Russell Wilson first thought about establishing a football camp aimed at inner-city kids when he was a junior in high school.
That reveals a few things about the Seattle Seahawks’ second-year quarterback: he’s mature beyond his years; his vision has always extended beyond his current circumstances; and he has a strong desire to give back for the many blessings he believes have been bestowed on him.
Wilson hatched the idea with his best childhood friend, who now serves as the camp’s chief business officer. The first one was held when Wilson was a junior at the Collegiate School in Richmond, Va., where he grew up.
The idea was shelved momentarily, while Wilson was pursuing two sports — baseball and football — for most of his college career. But the idea was quickly resurrected after Wilson was a third-round pick of the Seahawks in 2012, following a phenomenal senior season with the Badgers.
“As soon as I got to the pros, that’s the first thing I said I wanted to do,” Wilson said.
The Russell Wilson Passing Academy arrived in Madison on Saturday for the first of two days, with about 220 kids registered to attend. The morning rain sent them inside the McClain Center, but they braved the wet weather to venture outside on the Camp Randall Stadium field later in the afternoon.
American Family Insurance is the primary sponsor and Wilson solicits online contributions to defray the costs for underprivileged kids to attend.
“Over this 2½-week period, basically, I’ll meet 1,400 kids,” Wilson said while meeting with the media during a lunch break. “If I can change one of those kids’ lives, inspire one of those kids, that makes the difference and goes a long way.”
Wilson has five camps, all in different cities. The order of the stops — Richmond; Raleigh, N.C.; Madison; Spokane, Wash.; and Seattle — pretty much follows Wilson’s life arc.
Each of those cities represents a key stage in his life. He spent three years in Raleigh, at North Carolina State, before transferring to UW. He played two years of minor-league baseball in the Spokane area and finally landed in Seattle, where he took the NFL by storm as a rookie.
After beating out Matt Flynn, a former Green Bay Packers backup who was brought in by Seattle as a free agent to be the starter, Wilson led the Seahawks to an 11-5 record and beat the Washington Redskins in an NFC wild card game.
He threw for 3,118 yards and tied Peyton Manning’s rookie record with 26 touchdown passes.
“I just think playing one play at a time, one game at a time, staying in the moment,” Wilson said of the skyrocketing expectations he faces this season. “I’ve done a pretty good job of that so far. How much further can I take that?”
That quote was vintage Wilson, something UW fans grew accustomed to hearing in his thrilling season at UW.
He spent only about six months in Madison, arriving on July 1 and leaving shortly after the Rose Bowl to begin training for the NFL in Florida.
Yet clearly this place means a great deal to Wilson, who ran with the current team during a conditioning workout after he arrived.
“Just having a family like this at the University of Wisconsin is really something special and something you cherish,” he said.
Wilson set a Football Bowl Subdivision record for passing efficiency at 191.78 with the Badgers. One of the few things that went wrong for him that season was a 45-38 loss to Oregon in the Rose Bowl, when he failed to get off a final snap from the Ducks’ 25-yard line before time expired.
He thinks of that play whenever he runs into Oregon fans, who are plentiful in the Pacific Northwest, or when Seahawks offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell brings up the Rose Bowl he won as UW’s quarterback during the 1993 season.
“You learn from those lessons. ... You have to be precise on every play,” Wilson said. “Everyone has to be tuned in on every play.”
Those are some of the lessons Wilson attempts to pass along to the kids at camp.
“Just trying to influence as many kids as I can — that’s what’s really important, especially with this platform,” he said of being an NFL quarterback.
About the only one who wasn’t astonished by Wilson’s first-year NFL success was him.
“I think I worked so hard at it, I make sure I prepare the right way and I’m always mentally focused,” he said. “I think that’s what allows me to be successful.”
Former Badgers safety Chris Maragos got an up-close view last season as one of Wilson’s teammates in Seattle.
“The most impressive thing I saw him do was to be able to handle all of the pressure, all of the things thrown on him and really just be able to manage and run the team, in such a short amount of time,” Maragos said.
Going into the draft, Wilson had plenty of doubters who didn’t think a 5-foot-11 quarterback could have success in the NFL. While he doesn’t forget those doubters, he doesn’t revel in proving them wrong, either.
“I’m never satisfied,” he said. “I don’t worry about the critics. Like I used to always say, as you guys know, I ignore the noise. You just focus on the things you can control, stay in the moment and continue to get better.”