By Jim Henneman
You wouldn't have noticed by the way he navigated the dump that passes for a football field at FedEx Field, but Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson is built more like a middle infielder than an NFL quarterback. And, as a matter of fact, he was just that when the Orioles used a late-round pick in 2007 to draft him as a shortstop out of Collegiate School in Richmond, Va., and three years later, when the Colorado Rockies took him during the fourth round as a second baseman and gave him a $200,000 bonus to sign.
Good speed, strong arm, great athleticism and off-the-charts makeup made him appear to be more of a prospect in baseball than football.
The Orioles made a substantial offer to Wilson, though nothing close to the rumored $1 million bandied about during an NBC telecast a few weeks ago. But the O's never really had a chance.
"He wanted to give football a try," said Dean Albany, the O's scout who watched Wilson throughout his high school career.
Albany's dealings with the Wilson family left an indelible impression.
"He was as impressive a kid as I've ever met in my life," Albany said shortly after watching Wilson dismantle the Redskins last Sunday. "He's polite, humble, very much a team person -- he was all about the team. When the game was over, he'd be the one raking the mound, carrying the equipment.
"He was a very special kid. I remember driving back with [former Orioles scouting director] Joe Jordan and saying, 'If we sign him and he can't play, he'll be our general manager some day.' "
But Wilson, who is a grossly undersized quarterback by NFL standards, barely stretching to 5-foot-11, was determined to give college football a fling.
Rejected by the University of Virginia because of his size, he accepted a scholarship at North Carolina State when the Wolfpack agreed to let him play baseball as well. He was No. 5 on the quarterback depth chart when summer practice began and the starter for the season opener.
All-ACC in two sports, he signed with the Rockies after his junior year, played 32 games in Class A ball and then returned as a third-year starter (as a redshirt junior) in 2010. When Wilson decided to forego spring practice to pursue his baseball career, coach Tom O'Brien decided he'd rather invest two years in the understudy than one more year with his all-conference quarterback.
Because Wilson already had a degree in communications, and perhaps influenced by a .229 batting average during his 93-game baseball career spread throughout two mini-seasons, Wilson looked around for a place to continue and conclude his college football career.
In effect a free agent, who didn't have to sit out a year because he had a degree, Wilson cut his second year in pro baseball short in time for summer practice at Wisconsin. He proceeded to set all kinds of school records, lead the Badgers to the Rose Bowl and become an overnight legend.
Because of his height, a good 3-4 inches short of what the NFL considers standard, Wilson was the sixth quarterback drafted a year ago. But when the Seattle Seahawks made him a third-round choice and gave him a four-year contract worth almost $3 million, the middle infielder gave way to the mid-sized quarterback, and baseball was quickly relegated to the rearview mirror.
The Rockies, who recouped some of their investment, were aware that football could be a priority for Wilson, but felt that because of his size and position, baseball would present the best opportunity. But when Wilson did in Seattle what he had done the year before at Wisconsin -- devour a completely foreign playbook within weeks -- his stage was set. No. 3 on the chart at the start of camp, he became No. 1 in coach Pete Carroll's heart in time for the season opener.
And now, during the year of dynamic rookie quarterbacks, Wilson was the only one standing as the NFL moved into the second round of the playoffs. Pundits will, no doubt, continue to talk about his lack of size, but Albany, for one, won't be surprised by anything Wilson accomplishes.
"I saw him play football in high school," Albany said. "He's got the arm, and he moves around." Then, almost as an afterthought, Albany asdded: "How big was [Fran] Tarkenton?"
For the record, Tarkenton, who ironically enough is also from Richmond, was officially listed as 6 feet tall -- a measurement routinely disputed -- and 190 pounds, which is about 20 pound less than Wilson packs. He was probably a middle infielder, too.
Jim Henneman can be reached at JimH@pressboxonline.com.
Posted Jan. 8, 2013