SEATTLE — The NFC Championship Game wasn’t too big for Russell Wilson until, maybe, after it was over.
The Seahawks quarterback put on the winners’ hat and T-shirt, and embraced his coach, Pete Carroll, near the 40-yard line of CenturyLink Field. Then, for an instant at least, he looked overwhelmed.
Wilson had helped make this, around him, happen: The blasts of green and blue confetti. The 60-some thousand fans still in their seats, roaring. A 23-17 victory against rival San Francisco to book a trip to Super Bowl XLVIII. He may have needed a moment to himself, but first he needed to complete this moment for Seattle. So he hopped up on the midfield platform, and he took his turn with the microphone.
"I thank God for putting me in this place right here." Wilson said. "This place is unbelievable. I love Seattle."
The feeling, to say the least, is mutual. This star-crossed sports city had been waiting for a player like him to rally around, but this has all happened so fast: Just 17 months after Wilson became Seattle’s starting quarterback, he can have a free meal from one end of the city to the other, as one local put it, and inspires the kind of affinity last seen for a certain superstar slugger.
"He’s one that’s struck a chord in me. I’m searching for words for it, personally.”
There’s more to the Seahawks’ Super Bowl berth than Wilson, of course. They leaned on their top-ranked defense to advance over the Niners, the conference crown resting upon the left hand of All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman, who tipped away Colin Kaepernick’s final pass in the end zone for an interception.
But it was Wilson who pulled off the pivotal 4th-and-7 play earlier in the fourth quarter that may have decided their season, each step more gutsy than the last: 1) He lobbied Carroll to go for it on the sideline; 2) he drew San Francisco offside with a double count before the snap; and 3) he used the free play to fire a pass up the seam to Jermaine Kearse for the go-ahead 35-yard touchdown.
It wasn’t so long ago—the start of the 2012 preseason—when fans couldn’t even find Wilson jerseys to purchase. Sunday, legions reported for their 12th Man duties in Wilson’s No. 3, expecting another milestone in his young career.
"I’ve heard people compare him to Ken Griffey, Jr.," said Melanie Lockhart, a Seattle area resident who’s been wearing Wilson’s jersey since Christmas 2012. "He’s as close as any athlete we’ve had since. He’s building that kind of legacy."
Wilson told a charming story Sunday night, about how he felt a connection to Seattle even before the 425 Renton, Wash., area code appeared on his phone during the third round of the 2012 Draft. Wilson, eager to find out the next stop of his football career after N.C. State and Wisconsin, had put the names of all 32 NFL teams in a hat before the draft began. The slip he pulled out? The Seattle Seahawks.
But Seattle’s return affection was more of a wild card. Wilson arrived as a third-round pick, with a veteran, Matt Flynn, recently signed to starter’s compensation. He more than exceeded expectations, "he’s brought the city alive," said Seattle native Joel Roswall. "We were in the doldrums before."
Wilson has the player profile—a young upstart playing the new-guard style of quarterback—well-suited to a city in part driven by new-economy tech companies. He started to earn respect off the field even before he did on it, with his weekly Tuesday visits to the Seattle Children’s Hospital. Though it’s common for quarterbacks of winning teams—the Seahawks are 24-8 the past two seasons—to be well-liked, fans invoking Griffey, Jr., comparisons is more than that. "He’s one that’s struck a chord in me," says Nathan Knopf, another Wilson jersey-wearer and Seattle native. "I’m searching for words for it, personally."
Perhaps the city’s vexing sports history helps explain. A major professional sports team in Seattle hasn’t won a championship since 1979, and that team was the SuperSonics, who broke hearts when they fled town six years ago. Locals describe the feeling of always bracing for a letdown from their sports teams. The 2013 Seahawks, at least until this point, haven’t disappointed—along with the Broncos, they’re a rare preseason favorite and No. 1 playoff seed to end up in the Super Bowl.
Wilson learned from past letdowns; notably, last year’s divisional round playoff loss at Atlanta. He’s wired to be resilient—he suggested that’s a holdover from his baseball playing days, when he had to focus on one pitch at a time. After Wilson lost a fumble on his first play Sunday, giving the 49ers a free field goal, fullback Michael Robinson spotted Wilson smiling on the sideline, already moving on.
Wilson often plays beyond his 25 years, but his relative inexperience still peeks through. His mobility can be an asset, but at times he had happy feet during Sunday’s game, quickly escaping the pocket when there may have been opportunities to step up and make a throw. His Super Bowl opponent, four-time MVP Peyton Manning, is a guy he’s trying to imitate. "I want to be like him one day," Wilson says. "His mind is so strong, all the things he does at the line of scrimmage and all that—that’s where I’m trying to get one day."
But Wilson’s career is already on the fast track. One fan—18-year-old Rohan Sehgal of Bellevue—says he’ll buy Seahawks season tickets next season because he wants to see Wilson play for years to come. Sunday night, Wilson became the first quarterback of the much-touted 2012 draft class to make it to the Super Bowl.
Wilson tried to absorb what was happening. During the game’s final 22 seconds, when he performed three kneel-downs to run out the clock, he thought about his decision to play pro football instead of baseball, and the people in his past who’d told him he’d never make it here. The scene afterward was pure chaos.
Because a cameo by a hip-hop artist only adds to the entertainment value of a major victory, Seattle’s own Macklemore—the halftime performer—lingered in the locker room. He announced he’d be postponing a trip to India to attend the Super Bowl in New Jersey, and then he snapped a photo with Wilson—two young stars, faces of the Emerald City, smiling into the camera.
A member of Macklemore’s entourage, blingy grill firmly in mouth, nodded approvingly. "Big Russ, making it happen," he said to no one in particular.