Thrill of Victory

A salute to Russell Wilson, for beating the odds

“Well, I don’t want no short people
Don’t want no short people
Don’t want no short people
`Round here.”

From “Short People” by Randy Newman, 1977

It’s third-and-long, and the Washington Redskins are blitzing the Seattle Seahawks from everywhere. Unfazed, the quarterback stands in the pocket as his blockers do their job, scans the field, and finds his tight end open for a first down.

Moments later, the quarterback hands off to his star running back, who’s got daylight to his right. The quarterback sprints down the field and chips a defensive back inside the 5-yard-line, helping spring a go-ahead touchdown late in the game.

But the lead’s only five, so the Seahawks go for two. The quarterback throws a dart to a receiver on a slant, which he hits, and the lead is seven.

The lead holds, and the significance is huge; this isn’t just any game, it’s a first-round playoff game, and because of the quarterback and his 15-of-26, 187-yard passing performance (with eight rushes for another 67 yards), the Seahawks pick up a road win and live to play next week.

And this isn’t just any other quarterback. It’s Russell Wilson, who’s doing what rookies aren’t supposed to do – winning playoff games.

But Wilson isn’t just some ordinary rookie. If there’s one thing that NFL people like less than rookie quarterbacks, it’s 5-foot-11 quarterbacks – and that’s precisely how tall Wilson is.

It’s the only way to explain how Wilson, who started three years at North Carolina State before graduating and playing his final year at Wisconsin, lasted until the 75th pick of April’s NFL Draft. To most teams, the number “71” (his height, in inches) screamed louder that a bunch of others, such as 11,720 (his career passing yardage total), or 1,421 (his career rushing yards), or even 8.25 (his ratio of touchdown passes to interceptions in his senior season).

Wilson proved this season that his abilities translated to NFL success better than his height did. He passed for 3,118 yards and rushed for 489 more, and better yet, played like a 10-year veteran most of the time, throwing far more touchdowns (26) than interceptions as he used his feet to side-step defenders and shift around in the pocket to get a great view of the field (short quarterbacks aren’t supposed to be able to see over their linemen, or so the theory goes).

As hard as it was for Wilson to start as a short rookie quarterback, that wasn’t all he was up against. In the month before the Draft, Seattle signed veteran quarterback Matt Flynn, who backed up Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay$19.5-million contract. Flynn’s lone start the year before came against the Detroit Lions, and he made quite an impression, throwing for 480 yards and six touchdowns that day.

Teams do not pay quarterbacks (or any player, for that matter) that much money with the intention of sitting them on the bench. In fact, teams will give a player in Flynn’s situation every opportunity to win a job to avoid the appearance that they made a mistake. Wilson was so good in training camp, however, that the Seahawks started him on opening day – and never looked back.

They may not be looking back for a while, now. Much of the season, Wilson bore an uncanny resemblance to Fran Tarkenton and Steve Young, keeping so many plays alive with his poise and his feet just as those two had. Tarkenton and Young both ended up in the Hall of Fame, and while it’s way too early to presume that upon Wilson, few rookies at any position have ever looked better than he did this season.

Oddly enough, had Wilson been born 30 years earlier, the color of his skin (he’s black) may have prevented him from getting this chance. Though pro football gave a small handful of black quarterbacks a bit part here and there, they were about as hard to find then as short quarterbacks are now.

There’s no telling how many great black quarterbacks there might have been, had they been given an equal shot in history. It wasn’t really until Doug Williams took the Redskins to a world title in 1987, and Randall Cunningham established himself as a legitimate NFL starter about that time, that black quarterbacks really started getting much of a chance .

Here’s hoping Wilson does the same for short people.