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Russell Wilson finds Michael Jordan-like motivation

The Seahawks quarterback knows how to turn a perceived slight into motivation to rise to another level.
Russell Wilson, gaining yards against the Eagles during last season's wild-card game, hasn't forgotten how he lost his N.C. State quarterback job to Mike Glennon. Wilson transferred to Wisconsin, had a strong season and became an NFL star with the Seahawks.
Russell Wilson, gaining yards against the Eagles during last season's wild-card game, hasn't forgotten how he lost his N.C. State quarterback job to Mike Glennon. Wilson transferred to Wisconsin, had a strong season and became an NFL star with the Seahawks. [ MATT ROURKE | AP ]
Published May 23, 2020

SEATTLE — Russell Wilson is a fount of positivity, and always has been. The next time he utters a discouraging word publicly about a teammate or the Seahawks will be the first. His style is to try to lift everyone up through encouragement and praise rather than to motivate through criticism and fear.

You might have guessed who I’m comparing him to on this front: Michael Jordan, as exemplified in ESPN’s The Last Dance. On the surface, their entire modus operandi couldn’t be more divergent. Wilson would never even think of riding his teammates like Jordan did with Scott Burrell, Steve Kerr, et al. Just listen to Wilson’s news conferences when he talks about fellow Seahawks — he kills them with kindness.

Yet there’s one area where I see some common ground in these two elite athletes. The documentary details how Jordan would turn any perceived slight into a deep grudge — and he wasn’t beyond manufacturing the details, as when Jordan said Washington Bullets rookie LaBradford Smith had the gall to tell him, “Nice game, Mike,” after Smith scored 37 points against the Bulls. It turned out that never happened. But Jordan still used that to fuel himself to 36 points the next night vs. the Bullets — in the first half.

Then there was the time Karl Malone won the league MVP award over Jordan. And the time Bulls general manager Jerry Krause overly praised Toni Kukoc before Kukoc had even joined the team. And the time Krause made it known how much he liked Dan Majerle’s game. And the time Jordan thought Bryon Russell was disrespectful during an encounter. And the time George Karl walked right by him without saying hello at a restaurant.

You get the picture. There are probably 10 more examples in the documentary of Jordan elevating his game to prove somebody wrong.

Wilson, through the course of his career, also has seemed powerfully driven by perceived slights. That’s hardly uncommon among athletes, of course, but Wilson is notable in his ability to turn such moments into another climb up the rung of success.

You can go back to 2011, when North Carolina State coach Tom O’Brien chose Mike Glennon over Wilson (5 feet 11, 206 pounds) as the starting quarterback entering what was to be Wilson’s senior season. Wilson promptly transferred to Wisconsin and led the Badgers to the Rose Bowl with a brilliant season. Glennon was drafted by the Bucs and has been mostly a career backup.

Speaking at Wisconsin’s graduation in 2016, Wilson recounted the event in very Jordanesque terms, as transcribed by ESPN:

“The summer before my senior year of college, I’m playing minor-league baseball. I called my football coach at N.C. State and said, ‘Hey coach, I’d like to come back for my senior year.’ He told me I wasn’t coming back.

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“He said, ‘Listen son, you’re never going to play in the National Football League. You’re too small. There’s no chance. You’ve got no shot. Give it up.’ Of course, I’m on this side of the phone saying, ‘So you’re telling me I’m not coming back to N.C. State? I won’t see the field?’ He said, ‘No son, you won’t see the field.’

“Now, this was everything I had worked for and now it was completely gone. If I wanted to follow my dream, I had to leave N.C. State. I had no idea if I would get a second chance somewhere else.”

Some details recounted by Wilson in that speech have come under question. But there’s no doubt Wilson felt wronged and used that emotion to show O’Brien he had erred — just as he did when he was bypassed in the first two rounds of the 2012 NFL draft, just as Wilson has fought back, for the entirety of his career, against the notion that he’s too short to succeed as an elite quarterback.

I bring this up now not just to juxtapose the similarities (and differences) between Wilson and Jordan at a time when The Last Dance is still a hot topic of conversation. But also because of the words of national radio host Colin Cowherd, who was on 710 ESPN Seattle on Wednesday and expressed the opinion that the Seahawks don’t appreciate or respect Wilson.

Now, it should be noted that this is Cowherd speaking, not Wilson. Cowherd is an avid and tireless supporter of the Seahawks quarterback, whom last month he called the NFL’s best player, after previously declaring him the most underrated and underappreciated athlete in sports history.

Cowherd grew up in Washington state and clearly has an affinity for the pro teams in the state. He also shares representation with Wilson’s wife, Ciara, which may well give him some insight into how Wilson, or at least the people close to Wilson, are thinking.

On Wednesday, Cowherd said on 710 ESPN, referring to the Seahawks, “I don’t think they get Russell, I don’t think they appreciate him. They say they do; their actions tell me they don’t. … I just don’t think they respect Russell Wilson. I never have … I just don’t think they understand what they have.”

I don’t see it that way at all, and I can point pretty convincingly to the four-year, $140 million contract (with a no-trade clause) they gave him last year. That deal made him the highest-paid player in NFL history and tied him to the organization through the 2023 season, which hardly screams disrespect or underappreciation.

Cowherd gave a few examples of how he feels the Seahawks have done Wilson wrong, including their inability to surround him with elite talent on offense, the fact that they didn’t publicly shoot down the possibility of signing Cam Newton as a backup quarterback (as the Steelers did), and coach Pete Carroll’s refusal to open up the offense to take full advantage of Wilson’s talents.

That can be countered by pointing to the fact the Seahawks have built a team successful enough to make the playoffs (and win in double figures) in all but one of Wilson’s eight seasons. And Carroll would no doubt say their offensive system is a reason Wilson has put up such stellar statistics. Also, I can see why the Seahawks don’t feel the need to shoot down every rumor, and always leave themselves an unlocked door for a potential transaction, no matter how unlikely.

I doubt if Wilson will ever rock the boat, even if he believes the Seahawks didn’t fulfill his stated wish list to add a “couple more” superstars during the offseason. Furthermore, I feel he has genuine fondness for Carroll. And when Wilson said upon signing his new contract, “I love Seattle. It’s the place I want to be, and always wanted to be,” I believe that to be an accurate representation.

But if Wilson wants to privately look askance at things such as the reported trade inquiries Seattle had with Cleveland involving Wilson and the Nos. 1 and 4 overall picks in the 2018 draft; or that Seahawks general manager John Schneider scouted Josh Allen’s Wyoming pro day that same year — heck, I think the Seahawks should welcome it.

Whatever fuels the fire.


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