The Wolfpacker Oral History: How Russell Wilson came to NC State
The Inside Story On How A Two-Star Quarterback Wound Up Starring For NC State Football Before Winning A Super Bowl And Becoming The NFL's Highest-Paid Player
The story of Russell Wilson’s athletic career provides enough material for some lucky documentarian to make a must-see 30-for-30 on ESPN.
The iconic “What if I told you …” teaser synonymous with the series could very well begin with the story of Wilson as a rising senior at a private high school in Richmond, Va., called Collegiate School.
Long before he became a Super Bowl-winning quarterback and NFL icon, Wilson was an underrated, yet confident, signal-caller determined to play both football and baseball in college.
That dream became a reality at NC State in a story that was not without irony and twists. It was a destiny that unfolded like, as Wilson said in a recent interview with The Wolfpacker reflecting back on the time, “a perfect storm, to be honest with you.”
Since that journey, Wilson has become an NFL superstar, signing the richest contract for annual salary in league history in April of 2019. He has tied Tom Brady for the most wins for a quarterback through his first eight seasons (86) and is one of just two qualified signal callers in the NFL to ever have a career passing rating over 100.
Over the past month, The Wolfpacker has not only talked with Wilson, but also the following key characters who played significant roles in recruiting him to NC State:
• Former NC State head football coach Chuck Amato, who in the summer of 2006 made the decision to offer Wilson a two-sport opportunity.
• Marc Trestman, the former NFL, CFL and XFL head coach who was Amato’s offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at the time.
• Steve Dunlap, a long-time college football defensive coordinator who was serving in that capacity at NC State, and was recruiting the Richmond area for the Wolfpack.
• NC State baseball coach Elliott Avent, who played a vital role in making sure Wilson did not fall through the cracks with the football staff through his friendships with Trestman and Amato.
• Chad Jamison, who at the time was the director of high school relations at NC State and oversaw the recruiting office under Amato as well as his successor, Tom O’Brien. Jamison now works for National Preps.
• Mike Archer, who would join O’Brien’s staff as a defensive coordinator in January of 2007 and was a close friend of Trestman. Archer and Wilson’s mutual love of baseball led the two to strike up a friendship.
• Rivals.com national recruiting analyst Mike Farrell, who in blunt honesty admits they blew the evaluation of Wilson.
They collectively tell the story of how Wilson became a Wolfpacker.
The Two-Star, Two-Sport Star
Wilson completed 205 of 361 passes for 3,287 yards and 40 touchdowns with 11 interceptions as a high school junior. He also ran for 634 yards on 132 carries and 15 more scores while leading Collegiate to a third straight state title.
Despite that, Rivals.com listed Wilson as a two-star recruit, its lowest ranking.
Farrell: “He was short. … If you remember the only sub-6-foot quarterback that had any sort of both collegiate and professional success prior to these guys was Doug Flutie, and that was 1984. He won the Heisman in ’84, so we are talking 20 years.
“Wilson played at Collegiate in Richmond, which back then had just bad football. Football in Virginia was in the Tidewater back then.”
Wilson: “I knew I could play ball. I think part [of the ranking], too, was obviously about me being shorter. I think, second of all, was also me playing in a private-school league.
“They didn’t know that I could play big-time, five-star kind of football, even though we played some great public schools and some other great military schools and military academies. I think that kind of was the hesitation.
“And ultimately baseball was a big part of my life. … People thought I was going to play pro baseball right out of high school. That was part of it too.”
Avent: “I think he would have been a second baseman in the big leagues.”
Dunlap: “In recruiting, a lot of the so-called name schools, the so-called big schools, see a 5-foot-11 quarterback coming from a private school, and they just keep on driving. They don’t bother.
“I saw his film [as an opponent while Dunlap was looking at a prospect from another school]. … The main reason I still went there [to Collegiate] was when I was at Navy and West Virginia I was the defensive coach against Doug Flutie for four years. That was real fun (insert sarcasm). He’s maybe 5-9, and he was ridiculous.
“You were looking at a bigger, more complete version of Doug Flutie, in my opinion. [Wilson] was 5-11 and had huge hands. He was extremely smart, and he was extremely athletic.
“He was just as good a baseball player as he was a football player. How could you lose recruiting a guy like that?”
Jamison: “I remember Coach Dunlap bringing back a DVD of Russell. He didn’t say anything, I would just watch everything he brought back. I remembered watching Russell’s film, and I was like, ‘This kid can throw and run around.’
“… I asked Coach Dunlap about him and he said, ‘He can play, can’t he? He’s going to come to camp, and we’ll give him to Trestman to work out.’
“We weren’t going to offer him on film because we had questions about his size.”
An Assist From Baseball
Wilson was officially on NC State’s radar after Dunlap brought Wilson’s film back to Raleigh and gave it to Jamison.
Football, though, was not Wilson's only sport. He batted .467 as a junior in baseball at Collegiate. An obscure summer baseball showcase event in Salem, Va., that Avent attended was about to impact Wilson’s destiny.
Avent: “It was a great tournament with a lot of talent. I remember one game where there was a great double-play combination. The second baseman was a pretty good player and a soccer player, because I tried to get our soccer coach [the late George Tarantini] to recruit him.
“I see this shortstop, and I watch him. He makes every play. These infields were not good, and you got a lot of bad hops. I don’t care how bad of hops that guy got, he caught the ball.
“You could tell he was very, very skilled, and he had a cannon of an arm across the infield. He had a good body, played with a lot of energy, was high-twitch and very interesting, but also a little bit raw.
“I generally don’t sit with the other scouts or other coaches. I usually sit with the fans because sometimes you hear things you don’t normally hear. I made a statement, ‘Wow, that shortstop is really, really good.’
“As I hoped would happen, this farmer … in overalls looked at me and said, ‘Boy, you think he’s a good baseball player? You ought to see him throw a football.’
“I said, ‘Really? He’s that good?’ He said, ‘Best quarterback this state’s ever had.’
“I said, ‘You’ve had some pretty good guys like the Vick brothers,’ and started naming a few quarterbacks from the state of Virginia. He said, ‘Better than all of them. Boy, you listen to me. That’s the best quarterback in this state by far, and maybe the best quarterback this state’s ever had.’
“ … This farmer told me who Russell Wilson was. I immediately called Chuck Amato.
“When I got back to Raleigh. I talked to Chuck and Marc, and I said I really want you to recruit this kid. I like this kid, but I don’t know if I have the money to give him a scholarship in baseball.
“It didn’t really matter, he wanted football. Russell was hell bent on playing both football and baseball in college.”
Wilson: “I played really well in that tournament, and NC State [baseball] offered and wanted me to come there.”
NC State’s football coaches wanted to see Wilson work out before offering. Fortunately for them, Wilson was going to do a swing through Tobacco Road and perform at several colleges' football camps.
Wilson: “I went to UNC and played well there. At the time, Frank Cignetti was the offensive coordinator and [John] Bunting was the head coach. Curt Cignetti, Frank’s brother, was actually recruiting me at NC State. …
“Monday was UNC, Tuesday was NC State. Wednesday was an off day. Thursday was Wake Forest and Friday was Duke.”
Jamison: “That summer we had several guys that ended up going to different Division I colleges coming to throw at camp. I think Robert Marve [signed with Miami] was that year. Stephen Garcia [South Carolina] was the same year. Those kids threw at camp for us and were obviously pretty good quarterbacks.”
Dunlap: “I remembered telling someone standing close to me, “That’s the Russell Wilson kid.’ The guy looked over there and said, ‘He’s too little,’ and walked away.
“Then Russell starts throwing the rock. Next thing you know, every offensive coach is standing behind him watching. He was unbelievable.”
Wilson: “I remember being on those outdoor fields and training and working out … and trying to be the guy in the front of the line and trying to get the extra work and all that.
“After we had that first morning session, right when I went to lunch, Coach Trestman and Coach Amato grabbed me and said, ‘Hey, can you stay behind a little bit?’
“I did a little bit of extra throwing. They were recruiting me, but I guess I had done well earlier in the day, and they wanted to see me throw a little bit more.
“They had another five-star guy there that they were looking at, too. … He was from Michigan [Steven Threet, who signed with Georgia Tech]. I did all the throws, did all the things.
“I leave that day and they were really excited about the opportunity.”
Amato: “We watched him on film, and he looked good. He was going to come to our camp. … I told them I was going to take a quick shower, dry off because it was hot, and I’d be back.
“We went down and watched him throw the ball, and I said, ‘The kid is good! He’s a 5-foot-10.5-inch Charlie Ward [Florida State’s former Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback], with maybe a stronger arm, maybe a little more mobility.’”
Jamison: “Russell says I was catching for him, but I don’t remember that. Trestman was working him out and having him throw downfield to either me or somebody else, whomever was catching for him. So [Trestman] put him through drills, and he said go get a drink and switch sides so we could throw the other way against the wind.
“When we switched sides Trestman walks by me and I said, ‘What do you think?’ He goes, ‘He’s the best of anyone we’ve ever had here.’ … Russell had the best zip on the ball, he was accurate, good footwork. Obviously he wasn’t 6-foot-4 like the typical pocket passer, but he could run, too.”
Trestman: “I’ve been around enough quarterbacks to know what they look like and feel like. I’ve always felt there is no formula for quarterbacks. There is no height; there is no weight. There are a lot of things that go into this.
“I thought this kid is under the radar, and we need to sign him as soon as possible. The more this got out, the more word got around, I would not be the only person that sees it. We had to get it done.”
Picking NC State
Trestman at this point began to feel strongly about Wilson, and he also knew that offering the opportunity to play both sports in college was critical to landing him.
Trestman remembers discussing that with Amato, a former two-sport athlete at NC State himself. Trestman called that “the fork-in-the-road moment of the recruitment.”
On July 26, Wilson announced his commitment to NC State.
Wilson: “My dad [Harrison Wilson III] had to go back home to Richmond for work, so I hopped on a bus and went to Wake Forest. My mom met me there. I did well there. If I remember right Coach [Jim] Grobe was the head coach there. They wanted me to play football and baseball there.
“… My mom drove me to Duke, and my dad met me there. I worked out at Duke, and … they offered me that day. Shortly after, NC State offered me, too.”
Trestman: “I was an advocate. I didn’t care whether he missed part of spring ball. My feeling was that when a kid comes to college, they should be able to create the experience that they want and that we shouldn’t take it away from them.
“Chuck was in complete agreement. He said, ‘If you like him and he wants to do both, we can work it out and work with him on this.’”
Amato: “During football season we’ll have him, he’ll be in the meetings, and he is going to learn. When the season is over, we’ll go to a bowl, and then after the bowl he’ll go directly to baseball. If we didn’t go to a bowl, he would go there as soon as the season is over.”
Avent: “Chuck had this at Florida State with Deion Sanders. In the old days you had a lot more two-sport guys. You were really used to that. It’s not as common today.
“When Chuck was here, Russell was going to play baseball in the spring, and he was going to play football in the fall the whole time he was here. That was the arrangement we had, and that would have made it a lot easier for Russell.”
Wilson: “That was everything. That was a massive part of it. I always wanted to play two sports.
“If I was going to go play pro baseball [out of high school], I was going to go pretty high. I got calls in the late first round, beginning of the second round to go play. I ended up turning it down because I wanted to go to NC State to play both out of high school.
“I was committed to playing football and baseball in college, and I wanted to be able to play somewhere they were going to let me play quarterback and baseball.
“Some schools were wanting me to come play, but they didn’t want me to play quarterback. … UNC was going to let me play both sports, but they were going to offer me as an athlete, versus a quarterback. My dad, was like, ‘No, I think you need to be playing quarterback.’”
Dunlap: “Duke maybe was with him because of the academics. Wake Forest already had a quarterback committed.”
Jamison: “Since then, I’ve talked to guys who had been at all of those places. North Carolina liked him a lot, and Coach Cignetti’s brother was the offensive coordinator there at the time. He wanted to offer him, but he couldn’t because he already had a kid committed [Mike Paulus]. The head coach wouldn’t let him offer another quarterback.
“Jeff Mullen, who works for us now at National Preps, was on the offensive side at Wake Forest at the time. They loved him, too, but they already had a commitment.”
Trestman: “I remembered feeling like we didn’t have any competition for him.”
Jamison: “I remembered his dad coming down after he got the offer to meet the staff and Coach Amato. Russell, his mom and his sister came with him. His sister’s name was Anna.
”Chuck was great with recruiting because he was a good closer. You didn’t have to say, ‘Chuck, go talk to him.’ Chuck loved talking to recruits, and sales is about closing.
“Russell went back with his family in Chuck’s office, and I was the only one in the hallway with Anna. We played catch with a nerf ball for what seemed like two hours. I was thinking it was going to be a couple of minutes. It was like, ‘Holy cow, I’ve been doing this for over an hour, waiting for them to be done.’”
Wilson: “I never forget that moment and just the experience. I loved NC State. I loved the stadium. I loved what it looked like. I loved the energy there. I loved how they were great in baseball and great in football.
“That was truly where I wanted to play. It felt like SEC football, the energy there. That’s what I really loved about it. I loved being in downtown Raleigh, right in the middle of everything, and just thought it was a good location.
“We went into Chuck’s office, and he talks like this [imitating Amato’s high-pitched voice]. The funny thing was … the first time I saw Chuck that day … he was actually in the weight room. He was doing bench press, working his chest muscles.
“We ended up talking and talking … and I’m trying to make a decision on going there. After that — it probably felt like two hours — we go to the end of the hall to a middle area. Right in the middle of that building is this beautiful view [of the field]. I just remembered looking out there.
“We went outside to talk, and I said, ‘Dad, this is where I want to go.’
“Sure enough, that was it. I let them know I was going to commit to NC State and play football and baseball. Chuck really wanted me to play baseball as well. Coach Avent had seen me in the Virginia all-star game as well, too. It was a no-brainer for me.”
The Business Of College Football
Amato and the Wolfpack struggled through a 3-9 season in 2006, and a day after it ended, Amato was fired by then-director of athletics Lee Fowler.
The coaching search would land on Tom O’Brien, a successful coach at Boston College. Amato would rejoin his old mentor Bobby Bowden at Florida State, where Jimbo Fisher, now the coach at Texas A&M, was the Seminoles’ head coach in waiting.
Wilson was now faced with new decisions. He chose to take a late official visit to Duke, whose offensive coordinator was Bill O’Brien, now the head coach of the Houston Texans.
Wilson almost took a visit to another ACC school in what would have been a reunion of sorts.
Jamison: “[Tom] O’Brien’s style of recruiting — right or wrong — was totally different from Chuck. Chuck recruited Dade County and Miami for a lot of years, which is a whole different recruiting phenomenon in itself. Chuck was going to recruit a kid even if he was committed to another school. He would recruit him right up until signing day if he lets him.
“O’Brien was the opposite. He was like, ‘A commitment is your word.’ As soon as a kid committed to somewhere else, he was off the board. If a kid committed to NC State and visited somewhere else, then he didn’t want him anymore.
“I don’t think Russell really knew that. What kid knows what your rules are, especially when you just became head coach? They found out Russell visited Duke on Friday, and I remember O’Brien saying, ‘Well tell him he’s gone. We don’t want him. Let him go.’
“[NC State assistants] Jerry Petercuskie and Dana Bible — I wasn’t in on the meeting, but they argued for Russell. They said, ‘He’s a great kid, and that is not who you want to make an example out of. Plus, you need a quarterback.’”
Amato: “When I got down to Florida State, there’s only a week and a half of recruiting left. I wanted Jimbo Fisher to watch film on Russell. In the meantime, Russell’s dad had called me on the Monday after I got let go, and he said, ‘Chuck, if you get a job I want to send my son with you,’ because we were so good to them.
“I said, ‘Jimbo, we need him.’ He said, ‘How big is he?’ I said, ‘What difference does that matter?’ He said, ‘Well, how big is he?’ I said, ‘He’s 6-4, 230 pounds.’
“He goes, ‘How fast is he?’ I said, ‘What difference does it make Jimbo? … I didn’t come back here to get Coach Bowden fired. I’m not going to bring some leftover here just because I can bring him here.’
“I brought him the tape and he watched it, and again he said, ‘How fast is he?’ I said, ‘He runs 4.4.’
“He said, ‘He’s pretty good, he really is. But there’s not that much time left, and I don’t know if we have a scholarship for him.’”
Wilson: “I really liked Coach Trestman and really loved the staff. I didn’t know who the coach was going to be at NC State or anything like that. I didn’t know what the system was going to be. Schools started calling me.
“I’ll never forget this. I was driving in Richmond, Va., where I’m from, and I got a call from Florida State and Jimbo Fisher.
“Florida State was like, ‘Obviously you know Chuck. But also we’ve seen you play in high school. We love how you play. We’d love to see you come down to Florida State and play football and baseball down here. Would you like take a visit?’
“I said, ‘Yeah, when do I do it?’
“I was literally headed to the airport to go do that, and I turned around. I thought, ‘You know what, I’m not going to do it.’”
Wilson played three historic seasons for NC State. Ironically, some of the key players in bringing Wilson to Raleigh would find themselves on the opposite sideline: Amato at Florida State, who squared off with NC State every year Wilson played for the Wolfpack, and Dunlap at West Virginia, who faced NCSU in the 2010 Champs Sports Bowl in Orlando, Fla.
Farrell: “He changed the way we have evaluated quarterbacks along with Jonny Manziel. Now we rank guys like [2020 Alabama signee] Bryce Young, who was top three in the country, and [eventual Heisman Trophy winner] Kyler Murray, who was a high four star. I can tell you that size no longer factors into Rivals’ quarterback evaluation.
“I am not ashamed to admit we screwed that one up.”
Amato: “This was one day about halfway through the season, and Russell had played teams that we were going to play at Florida State. Jimbo would study the defenses. He comes into the gym one day and said, ‘You were right about Wilson,’
“I said, ‘Jimbo, get out of here. He’d be our starting quarterback if you would have taken him. I wasn’t going to come here and create problems.’”
Archer: “When I came to NC State, I moved into Marc’s office. He was still living here, and I went to watch the Super Bowl with him, his wife and two daughters. I’ve known Marc for 40 years. We coached together at Miami.
“At the time, I had just got here. He said, ‘There is a quarterback coming in that’s special.’ I asked, ‘Who’s that?’ He said, ‘Russell Wilson.’”
Trestman: “You just know. I just felt really strongly. When you are a quarterbacks coach, you want to be able to in the meeting room and know your quarterback loves football, has the football intelligence, wants to be stimulated, has a respect and genuine love for the game. There’s got to be a connectivity. There has to be a bunch of trust and mutual appreciation for the position, and he was over the top in all that.
“I was extremely, extremely disappointed that we didn’t get a chance to have one more year, and I did not get a chance to coach him. You want to be excited going to work every day. I knew I’d be excited to be around him and teach him and coach him.”
Avent: “I remember sitting down and having coffee with Marc Trestman … he told me, and I’ll never forget this, ‘Elliott, I had a quarterback in the NFL at Oakland [Rich Gannon], and he could throw on the run as well as anybody. Russell has got that same knack. He throws on the run as accurately as anyone as I’ve ever seen.’”
Dunlap: “They come in all shapes and sizes, and I’ve learned that. At West Virginia we didn’t always get the No. 1 recruit. We looked for the diamond in the rough. It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish. We did that for years and years with Coach [Don] Nehlen. So just because he was 5-11, that didn’t phase me one bit.
“We played in the Orlando Bowl against him — and he beat us!”
Wilson: “As I really reflect back on it now, back then it was, ‘Let me just stay committed to what I want to do.’ I loved NC State. It was a great place to play football and baseball, two things I wanted to do. When I look back on it now, it was kind of the grace of God.
“As soon as I was about to leave to college, my dad got extremely ill from diabetes. His legs were swollen up, and they had to amputate them. It was pretty heavy for me.
“People don’t know that I used to drive up there to Richmond to go see him. I would go up on Thursday night, just pick up and drive and go see him while he was in the hospital. … I would leave late Thursday night, come back Friday morning and play the game on Saturday.
“God kept me close — NC State was only 2 hours and 30 minutes away from home and away from the hospital. It was something where I could go back and forth.
“… I remember my dad and I were in a Dick’s Sporting Goods in Virginia. My mom was there, too. There was a Philip Rivers 17 jersey that they were selling in the store. I said, ‘Dad, I want to have my jersey one day retired like Philip. That’s where I would love to go.’ It’s pretty cool just thinking about that out of high school, having that vision.”
Avent: “Of all the character traits and all the qualities Russell Wilson has — which have become evident to the whole world — the thing I always admired about him the most was the sacrifices he had to make as a person to do both sports, because it wasn’t easy.
“He took all the burden upon himself, never made excuses and just made it happen.”
Wilson: “Now that I reflect on it, I wish I got to celebrate it more. I’m on the West Coast, and it’s harder for me to get back there with kids and a season and all the other business that is going on.
“I love NC State, and it was an amazing experience.”
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