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With Big Brother Russell's Help, Anna Wilson Fights for Her Basketball Career

Anna and Russell Wilson at the Kids' Choice Sports Awards in 2014.
Anna and Russell Wilson at the Kids' Choice Sports Awards in 2014.Chris Pizzello/Associated Press
Michael WeinrebContributor IFebruary 16, 2017

PALO ALTO, Calif.—She had grown up with a brother who seemed almost impervious to pressure, a brother who had shaken off myriad questions about his abilities to become one of the most famous athletes in America. Anna Wilson is, according to many who know her best, molded in the spitting image of that brother, Russell.

Her athletic career, though, did not follow the pattern of his. There were no questions. A McDonald's All-American point guard who led her team to the state championship, she had never been called too short, had never been dismissed as a marginal talent. She was seemingly on her way to the WNBA by way of Stanford, her athletic future all but guaranteed.

And yet, there came a moment recently when she could no longer hold it all in, when the stoic countenance she shares with Russell finally collapsed. She found herself weeping in the arms of her coach, distraught that she couldn't keep up on the court and wondering if perhaps her basketball career might be over.

All these years Anna had been working to build an identity for herself outside of Russell, who skyrocketed to fame by winning Super Bowl XLVIII in February 2014 as the quarterback of the Seattle Seahawks. A budding star in Virginia, where she grew up, she moved to Seattle's Eastside suburbs for her senior year in part to be closer to Russell. On the way to leading Bellevue High School to the state title, she satisfied every one of the goals she'd once written on her trainer's whiteboard.

The moment it all changed was both a literal and an emotional jolt: Last March, Wilson took an elbow to the temple during practice for the McDonald's All-American Game. She got up feeling wobbly, her vision blurred. She'd had concussions before, but this one was different—that it had happened as she prepared for what would have been one of the pinnacles of her young career only made it that much more vexing.

For those last couple of months of high school, she found she could hardly concentrate in class. There were days when she stayed home and did nothing but lie in bed. The symptoms plagued her for months, to the point that, soon after she graduated and went to study at Stanford, someone brought up the notion of her playing another sport altogether.

"I'm in college," she thought. "I can't pick another sport."

It wasn't until November 2016 that Wilson, after a series of tentative steps, participated in her first full practice with the Stanford women's basketball team.

Her game was a mess. She air-balled shots. Her pace was slow and choppy. She felt, she says, like "a recreational player running with a ton of really good college players." She'd spent months trying to wring the positivity out of a situation that scared her to death, but in this moment, at least, she could do it no longer. Maybe, she thought, this was the end.

Kate Paye
Kate PayeCredit: Mike Rasay/ISIPhotos.com

"I think we could all see that she was overcome with emotion," Stanford associate head coach Kate Paye says. "So I just took her to the side and said, 'We love you. We're so happy for you to be back.'"

Even now, Anna Wilson is working to adjust to the speed and pace of college basketball. She's found herself looking back on everything her brother went through to become an NFL quarterback—all the times people told him he would never make it that far—and relating to it in new ways.

She had dealt with personal hardship before but never quite like this. And perhaps what's most striking about Anna Wilson is that, even at the age of 19, she's able to view what she's gone through with an overarching sense of both faith and perspective that she took in part from watching Russell grapple with his own critics.

"The biggest part for me was my ability to not get shaken," she says. "With Russell, people always told him he couldn't do something. In my experience with basketball, I never really had anybody tell me I couldn't do it. But the last few months I could relate to how he felt. And I never really changed who I was.

"It's just a really good story to tell."

Anna Wilson flips a football as she watches her brother Russell at the Seahawks' 2016 training camp with their mother, Tammy Wilson.
Anna Wilson flips a football as she watches her brother Russell at the Seahawks' 2016 training camp with their mother, Tammy Wilson.Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

The first thing you notice about Anna is that she speaks with the same polish as her brother, who wrote his little sister a heartfelt letter in the Players' Tribune shortly after she graduated from high school. She's especially close with her mother, Tammy, and both Russell and their older sibling, Harry, but she'd written a perceptive essay for her Stanford application about how Russell's fame had "unintentionally created [a] dark space composed of the inescapable expectation of onlookers."

Her brothers had told her when she was younger to take her time choosing her college, but when the Stanford acceptance came along, Harry says, they encouraged her to seize the opportunity. Much of Russell's and Anna's shared eloquence comes from their father, Harrison, a former two-sport athlete at Dartmouth who was a successful lawyer before diabetes began to ravage his body.

Anna was a kid back then, not yet a teenager. But both Russell and Harry were out of the house, and Tammy traveled often for work. So it often fell on Anna to take care of her father. She stood by as his vision deteriorated, as his leg was amputated, as he would get repeatedly sick to his stomach.

Some days, she admits now, she would sit outside the house, not wanting to go inside and be around her father. Harrison died when she was 12. In the long run, Anna says, her father's illness taught her to "see the best in people when they're at their worst." She thought about that sometimes on those days she lay in bed last spring, feeling her mood twist and turn depending upon her concussion symptoms.

Credit: Bob Drebin/ISIPhotos.com

Two days after graduating from Bellevue, she left for Stanford. But she couldn't participate in summer drills. She still wasn't right. She took advantage of Stanford's resources to do vision therapy and other rehabilitation. She spoke often to her brothers, and Russell—who had obviously suffered concussions himself—repeatedly told her, "You need to make sure you're healthy first before you worry about playing."

"I had to think, 'What would I do if I couldn't play anymore?'" Anna says. "My brothers and I are obviously competitive people. But if you look at Russell, and he's done a lot of things in the community that go beyond sports—to communicate that there's so much more to you than sports."

Eventually, Russell worked his own connections to help Anna out. That, says Harry Wilson, is how Russell tends to approach a problem like this one.

"My brother's not really an empathizer; he's a driver," Harry says. "That's part of his DNA. I'm not really interested in the sob story of it, and that's Russell times 10."

So Russell spoke to a friend, NHL star Sidney Crosby, who has a history of concussions. Late in November, with Crosby's recommendation, Anna went to the Carrick Institute, a neurology clinic in Florida, to work with Dr. Matthew Antonucci. Five days of intensive rehab and diagnostic testing, Anna says, helped her get over the last of her symptoms. Her balance improved; her vision cleared. For the first time since taking that hit eight months earlier, basketball became a priority.

It is still a slow and arduous process: "I think this story is in the middle of being written," Harry Wilson says. "It's a little TBD on how she reacts to adversity."

Credit: Bob Drebin/ISIPhotos.com

But in those moments, Anna finds she can look back to all those times Russell struggled to prove himself. She can text with Russell, or with Harry, who played baseball and football at the University of Richmond.

On December 28, she played 17 minutes against Yale in her first college game—she made three of her five three-point attempts and finished with 11 points in a blowout 102-44 victory. It was, she says, one of the most thrilling moments of her athletic career to date, though she maintained her older brother's stoic countenance through it all.

"My teammates said I didn't look very emotional," she says. "But I was so happy to be back."

There is still the concern about what might happen when she inevitably does take another blow to the head. As Paye points out, Wilson is a naturally aggressive player, so her teammates have been cognizant about calling out screens when Wilson is on the floor or practicing. But each week, Anna says, she's regaining her bearings.

And no matter how it turns out—"the book's gonna close on athletics at some point," Harry says—her perspective on both her career and herself has grown. To those who don't know her, she is still her famous brother's sister. But she'd like to think she has learned to incorporate everything Russell has taught her in an effort to escape from his shadow and become a better version of herself.

"For me, it was about whether I'd still be able to be excited for people if they're having success when I'm not," she says. "To keep a positive attitude through it all. As easily as things came for me in high school, they don't come as easy now. But this is going to be part of my story someday."

 

Michael Weinreb (@MichaelWeinreb) covers college sports for Bleacher Report. 

 

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