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Posted: Tuesday March 17, 2009 12:04PM; Updated: Tuesday March 17, 2009 12:56PM
Andy Staples Andy Staples >
INSIDE COLLEGE FOOTBALL

After All-ACC freshman season, N.C. St. QB Wilson battling for job

Story Highlights

In '08, Russell Wilson earned first team All-ACC honors and led State to a bowl

Despite changing his team's fortunes, Wilson will face a QB battle in spring ball

Now, the two-sport star must rehab his knee, fight for his job and help his family

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In leading N.C. State to an upset win over then streaking East Carolina, freshman QB Russell Wilson established himself as a potential difference maker in the ACC.
In leading N.C. State to an upset win over then-streaking East Carolina, freshman QB Russell Wilson established himself as a difference maker.
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RALEIGH, N.C -- Elliott Avent can't take his eyes off the shortstop. He oozes confidence. He's so instinctual and yet so raw. Avent, North Carolina State's baseball coach, already envisions the kid in red and black even though he's only seen him play a few innings of this 2006 tournament in Salem, Va. A fan overhears Avent and a pro scout marveling at Russell Wilson's play and offers a critical piece of information.

"Hey coach," Avent remembers the man saying. "That kid's a heckuva quarterback, too."

"Excuse me a second," Avent tells the scout.

Avent steps away and calls soon-to-be-former N.C. State football coach Chuck Amato. Do Wolfpack coaches know about Wilson, the quarterback at Collegiate School in Richmond? Yes, they do. Are they interested? Yes, they are.

That's all Avent needs. A conversation with Wilson reveals that his father, Harrison Wilson III, played football and baseball at Dartmouth. His older brother, Harry, played both sports at Richmond. Russell wants to do the same, but his height (5-foot-11) and his potentially high baseball draft position -- he projects as a star second baseman -- have scared off most college football and baseball programs. Avent and Amato agree that a tag-team recruitment might help the entire athletic department.

A little more than two years later, Wilson celebrates his 20th birthday on his back. Miami's nose tackle has just creamed him near midfield at Carter-Finley stadium, so Wilson has a horrible view as the pass he's just thrown floats into Owen Spencer's hands for a 32-yard touchdown. The score helps the Wolfpack beat Miami and caps a four-game winning streak that's taken N.C. State from 2-6 to bowl eligible. Wilson, who has started the past seven games, has changed everything. In the stands, Wilson's father -- who suffered a stroke in August 2008 that left him comatose for days -- watches live for the third consecutive game.

It's now March. Spring practice starts soon, and Wilson, the guy who changed everything, sits in an office on the N.C. State campus. The firmness of his handshake, the look in his eye and the tone in his voice suggest he could, after he turns 35 in 2023, decide to run for president. For Wilson, capturing the electorate would appear as effortless as capturing first-team All-ACC last year. After meeting him, it makes perfect sense that young Russell, barely out of sixth grade, took the wheel after his father -- who also suffers from extreme complications from diabetes -- lost consciousness while driving to a baseball tournament. Russell got his father to the hospital and disobeyed dad's orders that he leave and play in the tournament.

Wilson seems confident now even though uncertainty swirls. First, there is the knee. He tore the posterior cruciate ligament in his left knee and missed the second half of a loss against Rutgers in the PapaJohns.com Bowl. He has endured 11 weeks of rehab, and now Wilson waits for the clearance to play baseball games and practice football. When spring practice begins later this week, Wilson will juggle both sports, playing outfield in baseball because preseason All-America Dallas Poulk has second base covered.

Second, there is Wally Pipp. Wilson says the name doesn't ring a bell, but N.C. State football coach Tom O'Brien mentioned it half in jest not long ago. Offered a bit of baseball history, Wilson understands. Redshirt freshman Mike Glennon, the first quarterback O'Brien and his staff recruited to Raleigh -- they inherited Wilson, who committed to Amato -- will play Lou Gehrig in this analogy.

Third, there is the unknown. Harrison, an attorney, hasn't been able to work since the stroke. Wilson's mother, Tammy, busts her hump as a manager at a health insurance company, but mom and dad still must care for kid sister Anna, an 11-year-old softball/basketball star who may continue the Wilson two-sport legacy. Though he hasn't played the sport full-time for two years, Wilson could be a hot commodity when he's eligible for the baseball draft in June 2010. Though his parents have told him to only worry about what's best for him, he sure wouldn't mind helping them.

"Having that basis financially definitely helps, especially in my family right now," Wilson says. "That's what I have in the back of my head. My dad is sick. My mom is working hard. And they've got my little sister. I want to help them out the best I can."

Wilson means that differently than you probably think he does. The dean's list student wants to put himself in the best position to help, and he doesn't yet know whether that will be on the football field or the baseball field or whether the greatest opportunity will come in 2010, 2011 or 2012. So he will just play.

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