NEW YORK -- Russell Wilson’s road to glory began, as it has with so many, with crushing failure.
Flash back to Sept. 9, 2012, in Wilson's NFL debut. Casual football fans had little idea who he was, and what they did know was this: he was probably too short to play at this level.
So there was a collective shrug at that first result: a 20-16 road loss to the Arizona Cardinals.
Turns out, Seattle’s rise to NFC champion and Super Bowl participant can be traced back to that setback.
“I really can't speak for everybody, but I know he got the respect of the locker room [on that day],” Seawhawks defensive end Red Bryant said.
Fast forward nearly a year and a half, and Wilson can finally win the respect of a still-skeptical public.
Yes, Super Sunday is finally upon us, and the story lines are particularly juicy.
Will Denver’s Peyton Manning become the first quarterback to win Super Bowls with two teams? Can Seahawks coach Pete Carroll cement his legacy as one of the best football coaches of this era? What role will the weather play? Will Richard Sherman go full-Muhammad Ali again in a postgame interview?
Then, way down the list, is this: Can Wilson (who is 5-11 if he’s an inch) become the shortest quarterback to raise the Lombardi Trophy?
“My faith is so strong that I believe that God made me 5-11 for a reason,” Wilson said this week. “For all the kids that have been told, no, that they can’t do it, or all the kids that will be told no. That’s one of the reasons that I left playing baseball, to be honest with you.
“I had this urge to play the game of football, because so many people — I shouldn’t say so many, a handful of people — said I couldn’t do it. For me, it was one of those things that I just believe in my talent that the Lord gave me and I wanted to take advantage of it.”
By almost every comparison, Manning vs. Wilson should be no contest. Denver’s quarterback is a former No. 1 overall overall pick, on a glide path to the Hall of Fame, and has won more MVP awards than anyone in league history.
Wilson was the eighth quarterback taken in the 2012 NFL Draft, behind the likes of Brandon Weeden, Brock Osweiler and, yes, Ryan Tannehill. Some thought he would be better off playing professional baseball.
And when he reported to training camp his rookie year, most thought Wilson would spend the season holding the clipboard and learning from watching.
They were wrong. Wilson vaulted to the top of the depth chart after a scintillating preseason, and started for the Seahawks at Arizona in the opener.
That’s when any doubting teammates got off the fence. Down four late in regulation, Wilson orchestrated an 18-play, 76-yard drive that put Seattle on the doorstep of victory. The Seahawks had three shots at the end zone from inside the 5. But it wasn’t meant to be. All three passes fell incomplete.
Moral victories don’t exist in the NFL. So consider this a moral tie.
“There was such an extraordinary opportunity,” Carroll said. “It still kills me that we didn’t capture that because everybody would have known who he was right off the bat. It took us to Game 8 or Game 9 before they started talking about him.”
By that point, people realized that something special was brewing in the land of Starbucks. Since that loss, the Seahawks have reeled off 26 wins in their past 34 games. Wilson has thrown more touchdown passes (52) in the past two regular seasons than all but nine quarterbacks.
“He’s a tremendous young man,” Broncos coach John Fox said. “What he’s accomplished in a very short time in our league doesn’t surprise me at all; just his makeup, his leadership ability and just the kind of competitor he is.”
There’s no clearer sign that Wilson has his teammates’ backing than this: He will wear the captain’s “C” on his jersey Sunday, and will represent his team at the coin flip.
Manning will be there, too, with far greater expectations than Wilson, if not pressure. As of Friday morning, Manning was nearly an even-money bet to win the MVP Award on Sunday, according to online oddsmakers. Wilson was roughly a 4-to-1 underdog in that category — tied with Seahawks running back Marshawn Lynch.
This means two things: 1. The betting public believes the Broncos will win the game; and 2. People believe, correctly, that Manning is more responsible for Denver’s success than Wilson is for Seattle’s.
In other words, exactly how the Seahawks want it.
“I know when you have adverse situations and things might not be going the way that you hoped it to go, for you to keep your resolve, for you to keep your poise, for you to keep your leadership qualities, that’s just a testament to the things he brings to the table,” Bryant said. “Guys see that. That’s a big reason why we’re here.”