Back in the summer of 2006, a handful of college coaches descended upon the campus of the Collegiate School in Richmond, Virginia, to ask head coach Charles McFall about Russell Wilson.
Wilson was the star quarterback for the Cougars, who were in the middle of a run that would lead to three consecutive state titles, but his dazzling prep resume didn't seem to matter much to the coaches at the next level.
McFall, who served as the head coach at Collegiate from 1986 to 2006, recalls most of them having a similar question for him—one that made him laugh and frustrated him at the same time.
"[College coaches] kept asking, 'Do you think he can play defensive back?'" McFall remembers. "I said, 'Yeah, but he's a quarterback.' Anybody who has ever coached and had somebody who had that type of talent knows what a quarterback is. I told them, 'I never coached in college, and I can't tell you what you need. What I can tell you is what kind of player he is, what kind of person he is. If you talk to any coach who has coached against him, they will tell you too.' [College coaches] were always hung up on the height. Never once questioned arm strength, speed or size. It was always height."
Of course, that same issue has dogged the current Seattle Seahawks Pro Bowl passer throughout his career. However, his habit of proving his doubters wrong began during his career at Collegiate.
In fact, ask anyone familiar with him and his time there, and you're likely to get a story with a common theme: Wilson wasn't your average high school athlete—on or off the field.
One of McFall's favorite stories occurred when Wilson was a ball boy and his older brother played for the Cougars.
"Everybody was crowded around the sideline, and the ref wanted the ball quickly," McFall explains. "I heard the ref yell, 'Get the ball in!' Russell was in either sixth or seventh grade at the time. Next thing I know, that ball went flying across the field and everyone looked around and it was like, 'Wow!' At an early age, he had a really nice arm."
Will O'Brien, who is currently the Associate Athletic Director at Collegiate, was interviewing for the strength coach position back in 2005. Wilson was part of a student panel selected to participate in part of O'Brien's interview process.
"I remember, and none of the ADs told me who this kid is, but I distinctly remember this young man leaning over the table, and he had more questions than anyone else," O'Brien recalls. "It was like, 'Hey, how do I get faster? How do I get stronger? I'm a baseball player and a quarterback. What are the things that I need to do to get better?'"
Wilson made plenty of plays on the field, but his coaches were equally impressed with his leadership skills and work ethic.
Those were the two traits that led McFall to emphatically back his star player and his merits as a quarterback during his recruiting process.
While colleges doubted Wilson's prowess at the game's most important position because of his height, there were other reasons that schools—particularly those in the ACC footprint—hesitated to recruit Wilson.
Since Wilson wasn't a household name in recruiting circles, McFall helped him come up with a plan to attack his recruitment, beginning in the summer of 2006.
"After his junior year, which he had a great year that year, what we decided he needed to do was to pick the schools he was interested in and go to their one-day camps in the summer so they could see him up close," McFall said. "We told him not to waste his money and his time going to schools to visit. He definitely wanted to go somewhere close [to Richmond], so his parents could come and see him. His dad was in poor health at the time."
He had already visited in-state programs Virginia and Virginia Tech. Both schools were interested in Wilson, but only as an athlete who could play another position—preferably defensive back.
That's because both schools also had their eyes on other touted in-state passers.
Virginia had targeted 4-star Peter Lalich, who possessed NFL measurables at 6'5" and 235 pounds and was rated the No. 11 pro-style passer in the 2007 class. Lalich ended up signing with the Cavaliers.
"[Virginia Tech coaches] were honest and said that they wanted to focus on Tyrod and winning the recruiting wars in the Hampton Roads area," McFall said. "They get a lot of players down there, and they told me they would recruit Russell as an athlete only."
With the lukewarm attention from in-state schools, Wilson identified four other ACC programs—Duke, North Carolina, NC State and Wake Forest—as schools he wanted to camp at.
Curt Cignetti, who is currently the head coach at Division II Indiana University of Pennsylvania, was the recruiting coordinator for the Wolfpack at the time.
While Wilson visited North Carolina first, Cignetti actually was tipped off about his exploits in Chapel Hill prior to his arrival on NC State's campus.
"The first guy that actually brought his name to my attention was my brother, Frank. He's with the Rams now, but he was the [offensive] coordinator at North Carolina at the time, and I was at NC State," Cignetti told Bleacher Report. "[UNC] had him in camp in the summer, and [Frank] loved [Russell]. But they had already taken an early commitment from another kid. He couldn't convince [UNC head coach] John Bunting to take another quarterback. [Frank] told me about him."
McFall remembers hearing about Wilson's performance that day from then-Tar Heels running backs coach Andre Powell, whom he had known for a long time.
As McFall recalls, Powell told him how he and a couple of fellow Tar Heels offensive assistants went into Bunting's office to plead their case as to why Wilson deserved an offer.
But Bunting relented because he already secured a commitment from 4-star quarterback Mike Paulus, a 6'5", 220-pound New York native rated as the nation's No. 7 pro-style passer in 2007. Bunting was leery of adding a second quarterback who could potentially give Paulus second thoughts.
"Russell really gave them a show, but they were a little afraid to offer Russell if Russell didn't sign with them and they lost the other guy," McFall explained.
With the Tar Heels out of the equation, the next stop was at Duke, where Wilson also impressed the coaching staff for the Blue Devils. Unlike the situation in Chapel Hill, there was no hesitation on the part of then-Duke head coach Ted Roof and his staff.
"They offered him on the spot," McFall said.
NC State was the third stop on Wilson's tour of the triangle area in the Tar Heel State.
Armed with the knowledge his brother had given him, Cignetti watched as Wilson dazzled during drills. He saw similar traits that led him to recruit another overlooked passer to Raleigh just a few years earlier.
"[Russell] could really spin the ball. He had what Philip Rivers had," Cignetti said. "He was just a quick decision-maker and a winner. He could beat you with his arm or his legs. Marc Trestman was coaching our quarterbacks then, and Marc loved him. There was no hesitation because of that."
Wilson earned an offer from Wolfpack head coach Chuck Amato and finished his tour at Wake Forest. While he also performed well at the Demon Deacons camp, their staff lost contact with Wilson's camp shortly afterward.
With both NC State and Duke pulling the trigger on offering him, his list quickly condensed to the two Tobacco Road stalwarts.
He returned to Raleigh with his parents shortly afterward. That visit helped seal the deal for both Wilson and the Wolfpack, as he committed shortly before his senior season.
"We knew he was special. He came from a great family," Cignetti said. "His grandfather had been the president, I think, at Norfolk State. His dad was very successful, and so was his mom. He was just extremely alert, intelligent and aware of everything on the field. He was just a natural. He was a great baseball player too."
While other schools were unsure of Wilson's abilities, Cignetti never wavered and took advantage of being one of the few schools to show faith in his potential.
"He was looking for a good place to go, because I'm sure he had been told 'no' by some other people," Cignetti explained. "He was looking for an opportunity."
Cignetti notes that there was still work to be done after Amato got fired after the 2006 season and the school hired Boston College head coach Tom O'Brien to replace him.
"Tom O'Brien came in, and I was retained. Other people started to recruit [Russell], and I kept him committed for us," Cignetti said. "Tom was a little leery because of his height, so I kind of had to sell Tom on how special he was."
Ironically, in part because of O'Brien's stance on not wanting Wilson to play baseball in the spring, Wilson ended up going through the recruiting process a second time as a graduate transfer in the summer of 2011.
McFall recounts getting a phone call from then-Wisconsin offensive coordinator Paul Chryst, who is currently the head coach for the Badgers.
The Badgers were interested in Wilson, but as McFall notes, Chryst made the trek to Richmond to do his due diligence because he "couldn't afford to make a mistake on a one-year guy."
McFall gave Chryst a laundry list of reasons why Wilson could be successful at Wisconsin, highlighted by his maturity, leadership and competitiveness.
Wilson ended up choosing Wisconsin over Auburn, and after three weeks on campus in Madison, McFall remembers getting a text from a giddy Chryst.
"Better than advertised, coach."
Of course, Wilson used a banner senior season with the Badgers as a launching pad for his pro career—where he's continued to defy the odds by becoming one of the elite passers in the NFL and leading the Seahawks to a Super Bowl title in 2013.
However, his journey may have never taken off if not for the belief of his high school head coach, who insisted Wilson could play quarterback at the highest level.
"I think it's a great story as far as recruiting, because it is not an exact science," McFall said. "Russell was one a lot of schools missed the boat on. He's such a competitor, and he's got such a good head on his shoulders. He made a lot of them wish they would have given him a better look."
Editor's note: Throughout the 2015 football season, Bleacher Report will continue a series on the college recruitment of today's biggest sports stars. For previous installments, see below:
- The College Recruitment of Tony Romo
- The College Recruitment of Tom Brady
- The College Recruitment of Rob Gronkowski
Sanjay Kirpalani is a National Recruiting Analyst for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes obtained firsthand, and all recruiting information courtesy of 247Sports.
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