JERSEY CITY, N.J. – Russell Wilson met Peyton Manning long before this year's Super Bowl. In fact, they were almost teammates.
In the 2012 draft, Wilson was a top quarterback prospect out of Wisconsin and the Broncos were in the market for a quarterback. Manning turned 36 that March, and while the Broncos probably won't admit it now, they couldn't have known Manning would play at his previous level after neck surgeries. At very least, they needed a quarterback to groom as Manning's eventual replacement.
So before the draft, the Broncos had Wilson in for a visit. Among the people he met was Manning, who was (you're going to be shocked) watching film.
"I had a chance to shake his hand," Manning said. "It was an exciting time in his life, getting ready for the draft. So, I wished him luck and told him I enjoyed watching his college career."
You probably know how the story turned out. The Broncos passed on Wilson, and took Brock Osweiler of Arizona State with the 57th overall pick. Wilson was the next quarterback selected, 75th overall by the Seahawks. Osweiler has thrown 20 passes in two seasons watching Manning play incredible football. Wilson is now one of the league's rising stars and a hero in Seattle, having helped the Seahawks to Super Bowl XLVIII.
Wilson's life and NFL history would have been much, much different if the Broncos had decided to take him. He'd still be at the Super Bowl, but he would probably be Manning's anonymous backup, not the guy on posters all around New York City this week. Who knows who the Broncos would be playing on Sunday, but it's probably a safe bet it wouldn't be the Seahawks.
"In terms of if the Broncos drafted me, I don't think about it in a 'What if?' world," Wilson said. "There's not too many people in the world that can play in the National Football League, and to be here and to be one of 32 starting quarterbacks in the National Football League, that amazes me."
The Broncos had their reasons for drafting Osweiler. Osweiler is almost two years younger than Wilson, who was more polished and NFL ready coming out of college. Denver figured their backup would sit behind Manning for a few years, so those extra two years mattered. Osweiler also was 6-7, while the 5-11 Wilson was passed over because of his height. Every team made that mistake, not just the Broncos. Denver did like Wilson and was impressed with him during that pre-draft visit.
"I think he’s very mature for his age," Broncos coach John Fox said. "We brought him out here for a special visit and it doesn’t surprise me at all he’s had the success and he’s where he is today."
The Seahawks stumbled into a player who is probably among the 10 or 12 best quarterbacks in the league. Had the Broncos decided that Wilson's age and height didn't obscure his ability, or if a team like the Jaguars hadn't drafted a punter five picks before Seattle was on the clock, the Seahawks probably would have rolled with Matt Flynn as their starter. Instead, Wilson beat him out during the 2012 preseason. Flynn has been exposed as a well below average NFL quarterback, and has been traded or released by three different teams in the past year. The Seahawks have a great team, but it's hard to imagine they would have made the Super Bowl with Flynn instead of Wilson, a great scrambler who has posted a passer rating of 100 or better in each of his NFL seasons.
Everything worked out just fine for the Seahawks and Wilson, so he has no reason to hold a grudge against the Broncos. And Wilson said he doesn't carry that chip on his shoulder when asked directly about it, although it's also easy to see in his answer that he might still be motivated by being passed over.
"I don't worry about that," Wilson said. "One of the things I told John Schneider and Coach (Pete) Carroll when they drafted me that if they drafted me it's the best decision they ever made, and I would try to do everything I could to make the other 31 teams regret it."
The Seahawks can thank the Broncos for passing on Wilson, and also that he didn't show much pop as a second baseman. Wilson was drafted by the Rockies, and physically he fit the mold of a baseball player more than a NFL quarterback.
"I was actually big for a second baseman," Wilson said.
Wilson gave up baseball after a very brief stint with Low-A Tri-City. In 315 at-bats he hit .229 with five home runs. He repaid the Rockies part of his $250,000 bonus and focused full time on football. It's not because Wilson had given up on his ability as a baseball player, however.
"In terms of if I would have reached the big leagues, I believe I would have," Wilson said. "I had all the skills to do it. I had the mindset, and that's the main thing. You have to be driven, you have to be mentally driven to do that, and I definitely have that."
Maybe this was just meant to be for Wilson. He's not carrying a clipboard for Denver or playing with a rebuilding Jaguars team or trying to figure out how to hit the curveball and work his way up in the Rockies system. He landed in the perfect spot for him, and is one win from not having to buy another dinner in Seattle for the rest of his life.
"God had something in store for me to play the game of football," Wilson said. "I had this itch, I had this passion to play football, to play in front of 80,000 people with two minutes left and the game on the line."
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