Growing up in Richmond, Va., Russell Wilson didn't have a NFL team to really follow, so he gravitated to who captivated him. That man was former Purdue and current New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees and that place was the Rose Bowl game.
"He's a guy I looked up to," Wilson said of Brees. "He got a lot of talent, extremely good competitor and extremely good faith."
Wilson loved watching Brees so much that he picked up a copy of his autobiography, "Coming Back Stronger: Unleashing the Hidden Power of Adversity," and barely put it down. He read the book when it first came out in 2010 and remembers vividly the chapter where Brees talked about leading the Boilermakers to the 2001 Rose Bowl for the first time in 34 years.
"It talked about his goal his senior year was to make it to the Rose Bowl, and he did," Wilson said. "It's something that I take to heart and something that I know is extremely serious."
Maybe that's why Wilson picked the book up again and reread it the week before the team's game against Penn State. After consecutive conference losses in late October, Wisconsin was left for dead and thought a second conference championship was wishful thinking. Now two months later, Wilson is following in his idol's steps as he will lead No. 9 Wisconsin into the 98th Rose Bowl against No. 6 Oregon.
"The book brought everything back into perspective again and how big this opportunity is," Wilson said.
Opportunity is exactly what Wilson brought when he decided to transfer from N.C. State, picking Wisconsin of all places instead of the defending national champion Auburn. Wilson chose the Badgers because he wanted to play in offensive coordinator Paul Chryst's system, play in the Big Ten and have a chance to win championships.
Wisconsin wanted Wilson because its options to replace Scott Tolzien were limited at best and many felt the Badgers were a competent quarterback away from defending their conference championship. As Wilson proved, he was much more than competent.
The conference's quarterback of the year and a consensus first-team All-Big Ten selection, Wilson enters UW's 14th game holding school record for single-season touchdown passes (31), pass efficiency rating (191.6 - min. 200 attempts) and yards of total offense (3,199) and is second best at UW in completion percentage of .725 (min. 100 attempts), 37 touchdowns responsible, 2,879 passing yards and 206 pass completions.
"Russell Wilson impressed me in the way that he just has consistency," said UW coach Bret Bielema. "The guy you see here today is the same guy I saw two months ago, three months ago. He's very even keel in his approach, in his demeanor, and I think that's why Saturday's are very easy for him."
Everything comes easy for Wilson and at a fast pace. In the last year, he's been in three different locker rooms with three different sets of teammates, each with its own challenges and own responsibilities.
At N.C. State, he was the offense, accounting for 76.1 percent of NC State's total offense – the highest percentage of any FBS player. In Asheville, N.C., he was the professional, expected to be able to hit a curveball to the opposite field after signing a major league baseball contract with the Colorado Rockies organization. In Wisconsin, he's simply known as one of the guys.
"The tradition and my teammates, along with the coaches and the chance to be a part of something special, is why I came here," Wilson said. "When I called the first team meeting in the summer, I told the guys that I want to make sure we all put our best foot forward and do whatever it takes to win."
Wilson definitely has practiced what he preached. While his numbers are off the charts, it's his work on the big stage that shows his calmness under pressure.
When Wisconsin has trailed in the fourth quarter, Wilson is 16-of-27 for 256 yards with four touchdowns and one interception, twice leading UW back from double-digit deficits to either tie the game or take the lead.
In the inaugural Big Ten championship game, Wilson earned the game's MVP honors after throwing three touchdown passes on 17-of-24 passing for 187 yards and catching two passes for 31 yards in the 42-39 victory over Michigan State.
Throw in the amount of adversity he's gone in off the field with his father passing away in June 2010, maybe that's why Wilson doesn't bat an eyelash when he says nothing scares him.
"He's incredible," said fellow senior captain Bradie Ewing. "Just the way he came in on short noticed and learned the offense is a huge testament to the type of football mind that he has. Just to fit in with the guys the way he has and be a leader on the team the way he has so quickly is truly remarkable.
"Obviously his play speaks for itself, whether he's handing it off, throwing it down field with pinpoint accuracy or scrambling for a 15-yard gain when the pocket breaks down. He's the whole package. On top of that, he's a great game."
Even without the guidance of his father, it's hard to fail with the support system Wilson has around him. His mom, sister and fiancée have been to practically every game along with his brother, who works nearby in Chicago and texts an inspirational message to Wilson before every game.
Wilson says his Wisconsin autobiography would be more than a couple paragraphs, calling it a blessing in his life and one he has enjoyed since he arrived on July 1. More importantly, it's an opportunity that allows him to share another special moment with his father.
"When I grew up on the east coast, my dad always he would say, it would be special if you would play in the Rose Bowl. And in the back of my mind I thought, yeah, it would be awesome, but no chance of me playing in it.
"Amazing how things come full circle. I know my dad is sitting right there on the 50-yard line waiting. He's got the best seat in the house, waiting for the game to start, waiting for the coin flip and I'm excited about the opportunity.
"Winning this game personally would show how much I've been through, all the ups and downs and all the great things I've done in the past year, past five years and getting to the point where I am now. It would be a signature win and it will be great for the University of Wisconsin, the state of Wisconsin, recruiting, the players and the fans, too."
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