the Seattle Seahawks, the lone rookie signal-caller remaining in an NFL postseason primed to be his, much as every endeavor he undertakes. While the baseball career Wilson left behind is a footnote to his burgeoning legend, it merits more than that, not because Wilson was a superstar waiting to happen but because of how all the characteristics that define him as a quarterback manifested themselves on the diamond, too.
[MLB springboards: No. 27 Rockies]
The Rockies took a flyer on Wilson, like the Orioles had done after his senior year in high school with a 41st-round pick in 2007. Wilson played baseball at N.C. State for three seasons, though his raw tools never bloomed. Still, Matthews and Danny Montgomery, the Rockies assistant scouting director, were insistent: Even if Wilson might end up in the NFL, take him anyway. What football scouts saw as an unconquerable flaw – he stands 5-feet-10 and change, which makes him a suitable quarterback only in Lilliput – mattered not for a future second baseman. Colorado chose him in the fourth round in 2010, with the 140th overall pick, not much lower than he went two years later in the NFL draft (third and 75th).
Matthews returned to Richmond for Harrison Wilson III's funeral five days later along with Montgomery. Wilson, then 21, delivered the eulogy.
"He was so eloquent," Matthews said. "You know how you can tell a leader? He has poise in difficult times. He had a black suit on with a purple tie. When he was eulogizing his father, he said I'm going to sign with the Rockies and play baseball this summer."
Less than a week later, before he flew to Denver to work out with Rockies brass and sign his contract, Wilson called Matthews, who happened to be driving to Zebulon, N.C., to see the Class A Carolina Mudcats. Wilson asked him to stop in Raleigh. If he was going to play second base, a position he never tried, he wanted a few tips from Matthews, a former infielder. Wilson dared not embarrass himself in front of his new bosses.
Problem was, Matthews had only 20 minutes. So Wilson improvised and asked him to meet at his apartment. Matthews parked in a street-level garage. Wilson showed up with a ball and a glove.
"I gave him a crash course in the parking lot," Matthews said. "Dimly lit. I ended up rolling him about 30 ground balls, and we did double-play pivots. He picked up on it so quick."
The next day, Matthews called Rich Dauer, the Rockies coach who once went 86 games and 425 chances at second base without an error. He asked how Wilson did in his workout. Dauer said it was like he had played there for years.
Wilson committed just one error in 31 games that summer for Low-A Tri-City. The glove wasn't going to be a problem, nor was his speed, which needed only refining. The question always was whether Wilson's bat would grow to major league quality, and the Rockies pegged him as the sort who could grow into a line-drive hitter with excellent plate discipline.
"Given 1,500 at-bats in pro ball where he could get in and recognize pitches and get his at-bats," Matthews said, "he was going to develop into a hitter that could compete at the professional level."
His baseball career ended at 315 at-bats with a .229/.354/.356 line and five home runs. About a year ago, following a transfer to Wisconsin that revitalized his college football career, Wilson told the Rockies he was giving up baseball to pursue football full-time and repaid part of his $250,000 bonus. It saddened Matthews. All of the things that Wilson's Seahawks teammates rave – the leadership, poise and intangibles necessary to overcome the physical disadvantages – were there in baseball as well. Wilson would show up to the ballpark at 10 a.m. to work on bunting. He asked for extra ground balls in the batting cage. He showed up weeks early to spring training after the grind of a football season to acclimate himself back to baseball.
He was not going to be another Chris Iannetta or Jeff Baker or Cory Sullivan, all players Matthews signed. Nor would he be James Paxton or Mason Williams or Eddie Rosario, all fourth-round picks in 2010 with good chances to make the major leagues. And not Deion or Bo or certainly Drew Henson, the quarterback who washed out in baseball and football.
Well, probably not.
"He's such a strong-willed and -minded person, if he put his mind to it, he could do it," Matthews said. "When all the naysayers told him he's 5-foot-10, I was saying to myself, 'Don't dare say that.' He's the kind of person who would prove you wrong. If enough people told him he couldn't come back and play baseball, he might wake up one day and say, 'OK, fine. I'll do it.' I wouldn't say anything is impossible for that young man."
For now, Wilson has the Atlanta Falcons, and the playoffs on his mind. Football is his sport these days, and its glory certainly beats bus trips through the sticks and grinding out at-bats in the swelter of summer. Baseball is there and will welcome him back. And in the meantime, Jay Matthews, Danny Montgomery and everyone in the Rockies organization will dream of a Troy Tulowitzki-Russell Wilson double-play combination and wonder what could have been.
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