For somebody who seems to have every virtue associated with that rare celebrity worthy of admiration, Russell Wilson is a curiously polarizing athlete.
The Seahawks quarterback returned last weekend to the school he attended as a football-eligible graduate student, the University of Wisconsin, and delivered a commencement address that was charming, eloquent and — as standard-issue commencement addresses go — even memorable.
He preached but didn’t pontificate, stayed on topic, made serious points and yet drew some laughs in a nimble balancing act of gravity and levity. Guest speakers often wing it, but Wilson regarded his appearance as an orator as seriously as he regards hospital visits and commercial endorsements.
“Remember that the moments when life tells you ‘yes’ aren’t the ones that define you,” he told the class of 2016. “The moments that really matter are the moments when life tells you ‘no.’ That’s what I want to focus on today: what to do when life tells you ‘no.’ ”
Beautiful. How could any of this go wrong?
It can go wrong when you drudge up some long-ago experiences and put a spin on them at odds with the facts. Wilson, who fulfilled his college-degree requirements at North Carolina State before transferring to Wisconsin, suggested two Wolfpack coaches had no faith in him.
Without naming Elliott Avent, the N.C. State baseball coach, Wilson recalled his reduced role on the team. The memory set up an anecdote about staying positive amid adversity, which in Wilson’s case meant hitting a game-winning home run that underscored the power of perseverance.
“My junior season, my draft-eligible year, and I’m barely playing. And honestly, I don’t know why,” said Wilson, noting that he’d gotten between 450-500 at-bats over his first two seasons.
Wilson had 71 at-bats as a freshman, 72 as a sophomore, 98 as a junior. Wilson did hit that walk-off home run, but he hit it a few games into the schedule.
Avent immediately saw Wilson’s potential as a two-sport star at N.C. State, and shared his insight with the football staff. Which brings us to then-head coach Tom O’Brien, who also wasn’t named in the speech but clearly identified as the antagonist in a feel-good story .
Wilson told the audience that as a freshman, two weeks before the season opener, he’d been assigned a backup role in the secondary and special-teams punt returner. He thought about it, prayed about it, and concluded no, he was a quarterback.
A former teammate, offensive lineman Kelani Heppe, posted this Facebook message: “80 percent of the (stuff) Russell said in his speech didn’t happen.”
Wilson’s departure from N.C. State was less than amicable. O’Brien believed quarterbacks in a big-time conference should be willing to commit to football 365 days a year. Wilson couldn’t make that commitment — he played minor-league baseball during the summer — unlike another Wolfpack quarterback, Mike Glennon.
Wilson had one year of eligibility remaining, Glennon had two. O’Brien informed Wilson that if he wasn’t all in, Glennon would take over as the starter.
O’Brien was thinking in terms of long-term stability for the program — a reasonable agenda, as his job was at stake — and he’s depicted as the villain in a speech to college graduates?
Wilson didn’t need to reach so far into the past to draw an example of “those moments when life tells you ‘no.’ ” It was he, after all, who threw the pass that was intercepted inside the Patriots’ 1-yard line during the final seconds of Super Bowl 49.
I doubt any of the graduates addressed Saturday had a clue about the baseball-coaching career of Elliott Avent, or the football-coaching career of Tom O’Brien. I’m sure many of them were familiar with the doomed pass Wilson threw 15 months ago.
The play will endure as an eternal example of life’s way of throwing a sucker punch at you now and then. Everything’s in place, all is well and good, and then — gotcha! — you’re down and out.
Ricardo Lockette can relate. The intended receiver for the goal-line pass that cost the Seahawks a second consecutive Super Bowl victory, Lockette was the victim of a gruesome special-teams collision in November that threatened his mobility and forced his retirement.
Asked the other day if he had any misgivings about giving up football, Lockette answered that he didn’t, “because I love my family, and I’d rather walk.”
Life told him “no,” but Lockette is not bitter about the lousy cards dealt to him. His upbeat perspective strikes me as a natural fit for a commencement-address circuit that requires only two basics.
Accentuate the positive, and stick to the facts.