ENGLEWOOD, Colo. --If Russell Wilson's baseball career had progressed differently, he could have been playing his biggest game in Denver, not against a team from there.
But the former Colorado Rockies farmhand only progressed as far as the Asheville Tourists of the South Atlantic League in 2011 when his development stalled. He's still on an organizational roster in baseball; the Texas Rangers claimed his rights in the Rule 5 draft last month. But barring some unexpected circumstances, Wilson's future lies in the sport at which he's already achieved massive success in just two seasons.
That's no surprise to Broncos Executive Vice President of Football Operations John Elway, who arranged for Wilson to visit the Broncos during the pre-draft process in 2012.
"We had him in. We loved the kid," Elway said. "To see what he's doing, you know when you met him that he had the capability because of the presence that he has, that he had the ability to do what he is doing right now. He's athletic, can make all the plays and has the right attitude."
Wilson also became re-acquainted with Peyton Manning that day. Wilson was a student at the Manning Passing Academy while he was a high-schooler from Richmond, Va.
"There were thousands of kids there and I was actually in his group -- me and, I think, 12 or15 other guys," Wilson said, 'and just how much care he showed for the kids at the time and how much detail he always talked about and how much of a perfectionist he was and I try to use that in my game."
Years later, when Wilson visited Dove Valley, that led to a deja vu moment.
"He was sitting there in the locker room and I went up and talked to him and whatever and he was like, 'Have I seen you before somewhere?' He was like, 'Yeah. I think I've seen you. Good to see you man. I've seen you before somewhere. Where did I know you?' And I was like, 'Well actually you coached me in the Manning Passing Academy,'" Wilson recalled. "So I love him to death."
Their styles are different, but one similarity is in their rookie performance -- not so much the numbers, but the presence each brought. Their NFL arrivals, 14 years apart, immediately turned what was a team weakness into a massive strength.
What is fascinating about Wilson's development is how ready he was to contribute immediately. Although he improved in his second year, it wasn't a quantum leap, because where can you go from such a highly efficient (quarterback rating: 100.0) first year.
This season, his completion percentage was slightly down (by one percent), but his interception rate dropped (from one every 40.3 passes to one every 46.2). His average per attempt increased by 0.32 yards. His quarterback rating rose from 100.0 to 101.2. His run rate, first-down percentage on carries and average per carry were nearly identical.
Through two years, no moment has seemed too big for him. But in spite of the numbers, the Seahawks keep his relative lack of experience in mind.
"We're working with a second-year player, and a second-year quarterback. You have to keep that in mind. He's fabulous, he's fabulous in everything that we've asked him to do, he does a great job of managing all of the situations, and he's come up big in just about every one of those for us," said Seahawks Offensive Coordinator Darrel Bevell.
"We don't want to push the limit and push it over and ask him to do too much and have that show up in his play or anything. We haven't done that, I don't know if you could do that to him because he is so well prepared and he puts so much pressure on himself to do the right things all of the time, but he's showed up big in all of the situations for us."
Not to say that people didn't see it coming. As I witnessed Wilson's performance against the Broncos' backup defense during a preseason game on Aug. 18, 2012, I tweeted this:
Seattle doesn't have a world title in any sport since the SuperSonics in '79. Sometime in the future, Russell Wilson will change that. — Andrew Mason (@MaseDenver) August 19, 2012
This notion may have seemed ridiculous based on half of a preseason game, but I had my reasons, and they went beyond that night.
I'd watched him closely at North Carolina State and Wisconsin. I saw first-hand how he adapted to throwing behind Wisconsin's massive offensive line. I loved his delivery: quick, compact when it needed to be, with passes that exploded out of his hand. He was mobile enough to make plays on the run, but preferred to throw. (And there was probably a bit of short man's bias; I have to wear thick-soled Timberlands to approach 5-foot-6.)
I knew that he'd shown up at Wisconsin as a post-graduate transfer in the summer of 2011, limited to one season there. And in that short span, Wilson so impressed teammates and coaches that he was named captain within a month of his first Badgers practice.
"Just as soon as he got there, he was walking around with note cards, with plays on them," said running back Montee Ball, a teammate of Wilson's at Wisconsin in 2011. "I was like, 'OK, this guy's really serious,' and based on his history, what we'd heard about him and the first couple of practices, we were like, 'OK, we need to follow this guy.'"
Some guys just have "it." They have a preternatural ability to adapt on the field, they are impeccable leaders, they pride themselves on taking steps well beyond the norm. Peyton Manning is one of those guys. So is Wilson. That's why they're here.
Of course, there's one step left to take, and no guarantee that he and the Seahawks ever get over the hump. Dan Marino will be the first to tell you that the early-career chance might be the only one you ever receive.
But the Seahawks' collection of young talent, keen eye in roster-building assures that the Seahawks will remain a Super Bowl contender for the foreseeable future. This game will help define Wilson's career, but it's unlikely to be his only turn on the sport's grandest stage.